33

When Harry and Hermione visit Godric's Hollow, Harry wonders something I find rather silly:

... they passed more cottages: any one of them might have been the one in which James and Lily had once lived...He was not even sure whether he would be able to see the cottage at all; he did not know what happened when the subjects of a Fidelius Charm died.

Harry was a living subject of the charm, and arguably the primary one. As such, the charm still should be in effect And if anyone at all could see the house it would be him. Then they actually find the house:

He could see it; the Fidelius Charm must have died with James and Lily.

I think that's a poor conclusion for the aforementioned reasons. But Hermione could see it, along with the wizards who put up and signed the sign. The secret-keeper was still alive, so the secret didn't leak out via secondary keepers.

So why did the charm break?

  • Is there any evidence that Harry was one of the subjects of the Fidelius Charm? There's not a lot of information on the actual casting of the spell in the books, but if it involved some magic on the part of the subjects then it's likely Harry wouldn't have been one. – Anthony Grist Aug 25 '12 at 9:08
  • 1
    It would make sense for Harry to see it, perhaps, since he was a resident of the house and therefore would have known its location (even as a baby) - what is curious is that any magical person could see it (as evidenced by the signatures etc on the fencepost or sign or whatever it was). – hairboat Aug 25 '12 at 15:33
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    It stands to reason that "unless, of course, the Secret-Keeper chooses to divulge it" means not only that the Secret-Keeper can tell the secret to a chosen few people, but also that he can choose to divulge the secret to all and sundry, i.e. he can break the spell. Remember that Wormtail, not the Potters, was the Secret-Keeper. So the explanation (as far as the Potter's house is concerned) is simple: Wormtail broke the spell. – Martha Dec 18 '12 at 15:03
  • The Fidelius Charm doesn't make the house invisible. It only makes people think that the house is not the Potters' home (unless the Secret-Keeper willingly informs them). – EvilSnack Sep 29 '16 at 3:25
  • subjects of a Fidelius Charm might be the "owners" of the house here. Harry definitely wasn't the owner when Fidelius Charm was put in action. – Captain Cold Jul 22 '18 at 17:31
29

TL;DR In canon the Fidelius Charm is inconsistently presented. It smacks of deus ex machina and seems to be clumsily applied mainly to smooth out or facilitate plot points that need some assistance getting from point A to point B. There is not a satisfactory answer as to why the charm broke in the way that it did because Fidelius does not have defined parameters. ETA: Regarding your comment to Pureferret, it doesn't make sense that the charm broke while Harry was still alive. It's a great question. It's just that there is no authoritative canon-based answer and the supplemental information provided by J.K. Rowling doesn't explain it either. There is absolutely no canon evidence that Wormtail "undid" the charm prior to Voldemort killing the Potters. Hence my concerns with the workings of the Fidelius Charm in general.

The long version:

Response to both your question and mine on the Fidelius Charm show how confusing canon is surrounding this issue. Since I asked about Fidelius, I've done a lot of digging and reading and have concluded Fidelius is probably somewhat of a deus ex machina. When canon isn't clear and J.K. Rowling provides what is supposed to be clarifying information to be considered alongside what she's written in canon, it's truly difficult to suss it out. :) Here are some examples of what's been said about the Fidelius Charm:

‘An immensely complex spell,’ [Flitwick] said squeakily, ‘involving the magical concealment of a secret inside a single, 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. As long as the Secret-Keeper refused to speak, You-Know-Who could search the village where Lily and James were staying for years and never find them, not even if he had his nose pressed against their sitting-room window!’

Prisoner of Azkaban - pages 152-153 - Bloomsbury - chapter 10, The Marauder's Map

This is the first canon description of the Fidelius Charm, so this is what we have to go by off the bat.

‘Here,’ Moody muttered, thrusting a piece of parchment towards Harry’s Disillusioned hand and holding his lit wand close to it, so as to illuminate the writing. ‘Read quickly and memorise.’

