Seven Obstacles for Seven Books
Over the years, many essayists have attempted to connect the seven protections of the Sorcerer’s Stone to the seven books of the Harry Potter series. Such a premise, by necessity, includes a bit of stretching – connecting types of magic and elements and whatnot. I always enjoyed these essays – if you care to look at some of my favorites, dig into the MuggleNet archive and read the Two-Way Mirror column by Daniela (editorials #2, 4, and 5) for some absolutely epic matrix-y analysis.
I want to take my own stab at it, because I have not really seen an updated version that takes the latter books into account. (This theory was in its heyday shortly before Book 6 came out, once everyone was heartily sick of guessing who the Half-Blood Prince was and analyzing every word and every ellipse in the prophecy. After Half-Blood Prince, everyone was far too concerned with RAB, Horcruxes, and Snape to return to this, especially since the sixth obstacle fit the sixth book like a glove and did not demand much further analysis.)
Knowing Jo, seven obstacles for seven books should have some connection. After all, there is an enormous amount of foreshadowing in Sorcerer’s Stone – from the dream predicting Dumbledore’s murder (SS130) to Ronan predicting Cedric’s death (SS253). Our task is figuring out what these connections are.
My belief is that there are two primary connections for each obstacle: the type of magic involved, and how the Trio gets past it. The former is the one most theorists initially focus on, and it works well, but there’s only so much to say there (charms is charms, potions is potions, now what?). I would argue that the tasks also foreshadow how Harry and co. solve the problems that face them in later books, with these seven obstacles serving as precursors to the epic battles that will follow. So let us go, protection by protection, and see just how closely Jo foreshadowed her series in the very first book.
Book 1 – Fluffy
Fluffy represents Care of Magical Creatures as a subject, which ties in nicely with Sorcerer’s Stone. The book features magical creatures as more significant plot points than usual, with the inclusion of the troll that cements the Trio’s friendship, Norbert, unicorns being slaughtered, centaurs protecting Harry, and Fluffy itself.
So much of the HP series is about Harry overcoming his loneliness and finding a surrogate family, a process that has its most important part in Sorcerer’s Stone, where Harry befriends Ron and Hermione. Fluffy is a literal manifestation of “three heads are better than one.” Harry requires the help of his friends and allies to make it through, represented by his need of Hagrid’s flute to lull Fluffy to sleep.
Harry does not do anything to actively defeat Fluffy, he just has to keep the dog at bay while the Trio slips past him. The dog keeps trying to wake up, but the Trio doesn’t let it – “In the few seconds’ silence [when Harry gave the flute to Hermione], the dog growled and twitched, but the moment Hermione began to play, it fell back into its deep sleep.” (SS276)
This is symbolic of Voldemort’s attempts at revival, where he keeps trying but gets foiled. The time that Fluffy almost wakes up when the flute is handed over represents Sorcerer’s Stone, when Voldemort very nearly succeeds at coming back. It calls to mind Dumbledore’s words two chapters later, that Voldemort has not been vanquished: “Harry, while you may have only delayed his return to power, […] if he is delayed again, and again, why, he may never return to power.” (SS298) But eventually, he does return, just as Fluffy finally wakes up when Hermione jumps through the trapdoor.
Harry’s reliance on others is represented by his getting past Fluffy, but so too his hero’s complex rears its ugly head for the first time here. Witness this exchange:
“f you want to go back, I won’t blame you,” [Harry] said. […]
“Don’t be stupid,” said Ron.
“We’re coming,” said Hermione. (SS275)
This is the first of SO MANY exchanges like this – Harry is forever trying to protect his friends by telling them not to go with him. And Harry is the first to go through the trapdoor, just as he will lead so many adventures over the years. But Ron and Hermione are right behind him, just as they will be throughout.
Book 2 – Devil’s Snare
Chamber of Secrets features Herbology more than any other book, thus making the magic connection to the Devil’s Snare. Mandrakes are an important plot point in Chamber, and I believe CoS features the only full Herbology lesson we are privy to.
