Message About Some Bottles

Snape's seven bottles - or the next best thing to them.

How low can the Bagger go? At least they aren’t publishing Harry Potter fan fiction. Or haven’t been, so far. Well, not quite.

The good news: Voldemort isn’t coming back. Even those who failed to read about his ignominious demise in 2007 have by now watched it both in the cinema and on DVD, at least twice; and J. K. Rowling has actually turned to writing other stuff, instead of giving us (as many feared) a prequel on the youthful adventures of Armando Dippet. The world is well and truly rid of Tom Riddle.

The bad news: We are still struggling with the other riddle – the one Harry and Hermione were confronted with in The Philosopher’s Stone, towards the end of chapter sixteen (“Through the Trapdoor”); a logical puzzle concerning bottles, set by the children’s sinister Potions teacher Severus Snape. Several solutions have been published; yet, while some of them are quite accurate as far as they go, I haven’t seen a complete analysis, and nobody, it seems, has even begun to think about its implications.

In the Face of Fire

Harry and his talented friend are trapped in an underground room. The way backward and forward is blocked by insurmountable magical fire. The room contains a row of seven bottles, each of a different size (let’s number them 1-7 from left to right). One of the bottles, so a piece of parchment tells them in lugubrious doggerel (whatever else Snape was, he was no poet), contains a potion that will transport the drinker forward, towards the final confrontation with We-know-not-yet-whom (let’s call it potion F). Another bottle will take them back, towards safety (B). Two bottles contain nettle wine (W); the other three are deadly poison (P).

For finding out the position of each liquid, the parchment gives exactly four clues (I-IV). I) “You will always find poison on nettle wine’s left side”, that is, the sequence P-W will occur exactly twice. II) “Different are those that stand at either end, but II’) if you would go forward, neither is your friend.” III) “Neither dwarf nor giant holds death in their insides”, that is, neither the biggest nor the smallest bottle contains poison. Note that we readers can’t see the bottles, so this clue is no use to us at all. IV) “The second left and the second on the right”, i. e. 2 and 6, contain the same liquid – which must be either P or W, as F and B are unique.

The Case for Poison

Now, suppose 2 and 6 are poison. Then 1 can be either P or B (by II’ it cannot be F). If it is P, we get a sequence P-P-W-F/B-F/B-P-W, with nothing to decide which of 4 and 5 is which; even if we saw the bottles, their size would only distinguish P from anything else (III), not F from B.

If we suppose 1 to be B, we get B-P-x-x-x-P-W, while 3-4-5 can equally well be F-P-W, W-P-F, W-F-P or P-W-F. Even if Dwarf and Giant should both be among these three, seeing them will at most tell us where the poison is; but not even that, as we cannot prove 1 to be B (it might just as well be P). Thus, if bottles 2 and 6 do contain poison, the puzzle is insoluble. We are reduced to either getting drunk on nettle wine, or taking poison in despair, or both, or one after the other, or waiting for the Evil One to come back and get us; our quest will be at an end.

Assuming Solubility

True, the story offers some evidence that someone has passed this test before. But that someone may well have been Snape himself, who already knew the answer, or someone who wormed it out of him, probably by means we don’t want to know about. And being ideal first-time readers, we must admit we don’t know Hermione will solve this problem (though she has been helpful in solving others). It would be a fairly unusual feature in a fantasy story for kids, but maybe this final puzzle, coming after a few hard but manageable tests of skill, wits and magical competence, actually has no solution. And that would be the end of it.

Still, let us trust that J. K. Rowling has not actually committed such an Unforgivable Crudeness. The puzzle must be soluble, maybe not – let’s exercise caution with our trustfulness – for us readers, but at least for Hermione. Once we make this assumption, it follows that bottles 2 and 6 must contain nettle wine. (Yuck! Who’d drink nettle wine?)

Glorious Wine!

This immediately gives us a sequence of P-W-x-x-P-W-x, and as F can’t be at either end (II’), we are left with P-W-F/P-F/P-P-W-B. And if there is any faith in the Potter universe, this must be where clue III comes in. Either Dwarf or Giant must be among bottles 3 and 4; Hermione saw it and knew that this must be F. Now we can go on reading. And we actually find that F was the smallest bottle – so it was Dwarf. Hermione further tells us that B was “a rounded bottle at the right end of the row”, which confirms our solution.

Is this all? Not quite. For, you know, Hermione could also see Giant. Where was Giant? Obviously at 2, 6 or 7. If it was at 7, it could not have told Hermione anything, as it was logically impossible for any P to be there. Then the statement that Giant contained no poison would be the only redundant bit of the clues, while all the rest was relevant. Of course, that may have been the case. But it wouldn’t have been like Snape. The Snape we know would believe that, as Arsenius Jigger once said, “the superfluous herb spoils the potion”. So this clue was relevant too. Giant was at position 2 or 6, so Hermione could tell at first glance that 2 and 6 were not poison; thus she arrived at the sequence P-W-F/P-F/P-P-W-B in one fell swoop, without making any assumptions whatever! While useless to us, clue III was the most important of all to Miss Granger.

The Gap

This forcefully illustrates the huge gap between a story character’s perception of her immediate situation and the reader’s perception of the same situation. It also reminds us that it is by no means the author’s business to try and bridge that gap, the full perception of a moment in another person’s life being impossible to transmit. It is up to ourselves to fill in the gap – intuitively, by mere fancy, or with the greatest possible exactitude, by the tortuous ways of intricate logical deduction, depending on what type of readers we are. The story teller merely has to present what is strictly necessary for the story to go on in our minds; if she fails in this, we may pronounce her incompetent. Of course it is her privilege to add anything she pleases: for fun, for style, or for ulterior motives. It is in these “additives” that interpretation may have its field day.

The Final Riddle

Still, in any narration, there will remain a grey area; a cloud of relevant facts we are neither given nor able to deduce with any certainty, such as the exact positions of Dwarf (3 or 4) and Giant (2 or 6), or the shape of Sherlock Holmes’ pipe – this being the part that is really and irrevocably left to the reader’s imagination; the part that may, moreover, be filled in by iconography in the shape of artist’s or cinematographer’s design, in varying ways, without affecting the story at all. This is the true narrative fog bank, the misty barrier forever separating us from our fictional heroes.

We anticipate the reader’s question: Do you really think J. K. Rowling had all this in mind when she drafted the bottle puzzle? No, we don’t. But maybe she’ll write and tell us.

(Photo taken in the dungeons of Hogwarts Castle, Scotland, by special permission of Minerva McGonagall.)

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