The Sphinx’s Riddle

by Andromeda Tonks

As Harry Potter fans, we all know that the most important events in Harry’s life are those that he alone, out of all of his friends, encounters: the conversations with Dumbledore, the run-ins with Voldemort, various eavesdropping experiences. When Harry experiences something in the absence of other students, we know it’s important.

It surprised me, then, upon re-reading GOF, that there was a little, only-Harry encounter that nobody seems to have picked up on its importance. I am talking about Chapter 31, “The Third Task,” in particular, Harry’s meeting with the Sphinx. We can be pretty sure that none of the other Triwizard champions faced the riddle — Cedric approached the centre of the maze from a different direction, and Fleur and Krum were taken out before they could have reached that far. This is the Sphinx’s riddle:

“First think of the person who lives in disguise,
Who deals in secrets and tells naught but lies,
Next tell me what’s always the last thing to mend,
The middle of middle and end of the end?
And finally give me the sound often heard,
During the search for a hard-to-find word.
Now string them together, and answer me this,
Which creature would you be unwilling to kiss?”

Reading this, it struck me how easy it would be for JKR to slip in a crucial clue, and everybody would be so eager to find out if Harry would win the Triwizard Tournament that nobody would search here for clues. And since it seems the unlikely place to look for foreshadowing (right before the major action of the book), it would be the perfect place to hide it. As a really famous person should have said, but didn’t, “every rhyming couplet tells a story…”

The first two lines are relatively easy to decipher. We are looking for a spy. My first thought was Snape, but on closer examination, I found that Wormtail was a much more fitting choice. We are looking for someone who “lives in disguise,” and Wormtail lived in probably the best disguise ever for 12 whole years. Also, “deals in secrets” is a good indication that the person we are looking for is Wormtail — he was, after all, the Secret Keeper for the Potters.

The next rhyming couplet is more difficult. The first line seemed far too cryptic to attempt straight away, so I moved on to the second. My immediate thought was, what if this is a clue hiding in plain sight? “The middle of middle,” I believe, is a direct reference to the Harry Potter books. Since GOF is the middle book of the series, I thought that the clue was hidden there. GOF, as I’m sure you know, has 37 chapters. This means that the middle chapter is Chapter 18, “The Weighing of the Wands.” To my dismay, “the middle of middle” is 21 pages long. Since the rule of middle had brought me this far, I decided to trust it and take it one step further than the riddle said, and I found the middle page, page 263. There, I found my Holy Grail. That very page is a perfect example of Professor Snape being cruel and unfair towards Harry. Snape, then, is the person that these two lines refer to, and it is his animosity with Harry that will be the “last thing to mend” — either by a union between the two parties or the death of one or both of them. And when will this happen? At the “end of the end,” of course; the final confrontation, the elusive climax of book 7.

The third rhyming couplet came to me in a flash of realization. What is the most “hard-to-find word” in the Potterverse? Voldemort, of course! The “sound often heard” could relate to You-Know-Who, but they both lead us to the same person anyway.

So there I was. I had a riddle which I could link to three people in the Potterverse. Since the riddle was Harry’s experience, and no one else’s, I could understand that their relevance was to Harry, but where to go from there? I was stuck for a long time, wondering if all I could reach from the riddle was three names. Then I realised I hadn’t checked out the final two lines:

“Now string them together, and answer me this,
Which creature would you be unwilling to kiss?

I searched this couplet, trying desperately to find these three people’s significance to Harry, and what will be their roles at the “end of the end.” But all I could find was that the Dementors would be “unwilling to kiss” the three people, or else it was simply a clue to tell Harry the answer to the riddle in it’s current context: spider.


Tempted as I was to run naked down the street shouting “Eureka!” I knew this was the answer I had been looking for. Spiders. Hadn’t I only minutes ago been thinking about clues hiding in plain sight? Let me explain.

Spiders have been mentioned in varying degrees of importance in all of the books. This suggests that spiders need to be kept in the limelight to give us clues — they are aided and abetted here by Ron’s phobia. So which spider reference is the riddle referring to? I thought about it, and decided on GOF for three reasons:

  • The spider references stop after GOF, and it would make no sense to carry them on after they had done their job.
  • GOF is the book in which the riddle occurs.
  • GOF is the pivotal, central point of the series. If you’re looking for major clues, here is a good place to start.

With that in mind, I found myself a nice juicy spider reference in GOF — in fact, a whole chapter devoted to our favorite eight-legged friends. I am talking, of course, about Chapter 14, “The Unforgivable Curses.” Now, of all the small creatures to control, torture and kill, why did Impostor Moody choose spiders? I’ll tell you why: he was controlled by a higher power (the author) to give us an important clue. Seventeen chapters before spider is the answer to the riddle, we see three spiders, being subjected to three curses.

Three curses for three spiders. And the riddle refers to three wizards.

It’s not difficult to see where I went after this. Because the riddle almost certainly needs to refer to Harry (or why else would he witness it?), I narrowed it down to two choices. Either Harry performs these curses on them, or they perform them on him. I’m not saying that the former is impossible, but I prefer the latter: it makes for more interesting plotting, and nobody wants Harry to become a patron of the Unforgivables.

So who is going to perform which curse on Harry? Logic would dictate the first curse for the first person mentioned in the riddle, and since logic is all we have to go with, this is what I think:

  • Wormtail = Imperius
  • Snape = Cruciatus
  • Voldemort = Avada Kedavra

Wormtail performing the Imperious curse on Harry doesn’t seem too far-fetched; the little rat has always been fond of power, although I can’t really see Harry being affected by it, unless he’s really weak at the time.

I am NOT saying that Voldemort will kill Harry, simply that he will aim the Avada Kedavra curse at him (in fact, I would say he’s already done it — twice — if it wasn’t for “end of the end” telling me this riddle is referring to the final confrontation). Whether or not he will survive, I haven’t the foggiest.

I can hear all the Snape fans screaming in anguish that I think Snape will perform the Cruciatus Curse on Harry. Well, since I’ve upset them already, I’ll expand on what I’ve said.

For me, Snape being evil is a very real possibility. It would be the greatest double-bluff ever, to have Harry and Ron’s childish, almost laughable accusations of Snape being swept aside by Hermione and Dumbledore’s unwavering trust in him, only to find that he really was evil. It would be very clever, to tell us constantly for nearly seven whole books that whatever it looks like, Snape is not evil, and then drop it on us at the climax of the series that he really is. Of course, Snape’s being evil suggests that for his and Harry’s enmity to be the “last thing to mend,” one of them would have to die, because I doubt that Harry would forgive him if he turned out to be a loyal Death Eater. If I were a betting girl, my money would be on Snape dying, but this is merely gut instinct and totally unjustified.

Of course, it is possible that their feud could be solved without one of their deaths, and without Snape being evil. It could be that when Snape performs the Cruciatus Curse on Harry, he is himself the victim of the Imperius Curse, cast by Voldemort or another Death Eater, upon finding out that he has betrayed them to help Dumbledore, and, consequently, Harry. It would be poetic justice on the Voldemort/Death Eater’s behalf, punishing him by making him torture the person he had betrayed them for.

Thanks for reading, and please let me know what you think.