How does the Trio get past the Devil’s Snare? Hermione uses her knowledge and figures out the answer. This is exactly like Chamber of Secrets, where Hermione figures out all the answers, and Harry and Ron are completely reliant on her knowledge to save the day. Hermione figures out that Slytherin’s monster is a basilisk, warns Penelope Clearwater to use mirrors when rounding corners and thereby saves their lives, and even accounts for the basilisk’s mode of transportation by writing “Pipes” on the page (CS290). Just like she figured out how to combat Devil’s Snare and saved the Trio’s lives. Really, what would they do without Hermione?
The trio’s response to the Devil’s Snare also echoes their response in CoS to Tom Riddle’s diary. At first, they assume it’s something helpful and are happy about it. Harry says, “I suppose [the Devil’s Snare is] here to break the fall.” “Lucky this plant thing’s here, really,” said Ron. (SS277) Once the Devil’s Snare reveals its true colors, Hermione “watched in horror.”
This is foreshadowing Harry’s response to Tom Riddle and his diary: first assuming it’s helpful, then being horrified when it turns on him. Even the language used is similar: “Lucky that I recorded my memories,” says Riddle’s diary (CS240). Harry then “blot[s] the page in his excitement.”
Later, once Harry is in the Chamber, he still assumes Tom Riddle will be helpful, even saying, “You’ve got to help me, Tom.” (CS308) Once Tom is unmasked, there is a mention of “Harry’s horrified face,” (CS310) again echoing the language of the Devil’s Snare episode. Rowling’s use of language is always very deliberate, so this seems to me a clear parallel.
Book 3 – Flying Keys
The third obstacle deals with Charms, as does Prisoner of Azkaban. So much of Prisoner of Azkaban hinges on the Fidelius Charm, and who the Potters ultimately chose as their Secret-Keeper. That is the magic connection. We can also make the connection for flying – Harry’s Quidditch skills allow him to catch the key. Prisoner features the only full Quidditch Cup in the series, where Harry plays all three matches that year and finally wins the Quidditch Cup.
The third obstacle relies squarely on Harry’s skill alone – he spots the key, and after the key dodges Ron and Hermione, Harry finally catches it (SS280). Similarly, the events of Prisoner of Azkaban rely more on Harry’s actual skill than those of any other book. Other books involve Harry’s bravery or love, or help arriving when needed. But were it not for Harry’s skill with the Patronus Charm, the events of PoA would have ended very badly.
The key is hiding in plain sight, trusting to its camouflage as one of many keys to keep it hidden. In Prisoner, the key to everything – Peter Pettigrew – is also hiding in plain sight, trusting his camouflage as one of many rats to hide him.
What does Harry do with these keys? He catches them, but ultimately lets them go. After he unlocks the door, he releases the key, with it “looking very battered now.” (SS280) He spares Wormtail’s life, and thereby allows Wormtail to get away. But just as he damaged the key while he had it, Harry also damaged Wormtail in a way. He let Wormtail get away, but Wormtail now owed Harry a life debt. This would certainly make Pettigrew damaged goods in Voldemort’s eyes, who doesn’t want “his servant in the debt of Harry Potter.” (PA427)
Book 4 – Chess
Much like the books themselves, the tasks begin to get complicated with the fourth one, as does the analysis of them. The connection to the type of magic is perhaps weakest for this one, as Transfiguration never does play a very large role in the series. The only major instances of Transfiguration in the book are when Barty Crouch Jr. Transfigures his father’s corpse into a bone (GF690) and Transfigures Draco Malfoy into an “amazing bouncing ferret” (GF207). Cedric and Viktor both use Transfiguration in the Triwizard tasks (first and second task, respectively), but neither one very successfully.
More significant than the Transfiguration aspect of the chess match is the fact that it’s a game, which ties in perfectly with Goblet of Fire. After all, an enormous chunk of Goblet of Fire is devoted to the Triwizard Tournament, a game that everything revolves around. Outside of this obstacle and book, all the other obstacles and books don’t really have much of a structure – the Trio gets through it haphazardly. But chess is a rigidly structured game, much as the Tournament transforms Goblet of Fire into a rigidly structured book – the selection of champions, Weighing of Wands, the three Tasks, the Yule Ball, etc. Never before has Harry’s life been so meticulously scheduled.
