What’s Baruffio?

Baruffio is a blog for people who take silly things way too seriously. It’s where you can read ludicrously in-depth analyses of a single spell. It’s where the only argument against a conspiracy theory is that it’s not consistent. It’s where we’re still talking about Harry Potter, after all these years.

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Much is made in Harry Potter about “the Trace”, the charm on underage witches and wizards that is used by the Ministry to detect illegal spellwork. The problem is that there is no such thing.

What is “the Trace” supposed to be?

The most extended explanation of the Trace is given by Mad-Eye Moody in Deathly Hallows:

“Second problem: you’re under-age, which means you’ve still got the Trace on you.”

“I don’t—”

“The Trace, the Trace!” said Mad-Eye impatiently. “The charm that detects magical activity around under-seventeens, the way the Ministry finds out about under-age magic! If you, or anyone around you, casts a spell to get you out of here, Thicknesse is going to know about it, and so will the Death Eaters.

“We can’t wait for the Trace to break, because the moment you turn seventeen you’ll lose all the protection your mother gave you. In short: Pius Thicknesse thinks he’s got you cornered good and proper.”

Harry could not help but agree with the unknown Thicknesse.

“So what are we going to do?”

“We’re going to use the only means of transport left to us, the only ones the Trace can’t detect, because we don’t need to cast spells to use them: brooms, Thestrals and Hagrid’s motorbike” (DH, chapter 4).

The Trace apparently allows the Ministry to know something about the location of underage wizards, in order to determine if they are breaking the Decree for the Reasonable Restriction of Underage Sorcery. The Ministry has separate, unspecified ways of knowing when and where magic is performed in the United Kingdom; the Trace does not specifically tell the Ministry when an underage witch or wizard performs magic. The Trace, in conjunction with the aforementioned unspecified magic detection mechanisms, allows the Ministry to know when magic is performed in close proximity to an underage witch or wizard (the canny reader will see from the above quote that there’s already a problem; but we’ll come to that). This is what leads to the Ministry issuing Harry with a warning when Dobby explodes a cake in #4 Privet Drive:

Dear Mr Potter,

We have received intelligence that a Hover Charm was used at your place of residence this evening at twelve minutes past nine.

As you know, underage wizards are not permitted to perform spells outside school, and further spellwork on your part may lead to expulsion from said school (Decree for the Reasonable Restriction of Underage Sorcery, 1875, Paragraph C).

We would also ask you to remember that any magical activity which risks notice by members of the non-magical community (Muggles) is a serious offence, under section 13 of the International Confederation of Warlocks’ Statute of Secrecy.

Enjoy your holidays!

Yours sincerely,

Mafalda Hopkirk

Improper Use of Magic Office

Ministry of Magic (CoS, chapter 2)

But, sadly, this is all a terrible vicious lie. The Trace does not exist.

Why can’t it exist?

In The Half-Blood Prince, Dumbledore shows Harry the recorded memory of Morfin’s meeting with Voldemort. Dumbledore explains that it is nearly certain that Voldemort Stunned Morfin, took his wand, and murdered the Riddle family. Harry points out a rather large problem:

“But how come the Ministry didn’t realise that Voldemort had done all that to Morfin?” Harry asked angrily. “He was under age at the time, wasn’t he? I thought they could detect under-age magic!”

“You are quite right—they can detect magic, but not the perpetrator: you will remember that you were blamed by the Ministry for the Hover Charm that was, in fact, cast by—”

“Dobby,” growled Harry; this injustice still rankled. “So if you’re under age and you do magic inside an adult witch or wizard’s house, the Ministry won’t know?”

“They will certainly be unable to tell who performed the magic,” said Dumbledore, smiling slightly at the look of great indignation on Harry’s face. “They rely on witch and wizard parents to enforce their offspring’s obedience while within their walls.”