Harry looked down at the piece of paper. The narrow handwriting was vaguely familiar. It said:

The Headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix may be found at number twelve, Grimmauld Place, London.

Order of the Phoenix - page 57 - Bloomsbury - chapter 3, The Advance Guard

Here we are shown how a Secret-Keeper can share the secret with others, by telling them directly. So far we can assume that a secret can be divulged verbally (Peter Pettigrew, we assume) and through writing. As well, appropriately, Harry cannot see No. Twelve Grimmauld Place until well after he's read Dumbledore's message. (I do have an overall point)

They were often joined by other Order members for dinner now, because The Burrow had replaced number twelve, Grimmauld Place as the Headquarters.

Mr Weasley had explained that after the death 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 twenty of us, that greatly dilutes the power of the Fidelius Charm. Twenty times as many opportunities for the Death Eaters to get the secret out of somebody. We can’t expect it to hold much longer.’

Deathly Hallows - page 79 - Bloomsbury - chapter 6, The Ghoul in Pyjamas

Now we learn that the Fidelius Charm may be complex, but it's not as stable as some spells. It dilutes as a new person is told the secret and becomes weaker. Okay. It's also noted that the headquarters for the Order of the Phoenix have relocated from Grimmauld to the Burrow. There's no indication of whether or not the Burrow was placed under the Fidelius Charm as well. (Personally, I think headquartering the Order's headquarters at the Burrow would be far more obvious to the Death Eaters than Grimmauld Place, and even more dangerous. Although, I suppose, to be fair, Kreacher did rat out the Order to Narcissa Malfoy in Order of the Phoenix)

Regarding Yaxley in Deathly Hallows:

‘Harry, I think he can. I – I forced him to let go with a Revulsion Jinx, but I’d already taken him inside the Fidelius Charm’s protection. Since Dumbledore died, we’re Secret Keepers, so I’ve given him the secret, haven’t I?’

Deathly Hallows - page 223 - Bloomsbury - chapter 14, The Thief

Wait. WHAT? Now an outsider can learn a Fidelius secret by osmosis, just by having accidental contact with whatever is being protected by Fidelius? According to Flitwick's description of Fidelius in Prisoner of Azkaban, a secret must be specifically divulged to another person, and the two examples we saw of divulging a secret previously were through writing or verbally. So Yaxley just knew, even though nothing was explained to him? As well, Mr. Weasley had informed Harry that the Order's headquarters had been moved to a new location. There is no explanation as to why the trio couldn't have immediately stunned Yaxley and tossed him right out of No. Twelve Grimmauld Place because the Fidelius Charm originally protecting Grimmauld specifically involved the address for the headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix. It wasn't Oh, and by the way, Harry Potter is hiding out here at number twelve Grimmauld Place. By the time Yaxley hit the hearth, Grimmauld was not headquarters anymore. So exactly what secret was divulged? And how?

‘I’ve been getting them all out of The Burrow,’ he explained. ‘Moved them to Muriel’s. The Death Eaters know Ron’s with you now, they’re bound to target the family – don’t apologise,’ he added, at the sight of Harry’s expression. ‘It was always a matter of time, Dad’s been saying so for months. We’re the biggest blood traitor family there is.’

‘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.

Deathly Hallows - page 390 - Bloomsbury - chapter 24, The Wandmaker

So Shell Cottage was under the Fidelius Charm at the moment Dobby Apparated the trio out from Malfoy Manor. How is it possible that Harry could see it, see it's lights, and see people moving about inside before Bill Weasley told Harry about the charm and that he (Bill) was the Secret Keeper for Shell Cottage? (Bill also rather blithely tells Harry that a group of Weasleys -- which might include Ginny -- was under the protection of Fidelius at Auntie Muriel's. For the Weasleys' continued protection, it would have been wiser for Bill not to tell Harry this information. There wasn't a pressing need for Harry to know where the Weasleys were at that moment in time.).

Here is what J.K. Rowling has to say about Fidelius:

What happens to a secret when the Secret-Keeper dies?

