The Potions Riddle
Danger lies before you, while safety lies behind,
Two of us will help you, whichever 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.
While writing about the obstacles protecting the Sorcerer’s Stone, I brought up the incredible way Jo integrated all the elements of the potions riddle into Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, in the correct order no less. To recap, Snape’s potions riddle that Hermione solves features three poisons (“killers, waiting hidden in line”), two bottles that “hold only nettle wine,” one potion to move forward toward danger, and one potion to move backward to safety (SS 285). Prefect Marcus over at the Harry Potter Lexicon, among many others, figured out the two potential solutions to the riddle (The Riddle of the Potions). For my purposes, I assume the correct order is the following because it fits with many of the parallels throughout the series: Poison, Wine, Forward, Poison, Poison, Wine, Back.
As long as there has been a Potter fandom, fans have noticed that there are an awful lot of sevens floating around the Harry Potter series – seven books, seven years, seven Weasleys, etc. I believe MuggleNet has a section enumerating some of these sevens. And because it’s what we do, we try to find a pattern among all the sevens. The potions riddle presents as viable a pattern as any, with a formation of 3, 2, 1, 1 that lends itself well to storytelling. So where can this pattern take us?
I’d already found all the potions, wines, and poisons in Half-Blood Prince, the book that is supposed to parallel the sixth task. There is little doubt in my mind that this was deliberate on Jo’s part. I also found a parallel to the seven confrontations between Harry and Voldemort in my essay “The Seven Battles,” which led me down a rabbit hole of more sevens leading up to each battle. Other fans have already come up with some other parallels that work, like the seven Defense Against the Dark Arts teachers. So I set myself the task of finding sevens scattered throughout the books and seeing if they parallel the potions riddle. An awful lot of them do.
[Note: I was assisted in coming up with many of the sevens and the parallels by my friend Janet Tang.]
A disclaimer: Some of these sevens and parallels get a bit outlandish, obviously. It is a human tendency to find patterns where none exist. However, I think this is an entertaining exercise, and I welcome debate over which ones were planned and which ones are happy coincidences. This essay is also by no means comprehensive, so I encourage avid readers to come up with your own sevens that correspond with the riddle and post them in the comments.
1. Defense Against the Dark Arts Professors
This was one of the earliest parallels picked up on by astute readers – with seven Defense Against the Dark Arts professors, and several of them proving deadly, it looked like it would make a very good comparison. The extraordinary part is that they go in the same order as the potion bottles stood.
Three of the Defense Against the Dark Arts professors were literally “killers, waiting hidden in line” – villains who hid their true character and who ultimately tried to kill or seriously harm Harry. These are Quirrell, Crouch, Jr., and Umbridge, as poisonous a trio as there ever was.
Two of the professors were not much of an ally to Harry but ultimately did not wish him ill – these are the nettle wines, unpleasant yet harmless. The first is Gilderoy Lockhart, who is actually rather fond of Harry until Harry threatens to expose him as a fraud. The second is Severus Snape, who torments Harry on a regular basis but is actually looking out for him.
The professor who moves things backward is the final one – Amycus Carrow. Far from advancing students’ education in Defense Against the Dark Arts, Amycus moves them backward by teaching them actual Dark Arts instead of defense against them. Note that Amycus is not one of the poisons because he was not “hidden”; he wears his evil proudly and obviously.
Lupin is the one who moves Harry forward. He is “the best [teacher they] ever [had]” (OotP 243). Lupin teaches Harry how to cast a Patronus and provides a link to his dead parents. Lupin is therefore the only Defense Against the Dark Arts professor whom Harry is sad to see go. Lupin’s character also moves the series forward – he brings to the forefront the issues of discrimination and prejudice that will become so prevalent in later books.
2. Lockhart’s Books
If we take a look at the bibliography of one of our nettle wines, we see that he has written seven books about Dark creatures. Three of these creatures are known to be dangerous – the eponymous characters of Break with a Banshee, Holidays with Hags, and Voyages with Vampires. Vampires suck blood, hags eat children, and banshees have a lethal cry. All of them only have cameos in the Harry Potter series, so they are therefore our hidden killers.
