An Ounce of Logic

“Brilliant,” said Hermione. “This isn’t magic – it’s logic – a puzzle. A lot of the greatest wizards haven’t got an ounce of logic, they’d be stuck in here forever.”

Snape’s logic puzzle guards the chamber where the Mirror of Erised guards the Stone. And curiously, it is his task, not that of the Deputy Headmistress, that stands right next to Dumbledore’s – perhaps giving an early hint of the extent to which Albus Dumbledore trusts Severus Snape.

Additionally, the logic puzzle wins Hermione’s admiration… and for the first time in the text, we get a hint that there might be more to Snape than what is circumscribed by Harry’s feelings.

But Hermione is also partially wrong. There is magic involved in the task… just not in the solution to the puzzle.

More Magic Than Advertised

The Trio is trapped in a chamber – between purple flame on one side and black flame on the other. The flames, obviously, were conjured by a spell Snape cast.

There are 7 bottles, 5 of which contain wine or poison – concoctions that can be created by Muggles. However, the 2 bottles that will actually get the drinker through the magically-conjured flames contain potions that could only have been brewed by persons with magic powers.

Rowling herself makes this clear in the following Q&A:

Q: Can Muggles brew potions if they follow the exact instructions and they have all the ingredients?

Rowling: Well, I’d have to say no, because there is always … there is a magical component to the potion, not just the ingredients. So, at some point you’re going to have to use a wand. I [have] been asked what would happen if a Muggle picked up a magic wand in my world. And the answer would probably be something accidental … possibly quite violent. Because a wand, in my world, is merely a vehicle — a vessel for what lies inside the person.


But, you’re right. Potions seems, on the face of it, to be the most Muggle-friendly subject. But there does come a point where you need to do more than stir.

So potions are part of magic. They are not created by mechanically brewing the right ingredients in the right proportions. They involve the use of a wand. And even if a Muggle were to put the same ingredients into a cauldron in the right proportions at the right temperature for the right amount of time, the end result would still not be the right potion.

The task, then, does involve more magic than Hermione lets on. Magic flames guard the doors, and magical potions get the drinker through those doors. But a maze of non-magical logic guards the potions that conquer the flames.

The Logic Puzzle

Snape’s logic puzzle is solvable. In fact, we’ve been discussing the solution in the Comments to the previous post.

Mad, one of the commenters, has pointed out an elaborate solution at the Harry Potter Lexicon. Iggy and I have discussed our solutions, and I have written up the details of my solution on a page here called “Solving Snape’s Logic Puzzle.” (If you take that link now, you can skip down this page to A Slytherin Task? when you return).

The poster at HPL, Iggy, and I all arrived at the same solution, by the way. But before we discuss the solution, let’s first take a look at the puzzle itself!

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.
Choose, unless you wish to stay here forevermore,
To help you in your choice, we give you these clues four:
First, however slyly the poison tries to hide
You will always find some on nettle wine’s left side;
Second, different are those who stand at either end,
But if you would move onward, neither is your friend;
Third, as you see clearly, all are different size,
Neither dwarf nor giant holds death in their insides;
Fourth, the second left and the second on the right
Are twins once you taste them, though different at first sight.

Okay, my eyes glaze over with bad verse (and sorry, but whatever else he is, Severus Snape is not a master versifier).

But when I finally managed to get my eyes in focus, here’s what I took away from the first half of the poem: one bottle will move you ahead (line 3), one will send you back (line 4), two hold nettle wine (line 5), three hold poison (line 6). Or, as Hermione sums it up quite succinctly:

“Seven bottles: three are poison; two are wine; one will get us safely through the black fire, and one will get us back through the purple.”

And, of course, if you don’t make a choice, you’re stuck in the chamber forever between the purple flame and the black. Nice.

Now, let’s look at the clues that help Hermione make her choice.

  1. There is always poison to the left of nettle wine (lines 9-10)
  2. The bottles on either end of the line contain different contents, but neither will move you forward (lines 11-12)
  3. The smallest and largest bottles do not contain poison (lines 13-14)
  4. The second from the left and the second from the right are housed in different-sized bottles, but they hold the same contents (lines 15-16)

I’m going to cut to the chase and offer my solution right now:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Poison Wine x y Poison Wine Backward

If you want to see how I arrived at this solution (and why there are still unsolved variables in the sequence), you can go to the solution in “Solving Snape’s Logic Puzzle.”

A Slytherin Task?

Severus Snape is, of course, the Slytherin Head of House.

We don’t learn until CoS that Slytherin is associated with Pureblood Supremacy… and we don’t learn until HBP that Snape is not a Pureblood… but the Half-Blood son of a Muggle father. In DH, we also learn that the Muggle slum of Spinner’s End is not merely where Snape sets up shop during the summer. It is the place where he grew up. So where did he acquire his capacity for logic?

If most Wizards, as Hermione suggests, don’t have “an ounce of logic,” then Snape most likely acquired his logic before he got to Hogwarts – and most likely as a result of his Muggle background. While logical capabilities and great mental discipline should be crucial for the more scientific aspects of potions-making, most Wizards aren’t any better at potions than they are at logic. In fact, Snape suggests that most students in his class will “hardly believe” that potions are magic.

So potions is probably not what gave him his logic. Logic is more likely what allowed him to excel at potions. (Perhaps he was educated by Jesuits before he came to Hogwarts!)

The traits associated with Slytherin are ambition, cunning, determination, and resourcefulness. So we can expect that in creating the task, Snape would draw on whatever resources were at his disposal, whether they came from the Wizarding World or from the Muggle world.

He draws on his ability to cast spells that conjure flames. He draws on his ability to brew potions that get the drinker through the flames. And he draws on his logical ability to create a puzzle that would snag many Wizards.