“Well, that’s rubbish,” snapped Harry. “Look what happened here, look what happened to Morfin!” (HBP, chapter 17)

Yes, we basically already knew that because of the Dobby thing. We already know why Voldemort didn’t get in trouble for doing magic at the Gaunt House. But there were no other witches or wizards at the Riddle house when Voldemort killed them. How did the Ministry fail to notice “three uses of Avada Kedavra by a sixteen-year old in a Muggle home”?

A few theories have surfaced to explain this inconsistency:

  1. Voldemort was not underage when he killed the Riddles.

    Cedric Diggory was 17 in his sixth year, allowing him to enter the Triwizard Tournament. Wikia user Thanksherman proposes that Voldemort was similarly old for his cohort, allowing him to come of age and act without the Trace in his sixth year.

    The problem with this theory is twofold: Not only does Dumbledore not contradict Harry above when Harry asks how Voldemort could have done magic without it being detected by the Ministry, Dumbledore explicitly claims that Voldemort was then Harry’s age—and Harry wouldn’t turn 17 for some time. When discussing Voldemort’s conversation with Horace Slughorn (which occurs after the Riddle House incident), Dumbledore says to Harry:

    “I am sure you understood the significance of what we just heard. At the same age as you are now, give or take a few months, Tom Riddle was doing all he could to find out how to make himself immortal” (HBP, chapter 23).

  2. The Trace works in strange ways.

    There are only sketchy descriptions of the Trace in the books, leaving open the possibility that the Trace works in unintuitive ways.

    What we do know is that the Trace breaks when a witch or wizard turns 17, and the Ministry doesn’t keep tabs on the locations of adult wizards; otherwise in Deathly Hallows they would have chased after any adult witches and wizards found in odd locations; Harry, Ron, and Hermione would have been caught in short order. (How the hell they know that Harry casts his Patronus in Order of the Phoenix “in the presence of a Muggle”—Dudley—would be another troubling question, if the Trace exists. But it doesn’t.)

    But the Ministry can’t track the locations of underage witches and wizards either. You’d be forgiven for thinking so, since as much is implied in DH:

    “We wondered,” said Hermione tentatively, “whether Harry could still have the Trace on him?”

    “Impossible,” said Lupin. Ron looked smug, and Harry felt hugely relieved. “Apart from anything else, they’d know for sure Harry was here if he still had the Trace on him, wouldn’t they? But I can’t see how they could have tracked you to Tottenham Court Road, that’s worrying, really worrying” (DH, chapter 11).

    But in the quote at the very beginning of this essay, Moody states explicitly that the Ministry cannot track underage witches and wizards. If they could, it wouldn’t matter whether Harry traveled from Privet Drive by Portkey, Thestral, broom, or Apparition. And in HBP, Scrimgeour asks Harry where he went with Dumbledore before the latter’s death, something he would know if the Trace allowed the Ministry to actually track underage witches and wizards.

    With all this in mind, how can the Ministry know whether a bit of magic, performed near a Traced person, is plausibly underage sorcery or not?

    The Ministry might keep a list of underage wizards known to be alone or otherwise without magical supervision. Harry would fall in this category, as well as Muggleborns and other special cases (like Voldemort at the orphanage). Warnings are only sent when magic is performed in the vicinity of these people’s homes.

    But this this just doesn’t seem true: when the Advance Guard removes Harry from Privet Drive, Tonks casts several spells, apparently with no repercussions.

    The usual reply here is that the Ministry is notified when adult witches and wizards (Arthur Weasley in Goblet of Fire, Dumbledore in HBP) are going to visit. The Ministry then supposedly ignores magic for the duration of the visit. But the Ministry does not know that the Advance Guard removed Harry from Privet Drive. Allowing the Order of the Phoenix to take Harry to the home of Sirius Black does not seem like something the Fudge administration would do. Moreover, during Harry’s disciplinary hearing, it’s made explicit that the Ministry believes him to be still residing at Privet Drive:

    “You’re late.”

    “Sorry,” said Harry nervously. “I—I didn’t know the time had been changed.”

    “That is not the Wizengamot’s fault,” said the voice. “An owl was sent to you this morning. Take your seat” (OotP, chapter 8).

