Evidence of magic at the British Library

Harry Potter: a History of Magic wonderfully illuminates the inspirations behind a cultural icon, writes Raffaella Sero

Upon entering the first room of the British Library exhibition, Harry Potter: a History of Magic, one’s attention is immediately captured by the pencil drawing of a familiar-looking boy, wearing round glasses kept together by a certain amount of sellotape.

A mass of unkempt dark hair falls disorderly on his forehead, hiding, as the viewer must know, a thin, lightning-shaped scar: the only mark of the boy’s survival, and one of the many symbols the world has learned to associate with Harry Potter.

The eyes in Jim Kay’s portrait of Harry have an almost entrancing quality, forcing the visitor to take a closer look, inviting them to start the journey. This is the name of the first room in the exhibition, ‘Journey’, and a very appropriate name it is, too. Just past Harry’s portrait, we find the premise of the first volume in the saga, typed by J.K. Rowling in 1995,

“Harry Potter lives with his aunt, uncle and cousins because his par- ents died in a car-crash – or so he has always been told …”. Next to it hangs the extraordinary reader’s report of Alice Newton, the (at the time) eight-year-old daughter of the founder and Chief Executive of Bloomsbury, reading: “The excitement of this book made me feel warm inside. I think it is possibly one of the best books an 8/9 year old could read”.

Together with the Rowling’s premise, this note, scribbled in pencil all those years ago, helps the viewer truly perceive how far J.K. Rowling’s story has come, how long and fraught with dangers its journey.

The first room, then, puts us in the right mind set to want to learn more, and to explore not only the history of the story, in terms of how it was conceived and written and published, but the past before the story, the hoard of history and myth that is buried at the very foundation of the Harry Potter universe, and that which distinguishes it from all other imaginary worlds.

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The crowd of books flying against the black ceiling leads us forward, towards two of Jim Kay’s portraits at the end of the corridor, respectively depicting Professor Dumbledore eating sherbet lemons and Professor McGonagall looking serenely intimidating.

These seem to be inviting us to peer into the next room, and to the portrait at its entrance. This belongs to another Hogwarts headmaster, Severus Snape (or Snivellus, as we like to call him in the Gryffindor common room), as part of the ‘Potions’ room.

Indeed each room in the exhibition is associated with a Hogwarts subject, allowing those who feel firmly part of the the Wizarding world to indulge in the nostalgia of Hogwarts school, while at the same time helping the crowds of Muggles find their way among objects like Iron Age cauldrons and scrolls detailing the making of the philosopher’s stone.

While it is certainly pieces like the golden-enclosed bezoar (apparently, a mass of undigested fibre actually found in the stomach of goats!) which immediately attract the attention of unashamed, hardcore potterheads (like the writer of this article), the magic of the British Library exhibition is that all its items, apart from their Potter associations, are incredibly fascinating in their own right.

In fact, a beautiful balance is achieved between all that is Rowling-related, such as the writer’s notes and plans and the lovely sketches she drew while working on the books, and items whose only association with Harry Potter is their existence in the same world of magic and mystery.

Moreover, Jim Kay’s superb illustrations of the first three books act as thread all through this wonderful assemblage of enchanting objects. However, the success of Harry Potter: a History of Magic is more than the sum of its parts. It is due at least in part to its bewitching atmosphere, which manages incredibly well to capture the subtle irony of the books.