Felix Felicis – Part 2: Free Will and Felix
Before we get into how Felix Felicis actually does work, we need to address the ways in which it doesn’t work. It’s time to dispel some theories.
Controlling Other People
The understanding of Felix Felicis that seems most unlikely to me, from a big-picture standpoint, is that it can control what other people do so as to satisfy the drinker’s wishes. This would make Felix perhaps the most overpowerful piece of magic we encounter in the books (and it may be in contention for that title even without this interpretation).
The things that control other people are very limited in scope. Love potions lack any finesse – it’s not so much controlling someone’s mind as addling it. The Imperius Curse is difficult, can be fought off, and is severely illegalized despite that. If Felix can really control other people with enough finesse to achieve the drinker’s aims, then it should be completely illegal consistent with the Imperius Curse.
It also sort of breaks the story if that’s the case. Why wouldn’t everyone be drinking it? Dumbledore and Voldemort would both be brewing it constantly. (And contrary to some popular fan theories, we don’t really have firm evidence that either one of them is using Felix throughout the books.)
So with that skepticism in mind, does any of the evidence point to this interpretation being correct? In any of the 20 events we listed in Part 1, does someone do something they would not have done absent Felix’s presence?
While this could be the reason for many of the events, it is not necessarily the reason for them. For instance, maybe Felix made Lavender hang out by the dorm when she would otherwise be in Trelawney’s tower (#2), maybe Felix made Dean and Ginny walk up to the common room when they would otherwise be in the Great Hall (#3), maybe Felix made Peeves hang out on the third floor when he would otherwise be bouncing around the sixth (#17).
But none of those events needed Felix’s influence: Lavender would hang out in the common room, Dean and Ginny would walk to the common room, and Peeves would hang out on the third floor. The lucky part isn’t that those things happened at all; the lucky part is the timing of Harry running into all of them. So we can dismiss these events, and their ilk, as support for the controlling-other-people theory.
There are only three data points that are not as easily explained away, and we shall address them one by one.
First up, #5 – Filch forgetting to lock the front door. Filch either would have locked the door or not. Did Felix make him not lock the door?
Second up, #18 – Dumbledore’s arrival back at Hogwarts that night. Dumbledore either would have returned that night or not. It’s not a question of catching him at the right moment. Did Felix make Dumbledore return to Hogwarts?
Third up, #20 – the Hogwartian side managing to escape relatively unscathed in the Battle of the Astronomy Tower. Did Felix make the Death Eaters miss when firing spells? Did Felix make the Order members dodge the spells?
#5: Open Door
In the case of Filch leaving the door unlocked, I don’t think Felix made him do it. What would be the strategic purpose here? Harry would have no trouble getting past a door that was locked by Filch anyway since Filch can’t use magic. And it’s not like Filch’s forgetfulness causes him to get fired or anything.
Everything else that happens serves to further a goal of Harry’s: getting rid of Lavender, breaking up Dean and Ginny, getting the memory from Slughorn, and sharing that memory with Dumbledore right away. Filch not locking the door does not serve any of these goals since Harry could have gotten past the doors anyway.
Is getting Filch in trouble a goal of Harry’s on par with the others? Doubtful. The night’s events may lead to Filch getting chewed out by Dumbledore, but that does not materially affect Harry’s life in any way. It seems wholly trivial compared to the others, certainly not worth the bother of making Filch forget to lock the doors.
Rather, I think that Filch forgetting to lock the door is something that happened independently of Felix. The lucky part of it all is actually #8 – when Slughorn finds out about it and is upset at Filch. Felix’s hand in all this is directing Harry to tattle on Filch, not in actually causing Filch’s negligence.
#20: Inaccurate Curses
We’ll skip around a bit and address the Battle of the Astronomy Tower next. For #20, I think Ginny is ascribing too much to the effects of Felix. (This is a common thread among everyone who takes it and makes my job here much more difficult.) Consider the combatants (would-be and actual) on the Hogwartian side:
- Hermione (took Felix, not in battle)
- Luna (not in battle)
- Flitwick (Stunned by Snape, not in battle)
- Ron (took Felix)
- Ginny (took Felix)
- Neville (injured)
- Bill Weasley (injured)
We can allow that Ron and Ginny were saved by Felix during the battle. Of the remaining five, it is no surprise that McGonagall, Lupin, and Tonks held their own. Tonks is an Auror (one who took out Lucius Malfoy and briefly dueled Bellatrix in the Battle of the Department of Mysteries). Lupin has been in the Order of the Phoenix in both its incarnations and is skilled at Defense Against the Dark Arts. McGonagall is obviously a badass. None of those three need Felix to dodge and deflect all the Death Eaters’ spells. The remaining two, Neville and Bill Weasley, do not fare so well: Neville is injured, and Bill is mauled by Greyback. Maybe it’s thanks to Felix that they weren’t killed, but this all doesn’t read like luck to me. It seems like an expected result of a battle against six mostly second-tier Death Eaters.
