Thursday, June 20, 2024

Death Eaters Suck at Family Planning

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Now, while we here at the Fandomentals like to deride The Cursed Child for the ridiculous cash grab of an unworthy contribution to the Harry Potter franchise that it is, it did offer one thing that kind of fascinates me. And that is Voldemort procreating.

Not because I give a damn about the “ship” or anything, far from it. Shipping in Harry Potter never interested me at all, and I was pretty okay with what we got. Ginny Weasley deserved a better narrative though.

Truth be told, the idea of Voldemort doing the do with anyone kind of freaks me out, and that’s before you account for power dynamics and other shit going on between him and Bellatrix. And the fact that she’s technically married? I think? Not that we get much about her husband other than a name and I think he exists peripherally for a few battles after they break out of Azkaban, but still!

(Sidenote: If you try to rationalize Delphi’s existence at all and attempt something like math, which I am aware JKR notoriously sucks at, one of the possible and probable dates for her conception is the day Dumbledore died. And I mean. If we have to pick a day or event that would put Voldemort in the mood, that’d be it.)


No, my interest in Delphi’s existence is of a strictly dynastic nature.

Heirs, Empires, and Bloodlines

We all know that Tom Riddle Jr. was the last living descendant of the line of Salazar Slytherin himself.  His maternal grandfather made that abundantly clear. And I mean, I understand that when you’re both trying to build your own… Uh… Let’s go with empire before I get into the meat of this, and you’re also vying for immortality, you don’t exactly need heirs.

Chances are, someday down the line, you live on as the supreme ruler extraordinaire, but all your old supporters died, and their descendants prefer your descendants and then there’s a coup or twelve you have to deal with. I mean, that’s always a possibility, but if you have heirs that under normal circumstances would take over after your demise, the likelihood increases.

Yet on the other hand, I was led to believe that the wizarding world in general is very into the whole ancient bloodline thing. That makes you wonder how the founder’s lines all managed to die out in the first place.

I’m aware that the brief glimpse we get of the Gaunt’s lives in book 6 is supposed to answer this question. Abhorrent people living in squalor and suffering from the consequences of excessive inbreeding to keep the blood lines pure. But their misery is too deeply rooted to have been caused by Marvolo (or Vorlost or Elvis or however your localization had to call him) alone, speaking more for generations of mismanagement. And defects caused by inbreeding.

But given their prominent ancestry, and a pool of, by the 1930ies, 28 pureblood families, and some curious omissions from that list that were still considered purebloods like the Potters, how did they ever run out of breeding options? If anything, especially the more pureblood supremacy oriented families like the Blacks and Malfoys should have been all over that in the times before the incest and poverty made the Gaunts undesirable. And yet no one else can trace back their ancestry to this line? Come on.

The Sacred 28+

Thanks to Pottermore, we have a list of 28 families that were considered the purest of the purest of purebloods. Now, because this is still writing by JKR, there are some inconsistencies with the other great source of pureblood family politics we have, which is the Black family tree.

On the Black family tree, members were allowed to marry Potters and Crabbes without being burned off, despite both not making the list. There is some silliness about the Potters not being included because of their muggle-friendly politics, but the Weasleys make the list somehow, despite their muggle-friendliness apparently being a family trait.

(Marriage to a Weasley, who were, again, ON that list, led to Cedrella Black to be burned off the tree, by the way. Then again, the Weasleys did protest their inclusion on the list, earning them their status as “blood traitors”.)

On the other hand, the Blacks technically shouldn’t have made the list if we apply the very strict rules of no half-bloods and no squibs, as they had a squib relative who was in his early teens when the book was published, so old enough to be known as a squib, and with such a prominent family, that should have made the rounds, shouldn’t it?

So the canon sources of purebloodedness are not exactly without fault, but on the other hand, I mean, the guy leading the movement for pureblood supremacy was a half-blood himself, his paternal family without a smidgen of magic in them even, so maybe the inconsistency bordering on hypocrisy was intentional.