The titular characters of Gadding with Ghouls and Year with the Yeti are not presented as overtly dangerous in the Harry Potter series. The Weasley family’s ghoul is perfectly innocuous and even helpful as a stand-in for Ron with spattergroit. A yeti does not appear in the series, but according to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, they “may be repulsed by skilled wizards” (42). These are our nettle wines.
The namesake of Travels with Trolls does make a significant appearance in the books and certainly serves to hinder our heroes. A troll nearly kills the trio even before they become a trio; I think we can say that the troll is the setback or backward potion.
That leaves the star of Wanderings with Werewolves as the forward potion. Of all the creatures in Lockhart’s books, the only one that is good and helps Harry move forward is a werewolf. I already discussed how Lupin represents the forward potion out of the Defense Against the Dark Arts professors; it stands to reason that the werewolf is, therefore, the forward one of these creatures.
3. Quidditch Positions
This is another parallel picked up on early on, especially since fans already had all the requisite info in the earlier books. If we look at a Quidditch match from the point of view of an opposing team, the seven positions on a team match up with the potions riddle. The three Chasers are the poisons, raising the score against your team. The two Beaters are nettle wines, having no impact on the score. The Keeper is the potion that moves backward; he prevents your team from scoring and is therefore a setback against your team. And the Seeker is the one who moves things forward by finally finishing the game and getting 150 points.
4. Quidditch Matches
Let’s stick with the Quidditch theme – Harry participates in seven Quidditch matches as a regular player (not a captain). They align very easily to three poisons, two wines, and a forward and back potion.
In three of the Quidditch matches, Harry gets badly hurt (or nearly so) – these are the poisons. Coincidentally, these are always Harry’s first match of the school year. The first is his very first match, the one against Slytherin in his first year. Quirrell jinxes Harry’s broom, which nearly throws Harry off – suffice to say, this could all have ended very badly. The second poison is Harry’s match against Slytherin in his second year. The poison comes courtesy of Dobby, who enchants a Bludger to relentlessly pursue Harry and ends up breaking Harry’s arm (which is then deboned by Lockhart).
The third poison appears during Harry’s match against Hufflepuff in his third year, arriving with a horde of Dementors that causes Harry to fall 50 feet from his broom. Harry winds up in the hospital wing, and this poison actually manages to kill something – Harry’s trusty Nimbus 2000.
One match moves Harry backward, in that it ends with him no longer playing Quidditch. Harry’s match against Slytherin in his fifth year results in Umbridge banning him from Quidditch and confiscating his broom – a big setback for Harry.
The match that provides Harry with forward momentum is the one that finally wins him the Quidditch Cup – Harry’s match against Slytherin in his third year. This is the one and only time Harry actually gets to play Gryffindor’s final match of the year, and it results in one of his greatest moments of triumph.
If only there had been a dementor around […] Harry felt he could have produced the world’s best Patronus.” (PoA 313)
That leaves two Quidditch matches that are comparatively uneventful (at least by Harry’s standards). These are the two second matches of the year that Harry plays. In his first year, Harry plays against Hufflepuff with Snape refereeing. He catches the Snitch in a game that “barely lasted five minutes” (SS 224). The other fairly uneventful match is when Harry plays against Ravenclaw in his third year, with both the Firebolt and Cho Chang making their Quidditch debuts. Harry catches the Snitch and Gryffindor is set back on track for the Cup.
Half-Blood Prince is rifer with these sevens than any other book, probably because it corresponds to the potions riddle (sixth book to sixth task). Some of the most important parts of the sixth book are the memories that Harry views with Dumbledore; sure enough, there are seven of them.
The two memories that Voldemort does not appear in are the nettle wines – nothing evil is afoot yet; it’s just backstory. The nettle wines are the memories shown in Dumbledore’s first lesson with Harry: Bob Ogden’s visit to the Gaunts and Caractacus Burke showing how he swindled Merope out of her locket.
The memory that moves things forward is the one where Dumbledore visits 11-year-old Tom Riddle in the orphanage and lets Riddle know he’s a wizard. “Danger lies before you” is never truer – Dumbledore comments later that he “had just met the most dangerous Dark wizard of all time” (HBP 276).
