Creatures Essays

Through the Trapdoor

- Chapter 16

The students begin their exams, Hagrid lets slip how to control Fluffy, HRH try to warn Dumbledore but he has been summoned away. Fearful that Snape is about to make his move to get the Philosopher’s Stone, HRH decide to go after it themselves. Under Harry’s invisibility cloak they make their way to Fluffy, put him to sleep, and go through the trapdoor, past plants, chessmen, and potions.

Calendar and Dates

The first few paragraphs of the chapter cover the weeks leading up to the end-of-year exams and the exams themselves. As the last of the exams concludes - History of Magic - the action slows down to real-time, and the rest of the chapter takes place on the afternoon and evening of the last day of the exams.

Interesting facts and notes

In this chapter, Harry, Ron, and Hermione follow the would-be thief through the trapdoor being guarded by Fluffy, hence the chapter title. On another level, the three have to get past several trapped doors guarding the Stone: the door in the flying-key room (bewitched to respond only to its key), the door guarded by the giant chessmen, and the doors in and out of the Potions room, which turn the room itself into a trap.

They had been given special, new quills for the exams, which had been bewitched with an Anti-Cheating spell.

What would a spell like that do, exactly? Well, let's consider some of the things we've seen quills bewitched to do in the books that might be relevant.

  • Quills can be bewitched to take dictation (OP7). On one level, this wouldn't matter in an exam, because either way the student would have to come up with the answers, but in a group of students it's undesirable to permit "dictation" quills, because students could hear each other's answers.

  • Quick-Quotes Quills are an interesting variation on quills that are enchanted to take dictation, because as Rita Skeeter has demonstrated (GF18), a Quick-Quotes Quill is bewitched to elaborate on what is said to it, rather than simply writing down exactly what was said. In an exam involving essay questions, such as the Hogwarts end-of-term exams, a Quick-Quotes Quill or something similar has obvious possibilities for cheating.

  • Fred and George Weasley sell a spell-check quill that Ron uses for awhile. However, the charm began to wear off in the middle of an essay and started misspelling words at random. (HBP21)

It seems quite possible that the Anti-Cheating spells used during exams, then, are concerned with preventing students from casting further spells and charms on the quills, rather than making the quills actually do anything.

They had practical exams as well. Professor Flitwick called them one by one into his class to see if they could make a pineapple tap-dance across a desk.

Why is this part of the Charms curriculum while (for example) creating a wizarding chess set is considered an example of Transfiguration?

Professor McGonagall watched them turn a mouse into a snuff-box - points were given for how pretty the snuff-box was, but taken away if it had whiskers.

In other words, the student loses points if he or she did not manage to complete the Transfiguration, leaving the "snuff-box" in a part-mouse state.

Snape made them all nervous, breathing down their necks while they tried to remember how to make a Forgetfulness Potion.

This one might be partially self-defeating even without Snape's presence, if the person making the potion can be affected by the fumes from the cauldron.

Their very last exam was History of Magic. One hour of answering questions about batty old wizards who'd invented self-stirring cauldrons and they'd be free...

The "batty old wizard" referred to is Gaspard Shingleton, according to the famous wizard cards.

...the 1637 Werewolf Code of Conduct...

Werewolves are also part of the third-year Defense Against the Dark Arts curriculum, but DADA naturally concerns itself only with defense against werewolves, not how werewolves are regulated.

...the uprising of Elfric the Eager.

Since the majority of the revolts and rebellions discussed in Binns' class seem to have been goblin rebellions, Elfric the Eager may have been a goblin rather than a wizard, but we do not have much information about him.

Ron...wandered down to the lake and flopped under a tree...

Could this be the "beech tree on the edge of the lake" that figures so prominently in book five, where "Snape's Worst Memory" took place?

"It's not that unusual, yeh get a lot o' funny folk in the Hog's Head - that's one o' the pubs down in the village."

In the first U.S. hardcover edition, this read "the pub down in the village" - that is, indicating that the village has only one pub, which isn't true - but this has been changed in later editions.

"Well - yeah - how many three-headed dogs d'yeh meet, even around Hogwarts? So I told him, Fluffy's a piece o' cake if yeh know how to calm him down, jus' play him a bit o' music an' he'll go straight off ter sleep -"

In retrospect, this should've been easier to figure out than it was. The most famous three-headed dog in Muggle legends is Cerberus, who was also used as a guardian. The greatest musician who ever lived - Orpheus - used just this trick to get past him.

"I shouldn'ta told yeh that!"

And he finally says it. Once. And never again.

"What are you three doing inside?"
It was Professor McGonagall, carrying a large pile of books.

This is the first occurrence of the McGonagall-drops-her-books-in-shock running gag.

"Professor Dumbledore left ten minutes ago," she said coldly. "He received an urgent owl from the Ministry of Magic and flew off for London at once."

As Hagrid tells his fifth-year Care of Magical Creatures class over three years from now, Dumbledore uses the school thestrals for long journeys when he doesn't want to Apparate (OP21). The question of why Dumbledore didn't choose a faster method of responding to an urgent owl is discussed below.