    Of course there’s some wiggle-room here as well; Fudge and Umbridge are trying to get Harry expelled, so it’s possible they arranged to have the letter sent to the wrong address. But if they did figure out that Harry was living at #12 Grimmauld Place, the Noble and Most Ancient House of Black, they would surely suspect him of having contact with the last Black family member (a fine excuse to detain him for questioning and harassment).

  3. No way is there such a thing as “the Trace”.

What’s really going on?

If the Trace doesn’t exist, why does everyone think it does?

The characters in Harry Potter aren’t, well, optimally rational. Dumbledore tells Harry that underage witches and wizards can do magic in the home of an adult witch or wizard, and Harry still doesn’t do magic at the Burrow until he turns 17 and gets all excited. Dumbledore nearly allows Katie Bell and Ron to die because he can’t think of a plausible pretext to confront Malfoy about his whole assassination plan in Half-Blood Prince. Ron never realized he’s allowed to do magic at home and peels sprouts by hand for 17 years. Hermione’s pretty smart I guess, but she doesn’t really show a strong understanding of the Trace either.

So it’s not a huge stretch to assume that it’s a lie spread by the (equally inept) Ministry to control the magical population. The Ministry isn’t competent enough to actually implement the Trace, but the rest are willing to believe in it anyway.

But questions remain:

My best guess at an answer to all three is … Mrs Figg.


Yeah, I don’t like these sorts of conspiracy theories either. But she’s always near Privet Drive, and the only not-obviously-canon claim I’m making is that she works for the Ministry rather than for Dumbledore. (You could even argue that there is textual support for this claim. The tents that Mr. Weasley borrows from his Ministry colleague Perkins in GoF are “furnished in exactly the same sort of style as Mrs. Figg’s” apartment (chapter 7), and also smell of cats; if Perkins modeled his tents after Figg’s apartment, then that suggests she is in regular contact with at least one Ministry employee.)

Arabella Figg—or one of her cats—saw the Hover Charm (whether or not they saw Dobby), saw Marge explode, and saw the Patronus (even if she couldn’t see the Dementors). She did not see the Weasleys travel to the Dursley’s by Floo Powder, or see the Advance Guard arrive in OotP, or Dumbledore in HBP. Maybe she was asleep.

Even the books state that she did see the Patronus, and so she could have communicated with the Ministry immediately after (using her own Patronus—if she’s only pretending to be a Squib—or using a mirror like the one Sirius gives to Harry or a Protean-Charmed object like the DA coins). That situation was already suspicious, because she claims that she knew about Mundungus running off right away, but didn’t bother contacting Harry and telling him to stay inside. So either she was lying about that, or knew Mundungus left to buy cauldrons but had Ministry orders not to warn Harry (the Dementors were sent by Umbridge).

I suppose Mrs Figg was spying on Harry for the Ministry because he’s important and the Ministry wants to keep tabs on him. Other high-profile witches and wizards presumably get the same treatment.

An objection

You might cry: “But surely a simpler explanation is just as you said—the Ministry is inept! It’s not that the Trace doesn’t exist, but rather the Ministry is just really bad about following up on the instances of magic it detects. Depending on how the Trace works, either they just didn’t notice Voldemort’s magic performed at the Riddle House, or they failed to see that Tonks cast Lumos and some silly trunk-packing spell when the Advance Guard came to get Harry. See, no need to drag poor Mrs Figg into your wild imagination!” (This objection is from Aziza.)

That would be a better explanation, but for one thing. As I noted above, when the Ministry takes Harry to task for his Patronus in OotP, they know something that only Mrs Figg (or another spy) could know: that Harry performed magic in the presence of a Muggle: Dudley. If the Ministry doesn’t track the relatively small adult magical population, the idea that they might be tracking all Muggles is pretty wild.

“Couldn’t they be tracking just a few Muggles of importance?” Dudley’s not important, though; he already knows about magic, so seeing more magic isn’t a major breach of the Statute of Secrecy. The Ministry just pretends it is while they’re trying to expel Harry.