The Secrets of the Fidelius Charm

The Fidelius Charm is a powerful charm that is central to the Harry Potter tale. In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Professor Flitwick tells us the charm is:
“an immensely complex spell … involving the magical concealment of a secret inside a living soul. The information is hidden inside the chosen person, or Secret-Keeper, and is henceforth impossible to find — unless, of course, the Secret-Keeper chooses to divulge it.” (PoA pg 205/152)
J.K. Rowling gave us further information on the how the Fidelius Charm works. In a FAQ poll on her official site, she says:
When a Secret-Keeper
s, their secret
s with them, or, to put it another way, the status of their secret
remain as it was at the moment of their
. Everybody in whom they confided
continue to know the hidden information, but nobody else. (
So, although Flitwick describes it as “complex”, J.K’s description is seemingly straightforward, the information is concealed within the Secret-Keepers soul, and there it stays for an eternity, unless the Secret-Keeper chooses to communicate the knowledge. But is that the whole story? No.
The house at Godric’s Hollow, 12 Grimmauld Place, and Shell Cottage are three properties that are protected by the Fidelius Charm, three properties that have been secured against Voldemort and his
Eaters. But within each property we see differences in the way the Fidelius Charm works.

Godric’s Hollow the night Voldemort attacked

We are told Peter Pettigrew, by virtue of the charm cast by either Lily or James, was the Secret-Keeper for the Potter’s home in Godric’s Hollow. But in the final book,
ly Hallows, J.K. establishes how and why that secret is no longer kept:
“Harry –” “Look… Look at it, Hermione …” “I don’t … oh!” He could see it; the Fidelius Charm must have
d with James and Lily. (DH 331/271)
We have been told by both Flitwick and J.K. herself directly that the Fidelius Charm has a life span irrespective of the Secret-Keeper, that “the secret
s with them”. But here in
ly Hallows is an example where that’s not true, in this case, the Secret-Keeper (Pettigrew) is still alive, but the secret has, nevertheless, been revealed to the world. And J.K. tells us through Harry’s narration that the reason the Fidelius Charm was broken was because the spell caster (James or Lily), NOT the Secret-Keeper, had
d. Is this a mistake in the books? Maybe not.
This seemingly contradiction leads us next to the headquarters for the Order of the Phoenix, 12 Grimmauld Place, and a whole host of new questions.
We are first told by Sirius in Order of the Phoenix about the Fidelius Charm on 12 Grimmauld Place, when he tells Harry:
“Dumbledore’s Secret-Keeper for the Order, you know — nobody can find Headquarters unless he tells them personally where it is” (OotP 115/107)
Dumbledore is Secret-Keeper, but who cast the charm? I think it is generally assumed that Dumbledore himself cast the charm, but this cannot be so, because if you follow the above example the spell only breaks upon the
of the caster, we see now that the location of 12 Grimmauld Place is still protected after Dumbledore’s
It seems a logical conclusion is that Severus Snape could have been the caster, as it has to be someone still alive after Dumbledore wasn’t. This is just another example of how deeply Dumbledore trusted Snape, to have given him such a powerful position in the secret of the headquarters of the Order.

