The Two-Way Mirror #26: The Half-Blood Prince and the Riddle of the Phials (or The Chamber of Secrets and the Devil’s Snare)

by Dan

The seven-task obstacle course in The Philosopher’s Stone set up the expectation of a seven book series, each book presenting a different major challenge for Harry and his friends just like each task of the obstacle course did. In some of my earlier editorials I explored various correspondences between the seven tasks and the seven books, although some parallels were less obvious than others. The relationship between the sixth task andThe Half-Blood Prince seems to belong to the clearer correspondence category.

The sixth task in the first book was Snape’s task. It involved a fire trap, the doorway ahead and behind both being blocked by curtains of fire, purple fire behind and black fire ahead. The task itself was mental, a puzzle that needed to be solved by logic. It involved choosing and drinking the right potion among seven in order to pass through the fire. The text of the riddle was the following poem:

“Danger lies before you, while safety lies behind,
Two of us will help you, which ever you would find,
One among us seven will let you move ahead,
Another will transport the drinker back instead,
Two among our number hold only nettle wine,
Three of us are killers, waiting hidden in line.
Choose, unless you wish to stay here forevermore,
To help you in your choice, we give you these clues four:
First, however slyly the poison tries to hide
You will always find some on nettle wine’s left side;
Second, different are those who stand at either end,
But if you would move onward, neither is your friend;
Third, as you see clearly, all are different size,
Neither dwarf nor giant holds death in their insides;
Fourth, the second left and the second on the right
Are twins once you taste them, though different at first sight”

Snape’s task and Snape’s book

We can say that like the sixth task was Snape’s task, The Half-Blood Prince is Snape’s book, not least because it is named after him. We see Snape before we see Harry in the sixth book. “Spinner’s End” is a crucial chapter that sets up expectations about Snape’s role in the series, and Snape’s final action of murdering Dumbledore while Harry watches helplessly catapults him to the center stage of the action. The mystery of who is the “Half-Blood Prince” hangs over the entire book up until the last pages, making the sixth book an important development of Snape’s identity. Snape’s potions book, signed as belonging to the “Half-Blood Prince,” is a written document that Harry needs to decipher and that helps him make the right choices in Potions class much like the riddle poem in the sixth room.

Black and Purple, Half-Blood Prince

The colors of the two fires in the sixth task were also interesting. They sprang forth at the same time. One was purple, and one was black. Purple is the color of royalty (Quirrell’s purple turban was a gift from an African prince). Since only one fire was purple, while the other was black, perhaps this was Rowling’s way of foreshadowing the supposed half-royalty of the Half-Blood Prince, and since this was Snape’s task, perhaps this was an additional hint about the identity of the Half-Blood Prince. Were the two colors also meant to symbolize his split loyalties?

The Fire Trap and the Unbreakable Vow

The two fires that sprang up at the same time and trapped Harry and Hermione, were they also a symbol of the trap of the Unbreakable Vow in the sixth book? Remember the element of fire served to bind Snape and Narcissa’s hands. According to the sixth task, there is a way to walk through the fire unscathed, if only you take the right potion. Did Snape know how to counter the Unbreakable Vow?

A mental challenge

Another interesting aspect of the sixth task was that it tested logic, not magic. A great part of Harry’s challenge in the sixth book was mental. The lessons he takes with Dumbledore seem to be like Snape’s task, a mental adventure of collecting information, observing and deducing rather than practicing wand magic. Hermione and Ron tried to anticipate what Dumbledore’s lessons would be like, what kind of magic spells the great wizard would teach Harry, but it turned out they were a mental adventure, much like Snape’s task was.


