They reached the end of the passageway and saw before them a brilliantly lit chamber, its ceiling arching high above them. It was full of small, jewel-bright birds, fluttering and tumbling all around the room. On the opposite side of the chamber was a heavy wooden door.
“Do you think they’ll attack us if we cross the room?” said Ron.
“Probably,” said Harry. “They don’t look very vicious, but I suppose if they all swooped down at once…”
The Trio have now reached Professor Flitwick’s protection for the Stone, a protection involving keys that have been charmed to behave like a flock of birds.
We have briefly met Professor Flitwick in the classroom. When he first reads Harry Potter’s name on his roll sheet, he squeaks and tumbles out of view. On Halloween, while Hermione famously pesters Ron over the proper way to say “Wingardium Leviosa,” Flitwick claps his hands and cries “Well done!” after she successfully levitates a feather four feet into the air.
Flitwick could not even contain himself from confiding in Hermione that she had received 112% on his exam. And this information – coming on the day that the Trio decide to go through the trapdoor – leads Hermione to conclude that (in terms of potential expulsion, at least), it is positively safe for her to go sneaking around the castle after curfew in order to protect the Stone.
Filius Flitwick is an excitable, and rather charming, little man who makes First Year students demonstrate a capacity for making a pineapple tapdance across a desk. But he’s also quite formidable in his own way. He is a retired Dueling Champion and Head of Ravenclaw – meaning that we should expect a certain amount of ingenuity in his protection for the Stone.
The beauty of his protective Charm – aside from the sheer physical beauty of the metallic flock – is that it involves both consideration in working out the task and performance in catching the right key.
In fact, in their initial analysis of the task, Harry and Ron get it all wrong. The keys (which they still think are birds) are not charmed to attack. They are charmed to perform like hundreds of Golden Snitches. That is, they will fly swiftly away from whoever tries to catch them. Consequently, identifying and then catching the right key requires Seeker skills.
Here’s a short breakdown of the (not-necessarily-sequential) elements involved in the successful performance of this task:
- To identify the relationship between the winged objects and the door that must be passed through (i.e., recognize that the objects are keys, not birds).
- To identify the exact key – among hundreds – that must be caught in order to pass through the door.
- To find and mount a broom – and be a good enough flyer to stay mounted while zooming around trying to catch the right key.
- To figure out a strategy for catching the key. This final element requires speed, agility, and (in the case of the Trio) teamwork.
The Golden Snitch
As mentioned above, performing this task successfully requires Seeker skills, and (as the text reminds us) it was “not for nothing” that “Harry was the youngest Seeker in a century.”
The entire purpose of Harry’s position at Quidditch is to catch the Golden Snitch. But what exactly is the Snitch?
Okay, we know that it’s a small, winged metal ball. But more than that, it’s a small, winged metal ball that mimics the size, shape, and swift, erratic movements of the Snidget – a bird so fast and so talented at hiding itself from predators that few Muggles have ever seen it. Classified as a Magical Creature, the Snidget has a XXXX MoM rating thanks to the penalties now attached to its capture or injury.
But how and why did those penalties come into existence? Well, around the early 11th century, hunting the elusive bird became a favorite sport among Wizards and Witches. Snidget hunting finally crossed paths with Quidditch in the late 13th century when a Wizarding official released a Snidget into a game of Quidditch. From that time on, the Snidget hunt became a part of the game – excellent for Quidditch, but not so excellent for the small bird.
What happened next is the element that appears to have inspired Filius Flitwick’s Charm. According to Kennilworthy Whisp’s Quidditch through the Ages:
The invention of the Golden Snitch is credited to the wizard Bowman Wright of Godric’s Hollow. While Quidditch teams all over the country tried to find bird substitutes for the Snidget [which was now on the brink of extinction], Wright, who was a skilled metal-charmer, set himself to the task of creating a ball that mimicked the behavior and flight patterns of the Snidget. That he succeeded perfectly is clear from the many rolls of parchment he left behind him on his death (now in the possession of a private collector), listing the orders he had received from all over the country.
Filius Flitwick almost certainly found inspiration for the performance of the enchanted keys in the performance of the Golden Snitch:
[Each of the members of the Trio] seized a broomstick and kicked off into the air, soaring into the midst of the cloud of keys. They grabbed and snatched, but the bewitched keys darted and dived so quickly it was almost impossible to catch one.
We don’t know from the passage if Flitwick gave the keys’ wings the rotational joints found in the wings of Snidgets (and by extension, Snitches), but it seems reasonable to assume that the idea of charming metal to perform like swift, elusive birds (catchable only on broomstick) would be inspired by the greatest of all Wizarding sports.
When Birds Attack!
So let’s go back to the question that Ron asked earlier about whether or not the “birds” would attack. As a consequence of the anxiety his question stirred,
[Harry] took a deep breath, covered his face with his arms, and sprinted across the room. He expected to feel sharp beaks and claws tearing at him any second, but nothing happened.
Compare Ron and Harry’s anxiety with the charmed bird attack that actually does occur in HBP.
In 6th year, when Lavender Brown makes her play for Ron’s affections, Hermione consoles herself in an abandoned classroom by conjuring birds out of thin air… then sets the birds on Ron when he comes into the classroom with Lavender:
Harry spun around to see Hermione pointing her wand at Ron, her expression wild: The little flock of birds was speeding like a hail of fat golden bullets toward Ron, who yelped and covered his face with his hands, but the birds attacked, pecking and clawing at every bit of flesh they could reach.
Given this later incident, I think it rather signficant that it’s Ron who asks in PS/SS if Flitwick’s “birds” will attack. It serves as foreshadowing for that moment nearly 6 years later when a very hurt and jealous Hermione finally does set birds on Ron – birds that she conjured as practice for Flitwick’s NEWT-level Charms class.
So my question is this: When Hermione set those birds on Ron, might she (consciously or unconsciously) have remembered Ron’s concern about being attacked by charmed keys that initially appeared to be birds?
Regardless of the answer to that question, there is nothing vicious about Flitwick’s flock of keys. The Charms protection for the Stone seems (like Flitwick himself) rather more genial than the Devil’s Snare. Yet it still requires considerable thought and skill to achieve a successful outcome – qualities that one would expect from a spell produced by the Head of House for Ravenclaw.