I was surprised that this question won, because it is not the one that I’d have voted for… but hey, if this is what you want to know, this is what you want to know!

When a Secret-Keeper dies, their secret dies with them, or, to put it another way, the status of their secret will remain as it was at the moment of their death. Everybody in whom they confided will continue to know the hidden information, but nobody else.

Just in case you have forgotten exactly how the Fidelius Charm works, it is “an immensely complex spell involving the magical concealment of a secret inside a single, 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” (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban)

In other words, a secret (eg, the location of a family in hiding, like the Potters) is enchanted so that it is protected by a single Keeper (in our example, Peter Pettigrew, a.k.a. Wormtail). Thenceforth nobody else – not even the subjects of the secret themselves – can divulge the secret. Even if one of the Potters had been captured, force fed Veritaserum or placed under the Imperius Curse, they would not have been able to give away the whereabouts of the other two. The only people who ever knew their precise location were those whom Wormtail had told directly, but none of them would have been able to pass on the information.¹

J.K. Rowling

So how could Yaxley have known even a smidgen of information regarding Grimmauld Place?

See how muddy the water is?

This is a really, really long post to demonstrate why I think the answer to your question is that it's unclear why the charm broke. The information surrounding Fidelius is inconsistent and appears to be infinite, meaning there aren't fixed parameters around the magic involved. Fidelius just seems to keep morphing and changing as canon goes along.

¹This was on J.K. Rowling's website for years, but she's taken down all her Potter information in order to put it up on Pottermore. Link courtesy of the Wayback Machine

  • 2
    "It dilutes as a new person is told the secret and becomes weaker." Not quite. While the secret keeper is alive, only s/he can reveal it (see your JKR quote); only after s/he dies is it weakened by more people being able to give it away. – Kevin Aug 30 '12 at 3:28
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    It looks like most of this argument is based around so I’ve given him the secret, haven’t I? being truth. However, they were in a panic at the moment and the "haven't I?" gives the intonation of being unsure. I wouldn't take this line as gospel. – Izkata Aug 30 '12 at 3:53
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    @Slytherincess A very late comment here: the trio took Hermione’s explanation/guess and ran with it, yes—but unless I'm misremembering, there is no evidence in the book that she was right. They stay away from Grimmauld Place just in case, but we don't hear anything about any Death Eaters ever getting in there, do we? It could be that her theory was just plain wrong, but they never found out because they didn't dare risk it. – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 18 '15 at 21:57
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    On the other hand, if we assume that Hermione was right, it would make sense that forcibly bringing someone inside the area concealed by the Fidelius charm would count as revealing the secret. If you don't know where I live, I can tell you by word, I can write the address down for you, but I can also just take your hand and lead you through the door. Once you were in, you'd be able to walk out and see where you were. That's essentially what Hermione did: she took Yaxley's hand and led him through the perimeter into the actual Headquarters. – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 18 '15 at 22:01
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    I don't think the dilution thing means the spell is unstable - Arthur explained what he meant in the very next sentence, and it has nothing to do with the spell decaying over time. – immibis Mar 25 '16 at 4:09
10

It appears that the Fidelius Charm can be broken by the Secret Keeper. From Deathly Hallows ch 17 "Bathilda's Secret," when Harry is reliving Voldemort's memory of going to kill the Potters: "...and now his destination was in sight at last, the Fidelius Charm broken, though they did not know it yet..." This indicates that the Charm itself had already been broken prior to the Potter's deaths and the backfire of the curse on Harry, implying the Secret Keeper (Pettigrew) had broken it.

  • Interesting point that it may have been broken beforehand, depending on how precise the wording is intended to be. – Kevin Jun 28 '14 at 17:12
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    This would certainly make sense of a lot of things. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 21 '16 at 3:08
5

I was under the impression, purely from my reading of the books, that all the charm did was made a secret, and anything related unknowable undiscoverable, so long as the secret keeper kept the secret. In fact, quoting the harry potter wikia

The Fidelius Charm is a complex and powerful Charm that takes a specific piece of information (a secret) and implants it into a being's soul.

