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Secrets That She Keeps

The Fidelius Charm.  Required for the saga, morphing totally out of control, blindsiding every single fan who took the time to think.  Or to do a bit of research and check their favorite author's website.

We thought we'd figured this one out at the end of Phoenix, having been given two instances in which it was used:  the Potters, and Grimmauld Place.  HBP gave us nothing to contradict what we thought we knew.  Rowling answered a question on her website, explaining that if the Secret-Keeper died, nothing would change.

Then in DH she turns around and contradicts herself -- oh, things change, all right.  Forget the idea of a secret being in "a single, living soul"; now anyone who was told the secret becomes a keeper who can pass it on, and if it means twenty Secret-Keepers, well so be it.  This working creates a serious narrative inconsistency, but it was absolutely required by the story for Hermione to accidentally let a Death Eater in, necessitating their removal from Grimmauld Place, and it was only possible if she was able to reveal the Secret.

Here is the serious narrative inconsistency.  The Potters' bodies, of course, were discovered by Hagrid and Dumbledore along with baby Harry in the damaged house, although only Voldemort and Sirius had been let in on the secret by Pettigrew.  We all assumed that they had been discovered by people who didn't know the secret because the secret was now no longer true:  Lily and James Potter were not at that address, because they were dead.  This reading required that Harry's location not be part of the secret, and it required that the charm reference the Potters' souls rather than their bodies, but that tweak aside, it worked.  We could deduce that whenever a secret became false, the charm broke.

In Phoenix, we have Dumbledore telling people, "The headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix can be found at Number Twelve, Grimmauld Place."  The secret is the location of the Order's headquarters, not the location of the building itself.  When we learned that Harry was to inherit the house, but Albus was concerned that it had actually gone to Bellatrix Lestrange, we assumed that meant that Fidelius could fail if the object being protected was being kept secret from its lawful owner against that owner's wishes.  (Although, if Wizarding law had any morality whatsoever to it, it would be not just illegal, but magically impossible for someone to inherit from a person that they had murdered.  Of course, this is a world in which the government, for years, quite literally played God, employing a race of demons with the power to annihilate souls, and using this horrible power on certain criminals rather than just executing them.  To which no one except Albus Dumbledore and Remus Lupin objected, that we know of.  So evidently morality is too much to ask for from this sorry lot.)

Given how the Potters' charm appeared to have failed, we could guess that once the Order moved—which happened when Sirius died—then the charm would break, but old Orion Black's enchantments on the building would still protect it against intruders.  Yet in DH, the official headquarters is now the Burrow, but the charm holds over #12 even though that secret is no longer true.

The stupidest thing about this is that, although the protection on Grimmauld Place had to break for the narrative to continue, it didn't have to be done this way.  JKR could have mentioned that the Secret was broken because the Order had moved headquarters (though she didnít even have to do this; there is no reason why a place cannot be referred to in two secrets), Hermione could have cast a new Fidelius Charm on the place with herself as Keeper and the Secret being the Trio's location, and she could have revealed it that way.  It would have flowed better and not contradicted anything whatsoever.

It's unfortunate that she didn't do it this way, because there is no way that I can see to work this one out.  I sincerely hope Rowling explains someday just how it was that Hagrid and Dumbledore could find the Potters, and that she doesn't shoot herself in the foot even more while doing so.

New thoughts as of 4/2010:

After a close re-read of Deathly Hallows, I found the bit of information tucked away that Harry believes that the charm failed with his parentsí deaths.I am not overly happy with this speculation, but letís take it and go with it, since it seems to be the only point where Rowling even attempts to address this matter.

Again, the fact that any wizard in existence could see the ruins of that house proves that the Fidelius Charm was broken in this specific instance. As far as we have been told, the charm protecting #12 was not ever broken, just that the number of people allowed to see it was increased significantly. And Harry was correct in that the charm failed for his original home.

Itís passing strange that Harry himself was not protected by the charm but his parents were. If that is really how James and Lily set it up, then their stupidity was even greater than it first appeared when they gave their secret to a third party rather than making one of themselves the Secret-Keeper.Itís not as if Harry didnít exist when the charm was put on the house; indeed, based on Lilyís letter to Sirius, it seems that the charm wasnít even cast until autumn of 1981, a mere few months before the attack on Halloween. Let us suppose the charmís secret was something like ďJames and Lily Potter can be found at ___ in Godricís Hollow.Ē That would definitely protect them from Voldemortís sight as long as the secret held, but if he walked past that house, I canít see any reason in the world why he couldnít see Harry inside it. Especially since, based on Voldemortís memory, it was apparently the only defensive charm even put on the place short of anti-Muggle spells.

If they protected themselves but not Harry, it was little short of idiotic. The ďidiot plot deviceĒ does not particularly endear me, and this matter is starting to smack of it. Do wizards have an equivalent of Darwin Awards? I can think of a couple of nominees. (And an honorable mention for Voldemort, but thatís a separate essay.)