"Something you have to say is more important than the Ministry of Magic, Potter?"

Over the next few years, as the Ministry of Magic disgracefully mishandles Voldemort's return, this remark will take on more and more irony, of a kind quite different from McGonagall's intent in asking the question.

Whatever Professor McGonagall had expected, it wasn't that. The books she was carrying tumbled out of her arms but she didn't pick them up.

This running gag also pops up when McGonagall walks in on the amazing bouncing ferret incident, a little over two years from now (GF13).

"I don't know how you found out about the Stone, but rest assured, no one can possibly steal it, it's too well protected."

Obviously, this remark falls into the category of "famous last words", since three first-years working together are able to bypass six of the seven protections surrounding the Stone (Quirrell, of course, had already dealt with the troll).

"I bet the Ministry of Magic will get a real shock when Dumbledore turns up."

As Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey would say, decoys like this would never work if people would only verify the messages before leaving for such meetings. However, the situation between Dumbledore and Fudge during Harry's first year is such that Quirrell/Voldemort ran little risk of Dumbledore checking the message out beforehand, and even less risk that Dumbledore would make any effort to hurry.

As Hagrid told Harry over the Daily Prophet on the morning they went to Diagon Alley (PS5), Fudge at this point in his administration has been constantly pelting Dumbledore with owls, asking for advice. One more such owl won't seem out of the ordinary, so Dumbledore has no reason to check that the message is legitimate.

Moreover, at this point Dumbledore has been putting up with Fudge's requests for help and advice for months. Even a very patient wizard such as Dumbledore will have had enough, and won't encourage Fudge's annoying behaviour by hurrying to London, such as (for instance) Apparating from just outside Hogwarts' anti-Apparition enchantments, or using the Floo network. Quirrell/Voldemort could safely assume that Dumbledore would take a slower route to London, that would keep him out of the way long enough for an attempt to be made on the Stone.

He strode off in the direction of the staffroom

They are all on the ground floor at this moment. If the staffroom was on another floor, Snape would have been heading for a staircase but as far as Harry would have known, he would have been heading for an upper floor. He wouldn't have know where he was heading specifically. Logically, since Harry knows where Snape is heading, it must be on this floor.

"Enough of this nonsense! If I hear you've come anywhere near here again, I'll take another fifty points from Gryffindor!"

Really, for what? I don't doubt that McGonagall can take points for whatever reason she likes, since Snape could take points for carrying a library book outside the walls of the school (PS11), but apart from getting on McGonagall's nerves the kids aren't doing anything but loitering in a school hallway.

I'm never going to the Dark Side...Voldemort killed my parents, remember?

This impassioned speech from Harry is oddly prescient of the conversation Harry has with Dumbledore about facing Voldemort, in Half-Blood Prince chapter 23. Harry already at age eleven demonstrates the qualities which make him uniquely qualified to face Voldemort.

"Flitwick told me in secret that I got a hundred and twelve per cent on his exam."

This implies that Flitwick asks extra-credit questions on his exams, or perhaps that he gives extra credit for questions answered with exceptional detail and extra information.

...his eyes fell on the flute Hagrid had given him for Christmas.

So two of the first Christmas presents Harry ever received are being used to help him reach the Stone: the flute (to get past Fluffy) and the Invisibility Cloak that once belonged to James Potter.

Harry looked at the grandfather clock by the door.

Apparently the grandfather clock in the Gryffindor common room is an ordinary, Muggle-style clock that just tells the time in an ordinary way.

...the moment she had landed, the plant had started to twist snake-like tentacles around her ankles. As for Harry and Ron, their legs had already been bound tightly in long creepers without their noticing.

A smaller specimen of Devil's Snare is described three and a half years later as "a rather ugly plant with long, swaying tentacles" (OP23).

"I know what this is - it's Devil's Snare!"
"Oh, I'm so glad we know what it's called, that's a great help," snarled Ron...

In fact, the name of Devil's Snare is a rather sly joke, taken from the history of the Salem witch trials.

In the surviving records of the examining magistrates' questioning of suspected witches, the confessions often start by saying how long the person has been a witch. But instead of using those words - "so-and-so says that he/she has been a witch for however-many years" - the confessions say instead how long the suspect has been "in the snare of the devil." By the standards of the magistrates of Salem, all three children have been in the devil's snare ever since they started at Hogwarts!

Incidentally, one of the most notorious of the magistrates who conducted the Salem witch trials was a man named John Hathorne. One of his descendants was so ashamed of this man that he inserted a 'W' into his name to distance himself from the whole business: the writer Nathaniel Hawthorne.

"It likes the dark and the damp..."

However, light alone won't kill Devil's Snare quickly, because it was able to survive for hours on the closed ward at St. Mungo's (OP23).

"Oh, right!" said Hermione, and she whipped out her wand, waved it, muttered something and sent a jet of the same bluebell flames she had used on Snape at the plant.

The previous bluebell flames incident being referred to occurred during Harry's first Quidditch match, when Hermione believed that Snape was jinxing Harry's broomstick, and set Snape on fire to make him stop (PS11). wouldn't budge, not even when Hermione tried her Alohomora Charm.

