The Secret Riddle

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Chapter 13 of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: The Secret Riddle ← Chapter 12 | Chapter 14 →


Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.

Katie Bell is moved to St. Mungo's Hospital in London. With the exception of Harry, Ron, Hermione, and Leanne, students are unaware that someone other than Katie was the intended target. Ron and Hermione ignore Harry's comment that Malfoy knows.

Though Dumbledore has remained unseen all day, Harry reports to his office for his second lesson. Dumbledore is there and reassures Harry that Snape, who has more experience with the Dark Arts than Madam Pomfrey, has done all he can to help Katie. Dumbledore also says that Mundungus Fletcher has apparently gone into hiding, but nothing else will be taken from Grimmauld Place. Dumbledore tells Harry that Draco's involvement will be investigated, but their lesson is more important now.

In Dumbledore's previous lesson, they had determined Merope Riddle, abandoned by her Muggle husband, Tom Riddle, was pregnant and alone in London. Lacking the will to perform magic to care for herself, she needed money. She sold a gold locket once belonging to Salazar Slytherin to Caractacus Burke, one of the founders of Borgin & Burkes. Harry was outraged that Burke only gave Merope ten Galleons for the priceless relic.

In this memory, a younger Dumbledore with auburn hair and beard visits the eleven-year-old Tom Riddle in a Muggle orphanage. The matron comments Tom is a strange boy and leaves the impression she is hoping someone will take him well away, Dumbledore then speaks with Tom. Initially, Tom believes Professor Dumbledore is a doctor who has come to take him to a sanatorium. However, Dumbledore explains that Hogwarts is a school of magic. Even as a boy, Tom manipulated and terrified other children, strangled a pet rabbit, hurt people, and spoke in Parseltongue. When Tom demands proof that Dumbledore is a wizard, Dumbledore conjures flames on Tom's wardrobe, and as suddenly extinguishes them. Dumbledore orders Tom to retrieve a small cache of stolen items and demands he return them to their owners. The young Dumbledore worries about the boy's ambition, his cruelty, his thieving, and his reaction to learning he is a wizard; he resolves to keep a close eye on him.

Back in the office, Dumbledore says he was unaware Tom would become the most feared Dark Wizard in centuries, Lord Voldemort. He draws Harry's attention to several traits about the young Tom Riddle: he disliked his common name, Tom, and wanted to be separate from everyone else. He was already very self-sufficient, secretive, apparently friendless, and he liked collecting trophies.

As he is leaving, Harry notices the ring is gone and comments that he expected to see one of Voldemort's trophies, perhaps the mouth organ? Dumbledore comments that the mouth organ was always only a mouth organ.


By sharing his and others' memories, Dumbledore shows Harry how Voldemort crafted himself from an abandoned, insecure boy into a notorious Dark wizard. While readers may be sympathetic to Riddle's difficult early life, it can be seen that he was a naturally unpleasant person from an early age. Even the orphanage caretakers came to fear him. And despite growing up without knowing his family, young Tom Riddle inherited many unpleasant Gaunt family characteristics. He was egotistical, secretive, aloof, and lacked empathy for others. He was also highly intelligent, far beyond an ordinary eleven-year-old. As a child, Riddle isolated himself from the other orphans, who he considered inferior and frequently stole objects from, saving them as trophies. He also physically and/or emotionally threatened or harmed them, and later learned to manipulate people to obtain what he wanted. When Dumbledore reprimanded Tom for being disrespectful, Riddle's sudden good behavior seemed insincere and designed to appease the strange professor only to ensure his attending Hogwarts. Young Riddle feared being ordinary in any way and needed to feel superior to everyone. However, being introduced to the Wizarding world may have had the opposite effect. Though Riddle learned he possessed special powers the other orphans lacked, upon arriving at Hogwarts, he was no longer unique, but just one among many talented wizard children. Even here, he was driven to rise above his peers and worked hard to learn as much as possible, eventually leading him into mastering Dark magic.

