Filch takes Harry and Hermione to Professor McGonagall’s study. When they reach her, Neville is also there—he had been trying to warn Harry that Malfoy was going to catch him. McGonagall deduces that they fed Malfoy the story to try to get him out of bed and into trouble. She gives the three of them detention and takes fifty points from Gryffindor for each of them, putting Gryffindor in last place for the House Cup. The next day, the other Gryffindors are furious with Harry. Harry is almost glad the exams aren’t far away; he buries himself in his studies and vows not to meddle anymore.
This is one of the rare times that Harry gets in trouble for breaking the rules, and he takes it as a sign not to get involved with things that can get him into trouble. Yet he was, in fact, breaking the rules for a good reason, and when he returns to breaking the rules at the end of the story, it is because he acknowledges once more that sometimes it is important to meddle in things in order to do what is right.
About a week before exams, Harry hears Quirrell whimpering in a classroom as he walks down the hall. He thinks that someone is threatening Quirrell, and hears him sob, “No—not again, please—”. Quirrell emerges from the room quickly, but when Harry peers into the classroom, it is empty, but a door is ajar at the other end. Harry reminds himself not to meddle.
Harry is adamant that Snape is evilly torturing the feeble, nervous Professor Quirrell so that Snape can get the Stone for himself.
Harry tells Hermione and Ron what he heard, wondering if Snape convinced Quirrell to tell him how to get past his enchantment. Hermione says that they should go to Dumbledore, but Harry argues that they have no proof, and that Dumbledore will think that they made it all up to get Snape fired. Also, they’re not supposed to know about the Stone in the first place. Harry resolves not to do anything.
Harry’s argument is a decent one, but it is also worth noting that Dumbledore seems to continue to encourage Harry to break the rules when he feels it is necessary, rather than come to Dumbledore to deal with the problems they are facing.
The following evening, Filch takes Harry, Hermione, Neville, and Malfoy to Hagrid’s hut, announcing that they will be serving detention in the Forbidden Forest Both Malfoy and Neville grow visibly nervous, but Harry is just glad to see Hagrid. As the students and Hagrid (and Hagrid’s bloodhound, Fang) walk through the Forest, Hagrid points to a silvery liquid on the ground, which he explains is unicorn blood. They’re going to split into two parties to try and find the animal. Harry, Hermione, and Hagrid take one path, while Malfoy, Neville, and Fang take another.
Harry’s relief in knowing that Hagrid is the one leading them into the forest (in contrast to someone like Filch) once again emphasizes how the bonds of friendship feel like a form of protection to Harry.Additionally, the unicorn blood, which Harry will come to learn has lifesaving properties, becomes a representation of how greedy people prioritize themselves over anyone and anything else, even the most innocent of creatures.
Harry, Hagrid, and Hermione follow a trail of blood until they hear something along the path. Hagrid arms his bow in alarm, but a centaur named Ronan emerges into the clearing. Hagrid greets Ronan, who remarks that Mars is bright. Hagrid asks if he’s seen something bad in the forest, as there’s a hurt unicorn somewhere. Ronan remarks vaguely that “the innocent are [always] the first victims.” Another, centaur, Bane, joins them, and answers Hagrid’s questions just as vaguely. Hagrid walks off with Harry and Hermione in a huff. He explains that centaurs have “deep minds,” but don’t reveal much about what they know to humans.
Ronan’s statement contains a great deal of foreshadowing. The reference to Mars is a reference to Greek mythology, as Mars is the god of war, and war is imminent in the wizarding world because of Voldemort’s return. Additionally, his statement about the innocence foreshadows not only the death of the unicorn, but also relates to Harry and his tendency to be self-sacrificial.
Hagrid, Harry, and Hermione see red sparks—a signal that Neville and Malfoy are in trouble. Hagrid leaves Harry and Hermione on the path while he goes for the others. They grow more and more nervous until Hagrid returns with the other boys. Malfoy had pranked Neville, causing him to panic and send up sparks. Hagrid switches the groups, pairing Harry and Malfoy and taking Neville and Hermione with him.
In contrast with Harry’s comfort and protection with Hagrid, Malfoy continues to antagonize the other students. This lack of friendship and outright cruelty makes Neville feel extremely vulnerable.
Harry and Malfoy walk together with Fang for nearly half an hour, and Harry notes that the blood on the ground is getting thicker. They then see the unicorn, dead on the ground. As Harry approaches it, a hooded figure (later revealed as Voldemort) crawls across the ground and begins to drink the unicorn’s blood. Malfoy and Fang bolt away, but Harry is paralyzed in fear. The figure starts to come toward Harry, and Harry feels an exceptional pain in his scar. Harry staggers back, and just before the figure reaches him, another centaur charges toward it, sending the figure running. The centaur, Firenze, offers to take Harry to Hagrid on his back.
This is the first time that Harry (and the reader) encounters Voldemort. Even though Voldemort has not fully returned to power, the image of this hooded figure drinking the blood of a unicorn demonstrates the greediness of the series’ central villain. Thus, just as Harry’s association with humility makes him a quintessentially “good” character, Voldemort’s association with greed and power makes him a quintessentially evil one.
Firenze and Harry gallop back, but are interrupted by Bane and Ronan, who criticize Firenze for behaving like a “common mule” with Harry on his back. Firenze says that this is not just anyone—it’s “the Potter boy.” Ronan and Bane warn him not to tell Harry what they have read in the “movements of the planets.” Firenze angrily tells them that he opposes the thing that is lurking in the forest, and will take the side of humans if he needs.
The centaurs are referencing a prophesy that will become central to the series in the later books and play on themes of fate and choice. But Firenze’s assertion that he opposes Voldemort makes an important point about power: that if people do not resist someone gaining power for the wrong reasons, it only enables that power.
Firenze runs off with Harry, ignoring Harry’s questions about what is lurking in the forest and why the others are angry. Firenze instead tells Harry that unicorn blood can keep someone on the brink of death alive, “but at a terrible price,” because they “have slain something pure and defenseless.” A person who drinks unicorn blood will live a “cursed life, from the moment the blood touches [their] lips.” When Harry asks who would do that, Firenze asks who has long awaited their chance to return to power—and who might want to keep themselves alive in order to drink from the Elixir of Life. Harry realizes that Firenze means Voldemort.
Here Rowling cements her association with greed, power, and evil. A person who is greedy and wants to become so powerful as to evade death can only by necessity be evil, because to do so requires them to kill something “pure and defenseless.” Harry also realizes how powerful that makes the Elixir of Life as well, and how it can be corrupted into an evil substance because it can enable Voldemort’s return.
At that moment, Hagrid and Hermione run towards Harry and Firenze on the path, happy to that he’s okay. Back in the Gryffindor common room, Harry tells both Ron and Hermione what he saw, concluding that Snape is trying to steal the Stone for Voldemort so that Voldemort can then kill Harry. Hermione tries to comfort him, saying that Voldemort wouldn’t try to kill Harry with Dumbledore around. Harry goes to bed exhausted, but when he pulls back his sheets, he finds the Invisibility Cloak waiting for him. The note pinned to it says, “Just in case.”
Harry, again fueled by his desire to prove that Snape is acting out of evil, tries to reason that he wants the Stone for Voldemort, prompted by the sneaking around that he has seen Snape do, but also because of Harry’s initial impression of Snape’s willingness to abuse his power.Additionally, the Cloak makes its return, seemingly sent from the same person who gifted it to Harry the first time (later revealed as Dumbledore). The note, which reads, “Just in case,” reminds Harry that sometimes it is necessary to break the rules.