High Fidelity (or: How does the Fidelius Charm work?)
by Anna L. Black
“An immensely complex spell,” he said squeakily, “involving
the magical concealment of a secret inside a single, living soul. The
information is hidden inside the chosen person, or Secret-Keeper, and
is henceforth impossible to find—unless,
of course, the Secret-Keeper chooses to divulge it. As long as the
Secret-Keeper refused to speak, You-Know-Who could search the village
where Lily and James were staying for years and never find them, not
even if he had his nose pressed against their sitting room window!”
— Professor Flitwick (PA10)
This is the first explanation of the Fidelius Charm we ever encounter in the Harry Potter
books. While it might seem satisfactory at first glance, it clearly
raises a lot more questions than it answers (as do many other plot
elements in Rowling’s saga).
Is the charm cast on people, or on a specific location? What
would have happened if the Potters left Godric’s Hollow? What happens
to the people who have known the secret before the charm has been cast — do
they forget what they knew, or are they simply unable to tell what they
know to anyone? Could the Death Eaters who knew once where to find
number twelve, Grimmauld Place locate the house, and if so — could
they enter? And what would have they seen there? . . . How could Hagrid
rescue Harry, if he wasn’t in on the secret? And how did Dumbledore
even know where to send him? Most importantly — when and how does the charm stop working? And that’s just the beginning.
I will try to present answers to (at least) some of these questions, as I see them.
But let us start with the facts we know for certain:
A secret is concealed inside a single soul — the Secret Keeper’s.[*]
The only people who know the secret are those whom the
Secret Keeper has told directly, but none of them is able to pass on
the information. Only the Secret Keeper can do that.
The Secret Keeper can tell the secret in writing — like Dumbledore’s note to Harry in Order of the Phoenix.
- The death of the Secret Keeper doesn’t affect the secret’s status in any way.
The subjects of the secret themselves cannot tell the secret to anybody, and they cannot be forced to tell it.
Those are the general facts known to us from Prisoner of Azkaban, Order of the Phoenix, and J. K. Rowling’s
website. They are the basis of any assumption or question we should ask
ourselves about the charm. But there are quite a few facts of a
different kind — let’s
call them “circumstantial facts.” They may help us understand what’s
this Fidelius Charm is all about, but we should treat them with extreme
caution, so as not to make unsupported assumptions. Here they are:
Peter Pettigrew was the Secret Keeper for the Potters
location (JKR says that explicitly on her website, and Flitwick’s
explanation supports this).
Hagrid found the Potters’ house in ruins, and was able to take Harry out of there.
When Hagrid picked Harry up he “didn’t know [Sirius Black]’d bin Lily an’ James’s
Secret-Keeper.” As Sirius really wasn’t the Secret Keeper, we can
deduce that Hagrid didn’t know the identity of the real Secret Keeper.
That probably means that Hagrid has never heard the secret from the Secret Keeper himself, in person — otherwise, he should have known that Sirius was (or actually, wasn’t) the Secret Keeper.
Dumbledore was Secret Keeper for the Order of the Phoenix,
and nobody could have found Headquarters unless he told them personally
where it is.
Harry couldn’t see number twelve, Grimmauld Place before he read Dumbledore’s note, which said: “The Headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix may be found at number twelve, Grimmauld Place, London.”
Number twelve, Grimmauld Place was made Unplottable by the Order of the Phoenix, but they weren’t sure if this (and other)
enchantment would still hold if the house had passed to the ownership
of Bellatrix Lestrange.
So, what can we make up from all of this? I will now try to
analyze each of the two situations of the Fidelius Charm that we know
about, starting with the second (which I believe is less complicated).
The Fidelius Charm on number twelve, Grimmauld Place
The first question we must ask ourselves is — what was the subject of the charm?
It seems, at first, that the subject was the house itself — as Harry couldn’t see it (compare this to Flitwick’s “had his nose pressed
against their sitting room’s window”, which implies that the house
could be seen — but
I’m getting ahead of myself). But then, why would you even need to make
the house Unplottable – you can’t find it anyway, unless you know it’s
there. Also, why would the ownership of the house even matter?
So, maybe the subject of the charm was the fact of the Headquarters’ being inside the house? The house was then made Unplottable to make it harder to find, and yet — Bellatrix
must have been in that house in her childhood, she should have known
where it is without any map at all. . . . Also, in that case, Harry
should have been able to see house from the beginning.
