Harry Potter: A History of Magic

“There was a lot more to magic, as Harry quickly found out, than waving your wand and saying a few funny words” – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

On 26th June 1997, J. K. Rowling published her first book in what turned out to be a highly successful, worldwide phenomenon. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was only the beginning of an extraordinary journey that has affected the hearts of millions of people and changed children’s literature forever. With seven books in the original series, it has become a multimedia marvel.

In honour of the 20th anniversary, a magical exhibition has been put together, combining a vast amount of detail from the Harry Potter series, with examples of “magic” from the real world.

What better place to host the exhibition than the British Library with its enormous collection of rare and ancient books. Being located a stone’s throw away from King’s Cross Station, which fans will know is where the famous Hogwarts Express sets off from, is an added bonus.

Centred around the Hogwarts curriculum, the exhibition takes a look at the various forms of magic that have been experimented with throughout history, evidenced with examples of literature and ancient objects.

Expertly designed to look like settings from the Harry Potter world, references to scenes from the books are interspersed with the collection, creating a magical and exciting atmosphere. Even before entering, the dangling winged keys above the heads of those queuing for their timed entry, hint of the adventure inside.

Harry Potter: A History of Magic also contains a history of the franchise with details provided by J. K. Rowling to explain the development of her ideas. From a shaky beginning to the most popular fantasy fiction, Harry Potter has been on a remarkable journey.

It is hard to imagine a world without Harry Potter, particularly for people, like myself, who were only six years old in 1997, however, J. K. Rowling initially struggled to find a publisher. Several had already rejected the manuscript before Rowling sent it to Bloomsbury, yet, even at this stage, it was not certain whether the staff would agree to publish Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. It took the strong opinion of one young person to convince the team to approve the proposal.

The founder of Bloomsbury, Nigel Newton, took the manuscript home and gave it to his daughter Alice. Who better to judge the merits of a children’s book than an eight-year-old reader? Her response set the publication in progress:

“The excitement in this book made me feel warm inside. I think it is possibly one of the best books an 8/9 year old could read!” – Alice Newton, aged eight.

The original print run was small – 500 copies – suggesting the publishers had little hope that Harry Potter would be a success. However, the interest of a film director helped to seal its fate. Steve Kloves came across the title within a dozen synopses for potential films. Intrigued by the logline, “A young boy goes to wizard’s school,” he sought out the book and was hooked immediately.

The film introduced many more people to the Harry Potter books and they were soon flying off the shelves. Today, over 450 million copies have been sold and the story has been translated into 80 different languages. It has been the most successful venture in children’s publishing.

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The two parts are designed to be watched in one day or on two consecutive nights

Success continued with the publication of companion books, such as The Tales of Beedle the Bard in 2008, and Fantastic Beasts in 2001. The latter inspired the film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016), and there has also been a stage production titled Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (2016).

 

Displayed throughout the exhibition are examples of J. K. Rowling’s preliminary thoughts and work. These include typewritten first drafts, handwritten notes, sketches of Hogwarts and characters, and detailed plans.

More recently, the first three books in the Harry Potter series have been republished in a large, hardback, illustrated format. Jim Kay, the illustrator, has produced amazing drawings of the characters and settings. These are not influenced by the films starring Daniel Radcliffe, making them unique and original. Many of these are also featured in the exhibition.

Potions

The first subject in the Hogwarts curriculum to appear on the journey around the exhibition is Potions, taught for the majority of Harry’s time at the school by the nefarious Professor Snape. People have been making potions for hundreds of years, believing they can cure illnesses and other impossible things. This is evidenced by Jacob Meydenbach’s book Ortus Sanitatis, owned by the British Library, which contains information and recipes for hundreds of potions.

Visitors have the opportunity to try their hand at creating a couple of the potions that feature in the Harry Potter books. An interactive screen instructs the player to insert various ingredients into a digital cauldron. Get it right and a bottled potion appears, however, making a mistake may result in an explosion!

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Ivory pharmacy sign in the shape of a unicorn’s head

In the 18th century, apothecaries sold potions or medicines made from natural ingredients for a variety of ailments. These establishments were recognised by wooden and ivory signs in the shape of a unicorn. The horn, however, was the tusk of a narwhal rather than a real unicorn horn, which was, obviously, harder to come by!