The Order arriving at 12 Grimmauld Place

OK. So now, because of how it is described why Harry and Hermione can see the remains of the house at Godric’s Hollow, we have a new understanding of the complexity of the Fidelius Charm. So, J.K.’s description of the charm should really have been:
When a Secret-Keeper
s, their secret
s with them. Everybody in whom they confided
continue to know the hidden information, but nobody else. UNTIL the spell caster
s, then the secret is revealed to everyone.
But wait, the spell gets even more complex. In
ly Hallows, we learn why the Burrow has replaced 12 Grimmauld Place as the headquarters of the Order:
Mr. Weasley had explained that after the
of Dumbledore, their Secret-Keeper, each of the people to whom Dumbledore had confided Grimmauld Place’s location had become a Secret-Keeper in turn. “And as there are around 20 of us, that greatly dilutes the power of the Fidelius Charm.” (DH 90/79)
So, was it a mistake to tell so many people the secret of 12 Grimmauld Place? It would be unavoidable, everyone who was in the Order and had to go there would have to know. Does this infer that Dumbledore knew the spell would eventually be very diluted, and so therefore only intended that the building be the headquarters of the Order for a short time?
We must ammend the original description yet again:
When a Secret-Keeper
s, their secret
s with them. Everybody in whom they confided
continue to know the hidden information, but nobody else. UNLESS the Secret-Keeper
s, then all those who know the secret become Secret-Keepers. UNTIL the spell caster
s, then the secret is revealed to everyone.
ly Hallows, we learn about another complexity of the charm, and why it’s so tricky to use. After their escape from the Ministry, Hermione says:
“As we Disapparated, Yaxley caught hold of me … we arrived at Grimmauld Place … I’ve already taken him inside the Fidelius Charm’s protection. Since Dumbledore
d, we’re Secret-Keepers, so I’ve given him the secret, haven’t I?” There was no pretending; Harry was sure she was right. It was a serious blow. If Yaxley could now get inside the house, there was no way that they could return. Even now he could be bringing other
Eaters in there by Apparition (DH 270/223)
When Hermione inadvertently revealed the secret to Yaxley, since she was a Secret-Keeper, she has given him the secret. So, as we can see now, for the Fidelius Charm to be effective, both the caster and the Secret-Keeper must remain alive, and the Secret-Keeper needs to give out the information necessary with extreme caution — one mistake
cost both the Secret-Keeper’s life and lead to the revelation of the secret.
And this uncovers another big flaw in how the Fidelius Charm works. If you know the secret of a hidden place, you can bring in someone else who doesn’t know the secret, if you bring them in using side-along apparition.
So the charm has huge flaws — but what about its complexity? How difficult a charm is it to cast, and how long does it take? How does it take effect? Does the property simply vanish into thin air, concealed as Grimmauld Place is in nothingness? Who can see it the moment the charm is done — are you exempt if you are within the boundaries?
Trapped in the dungeon of Malfoy Mansion, Harry tells Dobby:
“Right. Dobby, I want you to grab Luna, Dean, and Mr. Ollivander, and take them — take them to –” “Bill and Fleur’s,” said Ron. “Shell Cottage on the outskirts of Tinworth!” (DH 468/379)
And Dobby obviously finds Shell Cottage, as we see Luna, Dean and Mr. Ollivander had made it there. A little later, Harry and Dobby, who had returned to the Mansion, escape in the middle of the fierce battle to capture him. Harry grabs Dobby’s hand and disapparates them both through the sheer power of his
to Shell Cottage.
Back at the cottage, after Harry buried Dobby, Bill tells Harry:
Eater’s know Ron’s with you now, they’re bound to target the family” … “How are they protected?” asked Harry. “Fidelius Charm. Dad’s Secret-Keeper. And we’ve done it on this cottage too; I’m Secret-Keeper here.” (DH 482/390)
Dobby found Shell Cottage the first time on his own, so it couldn’t have had the Fidelius charm on it at that point. It couldn’t have been added in the time between Dobby’s first trip and when Harry brought Dobby back there, because even if Dobby had been told the secret, he didn’t have time to tell it to Harry, and Harry found Shell Cottage all on his own, so it couldn’t have had the Fidelius Charm on it then either. So, these new Fidelius Charms must have been added between the time that Harry arrived at Shell Cottage, and when he returned to it after burying Dobby.
But, this means that if you are within sight of the protected area before the charm is cast, you don’t need to be let in on the secret, because we have now pinned down when the Fidelius Charm must have been placed on Shell Cottage, during the time Harry was off burying Dobby, HOWEVER, he did NOT need to be told the secret to return to the cottage. He just turned back to it and it was still there.
So, let’s fully restate it one more time, with everything we know:
When a Secret-Keeper
s, their secret
s with them. Everybody in whom they confided
continue to know the hidden information, but nobody else. EXCEPT if you are within the premises of the protected area when the spell is cast, you do not need to be told the secret. AND if you know a secret place, you can bring someone who doesn’t know the secret into the hidden place using side-along apparition. UNLESS the Secret-Keeper
s, then all those who know the secret become Secret-Keepers. UNTIL the spell caster
s, then the secret is revealed to everyone.
Knowing what we know now from the information in the books, this leads us to dark and ominous questions such as:
Would the Potters really had been any safer if Sirius Black had indeed been the Secret-Keeper? At some point would he have only had to tell Peter Pettigrew for Pettigrew to sell Sirius to Voldemort, in order for Sirius to
, and make Pettigrew a Secret-Keeper by default.
And, if Bathilda Bagshot had wandered into the garden of the Potter’s home just as the Fidelius Charm was performed, would she too, like how Harry saw Shell Cottage, be able to continue to see the house and its residents without having been told the newly formed secret? Would she have kept the secret, even under the Imperius curse?
The flaws, the discrepancies, and in some ways, the reliance on mere chance, leads to the unnerving conclusion that if the Fidelius Charm really was the Potter’s best chance of survival, then perhaps it was always only just a matter of time before Voldemort got to them, no matter who had been chosen as Secret-Keeper. If Sirius had lived, could perhaps this realization have lessened the guilt he felt for feeling responsible for James and Lily’s
It would seem that the Fidelius Charm, on closer inspection, is not the powerful security measure that we were led to believe it was.