We then get a series of memories that show Riddle’s journey toward creating Horcruxes. In the first, Voldemort runs into Morfin and steals the ring that he then makes into a Horcrux with his patricide. In the second, the one Dumbledore deems “the most important” (HBP 360), Voldemort asks Slughorn about his plan for making multiple Horcruxes. In the third, Voldemort kills Hepzibah Smith to obtain Slytherin’s locket and Hufflepuff’s cup; the latter is transformed into a Horcrux with Hepzibah’s death, and the former becomes a Horcrux as well. The Horcruxes pretty clearly equate with poisons; these three memories are therefore the three poisons in this scenario.
The final memory is the one where Voldemort seeks out the Defense Against the Dark Arts job at Hogwarts but is refused by Dumbledore. Voldemort suffers a setback at Dumbledore’s refusal, and Dumbledore sending Voldemort away definitely provides safety for the students of Hogwarts. Voldemort would have either harmed the students or influenced them; either option would have ended very badly, but this way, the students are safe for another 40 years. This one would be the potion that sends the drinker back toward safety, and good thing it did.
There are seven Horcruxes, so naturally, they match up to the potions. Let’s look at them from Harry’s perspective. Three of the Horcruxes are poisons in that they physically cause Harry harm. The diary commands the Basilisk to bite Harry, which would have killed him were it not for Fawkes’s tears. Sticking with the snake-biting, Nagini also bites Harry at Godric’s Hollow, leaving him with permanent scars (DH 350). Harry is also damaged at Godric’s Hollow by another Horcrux, the locket, which eerily grafts itself onto his skin, forcing Hermione to use a Severing Charm. This leaves another scar, “a scarlet oval over his heart” (DH 346).
Two of the Horcruxes Harry does not interact with much – they are procured and eliminated in the climactic 24-hour span in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Hufflepuff’s cup and Ravenclaw’s diadem don’t really do anything; they are the nettle wines.
Harry’s scar moves him forward toward danger. Much like the forward potion, Harry’s scar brings him closer to Voldemort, opening up the link between their minds. When the Scarcrux is destroyed, Harry has a choice whether to continue fighting Voldemort or to go “on.” Because the scar represents moving forward toward danger, Harry chooses to go on fighting, in a decision that mirrors his choice to go after Voldemort in the first book (in keeping with the Sorcerer’s Stone/Deathly Hallows mirroring that occurs throughout).
The ring is the opposite, representing the potion that would move things backward toward safety. Where the scar causes Harry to go toward Voldemort and death, the ring provides safety as he does so. Where the scar’s destruction would allow Harry the choice of moving “on” from the mortal plane, the ring brings back those who have already moved on, allowing Harry to see his parents, Sirius, and Lupin one more time.
7. Slytherin’s Locket
Now we zero in on one of the Horcruxes. Of the many magical artifacts that have changed hands multiple times, the history of Slytherin’s locket is one of the most convoluted. From the point at which it’s introduced, around the neck of a hapless Merope Gaunt, it changes ownership seven times. These seven times fall into the pattern if we count the times it was stolen or forcibly taken as poisons and the times it was legally sold as nettle wines.
When Merope was pregnant and desperate for money, she sold the locket to Caractacus Burke for a paltry ten Galleons; Burke referred to this as the “best bargain we ever made” (HBP 261). Though it was not fair, it was sold by the mutual consent of two parties and did not hurt anyone – the first nettle wine. Hepzibah Smith then bought the locket from Burke; she “had to pay an arm and a leg for it,” but the transaction was perfectly legitimate (HBP 437). This is our second nettle wine.
Tom Riddle killed Hepzibah Smith and took the locket. Dumbledore says that “it is not difficult to imagine that he saw the locket, at least, as rightfully his” (HBP 440). I think Riddle’s murder of Hepzibah corresponds with the backward potion. The locket is coming back to its rightful owner, the heir of Slytherin. Voldemort will do his utmost to keep the locket safe (after putting a chunk of his soul in it), so this is the locket moving backward to safety.
This sets off a chain of people stealing it from each other: the three poisons. First, Regulus and Kreacher steal the locket from Voldemort. Then Mundungus steals it from Kreacher. Finally, Umbridge blackmails Mundungus into giving her the locket. In all these cases, the locket changed hands illicitly, without the consent of the previous owner.
