In a weekly series, staff writer Katie Majka takes a look at some of our favorite witches and wizards, and how they fit into literary and social archetypes. This week: Bellatrix Lestrange
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While the archetype of the disciple has strong religious connotations—particularly those of a Christian persuasion—this character model isn’t encompassed by Biblical interpretations alone. It’s part of human nature to be dependent upon others in order to survive, at least for a portion of our lives; in the case of the disciple, they continue to find guidance at the hand of another, one who exemplifies the value of being not a singular human being, but part of a collective whole. The disciple latches onto this teacher or leader, and transfers their own authority to the leader so that their perspective might better dictate the disciple’s own, and as such the disciple might mold themselves to fulfill the desired expectations.
While Voldemort had scores of followers, only a select number of them were chosen for his inner circle of Death Eaters—Bellatrix Lestrange (née Black) among them. In her case, the expectations of her master were presumably not a means to an end, but compatible with her own worldview. Considering the Black family’s less-than-favorable history, we can assume that Bellatrix’s devotion to Voldemort was born of her own anti-Muggle ideologies, but nevertheless her existence as we see it revolves wholly around Voldemort. We meet her not as an individual, but as another cog in the Death Eater regime; throughout the Harry Potter series, Bellatrix does not appear to exist independently from her relationship with Voldemort.
As per the disciple’s MO, Bellatrix sits at the feet of her master and does as he commands, she soaks up his insights and imitates his way of life rather than live one that belongs to her and her alone. This extends beyond the political agenda she shares with Voldemort and his other followers, and infests her personal life as well. She married her husband, fellow pureblood Rodolphus Lestrange, for the status symbol more than any real affection for the man, as her romantic attentions were focused entirely on Voldemort.
Bellatrix, unlike Narcissa and Lucius, had nothing outside of her life in the Dark Arts to compel her to move away from them; there is nothing dearer to her than to do Voldemort’s bidding, and she garners the utmost joy from the violence she inflicts upon others as a result. That violence is a stepping stone in cleansing the world as she sees fit and as Voldemort dictates, and she views the pain—whether mental, emotional, or physical—as a just punishment unto non-believers.
None of this is to suggest that Bellatrix was without her personal autonomy, but her dedication to Voldemort and the way of life he inspired was so all-encompassing that it became, for her, an obsession. Indeed, part of Bellatrix’s function is to exemplify obsessive love and its consequences on a person. Since we the readers never knew Bellatrix prior to her relationship with Voldemort, we can’t know just how much he influenced her violent sensibilities, but we do know that he encouraged and rewarded them. In light of this praise, Bellatrix was without reason, and like all disciples her worldview was split into one of clear right and wrong, and she chose to distinguish herself from the “wrong” by accepting the Dark Mark on her arm.
It’s not only this rather blind following which characterizes the disciple, but their loyalty as well, and how that allows their teacher/leader/master to trust in them. In the case of Voldemort, this trust was more for his benefit than any genuine feeling of camaraderie, as Voldemort only trusted his followers in their usefulness to him. Bellatrix proved her faith in him time and time again, enough to earn her the title of his “last, best lieutenant,” as described within the narrative of Deathly Hallows.
But we see Bellatrix’s loyalty earlier than the final book. In Goblet of Fire, when Harry has tumbled into Dumbledore’s Pensieve to witness the trials of accused Death Eaters following the events of the First Wizarding War, he faces Bellatrix for the first time. She does not fight her life sentence in Azkaban, nor does she deny her crimes which landed her there; rather, she states her continued allegiance to Voldemort thusly:
“The Dark Lord will rise again, Crouch! Throw us into Azkaban; we will wait! He will rise again and will come for us, he will reward us beyond any of his other supporters! We alone were faithful! We alone tried to find him!”
It certainly says something that Bellatrix (along with Rodolphus and Barty Crouch, Jr.) went looking for Voldemort after his fall in 1981, as there was no evidence to suggest that he was anything but dead and gone. They weren’t, of course, the only wizards who believed Voldemort to be indestructible—even Hagrid claims in Sorcerer’s Stone and Order of the Phoenix alike that he knew Voldemort would return—but they were the only Death Eaters who had enough faith in both Voldemort and his cause to keep fighting after his presumed death.
Considering the nature of their fight, it’s hard to call Bellatrix’s actions “admirable.” We don’t know the specifics of all her crimes, but that which landed her in Azkaban was the torture of Frank and Alice Longbottom by way of the Cruciatus Curse, which left them to the care of St. Mungo’s Hospital for the remainder of their lives, never to recover.
So while Bellatrix may have been as devoted to the war as any of our heroes, she utterly lacked that quintessential heroism one usually associates with loyalty. Those qualities which made the likes of Harry a hero in turn made Bellatrix a villain—loyalty, love, and the desire to change the world were characteristics that Bellatrix shared with the designated “good guys,” but her version of them was twisted up in the Dark Arts and therefore irredeemable.
Bellatrix was never meant to be a character who could be restored to goodness, because there wasn’t any goodness to begin with. She operated on an agenda of hatred and intolerance that spiraled off into violence at the whims of a powerful man incapable of love, a man she loved obsessively regardless of his lack of mutual affection, because he represented all that which she believed in. But Bellatrix’s tale isn’t one of the sad, jilted lover—she was a perfectly talented, menacing and murderous witch who got in deep because it’s precisely where she wanted to be; she was a disciple lucky enough to find a leader who nurtured her ideologies because theirs were one and the same. She never followed blindly, but as loyally and wholeheartedly as any other disciple, but her master’s path didn’t lead to purpose or self-actualization—it led to her death, and the ruin of all she’d fought for in his name.
Perhaps it was a waste of a perfectly good life on Bellatrix’s part, but them’s the breaks when you join a genocidal cult. We’ll take her story as a didactic one and leave it at that.
Be sure to check out our other Harry Potter and the Order of Archetypes installments.