The chess match is also a game changer, much as Goblet of Fire was for the entire Harry Potter series. Jo herself describes the book as “pivotal” in the series, and it’s not hard to see why. Voldemort rises again, and changes the entire flow of the series – no longer about preventing his return, the series turns into a full-fledged wizards’ war.
Up until this obstacle, things have been going very well for the Trio. Sure, there was a snag with the Devil’s Snare (pun intended), but otherwise the trio has gotten to the fourth obstacle unscathed. Similarly, everyone emerges unscathed (or at least alive) from the first three books – the only human character to die in Books One through Three is Quirrell. And then everything changes when Ron gets knocked out by the white queen, just as everything changed when Cedric Diggory was murdered.
Up until these respective points, our heroes seemed invincible. The Trio seemed as if they would get through the obstacles with aplomb, safely getting to the mirror and facing off with Snape. Then Ron is knocked out, suddenly bring the reader back to reality, where even beloved deuteragonists can get hurt and taken out of commission.
Similarly, up until the fourth book, Harry and his friends always triumphed with almost no cost to them. Sure, Prisoner of Azkaban ended with not as complete a victory as the others, because Pettigrew got away and Sirius’s name was not cleared. But Harry rescued Sirius and Buckbeak, managing to humiliate Snape in the process, and the book ended on a high note. Then comes Goblet of Fire, where for the first time victory does not come without a cost. As Ronan said, “Always the innocent are the first victims.” (SS253) Cedric – a good, young, and likable character – dies, in an era when such things did not happen often in children’s books. Even after Goblet, it was considered shocking when Jo revealed early on that another character would die in Order of the Phoenix.
The chess match foreshadowed the Triwizard Tournament, and Ron’s injury foretold Cedric’s death. This is all independent of how the individual moves of the chess match foreshadow the events of the entire book series; that is a discussion for another day.
Book 5 – Troll
The troll is representative of Defense Against the Dark Arts, and while the subject is important throughout the series, there’s no question that it’s front and center in Order of the Phoenix. Harry becomes a teacher of DADA, the best teacher of the subject we ever see, and teaches all of his friends how to properly defend themselves against the Dark Arts. Dumbledore’s Army, and DADA by extension, is so important that Jo originally meant to title the book after it.
When Harry and Hermione arrive in the troll’s room, however, the troll has already been knocked out for them, and there is nothing for them to do. This echoes Order of the Phoenix, where all the legwork is being done by someone else (mostly Dumbledore) for Harry. Much like the defeated troll, this marked a big change of pace for Harry. Harry (and the reader) is used to him being front and center in all the books: the Trio gets to the Sorcerer’s Stone and figures out the Chamber of Secrets; Harry is the one Sirius is supposedly after and the one fighting his way through the Triwizard Tournament.
Now, suddenly, Harry has most of the answers to begin with, and he just has to sit tight and let the grown-ups get on with it. Isn’t it curious that Jo planned a book of inactivity for Harry from the get-go, if we are indeed going off the assumption that these tasks are presciently written? I don’t think so – it makes sense to have a book focus on Harry’s character development instead of him solving another magical mystery. Readers don’t have to like it, but I believe Jo planned the series to happen this way.
Book 6 – Potions Riddle
Half-Blood Prince runs with its Potions theme very heavily – we spent more time in the Potions classroom in this book than in all the others combined. The Potions textbook is an important plot point. Love potions keep popping up: Ron drinks Romilda’s, Merope uses one to ensnare Tom Riddle Sr., they’re on sale at Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes, and they pop up in a potions class to settle the Shipping Wars.
But that is not even the half of it. Dear reader, please sit down and get ready to have your mind blown wide open. The potions riddle has long been analyzed by the fandom for its many parallels throughout the series (Jo likes her sevens!). Much like the chess match, that is an article for another day. But get this: the things in the potion bottles all appear in Half-Blood Prince in the same order as they stood in the potions riddle.
