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Red Hen Publications — Commentary Collection — Potterverse People Essay: Dark Arts & Dark Marks
Potterverse People

Trying to make the Potterverse make sense since 2003!

This particular article is a stripped-down version of one of the essays which had originally been a part of the Snape sub-collection. I suspect that particular exploration was already duplicated by other essays in that collection. Consequently, given that it was Tom Riddle who insisted upon forcing the issue of the Dark mark upon us — as well as his followers — it seemed reasonable to move some of the exploration related to it here.

Back at the beginning of the Harry Potter series, in common with most readers I really thought that the story was another journeyman effort to write a timeless tale of the inevitable and eternal conflict between Good and Evil.

However, in most such attempts there is usually a very good reason provided for why the study of the Dark Arts is generally discouraged. Usually something inherent to the nature of the Dark Arts themselves.

And I couldn’t find one provided anywhere. Just a general rather intellectually lazy acceptance that the Dark Arts were bad and that good people didn’t use them.

Which in itself is highly unsatisfactory, and invites a second look.

In my “Foundation” essays, I made an energetic effort to postulate that there was an inherent reason to leave the Dark Arts alone. That reason being a variation of the traditional trope that to get swept up in Darkness ultimately diminishes you.

By that time we’d seen the creature that came out of the stone cauldron in the graveyard at Little Hangleton, and that creature just did not stack up at all favorably with the charismatic Dark Lord of everyone’s wibbling about through the story up to that point.

I first postulated that Tom Riddle was suffering from what I then dubbed Dark Arts-related dementia. That was an early iteration of the concept and one that could not really be sustained in its original form, although a later variation on the concept is still to be found in the essay related to the introduction to Horcruxes.

I had originally thought that the lure of the opportunity of study such magic under such patronage might be one of the benefits that was framed as a reason to sign up with Tom Riddle’s Death Eaters. At the time, I believed that to many of the other characters in the Potterverse, such an offer might have a reasonably widespread appeal.

I also thought that while the arrogance of youth and its accompanying conviction of personal immunity might very well have shielded a young follower during the early days, when he considered Dark Arts study to be a part of his “birthright” that those wusses in the Ministry were trying to deny him, he might, after a period of unrestrained Dark Arts activity under Voldemort’s sponsorship, have very well found himself undergoing some “dark night of the soul” as a consequence of those activities which might have set any available family skeletons a-dancing, and may have served as the necessary wake-up call prompting him to rethink whether signing up with the DEs was really all that good an idea. That is certainly a variation of the story that Dumbledore was handing out regarding Professor Snape, anyway.

I no longer support this particular theory. Whatever degree of perceptual damage a wizard may develop (and any damage really does now appear to be perceptual rather than organic) through unwary exposure to channeling chaotic magic by unsafe methods seems to take a long time before it reaches the point of making his actions dangerously unstable.

And, furthermore, it is clear from canon that while certain specific spells are indeed unlawful in Rowling’s wizarding world, the actual study and practice of the Dark Arts isn’t. The whole Black family — and probably others — are widely known to be Dark wizards, and pillars of their society.

But then Rowling fairly obviously has no interest in even making up her mind about what the Dark Arts even are supposed to be. She never bothered to set up that part of the foundation of her exercise in world-building.

So, if no one objects, I will stick to my own interpretation on the issue. I at least have one. Admittedly, while applying it to the Potterverse may be a mistake, it can only be an improvement in matters of offering some kind of guidance. For, inside of canon, there appear to be no guidelines whatsoever.

• • • •

Which brings us to the Dark Mark:

Frankly, post-DHs the Dark Mark is hovering perilously close to qualifying as bolognium. But that is not to say that it has always been so. Indeed, upon introduction it was not.

I am beginning to suspect it may have stowed away into GoF during the rewrite which gave us PolyjuiceImpostor!Moody. We had no hint of the existence of the Dark Mark in the first three books, although it would have served no useful purpose in any of them, either. In GoF it escaped being associated with balognium since it played a very limited part in the course of that story. It was merely a summoning device which enabled Tom to assemble his followers as witnesses to the grand climax of that particular sequence of the adventure. Basically, it was set-dressing.

