Felix Felicis – Part 1: Felix’s Helping Hand
It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” (CoS 333)
The instantly recognizable quote, in some ways the thesis of the Harry Potter books, makes the argument for us that free will is supremely important, as are the choices we then make with it. It is the choices of Harry, Tom Riddle, Albus Dumbledore, Severus Snape, and myriad others that shape the events of the seven Harry Potter books. Logically, there must be free will in the Potter universe for those choices to be as important and revealing as we deem them.
This argument brushes up against a surprising number of obstacles throughout the books. Sure, free will exists, but how do we square that with some of the fantastical elements we encounter? Deterministic time travel… prophecies… All these things are tricky to square with characters having free will. Time travel is tricky, which is why Jo smashed all the Time-Turners in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Prophecies are just as tricky, and I’ve been wrestling with some lengthy analysis of them for months that’ll hopefully see the light of day soon.
There are also types of magic that explicitly take away free will: the Imperius Curse, which is therefore deemed Unforgivable, and love potions, which are somewhat inconsistently condemned throughout the books.
The question that piqued my interest this time is where Felix Felicis falls on this spectrum. Does Felix magically compel other people to do things and be in places favorable to the drinker? Or does Felix magically manipulate events without regard to people’s choices but make things work out in a deterministic sense? Or does Felix simply boost confidence and intuition?
(Hat tip to Alohomora! Episode 243 here: I’ve been going through the archives of old episodes and was fascinated when this discussion came up on the episode.)
Of course, part of Felix’s magic is instilling confidence in the drinker.
[A]n exhilarating sense of infinite opportunity stole through him; he felt as though he could have done anything, anything at all […] He got to his feet, smiling, brimming with confidence.” (HBP 477)
But confidence cannot quite explain everything that goes on when the characters drink Felix. So I will be diving deep into the exact machinations of Felix Felicis to figure out how it works, what the limitations are, and what fresh insight that gives us into the story. I hope to hearken back to one of my favorite MuggleNet sections of yore: Level Nine, where magical mysteries were explained in detail.
This will take multiple editorials: This is the beginning of a six-part series on Felix Felicis, a perfect long read during the days of sheltering in place. But first, to properly assess how Felix works, we must gather the data. So for the first part of this series, I present a list of all the things Felix Felicis explicitly affects in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.
Note that I’m not counting the placebo effect of Harry slipping Ron some fake Felix in Chapter 14 of Half-Blood Prince even if Ron considers it to be the “same difference really” (HBP 476).
#1. Going to Hagrid’s
Harry initially intends to see Slughorn in his office, but thanks to Felix, he’s “got a good feeling about going to Hagrid’s” (HBP 477).
He adds, “I feel like it’s the place to be tonight, you know what I mean?” (HBP 477).
#2: Breaking Up Won-Won and Lav-Lav
Harry dons the Invisibility Cloak and leaves the dormitory with “Ron and Hermione hurrying along behind him” (HBP 478). This gives Ron’s girlfriend the wrong impression:
‘What were you doing up there with her?’ shrieked Lavender Brown, staring right through Harry at Ron and Hermione emerging together from the boys’ dormitories.” (HBP 478)
This causes Ron and Lavender to split up since “she thought it had just been the two of [them]” (HBP 514).
#3: Breaking Up Dean and Ginny
Harry “darted across the room.”
[A]s he approached [the portrait hole], Ginny and Dean came through it, and Harry was able to slip between them. As he did so, he brushed accidentally against Ginny.
‘Don’t push me, please, Dean,’ she said, sounding annoyed. ‘You’re always doing that, I can get through perfectly well on my own. . . .’
[…] [Harry] heard Dean make an angry retort.” (HBP 478)
This causes Ginny and Dean to split up over “something really silly . . . She said he was always trying to help her through the portrait hole, like she couldn’t climb in herself . . . but they’ve been a bit rocky for ages” (HBP 514).
#4: Empty Castle
Harry strode off through the castle. He did not have to creep along, for he met nobody on his way.” (HBP 478)
#5: Open Door
Filch had forgotten to lock the front door.” (HBP 479)
#6: Running into Slughorn
It occurs to Harry “how very pleasant it would be to pass the vegetable patch on his walk to Hagrid’s. It was not strictly on the way, but it seemed clear to Harry that this was a whim on which he should act” (HBP 479). Once there, he finds Slughorn chatting with Professor Sprout.