Yes, Jo is just that good. I’ve always known she was good, but I never realized this tidbit until I started combing through Half-Blood Prince looking for potions and got an inkling of a match, and then freaked out upon realizing it worked.
First, a note about the order of the potions bottles: the riddle provided is enough to narrow it down to two possibilities, because we do not know the size of the bottles. Clever fans figured this out before I ever read Harry Potter: you can find an explanation over at the Lexicon (http://www.hp-lexicon.org/essays/essay-potionriddle.html). Of the two options, I believe it’s poison that’s in the exact middle – this works better for all the myriad parallels drawn to the riddle. So, I am stating my assumption going forward, that the order of the bottles is:
Poison; Wine; Forward; Poison; Poison; Wine; Back
There are three poisons mentioned in Half-Blood Prince. There are two wines. Felix Felicis is a potion that allows Harry to move forward in his quest to face Voldemort. The potion that Dumbledore drinks in the cave is a setback, essentially moving the drinker backward in the quest. And yes, they are in order – chronological order (since one is in a flashback).
- Poison: Voldemort framed Winky for “putting something in her mistress’s cocoa that turned out not to be sugar, but a lethal and little-known poison.” (HBP438) This happens many years before the other events of the book, so it’s first.
- Wine: Snape drinks “elf-made wine” with Bellatrix and Narcissa at Spinner’s End. (HBP24)
- Forward: The Felix Felicis makes its debut appearance in Chapter 9 (HBP187), where Harry wins the bottle. Harry pretends to use it on Ron in Chapter 14.
- Poison: In a Potions class in January, Slughorn is teaching Golpalott’s Third Law, and the class has to create an antidote to a blended poison. (HBP377)
- Poison: On March 1st, Ron is poisoned when he drinks Slughorn’s mead, which Draco had poisoned earlier to kill Dumbledore. (HBP401)
- Wine: At Aragog’s funeral, Slughorn and Hagrid drink wine that Harry keeps refilling. (HBP487)
- Back: In the cave with the locket, Dumbledore drinks a potion that proves to be a huge setback. (HBP571)
If this is not impressive, I don’t know what is – it lines up perfectly! It is far too much of a coincidence to have three poisons and two wines exactly, so I have to believe this was intentional, even as it boggles my mind that any writer can be this meticulous.
As for how this obstacle is overcome: with logic, not magic. This again echoes how things are done in Half-Blood Prince. The Trio assume that Dumbledore will be teaching Harry “Really advanced defensive magic, probably … powerful countercurses … anti-jinxes …” (HBP99) Instead, Dumbledore takes Harry for a trip down Memory Lane, so he can understand his enemy. Just as Hermione solved the potions riddle with logic, Dumbledore and Harry get past the obstacles of the cave by getting inside Voldemort’s head, reasoning through how Voldemort would design his traps and what he hoped to achieve.
Book 7 – Mirror of Erised
Much as the final obstacle broke all the rules, so did Deathly Hallows, and the book matches the event to a T. The Mirror is not related to a school subject, symbolic of the Trio not continuing their education in Book 7.
The symbolism of the Mirror itself utterly pervades the final book. To wit, Chapter 28 is even titled “The Missing Mirror,” named after the two-way mirrors that went from Sirius and James’s possession, in a roundabout way, to Harry and Aberforth’s possession. A Dumbledore with an important mirror… sounds familiar!
The Mirror of Erised shows “nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts.” (SS213) For all that the two-way mirror has no such properties, Harry treats it almost as if it did. In Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry looks in the mirror and sees himself surrounded by family, “his mother and father smiling at him again.” (SS212) In Deathly Hallows, Harry is “thinking of Dumbledore” while looking at the mirror shard, and thinks that for a moment he sees “the bright blue eyes of Albus Dumbledore.” (DH29) It’s not too much of a stretch to say that, as Harry is about to face down Voldemort and hunt for Horcruxes, his most desperate desire is to have Dumbledore to talk to. In a way, this moment brings things full circle: Harry yearned for a family, got a makeshift family over the years, had his father figures torn away, and six years later is back to yearning for his ersatz family above all else.