Although the Harry Potter series is a fictional creation, J. K. Rowling based a lot on truth and history. It is impressive to note the extent to which she researched, even some of the things she invented are based on existing ideas. The philosopher’s stone referenced in the title of the first book was believed to make its owner immortal. In the 15th century, George Ripley (1415-90), an alchemist, produced an illustrated scroll with instructions about how to make a philosopher’s stone. The manuscript, which has rarely been unrolled due to its size, sits in an extremely long display case for everyone to see.

The characters in Harry Potter are invented by the author, however, one name that features on a required book for the potions class is Nicolas Flamel, who did exist. A replica of his 15th-century tombstone sits to one side of the Ripley Scroll.

Herbology

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Culpeper’s English physician and complete herbal…1789

A double archway leads from the Potions section to the Herbology area. This was a core subject at Hogwarts but was also taught in the real world. Herbology is essentially the study of plants and their uses. For years, people relied on this knowledge to create ointments and medicines, even potions. The British Library has a copy of a book called Culpeper’s English Physician; and Complete Herbal which was first published in 1652. Nicholas Culpeper (1616-54) was an unlicensed apothecary who wanted herbal knowledge available to everyone, hence why it was written in English rather than the traditional Latin. J.K. Rowling often consulted this book when researching for Harry Potter.

Jim Kay’s illustrations demonstrate the fictional plants that feature in the novels, but, as always, these are also based on real life. One plant is the mandrake, which does exist in real life, however, the Harry Potter ones have magical qualities; for example, they scream. There are also illustrations to compare the traditional idea of gnomes (red hat, rosy cheeks) with J. K. Rowling’s version (ugly and looks like a potato).

Charms

The curators of the Harry Potter exhibition have gone to great lengths to bring the magic of Hogwarts to life, utilising lighting effects and digital technology. To exemplify the power of charms, a flying snitch (a golden ball with wings) is seen flying across the walls. A disembodied voice chants magic spells such as “Wingardium Leviosa” and “Alohomora” which young wizards are taught at school.

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Liber Medicinalis

Magic words have also been used in real life, although not in quite the same way. Magicians and children’s entertainers still shout “Open Sesame” or “Abracadabra” when reaching the pinnacle of their act, however, “Abracadabra” dates back to the 13th century. The word was believed to have healing powers and patients were instructed to write out the word on eleven lines, leaving out one character each time, to create a triangular shape, which would then be cut out and worn around the neck like an amulet.

In the Harry Potter books, charms are more than waving a magic wand and saying a strange word. Objects can be charmed to move (e.g. the golden snitch and broomsticks), disappear, turn into something else, and so forth. In an empty glass cabinet supposedly hangs Harry’s invisibility cloak, a cloak that has been charmed to make the wearer disappear from sight. However, being an invisibility cloak, no one can see it!

Astronomy

Entering the Astronomy section is like stepping into a pretend observatory. Tiny white lights decorate the dark ceiling making it look like the night sky. Astronomy is one of the oldest sciences in existence, and although it does not involve magic, it is still an important subject in the wizarding world. Scientists have studied the night sky, determining the position of planets and stars, and discovering the secrets of the universe.

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A section of the Dunhuang Star Chart

Evidence of astronomy dates back thousands of years, however, the oldest tangible evidence to be discovered so far is a manuscript produced in China around 700AD. The Dunhuang star chart is two metres long and contains a record of the movements of the stars visible in the Northern Hemisphere. Civilisations used to base important decisions on the position of stars, however, this crosses over into astrology.

When writing Harry Potter, Rowling looked to the starry skies for names for many of her characters. An interactive screen allows visitors to locate certain stars in the sky that have been utilised in the series. Examples are Andromeda Tonks, Bellatrix Lestrange and Remus Lupin.

Sirius Black, Harry’s godfather, is another character named after the night sky. Sirius is the brightest star that can be seen from Earth and lies within the constellation Canis Major. The star is also known as the Dog Star, which makes it an apt name for the Animagus; Sirius Black can turn himself into a large black dog.