12 thoughts on “The Secrets of the Fidelius Charm”

  1. WOW, once again Beyond Hogwarts has shown pure genius and talent in their ways of making everything so clear. I finally understand the secrets of the fidelius charm. I’m speechless.

  2. This does not make sense to me: “When a Secret-Keeper s, their secret s with them. Everybody in whom they confided continue to know the hidden information, but nobody else. UNLESS the Secret-Keeper s, then all those who know the secret become Secret-Keepers.” Not really with what you said, but with J.K. Rowling. Technically, she should have said, “When the Secret-Keeper s, the secret *goes* with them, but all the people in whom the Secret-Keeper confided BECOME Secret-Keepers.” Her only saying, “… continue to know the information” sounds like it implies that, though they KNOW the information, they do not actually become Secret-Keepers. So, is THAT a mess-up in the writing?

  3. On the issue of when the Fidelius Charm on Shell Cottage was cast: It is possible that when Dobby, and next Harry, apparated to Shell Cottage, they did not actually end up within the boundaries of the Fidelius Charm. They might have come as close as possible, but could not come within the boundaries. Bill and Fleur would still be able to see them, and would obviously come out to help them, and take them inside, thus passing the secret on to them. This opens up the possibility that the Fidelius Charm was performed much earlier, eliminating the theory that if you are within sight of the area when the spell is cast, you know the secret.

  4. Trevin: That’s possible, but we know from how Harry was let in to 12 Grimmauld Place for the first time that the Secret-Keeper has to actually tell you the secret, not simply show you in. Remember, Harry reads the note from the Grimmauld Place Secret-Keeper, Dumbledore. We see neither Bill or Fleur do this for Harry to let him into Shell Cottage.