For Snape to be taunted about his Mark by Moody was an interesting, and rather suggestive clue, and Snape’s “reveal” of its significance at the end of the story was both decently set up and well-scaled. It was only with HBP and, worse in DHs, that the device started morphing into whatever the Author wanted it to be to fit whatever she needed now. I’m not convinced that it quite qualifies as balognium yet, but it is getting close.

We have been given comparatively little solid information regarding the Dark Mark, considering the level of significance it seems to carry in the story. For one thing, we have very little information on its cultural origin. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that this is yet another ancient symbol (such as the sigil of the Deathly Hallows) which was once benevolent in meaning, and whose original symbolism has been corrupted and besmirched by Voldemort’s use of it.

Nor do we know quite how Voldemort coordinates and manages this particular communication network. It seems to me unlikely that he must always have a follower at hand in order to activate a summons, as was shown toward the end of GoF. It also seems unlikely to me that he would not be able to summon his followers individually or in smaller groups than that required for a full assembly.

Particularly since if Karkaroff was telling the truth — and we had no reason at the time to believe that he wasn’t — about the DEs underlying “cell structure”. To only meet in full assemblies would not have been conducive to maintaining the secrecy of each others’ identities which Karkaroff claims was the case across the organization. Karkaroff claimed that only the Dark Lord himself knew the names of all of his followers.

Karkaroff could, of course, have been lying.

In DHs this internal secrecy regarding one anothers’ identities appears to have been completely discarded. It is obvious from the first chapter that everyone in the organization knows exactly who all of his associates are. Rowling seems to have either forgotten about the cell structure, or Voldemort changed his organization’s structure after his return. I suppose that once the Ministry was due to fall, he could have decided that internal secrecy no longer mattered. His followers, after all, were not planning to rule anonymously from behind the scenes. Even if the Minister himself was an imperiused puppet.

As to the issue of the summons from the graveyard; the simplest explanation that I can come up with is that the newly created simulacrum of a body was still lacking whatever “anchor” this direct connection to his followers required, and that he was, therefore, unable to perform this function until he had a chance to reproduce it. Or, perhaps it was merely that to issue a general summons had always been sufficiently uncomfortable that he had always awarded to one of his subordinates this particular “honor”.

Snape, who is presumed to have been enlisted toward the end of Voldemort’s first rise, states that the Dark Mark was used by the DEs to identify each other. Consequently, we do not know whether the Dark Mark had always been a part of the organization’s communications network or if it was a comparatively late innovation replacing some older system. Post-DHs we now are given to understand that any individual DE was also capable of summoning his Master. I suspect, however that one did so only in the most dire of circumstances or only by prearrangement.

Assuming that this was not simply yet another of the all-too-many insertions to DHs which were apparently invented and deployed primarily for the purpose of enabling the Author to get to the end of the manuscript with the least amount of delay.

It is just possible that causing the Mark to be revealed was something over which the DEs had some voluntary control. Although Rowling gives us no real information on this matter. If this is the case; I suspect that it may have been possible to conceal it by a spell, which its wearers could normally cancel and restore at will. It would have been only when they were actually summoned by their Master this concealment was overridden, and it may have either needed some sort of “cooling off” period before it could be concealed again or, on the night of Voldemort’s rebirth, Snape simply didn’t bother to do so since he hadn’t originally been intending to roll up his sleeves for anyone that evening.

• • • •

And the possibility that the Mark can be concealed is the only circumstance under which I could accept the wide belief that Voldemort enlists followers who are still in school, and living in a dormitory. And at that, I still resist it.

Rowling supplies us with no good reason why he ever should do so (apart from taking advantage of adolescents’ eternal determination to believe they are the hub of the universe). I don’t suppose she ever bothered to think the matter through.

Voldemort grew up in an orphanage, and he attended Hogwarts, himself. He knows how little privacy someone living in a dormitory is likely to have. One cannot readily believe that he would physically mark followers who are exposed to that level of risk of discovery. Unless the Mark can be concealed by the wearer.