Problematic, isn’t it? Here’s my theory: The caster of the Fidelius Charm was Sirius Black, who was the only one allowed making the house a secret, as he was its owner. Furthermore, the secret was combined of two things — the
house itself, and the location of the Headquarters inside it. That way,
either you know that the house exists and that the HQ is located there,
or you know nothing at all. This also explains why Sirius’s death was
considered a problem — the
house was no longer his, so he couldn’t keep it a secret. And, in this
case Harry really couldn’t have seen the house before being let in on
the secret. The Unplottability of the house was, I believe, a mere
precaution (that might be the weak point of my theory, I admit).
Two important points should be emphasized (with the note that they are not factual, but my interpretations):
Firstly, I think you cannot make a secret of something that is not yours — otherwise,
it would be very easy (if you know how to do the charm) to hide things
that do not belong to you, and obviously, it is very problematic for
those whose property you hide. It makes sense if the charm “doesn’t
Secondly, one crucial question needs to be asked — what
happens with the death of the charm’s caster? That question will become
even more important as we look on the first Fidelius Charm situation.
Let’s move on to it, then.
The Fidelius Charm on the Potters’ home in Godric’s Hollow
Here, as I already mentioned, it is pretty clear from
Rowling’s words that the subject of the secret was the Potters’ being
inside the specific house where they were hiding. But one thing (at the
very least) still remains a mystery — How
did Hagrid find baby Harry? As far as we see, he was never told the
secret, otherwise he should have known something about the Secret
Keeper’s identity — or at least that there was one. The answer to this question also explains a lot of other things.
To make a long story short, I believe there are two possible answers:
- The death of the charm’s caster stops the charm from
working. Who was the caster in this situation? Well, to follow the idea
that the secret must “belong” to you, it had to be one of the Potters
themselves. It probably was Lily, as we know she was supposed to be
good in Charms (her wand tells us that much), but it doesn’t make a lot
of difference if it was James.
So, when Voldemort killed Lily, the charm was no longer active. Everybody can see the ruins, and see little Harry inside.
That theory goes along well with the second Fidelius Charm
situation, and the Order’s fear that their HQ could be found after
- There is the possibility that once the house was ruined, the charm was cancelled, because the secret was no longer true — the Potters weren’t hiding in that specific house anymore, because that house “ceased to exist,” so to speak.
Moreover, I believe that while alive, if the Potters would have left
the house, they also wouldn’t be protected, as the secret they were
trying to keep wasn’t true in that case too. It’s the same thing really — either they leave the house, or the house “leaves” them, and the secret is no longer valid.
Which of these theories is the correct one (if at all)? I
honestly don’t know. Both have their pros and cons, both seem plausible
enough to me, and both explain how Hagrid could see Harry when he came
to take him away.
But a few more questions remain yet unanswered.
How did Dumbledore know where to send Hagrid? Well, aside from
the fact that he sent him when the secret was no longer kept, the house
in which the Potters were hiding wasn’t secret at all — it was their being inside it that was the secret. Dumbledore could have (and probably had) known the house itself — it’s
just that if he visited the house while the Potters were still alive,
he couldn’t have seen them at all (unless he was told by Peter, of
course). I believe that to an outsider, who didn’t know the secret, the
house would have appeared to be empty.
What happens to the people who have known the secret before
the charm has been cast? I don’t think that they forget what they knew,
per se, or at least they don’t realize that there’s something they
don’t remember. Bellatrix and Narcissa, for example, probably still
have their memories of being in number twelve, Grimmauld Place (given
that they have visited there, of course), but they are unable to figure
out where it’s located, or find it in any way, or recognize the place
if they stumble accidentally on that street. They can’t even try to
remember it, because they are unaware of the fact that they’re missing
Finally, when and how does the charm stop working? As I’ve
said before, I think it happens either when the caster dies, or when
the secret isn’t true anymore (I’m not sure if in case of the latter,
the secret is still kept when it becomes true once again). And, of
course, there surely is a counter-charm that the original caster can
use to undo the Fidelius Charm’s effects.
Those were a few of my thoughts on the intriguing subject of
the Fidelius Charm. I’m looking forward to see them proved or disproved
(of course, the former would be preferable) in the final book of the
series, which we will hopefully read soon (keep your fingers crossed
[*] Note: both the spellings “Secret Keeper” and “Secret-Keeper” appear in the Harry Potter books (see “Potterwords” on this site).
© 2006 Anna L. Black
edited by Paula Hall