The Burrow: The Importance of Holding One’s Tongue — The Key to the Fidelius Charm
An original editorial by Lady Alchymia
What happens when a Secret-Keeper dies?
My guess is that the secret dies with the Secret-Keeper, purely for reasons of HP plot viability. If the Fidelius Charm can be terminated by killing the Secret-Keeper, then it’s pretty useless as a high level secrecy charm. If so, then Voldemort (or anyone) could have simply killed Peter Pettigrew to release the Potter secret hidden within Pettigrew’s soul.
The conditions of the Fidelius Charm have been carefully crafted by Jo to show how a “friend” chooses, of his own free will, to betray an innocent young family. Being able to get around the charm by simply killing the Secret-Keeper undermines the importance in HP of people making hard but honourable choices.
Terminating the Fidelius Charm
So, how is the Fidelius Charm deliberately terminated? In Prisoner of Azkaban, Professor Flitwick tells us that the Fidelius involves:
- The magical concealment of a secret inside a single, living soul;
- That the information remains hidden unless the Secret-Keeper chooses to divulge it; and
- That the secret stays hidden for as long as the Secret-Keeper refuses to speak it.
That last one has kind of slipped under the radar, I think. We never hear Dumbledore, bless him, actually speak the Headquarters’ secret to anyone. Harry, of course, is handed the secret on a piece of paper by Mad-Eye Moody at the beginning of OOTP.
Sharing a secret without breaking the charm
Although no one except Sirius, James, and Lily know that Pettigrew is the Secret-Keeper of the Potter’s secret, Pettigrew still could have passed the secret on to Dumbledore and Hagrid by a hand-printed note. (I’m sure Pettigrew is capable of imitating Sirius’ handwriting.)
So, Pettigrew could easily have passed around the secret by paper without raising any eyebrows at all (since using a note is apparently a normal way to share the secret without risking extinguishing the charm). But even though Pettigrew could have shared the secret safely and anonymously through a note, I have the feeling that Pettigrew, Sirius, James, and Lily wanted it kept just between the four of them.
How then, did Hagrid find Godric’s Hollow?
The living soul
The Secret-Keeper, Peter Pettigrew, is not dead (more’s the pity), and yet Hagrid finds the house without any apparent problems on the night the Potters die. He even describes the risk of random Muggles swarming the ruins as he flees the scene with Harry on Sirius’ motorcycle. And Hagrid, himself, is sent explicitly to Godric’s Hollow in the first place by Dumbledore.
Clearly, something happens that night which extinguishes the secret entirely, rather than Pettigrew merely revealing the secret to Lord Voldemort alone. Otherwise, why would the Muggles have been able to swarm? There are plenty of “fine-print” options to explain away the Muggles. Perhaps the secret “breaks” when the house explodes, or it extinguishes itself when the Potters die, or any number of other scenarios.
The very simplest scenario, however, is that Peter Pettigrew voluntarily gives the secret to Lord Voldemort, and, by doing so, the secret is no longer entrapped within his soul. There’s a certain poetic beauty to “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named” being indirectly undone by getting a Secret-Keeper to speak “That-Which-Must-Not-Be-Spoken.”
How to terminate a Fidelius Charm without dying
In the climax of Prisoner of Azkaban, we learn through statements from Peter Pettigrew and Sirius Black that Pettigrew voluntarily chooses to tell the secret to Voldemort:
“It must have been the finest moment of your miserable life, telling Voldemort you could hand him the Potters.”
“He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named forced me –”
“DON’T LIE!” bellowed Black. “YOU’D BEEN PASSING INFORMATION TO HIM FOR A YEAR BEFORE LILY AND JAMES DIED! YOU WERE HIS SPY!”
“He — he was taking over everywhere!” gasped Pettigrew. “Wh — what was there to be gained by refusing him?”
If we assume that the moment a Secret-Keeper divulges the secret terminates a Fidelius Charm, then Pettigrew telling Voldemort is the exact point in time that knowledge of the Potters’ hiding place becomes unprotected knowledge once more. This goes some way to explain the rapid response from people that same night. I don’t mean to imply that the information would have sounded off a beep in your pocket, as if you were receiving a text message, but the next time you thought about the Potters in hiding, you might realise that, “Merlin! I know where they are! I’m not supposed to know where they are!”
Dumbledore, who is deeply worried about the Potters, would have had them frequently on his mind, and so it’s logical that he would react quickly — and he does, by sending Hagrid poste haste to collect baby Harry. (No, I’m not even going to try to guess why Dumbledore didn’t go for him himself.)
Now for the real questions….
Is the Fidelius still in place over Godric’s Hollow?
If the above conjecture is correct, then the Potters’ Fidelius Charm has been terminated for a long time, and the future death of Peter Pettigrew is unlikely to have any Fidelius-related plot implications. As for Book 7, the release of the charm sixteen years prior means that any number of people may have had access to the property over the years, and it is likely that Harry, at least, will not have any trouble finding and entering the house (or ruins, as the case may be).
Of course, it is probably more interesting if the original charm manages to cause strife for Harry when he tries to visit Godric’s Hollow. But I suspect that Jo would find this tricky to make a truly viable roadblock, since Hagrid has demonstrated in Book 1 as being able to visit the house without any difficulty. If there is anything vital to be found there, then Harry could just use Hagrid to recover it.
Is the Fidelius still in place over #12 Grimmauld Place?
Ah… a much more interesting question. As mentioned previously, I think the secret must have died with Dumbledore, or the whole Pettigrew-turns-traitor plotline becomes seriously undermined.
The simplest idea to get our heads around this would be that Harry, his friends, and the Order simply hold onto their existing knowledge of the secret during their lives, unable to share it with anyone else, but at least able to get in and out of the house themselves.
Another option is that if the Order stops using the house as their Headquarters (the wording of the Fidelius is very specific as to the usage of the house), then the secret becomes untrue, and therefore non-binding, meaning that the house may revert to being a normal Wizarding house (one that is already highly protected by Sirius’ father).
I actually like the latter option because it strengthens the principles behind the Fidelius. I think that the only way you can create a Fidelius Charm in the first place, is for the secret to be both true (i.e., that #12 is the Headquarters of the Order), and that it is your secret to conceal (i.e., as Head of the Order, Dumbledore decides where Headquarters is located, and thus is eligible to “set” the secret). If these conditions are not held to be valid under the Fidelius, then surely the charm will fail. If not, then mischievous people could make up all sorts of things to be concealed by Fidelius Charms for their own personal gain. So, it’s possible that, whoever the new Head of the Order of the Phoenix is (if there is one at all), they may get to decide on a new location for Headquarters, and voila, #12 is accessible again.
What does it really mean, in a literary sense, for a secret to die? That’s the question.
The adage, “the secret dies with him,” is a melancholy acceptance that we’ll just never know something. Taken to a magical extreme, it’s feasible that knowledge of the secret has now actually been extinguished from the minds of everyone who know the secret at the time of Dumbledore’s death. Which means that none of them, including Harry, know the location of the Headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix. And none of them will be able to find or get into #12 Grimmauld Place at all, even if their noses were pressed up against the windows.
Hmm, this could make Harry going home to fetch that locket kind of interesting.