As such, if the secret was the residence of the Potters or the location of the Potters the fact that they have died means they no longer have a location or residence. There is no longer a secret.

Furthermore, the secret keeper, the real subject of the charm, let the secret loose. If breaking the charm required death, all that would be required was to kill everyone close to the Potters. It's much harder to subtly extract the secret, and thus more secure.

Again quoting HP Wikia:

Whilst one cannot force secondary Keepers to divulge the information they have learnt, it is unknown if coercive methods to have the primary Keeper reveal the location (such as Veritaserum or the Imperius Curse) would work.

It appears that once the primary secret keeper dies the others that know of the information become secondary secret keepers (i.e, when the Albus dies and the secret of Grimmauld place is no longer 'kept', Snape is now a secondary secret keeper.)

Again this is mostly from memory, and HP-Wikia so I don't know for certain.

  • 2
    Regarding your second paragraph, Harry was still alive so his residence/location, which was that house, should still have been protected. And the secret keeper didn't, as far as we know, let the secret loose so much as just tell one person. – Kevin Aug 25 '12 at 18:41
  • I think all it takes is one person else to know, and the spell doesn't care who, to break the secret. After his parents died, it was no longer his residence, he moved in with his Auntie/uncle. – AncientSwordRage Aug 25 '12 at 23:32
  • Do people not think this answer as accurate? – AncientSwordRage Aug 28 '12 at 9:06
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    I think it's at best incomplete. It doesn't address why the charm would break while Harry survived. But if you could present evidence that Wormtail undid the charm entirely instead of just telling Voldemort, that would answer it. (Undid the charm entirely; no matter who or how many he told, if the charm was still in effect they couldn't tell others, others would need to get it straight from Peter.) – Kevin Aug 28 '12 at 13:10
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    HP Wikia is the pox on answers for myself and others, I know. It's a really inaccurate source to cite. – Gabe Willard Aug 28 '12 at 22:50
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I think we should consider the secret that the Fidelius charm was protecting. From the Prisoner of Azkaban, Chapter 10 - The Marauder's Map: (McGonnagall speaking to Flitwik, Fudge and Rosmerta):

"James Potter told Dumbledore that Black would die rather than tell where they were, that Black was planning to go into hiding himself... "

The wording strongly suggests that the secret was the location of the Potters.

Also, we have this from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Chapter 1 The Boy who Lived:(Hagrid speaking to Dumbledore)

"No, sir - house was almost destroyed, but I got him out right before the Muggles started swarmin around".

From that - we know that the location that was being protected by the Fidelius charm was almost destroyed - which might have made it possible right then for the Muggles to see the house.

Now - when Harry realises that the FIdelius charm must have broken - he observes the house from outside. (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows - Chapter 17: Bathilda's Secret)

The hedge had grown wild in the sixteen years since Hagrid had taken Harry from the rubble that lay scattered amongst the waist-high grass. Most of the cottage was still standing, though entirely covered in the dark ivy and snow, but the right side of the top floor had been blown apart; that, Harry was sure, was where the curse had backfired. He and Hermione stood at the gate, gazing up at the wreck of what must once have been a cottage just like those that flanked it. "I wonder why nobody's ever rebuilt it?" whispered Hermione. "Maybe you can't rebuild it?" Harry replied. "Maybe it's like the injuries from Dark Magic and you can't repair the damage?"

Although Harry assumes that the damage cannot be repaired and compares it to injuries from Dark Magic - if it were indeed true - we can confirm that the damage to the house itself was beyond repair.

So the charm wasn't broken by the death of James and Lily - nor by Wormtail revealing the secret to all the people who left their wishes (we know he could not have - since he was thought to have been killed by Sirius immediately after James and Lily's death). The charm broke because the house that it was protecting was destroyed - presumably when Voldemort's killing curse rebounded instead of killing Harry.

1

The spell was no longer in effect when Voldemort got to the house

We know from HP and the Cursed Child that the spell no longer in effect before Voldemort arrived at Godric's Hollow, presumably because Pettigrew had canceled the spell entirely rather than because he let Voldemort in on the secret.