Riddle also shares many similarities to Harry. Both were orphans raised in a loveless environment, they are half-blood wizards, each learned they had magical powers only when they were old enough to attend Hogwarts, and both could perform magic at an early age without any training or using a wand. However, even if both boys had been raised by their respective parents, their outcomes would probably still have been very different from one another. Riddle believes himself to be a wizard immediately, whereas Harry is initially doubtful. And unlike Harry, Riddle hated Muggles, even though his father was one, a fact Riddle loathed about himself and may have been deeply rooted in his Muggle father abandoning his mother. Harry would probably be much the same good-hearted person he is now, only more confident and self-assured, while Tom Riddle's Gaunt heritage likely would still have despised his Muggle origins, even if his father had raised him. Riddle felt forever tainted by this "blood impurity", and it had an adverse effect on his psyche. Learning that he was a wizard inflated his sense of superiority, while his connection to Salazar Slytherin later fueled this egotism, gradually manifesting itself into his new persona as Lord Voldemort and diminishing, in his mind, his sullied Muggle bloodline.

Dumbledore says he kept a close watch on Riddle at Hogwarts. Although Dumbledore never mentions it, during his interviews with the orphanage Matron, we see that he may suspect Riddle could be tempted to learn and perform the three Unforgivable curses. Riddle's speaking to Dumbledore in a commanding voice suggests the Imperius curse, while his boast that he can cause pain in others is similar to the Cruciatus curse. His capacity to kill another child's rabbit to establish dominance and control through fear is a precursor to using the Killing curse. Riddle also showed the potential for quickly learning Legilimency when he stared into Dumbledore's eyes to determine if he is lying. While it is unlikely young Tom had ever performed these difficult spells, particularly without a wand, his emerging abilities strongly suggest he had the potential to become a powerful Dark wizard.


Study questions are meant to be left for each student to answer; please don't answer them here.


  1. Why did Merope Gaunt sell the Locket? Whom did she sell it to, and why was she willing to accept so little money for such a valuable object?
  2. What did the staff at the orphanage think about Tom Riddle? Why?
  3. Why would Tom Riddle believe that Dumbledore arrived at the orphanage to take him to an asylum? What was Riddle planning to do if that was true?
  4. What is Dumbledore's initial opinion of Tom Riddle at the orphanage? What did he resolve to do? What does he tell Harry about Riddle?

Further Study[edit]

  1. Why might Slytherin's locket be gold - Gryffindor's color - and not silver like Slytherin's House color?
  2. Why wouldn't Merope use magic to support herself?
  3. Why do Ron and Hermione continually dismiss Harry's suspicions about Draco, despite credible circumstantial evidence against him? What does Dumbledore tell Harry?

Greater Picture[edit]

Intermediate warning: Details follow which you may not wish to read at your current level.

Careful attention should be paid to Dumbledore's words when he responds to Harry's concerns about Draco Malfoy. Here, and in later chapters, when Harry reports on Draco's actions, Dumbledore never actually dismisses them, but instead tells Harry, "they are not your concern." Examining the text reveals that he is not belittling Harry's allegations; rather, he is saying that he is aware, but believes Harry has more important things to do than worry about Draco, nor is it Harry's place to know more than he does. In fact, in the final book, we learn that Dumbledore knows what Draco's mission is, though not exactly how he plans to execute it, and is having Severus Snape watch Draco. Snape's surveillance will be less complete than Harry's, and when Draco finishes his plan's main step, it is discovered and reported by Harry rather than Snape.

Dumbledore's comment, that the mouth organ (harmonica) was only ever a mouth organ, is enigmatic to Harry, and to the reader. In the final novel, the ring is revealed to have been a Horcrux before Dumbledore broke it, and it is to this that Dumbledore was probably alluding. That the ring's stone is also one of the three Deathly Hallows probably is not what Dumbledore is thinking about. While that part of the ring's nature is probably predominant in Dumbledore's mind, given the previous summer's events, Dumbledore already believes that Voldemort fails to grasp the Hallows' nature. As such, the ring's stone being a Hallow is irrelevant to his and Harry's discussion here, as it centers on Voldemort.

The ring's absence is curious, and the reader may wonder why it is gone. In fact, we do not see it again in this book. When it reappears, near the end of the final book, it is inside the Snitch that Dumbledore has bequeathed to Harry. It is a safe assumption that Dumbledore has already secreted the ring within the Snitch, in preparation for his demise, which he now knows will be no later than July, no more than nine or ten months in the future.