And we need not ascribe the Death Eaters’ poor aim to Felix when we can credit Ron and Ginny’s Felix-fueled dodging. So in the case of the actual battle, Felix did not necessarily influence the actions of anyone except those who took it. (That said, there is a lot more to unpack about the Battle of the Astronomy Tower in future installments of this editorial series.)
#18: Dumbledore’s Return
We are left with one event that needs addressing if we are to dismiss Felix controlling other people: Dumbledore’s fortuitous arrival back at Hogwarts the very night that Harry drinks Felix. This is very important to Harry’s strategic goals, and it’s not something that’s expected to happen. So did Felix force Dumbledore to return that night?
There’s no neat way to brush it off as a no. Dumbledore returning that night is a lucky coincidence, no question about it. But here, I must return to my original point: If Felix can influence other people, it would be far too powerful and would break the story. That goes double here.
Dumbledore is of paramount importance to the fate of the wizarding world, has very complex motivations and unpredictable behavior, and is currently hunting Horcruxes during his very limited remaining time alive. Dumbledore could be in any remote corner of the British Isles or maybe exploring the far reaches of Albania. If Felix can compel someone like Dumbledore to do something across a great distance, it may as well compel Voldemort to accidentally impale himself on a garden rake. The logic of the entire wizarding world collapses, and we are left with gaping plot holes.
I think the more sensible explanation here is that it really was a coincidence. I don’t care to explain away thorny issues with “coincidence” or “because plot.” But once in a while, that really is the best explanation. Dumbledore had to return to Hogwarts some night, and Jo wanted to keep the plot momentum going, so she had him return that night. Coincidences do happen in the real world, and they also happen in Harry Potter – no point pretending otherwise.1
Dumbledore’s impeccable timing is the only data point that truly supports Felix influencing other people’s actions, and one data point out of 20 is not enough for a wild theory to be validated. There’s a reason we strive for a 95% confidence interval in statistics. It makes more sense to consider it an outlier and proceed with the understanding that Felix Felicis cannot control people other than the drinker.
Does Luck Exist?
Once we have ruled out Felix controlling other people, we are left with two possible interpretations of what Felix does: It either influences the actions of the drinker, or it makes things coincidentally happen just the way the drinker would want – what we traditionally think of as luck.
If we are to accept the appellation “liquid luck” as literal, then we’re led to believe it’s the latter: Felix cosmically rearranges things so they happen to work out in the drinker’s favor. However, wizards have shown a tendency for aggrandizing potions in their names. Consider the Draught of Living Death, the Draught of Peace, the Elixir to Induce Euphoria, and (if you take Book of Potions as canon) the Potion of All Potential. So I will view the “liquid luck” moniker with a healthy dose of skepticism for now.
Harry seems to ascribe both effects to drinking Felix. But my Ravenclaw side is uncomfortable with the latter interpretation. How can a potion alter the random chance element of the universe? And it’s unclear what the scope of such a potion would be. Could an asteroid hit Voldemort? Could the diadem in the Room of Requirement accidentally fall into a vat of basilisk venom? Could the brooms of the Slytherin Quidditch team catch fire?
There are quite a few events on our list that appear to be pure luck without Felix altering anyone’s actions. For instance, it’s lucky that Lavender was around to see Ron and Hermione (#2), it’s lucky that Ginny and Dean were just going through the portrait hole (#3), it’s lucky that the castle was empty (#4), it’s lucky that Nick glided along just as Harry and the Fat Lady brought up Dumbledore (#18), it’s lucky that Ron and Ginny ran into Lupin (#19), and it’s lucky that the curses just missed Ron and Ginny (#20). Can Felix have just cosmically rearranged things to make it so?
I will once again say no. Given that this interpretation of Felix would break the logic of the world, the burden of proof is to show that these events are impossible (or statistically unlikely) to have happened otherwise. And that’s not the case here. In all these instances, we see that Felix is directing Harry, Ron, and Ginny to move to where they need to be rather than everyone just being at the most convenient location for the drinker. So it’s not luck that Harry runs into all the people he does. It’s some careful directions from Felix Felicis.
In the next installment of my Felix Felicis series, we’ll go through the events to spot what Felix was actually doing to ensure they happened the way they did. But Felix Felicis is unable to influence either events or people aside from the drinker, which makes a lot more sense as a magical device in the wizarding world. Particularly as the books went on, Jo became much more careful about the limitations of magic, and Felix Felicis is no exception. It’s a powerful bit of magic but not a story-breaking one.
Next Up: “How Felix Works”
1 For a similar example, in Life & Lies, I posit that Harry running into Quirrellmort both on his birthday and during his detention in the Forbidden Forest was coincidence (SS 16, 22). There’s no good way to explain it as part of Dumbledore’s or Voldemort’s machinations, so it’s just a coincidence.