The Sphinx and the Spider

By Moose_Starr

is full of
themes that run through the entire series. One of these themes is
self-discovery and learning who you are. Even before the first book really
begins, Harry is discovering who and what he is. He knows that he's different
and things happen to him as if by magic. For example, his hair grows back
over night,1 or
he suddenly finds himself on the school roof when trying to escape bullies.2 The
ultimate moment of truth comes from Hagrid telling Harry he's a wizard.3 But
there is more to self-discovery than knowing who you are and where you come
from. Like Dumbledore says: it is our choices far more than our abilities that
show who we truly are.4 And
sometimes you need to choose between what is right and what is easy.5

The theme
of self-discovery really comes into its own in Harry Potter and the Goblet
of Fire
, with the Triwizard Tournament. This supposedly is a test of
courage and ability, but in fact the champions learn more about themselves than
about magic.

In the
first challenge Harry discovers his own personal strength: his skill with a
broomstick. The second task reveals even more about him: Victor Krum and Cedric
Diggory rescue their girlfriends, Fleur has to save her little sister, but
Harry finds Ron, his loyal best friend. But more importantly, Harry jeopardizes
his chances of winning by saving Gabrielle as well as Ron, after it becomes
clear that no one's coming for her.6
Having a "saving people thing" 7 is something that
defines Harry's character.

But it is
the Maze in the third task that is the ultimate test of self-discovery. Even
director Mike Newell picked up on its importance in the Goblet of Fire
movie: Just before the champions enter the maze, Dumbledore places the emphasis
on the importance of not losing your self inside the maze.8
Finding the Cup just happens to be an added bonus.

In the maze Harry encounters many different obstacles, all
of which test his knowledge and abilities. Among these is a giant sphinx who
asks Harry this riddle:

First think of the person who lives in disguise,

Who deals in secrets and tells naught but lies.

Next, tell me what's always the last thing to mend,

The middle of middle and end of the end?

And finally give me the sound often heard

During the search for a hard-to-find word.

Now string them together, and answer me this,

Which creature would you be unwilling to kiss?9

The answer to the riddle that Harry comes up with
is SPY-D-ER, or spider.

As each
of the tasks is a journey of self-discovery, it would make sense for the sphinx
to make the riddle relevant to each Champion, maybe revealing something about
them or forcing them to acknowledge something about themselves. Harry has no
fear of spiders or Acromantulas, so why would the sphinx suggest the spider is
the most foul? It is Ron who has the real fear of spiders, rightly or wrongly,
not Harry! Spiders have accompanied Harry from his younger years living under
the stairs at Privet Drive,10
to the time when he watched them on Dumbledore's hat.11 Spiders
have even helped Harry in the past, with Aragog giving an important clue to the
location of the Chamber of Secrets.12

Ever since reading Goblet of
for the first time I have believed that "spider" was not the actual
answer to the sphinx's riddle. In this essay I will re-analyse the sphinx's
riddle to see if there could be an answer that would have been more logical for
Harry to give.

look at the different parts of the riddle individually:

First think of the person who lives in disguise,

Who deals in secrets and tells naught but lies.

The first
part of Harry's answer is "spy" but this has always seemed like a bit of a leap
of logic to me. A spy does not have to live in disguise, although he
arguably disguises himself to fit into the community or society on which he
spies. A spy's job is to get information from one side to give to his own side.
He does not tell "naught but lies' he is to report the facts from the other
side, although he may have to lie about his identity to neutral persons.

Eaters, on the other hand, do live in disguise, with their masks and hooded
cloaks. They deal in Voldemort's secrets, supposedly keeping them for him. They
tell lies about their loyalty to Voldemort, denied it to escape Azkaban, and
spread lies and mistrust. Death Eaters tell naught but lies, about Dumbledore,
about good and evil, about "mudbloods." So let's suggest the answer to the
first part of the riddle is "DE."

Next, tell me what's always the last thing to mend,

The middle of middle and end of the end?

figures the answer to this part to be "d" but I see these as three separate
clues, otherwise the sphinx would say "or" instead of "and".

thought endlessly about what is the last thing to mend, I first considered
"heart' as a broken heart can take a long time to heal. Then I thought, the
sphinx is saying that the answer is "d" because it is the last thing in mend.
Taking the opposite way of thinking and leaving off the last of mend, we get
"men." The sphinx requires that the letter D be taken from the word "mend" for
the riddle to work, but it does not mean that this letter has to be the part of
the word to be used in the solution. Harry takes the word "mend" and chooses to
discard the first three letters but keep the "d" but, an equally correct reply
to "last thing to mend" is having the letter "d" discarded and keeping the
first three letters. "The last thing to mend" could imply that the "d" is an
error because it will not "mend" the answer. Thus, discard the last thing of
mend which is its end letter, which leaves us with "men." A more arcane
interpretation would be that men are the last to mend differences, to put them
aside, to reconcile.

Next, the
"middle of middle" is not "d" either. It is either "dd" or nothing: mid_dle. If
one takes "dd" as the middle of middle then why not "idle' too, or any other
random selection of letters between the first and last letters of the word. But
technically, the middle of middle is nothing (so no letter).

Finally, "the
end of end." My first thought was "Amen." Then I tried Omega and other end-type
words, but I kept coming back to Amen. In crossword puzzles, "Amen" is
oftentimes a clue meaning "so be it" and the answer is "stet." The end of
"stet" is the letter T. Had I been asked the riddle I would have said "T."