Or was the Secret actually ďThe Potters can be found at ___ in Godricís HollowĒ? And the spell was so precise that when there were no longer multiple Potters, but only oneóHarryóthe Secret no longer read as true on that technicality?I guess I can buy it.There is some canon support for the need for absolute precision in magic. You must have very specific arm movements and pronunciation for spells, and the art of potion-making was shown in book 6 to be very precise.I suppose itís not too much of a stretch to postulate that for spells where set-up is important, such as Fidelius, the set-up of a spell must also be precise. Itís the most plausible and consistent thing Iíve heard of for this, at any rate.

Moving on.

One point that is very strange is just why the Trio chose to stay away from #12.As a Secret-Keeper, Hermione did indeed let Yaxley into the secret, granting him access to the house.However, he could not have brought anyone else in there, regardless of their paranoid fears that he would be lying in wait with a contingent of thugs. He was not made a Secret-Keeper himself.He did not receive the authority to divulge the secret further.And I donít believe for one second that leading people in there blind and then removing the blind would sidestep the charm. If it did, why the heck didnít the Order of the Phoenix Side-Along Apparate Harry into #12 in the summer after his fourth year? The charm does not merely mean that you canít see what is being protected; the wizards already have Vanishing and Disillusionment Charms for that.It means that what is being protected cannot be discovered, period, by anyone not given permission by a legitimate Secret-Keeper.

Yaxley was the Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. To us on the other side of the pond, this is roughly equivalent to a Cabinet post, specifically the Attorney General of the United States.(The Minister for Magic seems to be essentially equivalent in authority to the Prime Minister rather than subordinate to this office.)He couldnít spend the full day staking out that house, and any lackeys that he sent to do it for him would be kept outside. The Trio could have lurked around the Ministry again to see when Yaxley turned up at work and gone to #12 when he was known to be at the Ministry, and then set up a new Fidelius that he was not privy to. Or, they could have gone back to the house the next morning, at the latest, and Obliviated him if they found him there.They were capable of that.Hermione Granger had already demonstrated her capacity to modify memories. I would have done it. Harry later demonstrated that he was capable of that too.Or just killed him altogether, though Rowling wasnít likely to take this option.

(For that matter, I would have gone on and executed the Death Eaters who turned up at the cafť, even if they were stunned and petrified on the floor. This was a war.Anyone who those particular Death Eaters killed later is blood on the Trioís hands, as far as Iím concerned.For heavenís sake, they left an innocent Muggle in Death Eater hands when they departed the place!)

The truly odd thing about this is that Severus Snape could have led any Death Eater who demanded it, or Voldemort for that matter, into the house.Moodyís curses look feeble and frankly stupid from our point of view, and I think itís fair to say that the dust figure of zombie-Dumbledore would have had no more effect on Snape than it did on anyone else, but itís conceivable that maybe the Tongue-Tying Curse really did prevent him from saying the address of the house if it were specifically set up against him.

However, Voldemort was a Legilimens.Snape wouldnít have to say the address of the house to tell him. Yes, it was amply demonstrated that he could block even Voldemortís Legilimency and deceive him with omissions, misdirection, and false information, but I defy you to come up with any good explanation for how Snape could have persuaded Voldemort that he was still unable to pass on that address.Whether he wanted to or notóand it safe to assume that he would not have wanted toóSnape, as a Secret-Keeper, could have divulged the house to Voldemort at any time.

The late Orion (or Arcturus) Black put up enough protective charms to make the house effectively a magical fortress before the Order of the Phoenix added the Fidelius Charm to the mix.We do not know what these charms were, but we can deduce that they can be wielded by the houseís legal owner to let people of his or her choosing through. This is how it worked when Sirius owned the house, in any case, and he didnít cast them; his father or grandfather did. That being the case, it is distinctly possible that they were Dark magic.We do know that Voldemort was not able to break into the Black house the last time he was in power.This explanation is very fuzzy, as it would have to account for the fact that Snape (and Mundungus) got into the house when Harryís will would have been determining who was allowed into the place.But it may be that since Harry wasnít actively thinking about keeping anyone out of the house, the spells didnít work, and Fidelius alone was protecting the place. If the Black family spells are powered by Dark magic, where the will of the caster (or wielder) is important, this could make sense. But it is still fuzzy.

The only other explanation I can think of that makes the slightest bit of sense is that Snape might have told Voldemort that he could not think of the place, had deduced that the Fidelius Charm had been amplified by another Fidelius Charm specifically protecting the location of the Trio, and that he was not privy to that.In other words, Snape could have told Voldemort that the Trio apparently didÖ exactly what they should have done, as I said two and a half years ago.

Another point: Was Kreacher made a Secret-Keeper after Dumbledoreís death? I think he might have been. If his loyalties wavered after his Master abandoned him, he might have been inclined to let people in. Though Iíll concede that he probably would have been unable to do this if his Master had not explicitly allowed him to.

Still, as much as it pains me to say this, I have little choice but to conclude that Harry, Ron, and Hermione acted incredibly stupidly in staying away from that house. In Harry and (especially) Ron, this is perhaps understandable, but I find it frankly inexcusable in Hermione Granger.

Well, I see that weíve run up against the idiot plot device again, and Iím no more impressed with it in this instance than I was when James and Lily were suspected of it. What is it about the Fidelius Charm that makes characters behave stupidly?Does a Secret addle the brain?Or is it simply the old standby of feeling invincible and allowing arrogance to be oneís downfall?