Potions, Snape’s area of expertise, a component of the challenge that Harry and Hermione face in the sixth task, becomes the focus of the sixth book, and most classroom situations that Rowling describes take place in Potions class. Slughorn, the new Potions master, becomes the center of attention, not only because of all the action that he stirs up with his parties, but because he constitutes a key to Voldemort’s Horcrux secret. We see again or for the first time various interesting potions, such as Amortentia (the love potion), Felix Felicis (the luck potion), Polyjuice Potion, Veritaserum, the Draught of the Living Death and Euphoria. The climactic cave scene involves Dumbledore drinking Voldemort’s phosphorescent green poison. Memories, a central part of the book, also seem to be some kind of potion (in fact, Voldemort’s poison contained in a basin reminiscent of a pensieve also seemed to contain memories of some kind, or dreams). Memories are kept in phials like any other liquid, and Slughorn places his memory of Tom Riddle in the same kind of phial in which he collects Acromantula venom.


An inordinate amount of drinking goes on in the sixth book, further emphasizing the connection between the sixth book and the sixth task. The sixth task in practice involved drinking the right potion. From the first pages of the sixth book we see characters drinking. Snape treats Narcissa and Bellatrix to elf-made wine. Dumbledore brings oak-matured mead to the Dursleys’ home. Harry gets Slughorn and Hagrid drunk on good wine. Slughorn treats Harry and Ron to oak-matured mead intended for Dumbledore. Dumbledore gets the woman in the orphanage drunk on brandy. In the pensieve, Dumbledore’s cabinet that at present houses Gryffindor’s sword was full of alcoholic drinks, of which he offered some to Voldemort. Trelawney is more drunk than ever on her sherry.

Interestingly, even in Charms we learn spells related to drinking, for example Aguamenti, which conjures water. Students also learn to turn water to wine (some mistakenly turn it to ice or vinegar), echoing a Christian miracle and suggestive of the magic of blood. Perhaps Rowling wants us to think of blood in terms of potions. We meet our first vampire, Sanguini, in the sixth book, the man for whom blood is wine. When Voldemort took Harry’s blood in the fourth book, did he drink poison, nettle wine, backward or forward potion? Notice also that Harry’s and Dumbledore’s blood, like the two forward and backward potions in the sixth task, played the role of opening the door in Voldemort’s cave.

Poison, Nettle Wine, Backward, Forward

There are definitely more than seven potions in the sixth book. The correspondence with the sixth task is not perfect. But it is clear that just as the poem described, there are among these diverse potions poisons, nettle wines, and solutions that move you either forward or backward.

Of poisons, I found exactly three, but one was not a potion: the poisoned mead that Ron drank, the green poison in the cave, and the cursed opal necklace. As far as nettle wine, I think of it as an irritant: Dumbledore’s mead is annoying as it keeps nudging against the Dursleys’ heads (but it is not poisonous as they fear) and Amortentia is annoying as it turns Ron’s love life upside down (but doesn’t quite poison him). Finally, there are drinks that really help one move forward, opening doors for them: the brandy that Dumbledore conjures at the orphanage helps open for him the door to Tom Riddle, Felix Felicis (along with good wine and Slughorn’s memory held in a phial) opens the way for Harry to the mystery of the Horcruxes, and blood opens the door to Voldemort’s cave. And there are liquids that help one move backward. Harry’s blood helps him and Dumbledore leave Voldemort’s cave, while Felix Felicis, like the backward potion in the sixth task, helps Harry’s friends be safe while they stay behind.

Although the correspondences between the sixth book and task are not perfect, they are close to perfect, as we have three poisons (Slughorn’s mead, Draco’s opals, Voldemort’s phosphorescent potion), two nettle wines (Dumbledore’s mead, Amortentia), four forward potions (Felix Felicis, Slughorn’s memory, Dumbledore’s blood, Dumbledore’s brandy) and two backward potions (Felix Felicis, Harry’s blood). We can see that in general terms Rowling did think of the sixth task and book as echoes of each other.