The Politics and Policies of Incest

Another thing that Harry had a pretty amusing realization of was that basically all pureblood families are related somehow. That’s what happens when you keep the blood pure, but don’t take that as literally as marrying brother to sister. Were the Gaunts ever implied to have done that? I don’t know.

Don’t overdo it with the inbreeding, children!

What I do know is that even the Blacks, even during the late 19th century, knew better than to marry first cousins – at least as far as we can tell from the six generations we know of. And that was during a time when the British Queen herself led by example, not only marrying her own first cousin, but marrying off her numerous children and grandchildren to royal relatives, some more distantly than others, bringing the various European royal houses closer together, and forever ensuring her place in biology school books talking about inheritable diseases and hemophilia.

Other contemporaries showing how blood is kept pure were also Emperor Franz Joseph I and his wife and first cousin Empress Elisabeth, better known as Sisi. Their marriage caused a bit of controversy, as he chose her over… His other first cousin, her older sister. There’s this great scene in the first (EXTREMELY romanticized)  Sisi movie of the ball when that allegedly happened, in which European royalty brought out their female offspring for breeding purposes, and he greets almost every woman presenting her daughters to him as “aunt”. Though if anyone should know better than to excessively marry their cousins, it’s the Habsburgs, but, well…

What I mean to say, during the late 19th century, keeping the blood lines close was very much en vogue, and quite prominently so.

Odd historical tangents aside, the closest to really incestuous we ever see the wizard family tree get is Sirius’ parents, who were second cousins. No one on the part we can see married their first cousin, and basically all pure blood marriages we know of in canon are usually related somewhere, but very distantly so, showing that there was at least some common sense applied to breeding habits of these families – probably aided by the fact that they all could trace their ancestry pretty well, down to the pre-Hogwarts times, considering how the resurrection stone and cloak of invisibility were handed down until the present-day generations.

So speaking of which…

The present situation

…As in, the situation in the 1990s as depicted in the books, because I am ignoring the Cursed Child here beyond being the starting point of my considerations.

So we are told in the second book, by Hagrid, that the whole pure blood cult is basically bullshit, since wizards would have died out if they had not married muggles or muggle-borns on occasion – the existence of 28+ pure blood families that apparently have never done so up until the 1930ies notwithstanding, or not existing yet, take your pick.

We meet quite a few people who are related to the Sacred 28, both as students at Hogwarts and among the active Death Eaters. And yet, for some reason… very few of them seem to share the same last names.

Only-children everywhere.

I mean, we do know for a fact that Draco Malfoy is an only-child. Theodore Nott’s backstory never mentions any siblings. Crabbe and Goyle never have any relatives besides their Death Eater dads. Pansy Parkinson and Millicent Bulstrode have known ancestors, but are never mentioned to have siblings around. Daphne Greengrass is the only Slytherin I recall to ever have a sibling mentioned, and by mentioned I mean tacked on after the fact because Rowling didn’t want Malfoy to end up with Pansy Parkinson, but apparently realized she was out of pure-blooded Slytherin-leaning options.

And that trend isn’t exclusive to children associated with pure blood supremacists and Death Eaters. Very few people are ever mentioned to have siblings at Hogwarts, like, say, Colin Creevey who is muggle-born, or the Patil twins, or, well, seven different Weasleys.

Also, it doesn’t always have to be siblings. Very close-knit communities that value ancestry and blood status and the like should have family branches that diverged ages ago, and yet keep on existing in the male line. And other than some movie-only Slytherin twins sharing a last name with the Death Eater teachers from book 7, everyone who shares a last name is usually very closely related.

There is, of course, and argument to be made that the war probably thinned out most established pureblood families, much like this argument was used to justify that Hogwarts seems to have 40 students a year, explaining all the conveniently unoccupied classrooms the protagonists can consistently rely on throughout the books.

But that would realistically mean that the years after Harry should have way more children than his year and the higher grades – there’s a reason the post-war generation in our world is referred to as baby-boomers, after all.