Additionally, cunning is at the core of the task. Poison “slyly” hides inside the line. The largest bottle must contain wine (not the potion that moves the drinker “backwards”), while the smallest bottle contains the potion that moves the drinker forward. And of course, using logic to defeat Wizards would be quite nearly the definition of cunning.

Ambition? Snape is the youngest Head of House. He is 32 years old at the conclusion to PS/SS, and he has a strong rivalry with Minerva McGonnagall – his own former Transfiguration Professor and the Gryffindor Head of House. I can imagine Snape designing his task not only to protect the Stone but also to compete with hers.

A Turning Point

The logic puzzle also serves as a bit of a turning point for Snape’s character.

Up to this point, Snape has been presented primarily as the Professor Harry hates and suspects. Yet right here, in the midst of the Trio’s journey into the bowels of Hogwarts to protect the Philosopher’s Stone (from… Snape! [sic]), we learn that the Potions Master is a man of skill and intellect – not just a one-dimensional villain. He is a man whose task Hermione deems “brilliant.”

Snape’s brilliance puts some flesh onto the man… and that flesh subtly begins to humanize him for the audience… just in time for the big reveal that will occur just beyond the black flame.

So what do you think? Where did Snape get his logic? What Slytherin qualities do we see in this task? What do we learn of Snape? What did I miss?

11 responses to “An Ounce of Logic

  1. I think your explanation on solving the puzzle served to confuse me more so than I already was, but that’s because I simply am no good at riddles. :/ (I am rather logical, though, which brings me to my next point)
    In this task, we see logic as a Slytherin quality. As you said in your description of intelligence, “Slytherin admires skill and practical application.” Logic is most definitely a skill, and can be applied in many situations, making it practical. I am a Slytherin myself, and find logic is my most noticeable quality. :)
    I think Snape acquired his logic back home in the muggle world. We don’t learn much of his father, but he seems like a kind of person who would constantly point out inconsistencies and condemn any illogical thought, so I think that is where Snape picked it up.
    Of Snape as a whole, we learn that he is NOT the evil bad guy, despite Harry’s insistence. The task gives you an insight on his personality – cold and cruel logic, simply leaving you to die should you fail to solve his riddle – but it hides away the brokenness he feels on a daily basis, so you can’t really get a clear read on him. It’s very frustrating. >:(
    And finally, I don’t think you missed anything! :D

    • I’ll answer your comments about the post a little later (probably tomorrow).

      But I wanted to say that I did some revision of the solution to try to make it easier to understand. I hope I succeeded.

      Splitting up the post into a blog post and a blog page made the most sense when I saw how long the solution was going to be… but it was still a LOT of writing to keep track of since last night!! I’m not surprised that the explanation originally posted was not as easy to follow as it might have been. :)

    • Okay, so I hope I straightened out the confusion on the “Solving” page.

      Interesting observation you make, Mad, about logic being more of a Slytherin-style application of intelligence. :)

      I’m not so sure about Snape’s father being the source of Snape’s logic. We know he was a screamer, but I don’t know what we know of his logical capabilities. He was probably smart (I mean, his son is super-smart)… but he was probably not living up to his promise (hence, the Snape family’s poverty).

      I do like how you put it about the task giving us insight into the “cold and cruel logic” part of Snape’s personality… but no insight into the brokenness that he hides deep down inside himself. I love the way that JKR hints at Snape’s brokenness starting in PoA, but only gradually reveals its source.

      And I’m glad you don’t think I missed anything! :D

  2. Although Hermione says that most wizards don’t have logic, I think she may only be referring to the “wave your wand and it’s done” sort of attitude having magic might create.

    But we know that as a teenager, Snape not only learns new spells and potions– he creates them. I think that inventing spells and figuring out which magical components will create the desired effect was definitely an exercise for his brain.

    I think it’s actually a much likelier bet than his parents, who are portrayed as, at best, neglectful.

    One other idea I’ve seen: Pre- and post-DH, I’ve also noticed a lot of fanfic supporting the idea that little Severus spent a large portion of his childhood sneaking books on magic up to his room and reading them. Nothing much in canon to suggest this, but I think it’s a cute idea. ;)

    • To create the spells, wouldn’t he need logic to begin with? We’ve seen with Luna’s mum that when creating spells, things can go horribly, horribly wrong…
      But the book idea is cute, definitely so :)

    • Good point about the “wave your wand and it’s done” concept of magic.

      I definitely think it takes logic to invent spells and potions. But given that most students aren’t inventors, I think that shows more that he already had a predisposition (I think you’re gonna love that word!) for that sort of spell work and potions work. So I still think that he brought the logic… and the creativity… with him. And then his inventions probably helped him hone his logical and creative capabilities further. :)

      The fanfic idea is a cute one. Little Sev sneaking magic books. Where did he get them, would you suppose? There is just so much we don’t know about young Severus. :sigh:

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  6. Since Snape’s father was, as you put it, “a screamer,” I think it is unlikely that he had the same logical mind that his son did. People who can, with brutal and exact logic, point out exactly is wrong with anything (another person, an argument, a situation, whatever) do not scream. They don’t need to. Speaking coldly, sarcastically, and with undeniable logic is far more effective. Couldn’t Severus have learned to be logical young precisely because his father was not? Severus could not have out-bellowed his (drunken? certainly abusive) father, but as a means of defense he very well might have retreated to his own mind, replaying scenes (or even while they occurred) but in his mind, utterly demolishing his father with devastating, logical, and precisely-chosen words.

    The only thing I can think you have missed is the question of how “Quirrelmort” got through Snape’s task. Unless the bottles refill magically, which is extremely unlikely. Although that would also explain how Dumbledore got through – although of course Snape (and the others) could have undone their own tasks.

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