We can also look at the array of potions as a choice of courses of action. Snape made a choice in the sixth book, just as Harry and Hermione made a choice in the sixth task. Snape could choose poison, nettle wine, forward or backward movement. Which one did he choose? He did not choose to die, so it was not poison. I think he chose to move forward, towards Voldemort. The only way he could achieve this was by walking through the black fire. Does that mean killing Dumbledore? Black is the color of mourning, and fire is the element of Dumbledore. The black curtain of fire perhaps symbolized Dumbledore’s death. To pass through this curtain, Snape took a potion that made him ice cold… The potion he took was symbolic, psychological. Snape removed the little warmth that was left in his heart and made himself cold as ice so that he could perform the dreadful deed. But maybe Snape’s ice was not as foolproof as his potion. Maybe when he walked through the curtain of fire, he was stung. Like the dog howling inside Hagrid’s burning house to whom Snape is compared, Snape could not walk through the fire of killing Dumbledore with the Avada Kedavra without getting himself burned. The burning will be the pain this action will eventually cause Snape. Did Snape give Dumbledore protective ice through a silent spell hidden beneath the AK in order to protect him?

Beyond the Half-Blood Prince and the Riddle of the Phials: the Chamber of Secrets and the Devil’s Snare

Fire and Water

Very interesting is the choice of elements in the sixth task: fire and water. Snape chooses to use fire as the danger and cold water as the solution. I can’t help noticing that the second task, Devil’s Snare, used the same two elements, only inverted. It was cold water that was dangerous, or rather, a plant that liked these conditions. Hermione said Devil’s Snare liked the damp and the cold, and Harry told her to “light a fire.” As I think the second task of the Triwizard tournament can be likened to the second task of the Devil’s Snare, you will notice that water is an important element in both tasks, and the danger of drowning resembles the danger of strangulation.

This situation of fighting water with fire becomes important at the end of the sixth book in the cave. This time we are not dealing with Devil’s Snare, but with Inferi. However, in a way the problem is the same, though is looks different in appearance. Inferi also like the cold, dark and damp, and “like many creatures that dwell in cold and darkness, they fear light and warmth” (HBP Ch. 26), thus the solution against them is fire, which Dumbledore brings to Harry’s aid.

I might add to this collection of fire and water oppositions the situation in the second book, when the fire element (Fawkes) came to Harry’s aid against the water element (the Basilisk), and, inversely, the water element (mirrors, photographic lenses, water, ghosts — which feel like ice water when they pass through you) was able to partially block the fire element (the Basilisk’s stare).

Water and fire are presented in these tasks and books as both dangers and solutions.

The Inverted Tasks

Such inversions of elements make sense on a chessboard, if we think of the seven tasks as two sides of a chessboard. In fact, the fourth task was a chess game, situated in the very center, and perhaps placed there as a clue about the relationship between the first three and the last three tasks. The three tasks before the chessboard can be expected to be reproduced and inverted in the three tasks after the chessboard the way black squares are changed to white, or the way an image is reflected but reversed in a mirror.

Task 1
Fluffy =7 inverted
Task 2
water/fire6 inverted
Task 3
Keys =5 inverted
Task 4 = 4
Task 5
Troll =3 inverted
Task 6
fire/water2 inverted
Task 7
Erised =1 inverted

I will not explore all the correspondences and reversals between the first three and last three tasks in this editorial, but perhaps I will in the future. For now, I am interested in the relationship between the second and the sixth tasks. It is possible, although perhaps not necessarily true, that this mirror relationship exists also between the first and seventh tasks and the third and fifth.

Jenna noted this mirror reflection pattern (minus the inversion) among the books themselves in “The Plot Mirror.” She saw the fourth book as a pivot, with the other books mirroring each other in this fashion: the first book mirrors the seventh book, the second mirrors the sixth, and the third mirrors the fifth. It would be interesting to study Jenna’s work  again and see if there are inversions as well as reflections between the books. In fact, an obvious inversion from the third to the fifth book is that in the third Harry saves Sirius, while in the fifth he causes his death. Although Jenna does not posit inversion as a necessary ingredient of the plot mirror, she does point out nicely the opposite situations of the third and fifth books:

“PoA: Sirius escapes/is free; Harry wants vengeance/death for Sirius; Harry takes time to consider Sirius’s story, trusts him, helps saves his life.OotP: Sirius ‘imprisoned’ in Grimmauld place; Harry is concerned for his godfather/his safety; makes rash decision; inadvertently leads Sirius to his death.”
(The Plot Mirror)

This is a good time to quote a message I received upon writing my second editorial on the seven tasks from Negaprioncatcher, who thought that rather than associating consecutive tasks with consecutive books we might consider inverting their order.