Once they’re done chatting, Sprout heads off, “and Slughorn directed his steps to the spot where Harry stood, invisible” (HBP 479).
#7: Revealing the Invisibility Cloak to Slughorn
Seized with an immediate desire to reveal himself, Harry pulled off the Cloak with a flourish.” (HBP 480)
#8: Getting Filch in Trouble
Slughorn inquires how Harry got out of the castle:
‘I think Filch must’ve forgotten to lock the doors,’ said Harry cheerfully, and was delighted to see Slughorn scowl.
‘I’ll be reporting that man, he’s more concerned about litter than proper security if you ask me . . . .'” (HBP 480)
#9: Telling Slughorn About Hagrid and Aragog
Harry tells Slughorn about visiting Hagrid for Aragog’s funeral, playing off of Slughorn’s greed. Slughorn is intrigued by the “hundred Galleons a pint” he could get for Acromantula venom. Harry then invites Slughorn to the funeral (HBP 481).
#10: Telling Hagrid About Slughorn
Harry reveals that Slughorn is his plus one to the funeral at Felix’s prompting. “Harry resumed the patting of [Hagrid’s] elbow, saying as he did so (for the potion seemed to indicate that it was the right thing to do), ‘Professor Slughorn met me coming down here, Hagrid’” (HBP 482).
This serves to give Hagrid a favorable impression of Slughorn, both for Slughorn’s interest in Aragog and for Slughorn’s apparent magnanimity in not getting Harry in trouble.
#11: Staying Sober
Both Slughorn and Hagrid drank deeply. Harry, however, with the way ahead illuminated for him by Felix Felicis, knew that he must not drink, so he merely pretended to take a gulp.” (HBP 485–86)
#12: Refilling Charm
When the supply of booze runs low, Felix intervenes.
The Felix Felicis gave Harry a little nudge at this point, and he noticed that the supply of drink […] was running out fast. Harry had not yet managed to bring off the Refilling Charm without saying the incantation aloud, but the idea that he might not be able to do it tonight was laughable. […] [H]e pointed his wand under the table and [the bottles] immediately began to refill.” (HBP 487)
#13: Harry Opens Up About the Potters’ Murder
Very uncharacteristically, Harry begins discussing the murder of the Potters with Slughorn, going into detail about how James died first and how Lily was given the choice to step aside. This is quite obviously Felix’s doing since Harry does not usually discuss such things with people he’s not very close to. As confirmation… “‘I forgot,’ lied Harry, Felix Felicis leading him on. ‘You liked [Lily], didn’t you?’” (HBP 489).
#14: Harry Reveals He’s Working with Dumbledore
Harry guilt-trips Slughorn about not relinquishing the memory. When Slughorn continues to waffle, Harry reveals more to him than almost anyone.
‘Dumbledore needs information. I need information.’
He knew he was safe: Felix was telling him that Slughorn would remember nothing of this in the morning. Looking Slughorn straight in the eye, Harry leaned forward a little.
‘I am the Chosen One. I have to kill him. I need that memory.'” (HBP 490)
#15: Harry Offers Absolution
While there isn’t an explicit mention of Felix, this is enough of a departure from Harry’s modus operandi to warrant inclusion.
‘You’d cancel out anything you did by giving me the memory,’ said Harry. ‘It would be a very brave and noble thing to do.’” (HBP 490)
#16: Harry Lets Silence Spiral
Slughorn and Harry stared at each other over the guttering candle. There was a long, long silence, but Felix Felicis told Harry not to break it, to wait.” (HBP 490)
Unlike the last two examples, using silences strategically is a part of Harry’s rhetorical arsenal (as well as Dumbledore’s and Voldemort’s). He uses it to great effect against Rufus Scrimgeour in Chapter 16 in Half-Blood Prince. But here, he ascribes it to Felix.
#17: Run-In with Peeves
Once Harry has the memory, we are given a few helpful examples of Felix sort of working and then not working as it wears off… or so Harry believes.