Scorpius Malfoy and Albus Potter use a time-turner to travel back to the 1980s, immediately prior to Voldemort's arrival. Both of these individuals can see the house, indicating that it's no longer protected by the Fidelius Charm.

and

SCORPIUS: And here it is

ALBUS: The home of James, Lily, and Harry Potter . . .

A young, attractive couple leave a house with a baby in a pushchair. ALBUS moves towards them, SCORPIUS pulls him back.

SCORPIUS: They can’t see you, Albus, it might damage time, and we’re not doing that — not this time.

  • 2
    I'm beginning to think that The Cursed Child should be considered an unbook. – EvilSnack Oct 9 '16 at 17:10
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    @EvilSnack - My advice is to simply accept it. In a few months we're going to have a veritable tidal wave of "Fantastic Beasts" continuity errors to deal with. They'll make this look like nothing. – Valorum Oct 9 '16 at 18:31
1

RE: the Cursed Child

It does seem pretty clear from the Cursed Child that whatever Pettigrew did to reveal the secret to Voldemort must have destroyed the enchantment completely, since the house is visible to Albus and Scorpius, and eventually to Harry, Ron, Hermione, Ginny and Draco.

RE: the introduction of it in Prisoner of Azkaban

To me the confusing part has always been that to switch out secret keepers meant that no one, except Sirius and Peter, knew the secret, not even Dumbledore. If Dumbledore had known, then he could have testified on Sirius' behalf. Yet Dumbledore knew what had happened in Godric's Hollow quickly enough to notify Hagrid to get Harry prior to the Muggle police showing up.

  • This doesn't seem to answer the question of why the Fidelius Charm broke though. – Rand al'Thor Sep 5 '16 at 21:48
0

It is traditional in many fantasy universes for certain types of spells/charms to elapse/break when the caster dies. It seems that the most likely explanation is that the Fidelius Charm is such a spell and that, since the most likely caster of the charm was either James Potter or Lily Potter, that it almost certainly died with them.

  • Why would James be more likely to have cast the spell than Lily? Lily was quite talented in Charms and Potions, while canon suggests James was strong at DADA. The Fidelius Charm breaks when the Secret Keeper - who may or may not be the caster - dies. I'm still curious why you conclude James would have been more likely to have cast the charm than Lily? I don't recall either of the Potters being suggested as the caster of the charm in any of the books. :) – Slytherincess Aug 30 '12 at 15:37
  • I meant to put both of them. My mistake. Actually, the Fidelius Charm does NOT break when the Secret Keeper dies. That was covered in The Deathly Hallows after Dumbledore dies. No, the caster is not explicitly mentioned for the Potter house, but it is a reasonable assumption that since it's their house, they cast it. This creates a plausible explanation for the spell failing. – Donald.McLean Aug 30 '12 at 19:40
  • You're right on the Fidelius breaking. At this point I'm so braindead I can't even figure out how the Fidelius breaks. I'm still unclear, though, why if one of the Potters cast the charm it explains why the spell failed. :) – Slytherincess Aug 30 '12 at 19:55
  • It's a logic chain based on assumptions. 1) In some universes, some spells fail when the caster dies; 2) James or Lily could be the caster of the Fidelius Charm on the Potter house; Therefore, the Fidelius Charm on the Potter house MAY have failed because the caster (James or Lily) died. It's a logic chain based on supposition an EWAG, but that's the best explanation that I can come up with. – Donald.McLean Aug 30 '12 at 20:05
  • If you want to say the spell breaks when the caster dies, then why is there any protection at all on Grimmauld Place considering the secret keeper (Dumbledore) and the most likely caster of the spell (Sirius) are both dead – user14750 May 24 '13 at 23:46
-1

pettigrew/wormtail may have been alive but the reason the fidilus charm broke is because pettigrew told voldemort where to find them once the secret keeper tells someone who wants to find the person for the wrong reasons the charm breaks

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