  5. Very nice! I can see now, Dave, how you are going to carry the HP legacy on and on at beyond Hogwarts. I agree with �sm� (in thread of we were all correct) that you are like Dumbledore to us, bringing new light, new wisdom with the same facts. Hats off to you! I think the information that was hidden were the Potters, not their home, as somewhere in series (I Think in PoA, I Don�t have it right now) someone said that voldemort could not have found potters even if he stuck his nose to the windows of their drawing room or so. I think only the secret keeper (not all those who have been told) can bring anyone with him through side along apparition (which is equivalent to telling the secret to him). Otherwise yes, I agree that it was just a matter of time for potters. The only chance for potters could have been Dumbledore as secret keeper which would have been wise too. It be interesting to know whether the newly (self) appointed secret keepers (after of original one) can pass on the information (other than by side along apparition) in the same manner as the original one can? Can a fidelius charm be cast on same secret (property etc.) twice, say when Dumbledore d, someone could have cast another fidelius charm with someone else (say harry) as secret keeper, than 12 Grimmauld place would be safe again as headquarters, and even snape could not have got there because now he would not know the secret. I mean can fidelius charm be overwritten?

  6. I honestly think that Hermione was wrong about giving Yaxley the secret. Someone should ask Jo about that. I think she was just being careful, and they couldn’t go back just in case she had given Yaxley the secret. If you can take someone inside where the Charm has been performed my apparation, it doesn’t seem very safe. Also, where exactly does it say that the caster has to for the secret to be revealed? In DH, it says “the Fidelius Charm must have d with James and Lily.” I think the Charm s when the person/people it is supposed to be protecting . Although it would make sense for the charm to fail if the caster s, like Dumbledore’s Full Body-Bind curse on Harry. But in the case of Lily and James, I think it d because they did, and there was no longer a need for it. And I agree with Trevin. I think Jo just didn’t bother putting it in because some of us (I know I was) were upset over Dobby’s and honestly couldn’t be bothered about things like that. But now I’m going to contradict myself and say, what about in HBP and Dumbledore brought Harry to the Burrow? He didn’t tell him the location of it or anything, they apparated there. Wasn’t Dumbledore the secret keeper for it, because it was supposed to have all the protection of the Order? So maybe you can give someone the secret by apparating there with the secret keeper.

  7. Yes, the passage about “Voldemort could stick his nose on the window and not see them” implies the spell was on the potters, not on their house. But the passage in DH about the fact that they shouldn’t be able to see the house but now they can contradicts that. JK comes right out and says Harry believed they could see the house because “the Fidelius Charm must have d with James and Lily”. Also, every other example we have in the books of the Fidelius Charm is on a location, not a person or persons.

  8. If the of the caster ended the charm, I’d say it is fairly useless as a defensive mechanism unless the caster casts the charm and then never leaves it’s confines — If all you had to do was off the caster, then there are essentailly two secret keepers — the keeper themself and the caster. Also, there is no textual foundation for Snape having cast the charm at 12 Grimmuald place, so I don’t think I can accept that theory just yet. Before I read the real DH, I read a fan fic that was being touted as the real thing…I can’t recall if it was in that or in the real DH, but someone mentioned the Fidelius charm as not being as secure as it leads us to believe. If it was in the real book, then JK already gave us the conclusion Dave drew. If it was in the fake I read, sorry for bringing it up:) Regardless, the conclusion is right — it isn’t as great a protection spell as we might believe.

  9. David Haber: your comment to Trevin: “we know from how Harry was let in to 12 Grimmauld Place for the first time that the Secret-Keeper has to actually tell you the secret, not simply show you in.” How do you explain how Yaxley was given the secret then? If you have to tell someone the secret, then how did yaxley gain entrance by just side-along apparition? or is it you become a secret keeper if by side along apparition OR you have to be told the secret?

  10. Missy: The side-along apparition thing is a loop-hole. The apparitioner gets in because he knows the secret. The side-along person just comes along for the ride. I suppose that even though the side-along person gets in, they still don’t know the secret, and could not later get back in on their own.

  11. I think the Fidelius Charm was on the Potter’s house, not on them. In her letter to Sirius, Lily mentions James’ frustation when he was not able to leave the house because Dumbledore had his Invisibility Cloak. If he was protected personally by the charm, couldn’t he have wandered freely? Also, if the house was unprotected, Voldemort could have destroyed it on the chance they were inside so it wouldn’t have been a safe place to hide at all.

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