It would be far simpler in any case for him to merely wait out the necessary time for them to be finished with school and have that particular risk past.

Or at least wait until they have acquired Apparition licenses! Which they won’t legally be able to do until the age of 17. The Dark Mark is a summoning device. Why mark someone who cannot obey the summons? It’s not like they can leave the school.

Students would also be of little practical use to him as Death Eaters without being able to Apparate. You are not taught that skill until 6th year and you do not get a license until you are of age.

That said, the occasional exception may well have been made. Particularly when the inductee, or his circumstances are already exceptional.

For all that Harry and his friends are convinced that Draco Malfoy was revealing a Dark Mark to Borgin in order to force his cooperation, I still think what is far more likely is that Draco was told that to complete his mission was the price of his admission into Voldemort’s followers’ ranks. It was his initiation ordeal. Whatever he was using to intimidate Borgin is likely to have been something else. Even if it was only one of the edible Dark Marks available at Weasleys’ Wizarding Wheezes.

At a stretch I could — just barely — be able to accept that an exception was made in Draco Malfoy’s case and that he was inducted into the ranks before his 6th year. Particularly if we are supposed to understand that the DEs do have the ability to communicate with their Master through it. Actually, having the Mark would have enabled Malfoy to notify his Dark Lord that the way into Hogwarts was now clear for the invasion that had been a part of his mission.

• • • •

However, if routine concealment of the Dark Mark is the case, by the time most DEs were no longer in control of the concealment of their Mark they would typically have already been dead, or unconscious, or in the hands of the Dementors, who, as Crouch Jr informed us, are blind.

In the case of death, Voldemort would probably be aware of it and have no reason to “call” a corpse (unless he wants to turn it into an Inferus, and there is no suggestion that he can physically summon a follower, only that the Mark provides the destination target). Those who were dead in his service might even no longer have had any visible mark on them to identify them as his.

In the case of the captured, Voldemort would have fairly quickly been made aware of this as well and would have taken care not to activate their Marks. It is plausible that no one ever examined the DEs in Azkaban for Marks which might have reappeared since their imprisonment when the concealing spells failed. And after Voldemort’s fall the marks would have faded to nearly nothing anyway.

In DHs it is clear, however, that if a follower does try to summon their Master, any other follower in the vicinity is also aware of it. If, that is, we are willing to accept anything told to us in the course of DHs.

But, the only example we’ve ever seen of Voldemort calling his DEs to him did not conform to any of this. He sent out a general call to all of them at once, and needed to use Pettigrew’s Mark in order to do it. This does not speak strongly in favor of any great degree of sophistication regarding the Mark unless there is a good deal more to the matter that we have not seen, and nothing that Rowling showed us in DHs suggested any great level of sophistication to it either. Thus rendering the Dark Mark into yet another piece of balognium for us to have to swallow. Much like the Order’s message-bearing Patronus system, which doesn’t make a whole lot of practical sense either.

• • • •

What is even more likely is that — as good as any system might be — there would probably have been at least a few slip-ups, of which the Dept. of Magical Law Enforcement was aware.

When one factors in the likelihood that the final, most wantonly violent phase of Voldemort’s first rise was launched over the last 24 months of it, either there were too few of these cumulative incidents to have struck the investigating Aurors as significant yet, or, more likely, this particular information was classified. I think that the fact that any of the DEs were “marked” might probably have been highly classified information that Crouch Sr. as head of Magical Law Enforcement would have ruthlessly suppressed outside his own department. The real Moody, and any other Aurors in the field may have known about it from this source, but Moody also may have learned about it later from Dumbledore.

The false Moody certainly knew of it, and taunted Snape with it. Which could have turned out to be suspicious. Yet another missed opportunity of Rowling’s.

But without magical concealment, the Mark, being bright red, would be sufficiently noticeable even when not “active”. Even if it can be concealed, there may well be magical ways to cause it to reveal itself — so long as Voldemort is alive and present on the physical plane somewhere to “complete the circuit”.