“Have you tried looking at them backwards? They fit better:
7- mirror of erised – book 1: harry meets voldemort face to face for the first time
6- riddle and phials – book 2: tom riddle and his poisonous (venomous) basilisk. although hermione figures out the riddle of the basilisk, harry has to conquer it alone
5- troll – book 3: no LV, harry must just conquer fear
4- chess – book 4: sacrifice of a knight (Cedric the champion – the first real death) or a pawn (Wormtail). The tasks (esp. the maze) themselves are very much like a chess game.
3- flying keys -book 5: trying to grasp flying keys is a lot like trying to open the corridor door, the thing that occupies harry’s mind the entire book. . . .
2- devil’s snare – book 6: could the half-blood prince have a trap in store for harry?
1- fluffy – book 7: perhaps harry will have to defeat more than LV or travel to the land of the dead to have the final confrontation. Fawkes (music) may be the key”

Combining my own findings with those of Jenna and Negaprioncatcher, what I believe I see is that not only does the second task mirror and invert the sixth task, and the second book mirrors and inverts the sixth book, but the same relationship can be found between the second task and the sixth book and the sixth task and the second book. In a way, we can build a meaningful square between the second task, the sixth task, the second book and the sixth book.


Task 2: Devil’s Snaredanger:
element: water
“snakelike” plant in the cold & damp, false friend
not “lucky” plant

element: fire
“lucky” information and “cool” head
(word “lucky” pronounced several times)
Book 2: Chamber of Secretsdanger:
element: water, fire
ink in Riddle’s diary, Heir of Slytherin, false friend, basilisk in pipes
fire = basilisk’s stare, instant death

element: fire, water
fire = Fawkes (a Phoenix, a fire bird), loyalty
water = mirrors, lenses, water, ghost (block basilisk’s stare so that it only petrifies)
water = Fawkes’ tears
? = Gryffindor’s silver sword, basilisk’s fang
Task 6: Riddle of the Phialsdanger:
element: fire, water
water = poison

element: water
water = backward or forward potion
cool logic
Book 6: Half-Blood Princedanger:
element: fire, water
fire = The Unbreakable Vow (“snakelike” fire)
water = Voldemort’s cave and Draco’s poisons and maybe Narcissa (a water flower; she looks like a drowned person)
“lucky” Harry found HBP book?
solution (partially failed?):

element: water, fire
water = Felix Felicis (“lucky”)
fire = spell used in the cave
fire = AK (instant death, unblockable?)
betrayal/loyalty? cool logic?

Slytherin and Gryffindor

I will let readers notice various vertical, horizontal and diagonal correspondences in this square. What interests me is that I don’t think we can deny that Gryffindor and Slytherin elements are crucial to these tasks and books. As I demonstrated in Heirs and Inheritances, and as Rowling revealed in the interview with Emerson and Melissa, water is the element of Slytherin and fire is the element of Gryffindor. Thus, in the second and sixth tasks and books, Gryffindor and Slytherin symbols battle it out.

Loyalty and Betrayal

The great question we all want to answer is whether Snape betrayed Dumbledore or not. At least on the surface Snape betrayed Dumbledore by appearing to murder him. The question is, was Snape’s action an act of loyalty or betrayal? And will relations of correspondences and inversions between the four corners of the square give us any hint on that matter? Notice that the theme of loyalty and betrayal is present in each corner of the square. The Devil’s Snare that appears to be a friend at first, luckily placed there to break the fall, turns treacherous and begins to strangle the trio. We don’t have this theme with Fluffy, or the Flying Keys (though the right choice must be made, there is no “danger of betrayal”), or the Chess Game, or the Troll, or even the Mirror of Erised, though this last scene is a bit more complex, as it involves not only the mirror, but also Quirrell the traitor. In the sixth task, on the other hand, there is the question of choosing the right “friend” among several “people.” Remember these lines in the poem quoted above: “Two of us will help you, which ever you would find” and“Two among our number hold only nettle wine / Three of us are killers, waiting hidden in line” and “Second, different are those who stand at either end / But if you would move onward, neither is your friend.” At least three of these guys will kill you, so choosing correctly is crucial. Nettle wine, while seemingly harmless, could burn you if you walk with its “protection” through the fire.