Divination

Divination is the art of predicting the future and is often ridiculed by those who do not believe in this elusive craft; it is no different with the staff and students at Hogwarts. The teacher, Professor Sybill Trelawney, is often mocked and believed to be a fake, however, some of her prophecies prove to not only be true but are vital to the storyline.

Similarly to the methods taught at Hogwarts, predicting the future can be attempted in many different ways. The books and items displayed by the British Library give examples of techniques used across the world. Usually, when picturing a fortune teller, they are seated at a round table with a crystal ball on top. A couple of these are exhibited, along with a fake, digitally powered version that everyone is welcome to play with.

Another common technique of fortune tellers is tarot card reading or cartomancy. The exhibition contains the oldest version of the pack of 52 cards that were produced by a so-called specialist, John Lenthall (1683-1762), in the 18th century. Each card has a different meaning and can predict events in an individual’s future. An interactive table allows people to place their hands in position and receive their own fortune telling.

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John Lenthall’s Fortune-Telling Cards, English

Defence Against the Dark Arts

A compulsory subject at Hogwarts, Defence Against the Dark Arts teaches students how to defend themselves against dark creatures and curses. This plays a vital role in Harry’s story as he fights the Dark Lord as well as other evil characters. However, there is a rumour that the position as teacher of Defence Against the Dark Arts is cursed, especially as they never last longer than a year.

Throughout history, societies have believed in and attempted to protect themselves from evil beings. Sometimes talismans or amulets are worn to protect individuals from harm. Interestingly, the symbol of a snake has also been used for defence purposes, but, on the other hand, some cultures view them as evil.

In the Harry Potter series, snakes are mostly associated with evil. Voldemort, the Dark Lord, has a pet snake who measures at least twelve foot long. For Voldemort, his pet is a form of protection, but for Harry, it represents evil.

Care of Magical Creatures

The final subject is Care of Magical Creatures that is initially taught by the half-giant Rubeus Hagrid. Students are taught about a whole range of creatures: what they eat, their natural habitats, which are safe and which are dangerous, and so on. Rowling has used pre-existing creatures from mythology and folklore but adapted them to fit in with the storyline. Some of these include unicorns, dragons, phoenixes and hippogriffs.

Although, nowadays, magical creatures are believed to be a myth, plenty of books have been published on the topic. These books are known as bestiaries and contain detailed information about each curious beast.

Other magical creatures that heavily feature in Harry Potter are ghosts. The Hogwarts castle is full of them and they often interact with the students. Another are owls, which may not register as magical creatures in the real world. In J. K. Rowling’s fictional world, the witches and wizards do not use postmen, instead, they entrust their letters and parcels to an owl to deliver them straight to the recipient.

Jim Kay has produced some wonderful illustrations of the many creatures in the books, some of which can be seen in this section of the exhibition.

Here the exhibition comes to an end. Not only does everyone know more about the famous Wizarding World, they have a greater knowledge about magic in general. Combining Harry Potter and real-life examples of witchcraft and wizardry make the journey through the exhibition extra interesting and inciteful. It is truly eye-opening to discover the connections between the fictional books and “real” world.

J. K. Rowling is a truly admirable author who deserves all the recognition she has received. Harry Potter will never be forgotten and has a promising future with spin-offs, illustrated versions of books, and new forms of merchandise constantly in production.

It is hard to fault Harry Potter: A History of Magic, the British Library has done an exceptional job at sourcing and curating the exhibition. It is set out in a logical format and is easy to navigate. The only downside, if it can be called one, is that it is so popular! Tickets sell out in advance every day, meaning the exhibition gets very crowded. In an attempt to control the crowds, the Library issues timed tickets with a half hour window in which to enter. However, the eager Harry Potter fans turn up at the beginning of their slot resulting in a multitude of people entering at once. The first few sections are particularly difficult to manoeuvre around as everyone fights to see the artworks, books and information.

Harry Potter: A History of Magic is open until 28th February, so there is still time to go and see the sensational exhibition – if there are any tickets left! Tickets can only be purchased online and cost £16 (£8 for under 17s). There is also an exhibition shop full of Harry Potter merchandise. Unfortunately, this is a bit pricey, but serious fans will be willing to pay the price.

Displays inspired by the Harry Potter: A History of Magic exhibition are open in 20 public libraries across the UK as part of the Living Knowledge Network.