After he was gone, there was no longer a physical connection to be activated, visibly or in any other manner. How much the significance of the Mark on those few captured DEs who were unable to conceal it in time was realized is uncertain. It is for this reason that I suspect that Voldemort did co-opt a pre-existing symbol for this purpose. One which a wizard might reasonably have been expected to have adopted as a decoration even without Dark Arts associations.

Although once the DEs started sending up a glowing green version of it as a calling card, any older cultural associations would have been difficult to reconcile in the public mind.

In any case, Minister Fudge, who was still a Junior Minister in the Department of Magical Catastrophes during VoldWar I, would not have been on the “need to know” list. He remained clearly unaware of the DEs’ personal Dark Marks’ existence after all his years of public service. In fact it is quite possible that sealing those particular records was another of Crouch Sr’s big “mistakes” which he acknowledged at the end of his life, having attempted to protect and reserve it as his own private resource. It could have been the sort of thing that he intended to keep to himself as a tool toward capturing that “one last Dark wizard” which, toward the end of his career, is alleged to have occupied his ambitions.

• • • •

Regardless of the original cultural source or symbolism inherent in the snake-and-skull device, the point at which the fledgling DEs adopted the Dark Mark and started sending it up to “sign their work” appears to be the point that the DMLE realized that they had a group of terrorists on their hands and started attempting to identify and capture both them and their Leader.

It appears likely that the identification of “Lord Voldemort” as that Leader may have taken place around 1970, if we accept the textual evidence handed to us by Albus Dumbledore in Book 1 chapter 1 of the series.

What also appears probable is that “Lord Voldemort” was already widely known to the general wizarding public in some context other than as a leader of a band of terrorists.

We were never given sufficient hint to be able to attempt to extrapolate where Tom Riddle got the idea of marking his followers with a slave mark that tethered them to him so irrevocably that they would be unable to escape.

We do not know of any probable source (apart from, possibly, the geasa imposed upon House Elves) from which such a connection could have been developed from. And neither do we know of what kind of apparent advantage to its wearers must have been included in the enchantment of the Mark which was strong enough to induce Riddle’s followers to agree to accept it.

I mean, there must have been something apart from merely agreeing that it was a “cool design” and now it was theirs.

Admittedly this is one of the trappings useful in producing the kind of “secret society” which appears to be irresistible within the directives of “kid logic”, but the early DEs were hardly kids. Most of them were around 30, and the very top of the trees insofar as social status goes. Tom Riddle was, and had, nothing to offer them that they could not have gained for themselves merely because of who they already were.

Nothing, that is, but permission to act up and behave like savages, and the devil with maintaining a civilized façade, and not letting “the side” down.

Nor, over the course of the series have we ever been given much indication of any advantage to its wearers for having agreed to accept the Mark. Neither in bearing the Mark, itself, not any social advantage accruing to being one of the “elect” who bore it.

The Death Eaters, after all, were an illegal organization. There was no social or professional advantage to be had by signing up.

So why accept it? Unless it was presented as an opportunity that one couldn’t refuse?

Leaving us all with the unsatisfactory explanation of; “because they’re evil.”

What I am becoming more and more convinced of, however, is that the Tom Riddle who existed before he was forced to survive as a disembodied spirit for a decade really was an entirely different proposition from the version of him that we eventually met.

And WE never really met that earlier Tom Riddle as anything more than the Diary Revenant, or those glimpses which Albus Dumbledore chose to show us. All of which had been hand-picked by Albus to display Tom Riddle in the very worst light.

I think that perhaps we might have dodged a bullet thanks to the fact that Rowling has no interest in villains, despite the fact that in the tale of Harry Potter, as in most other of such stories, it is the villain who IS the story.

For Tom Riddle seems to have been the very King of Grifters. And if he had ever been given even the slightest chance to take control of this story, it would have turned into a Trickster tale.

Tom Riddle would have utterly eclipsed the Marauders, and left the Weasley twins in the dust. And we would all have been cheering him on.