And yet, looking at books 4 and 5, during which Harry attends the Sorting, not only does he not mention that there seem to be more first years than usual (though admittedly, Harry isn’t exactly the most observant person), all the names that are mentioned during those two Sortings are completely new and unrelated to either characters we know. With the glaring exception of Dennis Creevey, of course. But he’s muggle-born and not relevant to my point here. Neither do they belong to any of the other Sacred 28, or the later on practicing Death Eaters. And before you try to argue, yes, post-war baby booms also occur in nations that lost the war, just usually a bit later.  Say 3 or 4 years later, aka when the children who were sorted in these books would have started to trickle into Hogwarts.

That situation seems to be at least somewhat recent, as the average number of children per Black on the family tree is roughly 3 and a half, so juuust enough to sustain the line, account for untimely deaths, and maybe even achieve some population growth. I’ll get to why that matters in a second.

Themes vs. Realism

Now, one possible reason as to why the only bigger family we meet are the Weasleys, and Death Eaters seem to have nothing but only-children could be related to the omnipresent theme of idealized motherhood.

Think about it. The entire premise is that a mother’s love basically made Harry immortal where Voldemort was concerned. If you don’t read into it any deeper, Molly Weasley might as well be a saint. Even Petunia Dursley gets a more favorable portrayal later one than someone who tried to hit a twelve year old with a pan deserves, and the world, in the end, was saved because Narcissa Malfoy was scared for her son.

Speaking of, Narcissa and Bellatrix are the only women we see consistently hang out with Death Eaters. Well, and Alecto Carrow in book 7, one of the Death Eater teachers. Bellatrix is explicitly the only woman among the mass outbreak from Azkaban in book 5.

So where are the women here? Evidently not at home having babies, that’s only for good guys. Uh, women I mean. And yet somehow, there’s a remarkable amount of Death Eater children in Harry’s year alone, whose moms just… Are not involved with Death Eater activism? Because moms don’t do that? Or do they commit Disney-style matricide after the first kid is born? Which by the way is really hard to justify in a society that can combat death by childbirth with literal magic.

I mean. Going back to my starting point. It seems like you either live long enough to be redeemed by your children, or are killed off just after having one that could have redeemed you. By the book’s dominant mother figure, even. Sucks to be you, Bellatrix.


Ideological Ramifications of Blood Purity

Oh, wow, I am so subtle about where I’m going with this, am I not?

Anyhow. According to Hagrid and the numbers presented above, purebloods that aren’t called Weasley are basically dying out, or so the books would have us believe. And just from a logistical standpoint, if we consider the wars that brought significant casualties with them, which explain the numbers somewhat, but not entirely, the pureblood families that are still around with at least one breeding pair and give a shit about being pureblood should be in some kind of mating frenzy.

I am serious about this. Post-war baby booms aside, the pureblood community should be in hysterics about the lack of births going on. Narcissa Malfoy should have had way more than one child, and it’s not like she had a job that we know of. And how did it never occur to Bellatrix and her prime pureblood breeding material but strictly decorative husband to maybe support the war effort by making some pureblood kids for the reserve and sustainability of the society they were trying to build?

Given how much Bellatrix seems to care about Rodolphus, I don’t think she married him for any other reason than procreation, really.

A friend of mine suggested that maybe magic decreases general fertility rates, but if that was the case, 28+ families surviving with traceable pureblood origin into the 1930s is one hell of a good quota. And Molly and Arthur, both from Sacred 28 families, don’t seem to have any particular problems with fertility.

Who’s the real blood traitor now, huh?

And in a way, they did more for a pureblood dominated wizarding society than about seven Death Eater couples together. Someone should have tried to recruit them, or their children, or something.

I mean, justifying the lack of women among the Death Eaters we see fighting would have been so, so easy. To be crass and overly political, you can’t exactly defend a pureblood dominated culture with only-children and halfbloods.

So where are the breeding incentives? How is motherhood only idealized by the narrative, and only for women who are not on the side that should care about bearing lots of pureblood offspring? I mean, the severe lack of women everywhere notwithstanding, on a Watsonian level, the wizarding society seems like Rowling at least attempted to have it more gender-integrated than the real world. Which makes sense – never is it stated that women are somehow considered worse at magic, the background information is full of prominent political female figures, and no one thought it strange that Hogwarts (which should be around 1000 years old) had two female founders.

