History is More Magical Than You Think (“Harry Potter: A History of Magic book/BBC Documentary REVIEW) 

Harry-Potter-A-History-of-Magic-CoverI’m only a month late in talking about this, but what’s a month or two between friends? Two books, a BBC Two documentary, and an entire museum exhibit. These are the latest developments in the Harry Potter universe (as of October 2017) as the British Library launches its look into the real-life history of magic and how it intercepts J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World. As a fan of both the Wizarding World and really great museum exhibits, I have to say that this excited me. I haven’t been able to go to the actual museum exhibit (as it’s in London and I am not), but I have read the official book of the exhibit: Harry Potter: A History of Magic and see the accompanying BBC Two Documentary. And it’s fab. Harry Potter: A History of Magic explores the intersection of history and fantasy. It’s common knowledge that much of J.K. Rowling’s world-building in the Wizarding World series originates from real history and myth, but just how much of it was real? Harry Potter: A History of Magic seeks to answer that question, and answer it, it does – with lots of panache.

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Image from Splendor Solis (Germany, c. 1580) of a man holding a flask filled with a gold liquid

The book and the documentary cover much of the same material: the real-life history, mythology, and artifacts that make up our history of magic and how all of that intersects with J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World. If I had to tell you which I liked better, the answer would probably be the documentary, so we’ll discuss that first. The documentary focuses on the making of the exhibit and features interviews with J.K. Rowling and various experts in the historical and magical field (members of the British Library who put together the exhibit, magical historians from various cultures, real-life wandmakers, etc) interwoven with footage of some of the cast of the Harry Potter films reading excerpts from the books. It’s lots of fun and covers a great deal of material in an interesting way. Contrast that with Harry Potter: A History of Magic (the Official Book of the Exhibit) which essentially chooses to present its information in an encyclopedic way, going subject by subject and showing off what I would guess is every piece in the exhibit (side note – there are so many pieces from Alchemy/Potions, Herbology, and Creatures and I was so bored reading them. Partially because Potions and Herbology are my least favorite subjects in the Wizarding World, followed closely by Care of Magical Creatures. I understand that most of our historical record of “magic” comes down to those elements, but I loved the chapters based around Charms and Defense Against the Dark Arts and wish there had been more in those chapters than there were)

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J.K. Rowling’s original sketch of Pamona Sprout – Herbology professor and Head of Hufflepuff – (drawn the night of Rowling’s mother’s death)

While the documentary shares its information in a fun and whimsical way, the book is really very dry. It’s just page after page of glimpses at the various items and artifacts in the exhibit. Some of those items are really interesting – particularly the never-before-seen ones from J.K. Rowling’s personal collection (the original summary of Philosopher’s Stone used to pitch the series to publishers; excerpts of early drafts of Philosopher’s Stone (an entirely different opening to the series featuring the Muggle Prime Minister and Voldemort being referred to as “The Red-Eyed Dwarf”), Chamber of Secrets (a draft of the Ford Anglia sequence where Ron and Harry crash into the Black Lake – instead of the Whomping Willow – and are rescued by mermaids), and Half-Blood Prince (a glimpse at notes from Rowling’s editor on a few pages from the book); and even sketches of characters and locations by J.K. Rowling herself – but it’s all presented in such a bland way that it sort of feels like a textbook. The essays, while interesting and informative, don’t help the overall tone of the book either. It really feels like a dryly written textbook, and that’s the main reason I prefer the documentary.

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A comparison between the layout of the two books. (The page on the far left is A History of Magic, the right two pages are Journey Through a History of Magic)

The next big question is probably “what’s the difference between the two books that were published, Harry Potter: A History of Magic and Harry Potter: Journey Through a History of Magic?” The answer is that there isn’t much of a difference. Journey Through a History of Magic is just geared more towards kids and, as a result, features less of the artifacts and real-world history of magic – and completely excises the essays – in an effort to focus more on the Harry Potter books and how they intersect with reality. It’s a welcome difference, too. While A History of Magic feels like a dry textbook, Journey Through a History of Magic is a lot more fun. It features fun little activities, an emphasis on the Harry Potter series, and a better internal book design than A History of Magic has. Yes, it’s a shame that more of the real-world history isn’t included in Journey Through a History of Magic, but the information that is present in the book is presented in a far more interesting way than in the adult version of A History of Magic. But, again, if I had to pick a favorite of the two books, the winner would be Journey Through a History of Magic.

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Olga Hunt’s Broomstick, on loan from the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic

As for the information itself, much of it is interesting as hell. As I mentioned earlier, I thought there was a bit too much focus on Herbology, Potions/Alchemy, and Care of Magical Creatures, but such is life, I suppose. My favorite bits of the exhibit (that was shown off in the books and documentary) were the ones that focused on true witchcraft; the history of our perception of witches, how different cultures used Charms and various other forms of magic in a way to defend themselves from the Dark Arts. And, of course, I loved the new looks into Rowling’s creative process. I’m very glad an exhibit like this exists. I’m glad the books exist. I’m very glad the documentary exists. It’s nice to expose young adults who grew up with the Harry Potter series – and children who are currently growing up with it – to the history of magic in our world. It’s a good way to get kids interested in history, archaeology, and anthropology and show them the possibilities that all of those fields of studies have. It’s also a nice way of just making our world feel a bit more magical. If you can, I recommend the documentary over the books and, of course, the exhibit itself is probably the best way to experience this. The books are good and informative (A History of Magic is more of a textbook/encyclopedia, Journey Through a History of Magic is geared towards kids) and both have a plethora of information for history buffs and Potter buffs. The documentary is extremely well-made and very fun and, while it can’t feature all the information from the books and the exhibit, is still full of information.

Harry Potter: Journey Through a History of Magic receives 3.5/5 wands
Harry Potter: A History of Magic (the Official Book of the Exhibit) receives 3/5 wands
Harry Potter: A History of Magic (the BBC Two Documentary) receives 4/5 wands

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