The Bri­tish Mu­seum has fun with the magic be­hind Harry Pot­ter

As the Harry Pot­ter se­ries turns 20, Lucy Davies looks at the Bri­tish Li­brary’s new show about the his­tory be­hind the wiz­ard­ing world

The Daily Telegraph - - Style & Features -

Harry Pot­ter came a long way from 4 Privet Drive over the course of JK Rowl­ing’s seven nov­els. If, like me, you read them all – 3,407 pages and 1,084,170 words of them – it might have felt like your own jour­ney, too. It’s ex­tra­or­di­nary to think that it’s been 20 years since we were first in­tro­duced to sort­ing hats and mug­gles, and be­gan to bandy about strange words like Quid­ditch and Volde­mort, safe in the knowl­edge that ev­ery­one would un­der­stand them.

To mark the oc­ca­sion, Rowl­ing has teamed up with her pub­lisher, Blooms­bury, and the Bri­tish Li­brary for a book and an en­chant­ing ex­hi­bi­tion ex­plor­ing the his­tory be­hind the real ob­jects that fea­ture in her sto­ries, each of which is so alive that the magic and myth seem to wrig­gle, ex­plode and slither into the air in front of you while you read.

Rowl­ing – who looked at some of these arte­facts when re­search­ing Pot­ter – has also do­nated drafts of The Philosopher’s Stone and The Deathly Hal­lows, plot plans for The Or­der of the Phoenix, draw­ings of the char­ac­ters and some of the lists and di­a­grams she made to con­struct the in­tri­ca­cies of Pot­ter world. They sit along­side il­lus­tra­tions by Jim Kay, the artist whose ex­cep­tional ren­der­ings of owl and dragon eggs have de­lighted Pot­ter devo­tees the world over.

Hog­warts afi­ciona­dos will no­tice that both ex­hi­bi­tion and book are struc­tured ac­cord­ing to the School of Witch­craft and Wiz­ardry’s cur­ricu­lum – po­tions, charms, div­ina­tion, care of mag­i­cal crea­tures and her­bol­ogy. There are mer­maids and uni­corns, brooms and caul­drons, spells and or­a­cles. And ev­ery­thing has been painstak­ingly matched to its ap­pear­ance in Pot­ter.

Harry learned to “un­fog the fu­ture” in Sy­bill Trelawney’s div­ina­tion class, and a flock of ob­jects per­tain­ing to this an­cient art have been un­earthed: crys­tal balls used dur­ing the 19th cen­tury, a scry­ing mir­ror be­long­ing to Ce­cil Wil­liamson, the Bri­tish witch, and a col­lec­tion of Chi­nese or­a­cle bones, used 3,000 years ago to al­lay con­cerns about war and har­vest. Even the char­ac­ters are rooted in re­al­ity. Ni­co­las Flamel, the 665-year-old al­chemist Hermione iden­ti­fies as “the only known maker of the Philosopher’s Stone”, is based on a book­seller of the same name who lived in 14th-cen­tury Paris, and whose ex­per­i­ments in trans­mu­ta­tion – turn­ing metal into gold – were known to Isaac New­ton. For the ex­hi­bi­tion, Flamel’s tomb­stone has been brought all the way from Paris.

Many items are pre­sented along­side manuscripts or paint­ings – a caul­dron from the Mu­seum of Witch­craft in Boscas­tle, for in­stance, ap­pears with a paint­ing by John Wil­liam Water­house from 1886 of a witch and her smoky brew. It’s pow­er­ful iconog­ra­phy that has lasted for cen­turies – in

The Cham­ber of Se­crets, Hermione “fever­ishly” stirs her own caul­dron.

While many of the ob­jects now seem quaint or hare-brained, plenty re­main able to raise hairs on the back of your neck. A spell for in­vis­i­bil­ity, for ex­am­ple (re­pro­duced in the book, should you wish to try it), and a “real” mer­maid do­nated to the Bri­tish Mu­seum in 1942. In fact, the lat­ter was part of a colos­sal trade in 18th cen­tury fak­ery, pro­duced in Asia and de­signed to or­na­ment Euro­pean draw­ing rooms. Cre­ated by sewing the torso of a mon­key on to the tail of a fish, it is pos­si­bly even more grue­some than the mer­peo­ple of The Gob­let of Fire, whose “grey­ish skins and long, wild, dark green hair” so ter­ri­fied Harry.

Amid such fan­tas­ti­cal, freak­ish things are rip­ples of an­cient folk­lore that still ex­ists – us­ing dock leaves on net­tle stings; horoscopes; even the mug­gle craze for gar­den gnomes. In­deed, one of the most ap­peal­ing things about the books are the mag­i­cal par­al­lels with the or­di­nary – socks that scream when they’re too smelly, or Gringott’s Wiz­ard­ing Bank, where you can ex­change your mug­gle pounds for golden galleons.

What this ex­hi­bi­tion un­der­lines – beau­ti­fully – is that the en­durance of these out­landish ob­jects and dusty bits of parch­ment, and our af­fec­tion for Rowl­ing’s world, boil down to the same thing: a univer­sal urge, thou­sands of years in the mak­ing, to make sense of the world around us and the puz­zles of the cos­mos be­yond.

Of course, whether those an­swers lie writ­ten in the night sky, at the bot­tom of a tea cup, or are hid­den in the des­tiny of an 11-year-old or­phan boy with a light­ning scar on his fore­head, we are yet to find out.

Harry Pot­ter: A His­tory of Magic is at the Bri­tish Li­brary, Lon­don NW1 from Oct 20 to Feb 28 2018. Tick­ets: 01937 546546; An ac­com­pa­ny­ing book is pub­lished by Blooms­bury at £27

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