Finally, the locket is taken by Harry and Hermione from Umbridge – though they trick her by placing a fake on her chest. Though this is also stealing, I would argue that Harry and Hermione taking the locket represents the forward potion. It is the opposite of the locket coming back to Voldemort and safety – now it is going to Voldemort’s enemies and toward certain danger. Namely, Harry and Ron later destroy the locket, ensuring that this seventh transaction is the final one.
8. Death Eaters in the Half-Blood Prince Battle
There are seven Death Eaters present in the battle at the end of Half-Blood Prince when Dumbledore gets killed (not counting Fenrir, who is not a real Death Eater as pointed out in Deathly Hallows). And while all Death Eaters are poisonous in general, these seven do break down into the 3-2-1-1 pattern.
The three representing poisons are the ones trying to poison Draco’s mind by urging him to kill Dumbledore. The Carrows (Alecto and Amycus) and the “brutal-looking” Death Eater whom Harry Stuns (most likely Yaxley) are all at the Astronomy Tower, and all of them try to get Draco to cast the Killing Curse (HBP 594). Yaxley even stops Fenrir from going after Dumbledore because he believes Draco is the one who has to.
The two nettle wines are Gibbon and Thorfinn Rowle, who are not part of the action atop the tower. Rowle was “sending curses flying in all directions” and “causing most of the chaos” until Harry hexes him (HBP 599). Gibbon set off the Dark Mark and then got hit by an errant Killing Curse, becoming the only casualty on Voldemort’s side of the battle (HBP 618–19).
Draco represents the forward potion. He is the one who set everything in motion, who allowed the Death Eater invasion to go ahead, putting Hogwarts in danger. He also keeps moving closer toward danger, risking his soul if he does as told and Voldemort’s displeasure if he doesn’t. Inversely, Snape represents the backward potion; he is the one who starts the Death Eaters’ retreat, thereby ensuring the students’ safety. He stops the Death Eaters from killing Harry, claiming that Harry is for Voldemort to kill. In a perverse way, he is also keeping Dumbledore safe by killing him; this keeps Dumbledore out of the hands of Fenrir, or “dear Bellatrix, who likes to play with her food before she eats it” (DH 683).
9. Voldemort’s Murders
There are seven times that Harry sees Voldemort murder people through Voldemort’s eyes, due to the connection they have through the scar. And while all of them seem like they would equate to killers, I think we can break them down into our 3-2-1-1 pattern.
Three of the murders Harry sees are Voldemort murdering completely innocent people. Frank Bryce, the Muggle gardener for the Riddles, has the bad luck to stumble upon Wormtail and Babymort plotting and is murdered (GoF 15). As Voldemort seeks Gregorovitch, he finds a German woman and her children at Gregorovitch’s former address; he kills the entire family for no reason (DH 233). A Gringotts goblin drew the short straw when he had to tell Voldemort that Hufflepuff’s cup was stolen, and Voldemort does not believe in “don’t shoot the messenger.” The goblin is killed in Voldemort’s rage (DH 549). These three murders that Harry witnesses are the truly poisonous ones: innocent people who died because Voldemort was desensitized to killing.
Two of the murders Voldemort commits with Harry watching are when obtaining information about the Elder Wand. He kills Gregorovitch because Gregorovitch is unable to tell him who stole the Elder Wand (DH 280). He murders Grindelwald because Grindelwald won’t tell him what became of the Elder Wand after Grindelwald stole it (DH 472). I believe Gregorovitch and Grindelwald are the nettle wines because their murders don’t actually serve to aid Voldemort – even after Voldemort finds the Elder Wand, he is not its master, so this was a fool’s errand.
One murder Harry witnesses as a flashback – Voldemort remembering the night he murdered Lily and James Potter (DH 345). The Potters thought they were safe thanks to the Fidelius Charm, but they were not. I believe this flashback murder can correspond with the backward potion. That leaves Snape’s murder (DH 656) as the forward potion. Voldemort believes that murdering Snape will allow him to master the Elder Wand, but he is wrong. He, therefore, goes forward into danger – dueling Harry – unarmed with the requisite knowledge to prevent his downfall.
So what sevens that fall into this pattern can you come up with?
 Popular speculation is that this brutal-looking Death Eater is Yaxley, whom we meet by name in the first pages of Deathly Hallows. I believe this to be the case because Jo uses similar language in describing them – “brutal-looking” in HBP and “brutish face” (DH 267) – and such repetition is usually intentional.