Harry could feel the Felix Felicis wearing off as he crept back into the castle. The front door had remained unlocked for him, but on the third floor he met Peeves and only narrowly avoided detection by diving sideways through one of his shortcuts.” (HBP 492)
#18: Grumpy Fat Lady
Since Harry believes that Felix is wearing off, when he gets to the Fat Lady, “he was not surprised to find her in a most unhelpful mood” (HBP 492).
But as they argue, the subject of Dumbledore comes up. Just when it does, Nearly Headless Nick glides along, reporting that the Bloody Baron saw Dumbledore arrive at Hogwarts “an hour ago” (HBP 493).
#19: Running into Lupin
The only other time we see Felix being used is when Harry splits it up between Ron, Hermione, and Ginny the night Dumbledore dies. Ron and Ginny (both with Felix) and Neville (without) are caught unawares by Draco using Peruvian Instant Darkness Powder.
‘[A]ll we could do was grope our way out of the corridor again, and meanwhile we could hear people [Death Eaters] rushing past us. Obviously Malfoy could see because of [the Hand of Glory] and was guiding them, but we didn’t dare use any curses or anything in case we hit each other, and by the time we’d reached a corridor that was light, they’d gone.’
‘Luckily,’ said Lupin hoarsely, ‘Ron, Ginny, and Neville ran into us almost immediately and told us what had happened. We found the Death Eaters minutes later.’” (HBP 618)
While there is no explicit mention of Felix in this passage, Lupin uses the word “luckily.” That word, or other variations of “lucky,” only come up five times in Half-Blood Prince after Chapter 22 without explicit mention of Felix Felicis. All four of those other times, the word is used to mean “fortunate” without the connotations of random chance.1 But here, Ron and Ginny running into Lupin is definitely Felix’s style, as is finding the Death Eaters moments later, and the word “luckily” is a flag drawing our attention to it.
#20: Inaccurate Curses
Felix protects the drinkers in the Battle of the Astronomy Tower. Per Ginny, “if we hadn’t had your Felix potion, I think we’d all have been killed, but everything seemed to just miss us -” (HBP 612). As it is, no one is killed in the Battle of the Astronomy Tower except Dumbledore and a Death Eater (the Death Eater was hit by friendly fire, a Killing Curse from Rowle, who “was firing [them] off everywhere” [HBP 612]). Bill Weasley is attacked by Greyback, but this doesn’t seem to adversely affect him much.
Did Felix Run Out?
There is one thing that needs to be addressed before going forward: whether or not Felix was indeed wearing off during events #17 and #18. Harry certainly thinks so (“Harry could feel the Felix Felicis wearing off” [HBP 492]). But I’m inclined to disagree. This seems to be a placebo effect.
Harry has just had absolutely everything go right for him in a way that he (and most protagonists) are very unused to. So the first time things appear to go wrong – a near run-in with Peeves and an unhelpful Fat Lady – he ascribes it to his luck running out. But neither of those events actually serves to impede Harry’s aims.
Harry may have “narrowly avoided” Peeves, but he nevertheless avoided Peeves, no worse for the wear. And while the Fat Lady was unhelpful, arguing with her allowed Harry to find out from Nick that Dumbledore has returned to Hogwarts an hour ago. This is very much a stroke of good fortune for Harry. Now he gets to share the memory with Dumbledore right away despite the lateness of the hour.
It looks like the events Harry ascribes to bad luck are actually very lucky events to have gotten Harry to Dumbledore against the odds. Because he nearly ran into Peeves, he used a shortcut to the Fat Lady. Because he argued with the Fat Lady, the subject of Dumbledore came up just as Nick came gliding by with the welcome information that Dumbledore was back. So we will ascribe those lucky events to Felix still working properly, whatever Harry may think.
So now, we have an even 20 data points for us to work with. Hopefully, laying out all the events like this is helpful in analyzing it and spotting patterns, separated from the myriad other things the text is also accomplishing in this chapter. (Really, chapters like this are why Half-Blood Prince is my favorite book. Not a single word is wasted or out of place.) It will also provide us with a useful shorthand going forward. I’ll refer to merely the numbers rather than reiterating what happened.
Armed with this list, let us dive into the analysis.
Next up: “Free Will and Felix”
1 Harry is lucky to not be expelled (HBP 529), Bill is lucky to be marrying Fleur (HBP 634), Draco is lucky none of his victims died (HBP 591), and Amycus will be lucky to reach old age (HBP 594).