When Harry confronts the Mirror of Erised again at the end of SS, his deepest desire has changed. What he “want[s] more than anything else in the world at the moment, […] is to find the Stone before Quirrell does.” (SS291) In that moment, Harry wants to protect the Stone more than anything, more than even his family.
In Deathly Hallows, Harry also looks into his mirror again during a climactic battle, when he is at Malfoy Manor and Hermione is being tortured. Again, he expresses his deepest desire to the mirror, disregarding that the mirror can otherwise show him his loved one again. “Dumbledore’s eye was gazing at him out of the mirror. / ‘Help us!” [Harry] yelled at it in mad desperation. ‘We’re in the cellar of Malfoy Manor, help us!’”(DH466) Harry sees Dumbledore’s eye, but his only concern is receiving aid to save Hermione.
In both instances, the Mirror grants Harry his request, even though Harry does not understand how. “Somehow — incredibly — he’d gotten the Stone.” (SS292) “‘Dobby has come to rescue you.’ / ‘But how did you — ?’” (DH468) The two scenes mirror each other perfectly, if you’ll pardon the pun. Of course, there’s more than one literary force at work here: not only is the seventh book echoing the seventh task, but Books 1 and 7 are also mirrors of each other, so it’s no wonder it all matches up so well.
And how does Harry get past this final obstacle? He gets the Stone because of a bit of Dumbledore’s cunning: “You see, only one who wanted to find the Stone — find it, but not use it — would be able to get it.” (SS300) Sure enough, in Deathly Hallows Harry encounters something very similar with magical items that have a connection to Dumbledore. Dumbledore explains:
I was fit to own the Elder Wand, and not to boast of it, and not to kill with it. I was permited to tame and to use it, because it took it not for gain, but to save others from it.
“But the Cloak, I took out of vain curiousity, and so it could never have worked for me as it works for you, its true owner. The stone I would have used in an attempt to drag back those who are at peace, rather than to enable my self-sacrifice, as you did. You are the worthy possessor of the Hallows.” (DH720)
What this boils down to: in order to master the Deathly Hallows, just as to procure the Sorcerer’s Stone, one has to desire it not for selfish or avaricious reasons, but for selfless ones. “Not for gain, but to save others.” And just as Harry proves to be extraordinarily selfless at the age of eleven, and thereby completes his quest, he proves to still be extraordinarily selfless at seventeen, and thereby becomes the Master of Death.
I found this to be an excellent exercise – the more I thought about it, the more connections I could make between the obstacles and the future books. Some connections were so elaborate, they had to be spun off into separate essays (since this one is pushing 4000 words as is). I’m sure astute readers will be able to come up with plenty more connections that I missed, and I look forward to reading them.
It’s rather extraordinary, but the way the Trio gets through the seven obstacles in their first year, will be very similar to how they overcome their obstacles in the coming six years. Personally, I think it’s amazing that there is essentially a blueprint for the entire series buried in a single chapter of the first book. It really illustrates how much value there is in rereading the earlier books with the benefit of hindsight. Now, who’s up for digging into Chamber of Secrets?
 Rowling, interview with cBBC Newsround, July 8, 2000.
“The fourth is a very, very important book. Well you know because you read it, something incredibly important happens in book four and also it’s literally a central book, it’s almost the heart of the series, and it’s pivotal.”
 I have to credit John Kearns over at the HP Companion for this brilliant deduction. (http://hpcompanion.com/op/op17-18/) Jo released an early outline for Book 5 through her website (http://www.hp-lexicon.org/images/jkr/op-notebook-jkr.gif), and it’s plain to see that the DA and Order originally had the other’s name. Jo announced the title of Book 5 very soon after Book 4’s release to eliminate speculation, so we can reasonably guess that the book was originally to be titled after the DA, before she chose to call them the DA. After all, the Order of the Phoenix has a very minor role in their eponymous book.