(Ironically enough, the founders of the houses that were sidelined the most, but this isn’t really about Rowling’s internalized misogyny. Only tangentially.)

Real-Life Context

Sooo… How did real-life movements concerned with the purity of blood and superiority based on race handle this topic? Why, with a healthy dose of even more idealized motherhood, of course!

I’m usually the last person to go all Godwin on something, but let’s just say the Nazi comparison is something the books more than heavily implied, and the movies made all but explicit. And if you use elements of Nazism to code your bad guys evil, you shouldn’t get a free pass for shying away from the less obvious implications.

And while the racial superiority is a thing shared by all fascist movements, there’s a reason Nazism is most often used for the closest allegory. It’s just the most commonly known.

So let’s just get right to it. To ensure the survival of the Aryan “race” (which wasn’t even properly defined, by the way. Kind of like we don’t know  how many generations back you can have had a halfblood, muggle-born, or muggle ancestors and still count as pureblood), women were pushed out of the workplace, and actually most parts of society, and told that the highest office they should aspire to was to be the mother of many happy and healthy and racially pure children.

This was accomplished by, of course, propaganda, rescinding the passive voting rights women had gained in the Weimar Republic due to the suffragette movements in most of the Western world at the time, and undoing what little emancipation they had achieved during the 20ies, aka being allowed to attend university and actually work and earn a living for themselves.

Also, feminism was a Jewish-communist conspiracy. The good German woman of course didn’t even want to do anything but serve her country by bearing sons.

Hell, taking the “a woman’s war is in the birthing bed” sentiment to a new extreme, mothers of four children or more got a special badge of honor, not unlike the ones soldiers got for extraordinary feats in battle. There were even different tiers; bronze for 4-5 children, silver for 6-7 children, and gold if you popped out 8 or more healthy and racially pure kids.

That was admittedly blatantly stolen from the French, who started awarding pretty much the same award, with the same tiers, and with the same qualifications (being French, being physically and mentally sound, and also patriotic and dignified, whatever that means) in 1920, because after WWI, there weren’t enough people around anymore.

Huh. Funny how that ties back into the original point, isn’t it?

So, what?

Now, of course there is no use, and very little merit even, in asking for accurate fictionalized depictions of Nazism, down to the very last horrifying detail. That’s not really the point of this.

And yet, the Harry Potter series basically more or less defined our generation, and has been scientifically proven to make people more empathetic. It did so much right… And yet is shockingly full of half-assed-ness in the world building and thinking things through on occasion.

Especially in a time that is dominated by the rise of nationalist parties all over the Western world, and the beautification of fascism in the form of alt-right movements, it is important to see through these ideologies and be aware of how they work on every conceivable level.

Case in point, and what made me originally consider writing this piece at all: The alt-right party in Germany suggested that German women should have a minimum of three children as a rule, to fight the demographic changes and the trend towards fewer children. This is, admittedly, not the worst thing they’re about. Actually, on paper, it sounds kind of logical and almost benign. Especially given other things this party, and European nationalist parties in general, stands for.

But it’s part of a pattern, and of an ugly rhetoric rooted in racism and fascism, and understanding that is integral in fighting these ideologies wherever they occur.

(Ironically enough, what has been shown to boost birthrates in Western industrialized countries is better conditions for working parents, but feminism is an evil and unnatural conspiracy, remember?)

This franchise had the opportunity to explore this, but shied away from following all the way through. Not unlike how they more recently had the chance to show that especially nowadays, fascists present themselves as well-groomed and well-educated people. The Fantastic Beasts movie almost got that part right with Colin Farrell’s performance as a disguised Grindelwald – and then ruined it with the reveal of the actual Grindelwald.

Now who makes for a more convincing charismatic leader?

And especially in the current time, we all need to do better – and know better.

Images courtesy of Warner Bros.

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