Unlike with the tasks, the theme of treachery is important throughout the series, not only in the second and sixth books. In the first book, Quirrell is a traitor to Dumbledore, and Snape corners him, questioning him about “where his loyalties lie” (if you ask me, this is the fishy part in Snape’s story to Narcissa; he claims he thought Quirrell was just greedy, but his question about loyalties seems to indicate otherwise). The seeming traitor, Snape, turns out to be loyal in the first book. In the second book, Lockhart is a traitor to wizards whose fame he steals, and to Hogwarts when he wants to flee at the end, as well as to Harry and Ron whom he tries to Obliviate. In addition, the big traitor is Tom Riddle’s diary whom Ginny trusts as a friend but who turns around and possesses her, sucking out her life. In the third book, treachery is particularly important as Sirius the hunted escaped convict is thought to be the friend who betrayed the Potters. In the end, we find that it was Peter Pettigrew who was the real traitor. In the fourth book, it is Moody who seems a friend turned treacherous, except he is really Barty Crouch, Jr. masked as Mad-Eye. Always in these books there is “a traitor among us.” In the fifth book there are several traitors, obviously Marietta who ends up with Sneak written across her face, the dream visions that Harry had grown to trust, and Umbridge who takes the law into her own hands.

Finally, in the sixth book, the biggest act of treachery yet appears to have taken place. Snape murders Dumbledore. Interrelated to this act of betrayal are Draco’s betrayal to his school and Narcissa’s apparent betrayal to Voldemort. Also, we can say the HBP’s book seems a traitor when it turns savage after helping Harry, but then, isn’t Harry also a cheat to use that book? Isn’t he the one giving the HBP power by doing everything the book says? Was Dumbledore as guilty of Snape’s betrayal as Harry was guilty of the Half-Blood Prince’s book’s damage? Did Snape turn savage because Dumbledore let him? Or did Snape show loyalty to Dumbledore like Harry did in the second book?

An important similarity between the second and the sixth books is that an act of loyalty or betrayal constitutes the climax of the action in both. Dumbledore thanked Harry for his show of loyalty to him the moment he saw him after the ordeal, emphasizing the importance of the role the act loyalty played in the winning of that battle. In the climax of the sixth book, on the other hand, Snape shows great betrayal to Dumbledore. While the theme of betrayal versus loyalty was present in the other books as well, it did not figure at the core of their climax as it did in the second and sixth books.

Perfect Parallels or Inversions?

The problem is that in the four corners of the square, only some elements are inverted while others are parallel. How do we decide which element gets inverted and which element stays the same? Were the values inverted from the second to the sixth book so that loyalty was the solution in one and betrayal in the other, as the elements of fire and water were inverted from the second to the sixth task? How do we decide Rowling wants us to see perfect parallels or inversions? Is Snape the man a perfect or inverted image of Snape the book? Is he evil contents under a new cover, or new contents under an evil cover? Did Rowling want the “hate and revulsion” on Snape’s face on the tower to be a perfect parallel of Harry’s feelings in the cave or an inverted reflection? The same feelings are reflected, but the inversion may indicate the direction of the feelings: outward for Snape, inward for Harry.

