The sphinx's riddle

Harry encounters a sphinx in the Triwizard maze, and must solve a riddle to pass it

Extract from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

by J.K. Rowling

Every so often he hit more dead ends, but the increasing darkness made him feel sure he was getting near the heart of the maze. Then, as he strode down a long, straight path, he saw movement once again, and his beam of wand-light hit an extraordinary creature, one which he had only seen in picture form, in his Monster Book of Monsters.

It was a sphinx. It had the body of an overlarge lion; great clawed paws, and a long yellowish tail ending in a brown tuft. Its head, however, was that of a woman. She turned her long, almond-shaped eyes upon Harry as he approached. He raised his wand, hesitating. She was not crouching as if to spring, but pacing from side to side of the path, blocking his progress.

Then she spoke, in a deep, hoarse voice. ‘You are very near your goal. The quickest way is past me.’

‘So ... so will you move, please?’ said Harry, knowing what the answer was going to be.

‘No,’ she said, continuing to pace. ‘Not unless you can answer my riddle. Answer on your first guess – I let you pass. Answer wrongly – I attack. Remain silent – I will let you walk away from me, unscathed.’

Harry’s stomach slipped several notches. It was Hermione who was good at this sort of thing, not him. He weighed his chances. If the riddle was too hard, he could keep silent, get away from her unharmed, and try and find an alternative route to the centre.

‘OK,’ he said. ‘Can I hear the riddle?’

The sphinx sat down upon her hind legs, in the very centre of the path, and recited:

'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?'

Harry gaped at her.

‘Could I have it again ... more slowly?’ he asked tentatively. She blinked at him, smiled, and repeated the poem.

‘All the clues add up to a creature I wouldn’t want to kiss?’ Harry asked.

She merely smiled her mysterious smile. Harry took that for a ‘yes’. Harry cast his mind around. There were plenty of animals he wouldn’t want to kiss; his immediate thought was a Blast-Ended Skrewt, but something told him that wasn’t the answer. He’d have to try and work out the clues ...

‘A person in disguise,’ Harry muttered, staring at her, ‘who lies ... er ... that’d be a – an impostor. No, that’s not my guess! A – a spy? I’ll come back to that ... could you give me the next clue again, please?’

She repeated the next lines of the poem.

‘The last thing to mend,’ Harry repeated. ‘Er ... no idea ... middle of middle ... could I have the last bit again?’

She gave him the last four lines.

‘A sound often heard in the search for a hard-to-find word,’ said Harry. ‘Er ... that’d be ... er ... hang on – “er”! “Er”’s a sound!’ The sphinx smiled at him.

‘Spy ... er ... spy ... er ...’ said Harry, pacing up and down himself. ‘A creature I wouldn’t want to kiss ... a spider!’

The sphinx smiled more broadly. She got up, stretched her front legs, and then moved aside for him to pass.

‘Thanks!’ said Harry, and, amazed at his own brilliance, he dashed forwards.


Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

By J.K. Rowling