As we are to learn later, enchanting a door to require either a key or an Alohomora Charm to open it is the lightest form of wizarding security, effective only against Muggles and against wizarding folk who don't have wands, such as the patients on the closed ward at St. Mungo's (OP23). The flying-key room's door is an example of the next level of security, having been bewitched not to respond to Alohomora. Doors like this can be found in the Ministry of Magic, for example (OP34).

They seized a broomstick each and kicked off into the air, soaring into the midst of the cloud of keys. They grabbed and snatched but the bewitched keys darted and dived so quickly it was almost impossible to catch one.

In fact, the enchantments Flitwick has used on the keys are quite similar to those used to create the balls used in a Quidditch game. Apart from the obvious Flying Charms used on the keys, they've been bewitched to avoid people, in a kind of inversion of the enchantments placed on Bludgers (which are attracted toward the nearest player). Note that this is one of only two times that we specifically see Hermione fly a broomstick, the other being in pick up games of Quidditch while staying at the Burrow.

Lucky thing there were broomsticks there, actually. For that matter, lucky that the key was left in the vicinity of the door too. Might have been a better defense to simply not provide broomsticks or the key at all, flying or otherwise.

They were standing on the edge of a huge chessboard...

In ordinary wizard chess, the opposing players direct their pieces; the pieces themselves are enchanted to move on command, not to make decisions (although a wizarding chess set that's been around for awhile may have opinions).

McGonagall's giant chessmen are unusual in that the white pieces are playing without human direction. However, this does not require human-level intelligence; any Muggle computer worth its salt can do the same thing.

"Now, don't be offended or anything, but neither of you are that good at chess -"

Harry only started learning from Ron over the Christmas holidays (PS12), while chess is "the only thing Hermione ever lost at" (PS13).

"Well, Harry, you take the place of that bishop, and Hermione, you go next to him instead of that castle."

Ron is taking some steps to protect his friends, since bishops and rooks (castles) are less likely to be sacrificed in a game than pawns are. However, it raises the question of why Ron didn't substitute Harry for the king, which would have guaranteed that Harry, at least, would not be at risk unless Ron lost the game, or substitute one of his friends for the queen, which is too powerful a piece to sacrifice lightly.

The exact placement of pieces is a bit confusing in the game, since the bishop and the castle are not next to each other when a chess match is set up. This error has been fixed in later editions of the book. It now reads:

"Well, Harry, you take the place of that bishop, and Hermione, you go there instead of that castle."

"White always moves first in chess," said Ron, peering across the board.

This is why white has a slight advantage in chess.

A white pawn had moved forward two squares.

Pawns are only allowed to do this on the first move.

I'll take one step forward...

Ron is playing the part of a knight, so he can't move just one step. Knights move in an L-pattern of two and three squares. This error is fixed in later editions of the book. It now reads:

"I make my move and she'll take me--that leaves you free to checkmate the king, Harry!"

He stepped forward and the white queen pounced. She struck Ron hard around the head with her stone arm and he crashed to the floor -

Chess Queen by Taelin Raintree

Shaking, Harry moved three spaces to the left...

Harry is playing a Bishop, and as such should only have been allowed to move diagonally.

Hermione seized a roll of paper lying next to the bottles.

The essay The Riddle of the Potions provides a detailed analysis of the riddle, so we will not repeat many of the details in the reader's guide for this chapter.

"Everything we need is here on this paper."

In fact, as the essay analyzing the riddle shows, this isn't quite true. To solve the riddle, one needs to know where the largest and smallest bottles are, and the text of the riddle (and of the chapter) doesn't give us that information.

That's hardly one swallow...

Just a thought...if someone was following me into this series of traps, I might have mixed the bottles up before going on...or maybe emptied whatever was left of the correct potion onto the floor. Quirrell is not the cleverest of adversaries.

Exceptional character moments

Hermione and Ron, who refuse to let Harry go after the Stone alone. Note that this is after they failed to talk Harry out of the idea, which they said was crazy.

Neville, standing up to Harry, Ron, and Hermione when he catches them sneaking out at night.

Ron, sacrificing himself in the chess game because that's the only way his friends can win through to the Stone.

Ron and Harry, assigning Hermione to watch the staff room because she can claim to be fretting over her exam results.

Memorable lines

"Why me?"

"It's obvious," said Ron. "You can pretend to be waiting for Professor Flitwick, you know." He put on a high voice, "Oh, Professor Flitwick, I'm so worried, I think I got question fourteen b wrong..."

"Oh, shut up," said Hermione, but she agreed to go and watch out for Snape.

"That's chess!" snapped Ron. "You've got to make some sacrifices!"

Words and phrases


Pensieve (Comments)

  • Thanks for catching this! I edited it.


  • Benjamin Punla Smith

    Re: Quirrell failing to sabotage the riddle of the potions, could it be possible that the traps and puzzles reset themselves, apart from Fluffy and Quirrell’s troll? This is presumably the case with the Wizard Chess board, at the very least, since Quirrell must have beaten it as well.

Tags: protection warnings

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The Harry Potter Canon