What was Snape’s danger in the sixth book? Was it fire (the Unbreakable Vow)? According to our pattern, he should have used water against it, but he used fire (it seems to me the Avada Kedavra is a fire element because of its light). Can we fight fire with fire? It does seem that water can be used against water, as Fawkes’ tears are used against the Basilisk’s venom. Although Rowling seems to prefer to fight elements with their opposites, she does allow the same to fight the same. But then again, the tears fought the effect of the water element, and this effect was fire: “searing pain,” “white hot pain” (CoS “The Heir of Slytherin”). Should we look beyond the fire of Dumbledore and fire of the Unbreakable Vow to the water element of Voldemort and Narcissa? Narcissa is named after a water plant and is compared to a drowned person (remember Narcissus drowned in his own reflection and was turned into a flower). Was Narcissa a false friend who trapped Snape in the Vow?

Snape used wand magic as in the second task Hermione used wand magic. In the sixth task and second book the wand was left aside. Dumbledore was definitely clutching Snape, holding on to him like a strangling plant in the tower scene. He was begging,“‘Severus… Severus, please…'” It’s almost as if we can see his arms reaching out, trying to hold Snape like threatening tendrils. And Snape, to free himself, fires the AKat Dumbledore like Hermione did at the Devil’s Snare. Was Dumbledore a false friend to Snape? If we invert the situation from the second task to the sixth book, then Dumbledore who is clutching Snape is actually holding him near not to strangle him but to save him, while Snape, who removes himself from Dumbledore’s embrace with the Avada Kedavra is in fact the false friend.

The false friend in the second book was a water element as in the second task, and loyalty was used against it, calling the fire element to it, the Phoenix. If we invert the spirit of loyalty with which the battle of the second book was won, we get the spirit of betrayal with which the battle of the sixth book was lost. Was the falsehood of the Devil’s Snare supposed to be a personification of Snape? Notice the similarity in the names Snape and Snare, and also, remember that Snape lives in “Spinner’s End,” an image suggestive of a spider’s web, a kind of Devil’s Snare. While I can see loyalty calling forth Fawkes as Harry’s sentiments did in Chamber, I can’t see anything other than betrayal conjuring the Avada Kedavra in Prince. Perhaps it was the intensity of this betrayal that kept Fawkes, the most loyal of pets, painfully away from the scene. He simply could not magically materialize in an atmosphere of such utter betrayal. If we expand Jenna’s plot mirror to require these chess inversions, as the relationship between the third and fifth books so compellingly demonstrates, then it seems a necessity that an act of loyalty in the second book should be transformed into an act of betrayal in the sixth.

The reason the symbolic evidence still remains relatively inconclusive is that not all reflections are inversions. Some are perfect parallels. Where is the definite key as to which choice we should make, perfect parallel or inversion? I am sure that I feel inclined to see inversions where other would see perfect parallels because of my own conclusions drawn from psychological factors (see Love or Hate).

Those who support the ‘Snape is loyal to Dumbledore’ hypothesis might point out a certain degree of inversion observable from Tom Riddle’s diary to the Half-Blood Prince’s book. On the surface they are both friends who suddenly turn traitorous/savage, but there is an essential difference between the two. While Tom Riddle’s diary forced Ginny to do his evil bidding, Snape’s book did not force Harry to follow his directions. Harry simply chose, of his own free will, stupidly to perform spells he did not know. Thus the damage that the Half-Blood Prince’s book caused was of a different nature. The book was not guilty, because it did not make Harry’s choice for him. Does the innocence of the book point to Snape’s innocence? Let’s look at the facts. Did Snape kill Dumbledore of his own free will, or was he coerced to kill him by the Unbreakable Vow? But is the Vow guilty, or Snape who chose to make the Vow?

Given that the Harry Potter series is at least in part a mystery, I imagine Rowling would not want to give away the final secrets of her adventure through a structure of correspondences and inversions that is too obvious. Perhaps, as I have done with this fire and water square, more pieces need to be brought into this complex puzzle before the multiple possibilities can be reduced to one certainty. I am interested in expanding this chessboard of reflections and oppositions to include other squares. Stay tuned for a reworking of my editorial The Triwizard Tasks and the Seven Books to include evidence from the Half-Blood Prince. In future editorials, I may expand my study to include all tasks and books.