And finally give me the sound often heard

During the search for a hard-to-find word.

third reply is "er". The sound is undeniably "er' but as in anagrams or
crosswords, "sounds like" doesn't mean "spelled like." My answer would have
been "OR."

Now string them together, and answer me this,

Which creature would you be unwilling to kiss?

says spider, I say DE-MEN-T-OR ’ Dementor.

I am
convinced that the sphinx in the Maze lied. In my opinion, it deceived Harry by
accepting the wrong answer to its own riddle. The riddle doesn't make sense to
begin with and the answer it gives is unrelated to Harry and his situation.
Without knowing the answer, no way would I have guessed "spider' especially
the three-part questions that supposedly give the "d".

So I
found the French, Spanish and German translations of the riddle. Interestingly,
all the answers are translated as "spider." 13 Maybe the
translators were simply told that the answer is "spider" and to invent a riddle
in their own language that leads to this reply, so it's the same in all
languages. But the translations just seem forced and bizarre.

In the
French version of the riddle the final part is translated as: What unearthly
creature would you not want to kiss for anything in the world?14
In my opinion, while many people have arachnophobia, spiders are not unearthly
creatures. And while they may be unpleasant to kiss, surely they're no worse
than, say, slugs or flobberworms.

When you
think about it, doesn't "Dementor" seem a far more logical answer to the
riddle? The kiss from the sightless, soul-sucking fiend is a fate worse than
Which creature would you be unwilling to kiss? I would say the Dementor.

all, Harry's real fear and enemy is the Dementor, and it is the Dementor and
not the spider that poses the most serious threat and danger. From the time the
Dementors came into Harry's life they have threatened him at every turn and
step, even Aunt Petunia still remembers the name after all these years16
all these years of trying hard to pretend that the wizarding world does not

Lupin says "Dementors are the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They
infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair."
They are soul-sucking
fiends. Since Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry has been
preyed upon by the Dementors. They seek him out. His Boggart is a Dementor.18
His only real family, Sirius, has spent years as a prisoner guarded by
Dementors and now faces once again the prospect of being given back to them.
Dementors are making Harry's life a living hell, and even continue to pursue
him in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Had the reply been
"Dementor" it would have fit with the continuity of the role and growing
foulness of the Dementors through the Harry Potter books.

So why
would the sphinx have accepted the wrong answer? Well, Barty Crouch Jr. and
Ludo Bagman were helping Harry through the tournament from the start, by giving
him subtle clues about summoning charms19
and having Dobby bring him the Gillyweed;20
they really wanted Harry to get through the first tasks and win the third to be
certain that he reaches the Cup. If Harry had gotten this far but failed to
answer the sphinx's riddle, it would have been a severe blow, to say the least,
for Barty Crouch Jr. To get so close to the Cup only to be defeated by a riddle
would mean Harry lost the Tournament and You-Know-Who did not get his prize
after all. I believe that the sphinx would probably have let Harry pass had he
replied "maple syrup pancakes!"

In the
end, this all has no great significance for the general plot or storyline. The
revelation that the sphinx lied never came in Order of the Phoenix, much
to my dismay and genuine surprise. It could just have been a clever and amusing
riddle, written by a smart author with a neat sense of rhyme.

to legend, the symbol of the spider signifies that you have learned how to
weave your life with beauty, strength and precision.21
You have learned to walk with balance and awareness. Harry will have learned
these things by the end of the series, but at the time of the sphinx's riddle,
his life was still marred by Dementors.


Rowling, Sorcerer's Stone, 24.

2. Ibid., 25.

3. Ibid., 50.

4. Ibid., Chamber of Secrets,

5. Ibid., Goblet of Fire,

6. Ibid., 501-502.

7. Ibid., Order of the Phoenix, 733.

8. Newell, Goblet of Fire.

9. Rowling, Goblet of Fire,

10. Ibid., Sorcerer's Stone,

11. Ibid., Half-Blood Prince,

12. Ibid., Chamber of Secrets,


14. Ibid., Harry Potter et la
Coupe de Feu
, 659.

15. Ibid., Prisoner of Azkaban,

16. Ibid., Order of the Phoenix, 31.

17. Ibid., Prisoner of Azkaban,

18. Ibid., 155.

19. Ibid., Goblet of Fire,

20. Ibid., 491.

21. Wa-Na-Nee-Che, White Eagle
Medicine Wheel
, 21.


Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
Directed by Mike Newell. Burbank: Warner Bros. Pictures, 2006.

J.K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. LevineBooks, 1999.

”””. Harry
Potter and the Goblet of Fire
. New
York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2000.

”””. Harry
Potter and the Half Blood Prince
. New
York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2005.

”””. Harry
Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
New York:
Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2003.

”””. Harry
Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
. New
York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 1999.

”””. Harry
Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
. New
York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 1998.

”””. Harry
Potter et la Coupe de Feu.
Gallimard Jeunesse, 2000.

”””. Harry Potter und der Feuerkelch. Hamburg: Carlsen Verlag GmbH, 2001.

”””. Harry Potter y el Caliz de Fuego. Barcelona: Salamandra, 2001.

A.D. Harvey and E. Harvey. White Eagle
Medicine Wheel.
New York:
Thomas Dunne Books, 1997.

Comments? See below, or discuss this essay and vote for the Readers' Choice Award on the Scribbulus forum.

The Leaky Cauldron is not associated with J.K. Rowling, Warner Bros., or any of the individuals or companies associated with producing and publishing Harry Potter books and films.