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
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; bl.uk. An accompanying book is published by Bloomsbury at £27