The historicity of Harry Potter
I hold a rather remarkable historical document in my hand. It’s a text that, despite its age, is still well-known today. I refer to Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the first of the seven genuine epics of Harry Potter.
We have more surviving copies of this than any other historical text from the late twentieth century. These include first editions written a mere five years after the events described. The copy I’m holding is from several years later, but we can still be confident that the text has been accurately preserved.
All seven Harry Potter books are attributed to J.K. Rowling. The Rowling family is not mentioned in any wizarding genealogy, and little is known of her connections with the wizarding world. Some have theorised her connection was through a Muggle-born, perhaps that she had one of the Grangers as dentist and through them was brought into contact with Hermione Granger and Harry Potter himself.
However, what is clear is that she was living in the then-Scottish city of Edinburgh, and so was in a good position to investigate the truth of her writings. Most conservative scholars accept the testimony of Iranon that J.K. Rowling came into contact with a portrait of Albus Dumbledore, most likely at the Elephant House Coffee Shop.
There are many far-fetched theories about why Albus Dumbledore chose her. Most notable are the legends that she had the same birthday as Harry Potter. However, since we don’t have any authenticated record of her birthday for more than fifty years after the events described, this was probably a later development.
Why choose her rather than a member of the wizarding community? Most likely he saw the importance of an impartial historian, unswayed by Harry Potter’s recognition as “The Boy Who Lived”. This is consistent with his placement of Harry with his Muggle relatives rather than in the wizarding world.
The world of Harry Potter may sometimes be unfamiliar to our modern sensibilities, but that is one sign of its authenticity. It correctly reflects country boundaries, modes of transport, customs, names, foods, and beverages that were typical of the late twentieth century.
Take for example the tea and coffee shops. Readers today could be forgiven for thinking Madam Puddifoot’s Tea Shop was a one-of-a-kind wizarding institution, but back then it was really a sign of how much the wizarding world had borrowed from the surrounding Muggle culture. These places, later called cafés, were common in cities and provided a space for meeting and socialising. As already mentioned, it is thought that J.K. Rowling first came into contact with Dumbledore’s portrait in one such coffee shop in Edinburgh.
These places were particularly known for serving heated beverages such as tea, coffee, and hot chocolate. The historical records show that coffee in particular was favoured because of its near magical power for keeping people awake. Tea was also popular as a drink, while chocolate was more commonly consumed in solid form and considered one of their most desirable foods.
Sadly, none of these beverages are still available to us. The cocoa tree was declared extinct in 2051, the coffee plant in 2073, and the tea plant, already rare by the late 2070s, was declared extinct in 2088. The Elephant House’s well-known association with Harry Potter ensured that it was one of the last coffee houses in the world remaining, but we believe it finally closed its doors in 2093.
Discovering Harry Potter sites
However, while the documents accurately reflect the culture, it has been difficult to verify many of the places mentioned. This has led to doubt being cast on its historicity, with some even drawing comparisons to “Middle Earth”, a fictitious locale also referenced in twentieth century documents. The comparison is instructive: While these documents do contain wizards, neither internal nor external evidence can tie them to any known location or time. So it seems likely that, unlike Harry Potter, “Frodo Baggins” never existed.
We know that London existed, and was the capital of the so-called “United Kingdom”. I’ve even been there. We’ve also discovered the King’s Cross Railway Station, and the digs there have produced some fascinating finds.
It’s important to remember that when the first book was published Harry was still a minor. It’s clear that Rowling couldn’t give any information which might identify him. Scholars suggest that is why some place names were obscured: Privet Drive, for example, was placed in the fictitious suburb “Little Whinging”. However, we can still have confidence it existed, because we know that “Surrey” existed as a county to the south-west of London.
At the time, the wizarding community was a minority group in hiding. It seems likely that places like “Hogwarts” and “Hogsmeade” were pseudonyms, while names like “Godric’s Hollow” would only be used by people who recognised the historical importance of Godric Gryffindor.
Internal and external evidence combines to suggest Hogwarts was in the then Scottish Highlands. Perhaps the best candidate is near Glencoe, where there have been promising archaeological digs.
It is to be expected that legends have sprung up around the life of so important a historical figure as Harry Potter.
However, these legends are later than the genuine texts, and we have far fewer copies of them. Many of them can be traced to isolated communities far from the original events. These texts can’t even be made consistent with each other, let alone with the historical Harry Potter. Some of them are highly fanciful, either granting Harry fantastical powers not present in the historical text, or even casting doubt on his sexual identity and his important role as a husband, father, and family man.
One of the most persistent of these legends is that of the encounter between Ron’s flying car and the Hogwarts Express on a railway bridge. However, while this may be more exciting than the accepted text, it’s important to remember that there is no textual support at all.
Historically, this tale has been associated with the Glenfinnan Viaduct, and tourists have long made the pilgrimage there:
It’s a beautiful spot that’s well worth a visit, but we have no reason to believe this event ever happened, let alone that it happened at Glenfinnan. In fact, accepting this location would also require us to locate Hogwarts further west still, and no evidence of any such location has been found.
Glenfinnan is far more notable for its position on the historic Road to the Isles and its connection with Skye and the legendary Bonnie Prince Charlie, mythical protector of the Scottish Highlands.
Co-opted by the “Rationality” movement
One of the most interesting examples is how Harry Potter was co-opted by the “Rationality” movement. It had its origin in the then United States of America, Seemingly started by a community calling themselves “LessWrong”, it still has a small following today. However, the text was later than the genuine texts, and had its origin in the then United States of America, far from the scene of action.
It claims to be about bringing science to wizardry, but really holds more in common with earlier mystery religions. Even the name has been changed: Harry Potter has been called Harry James Potter-Evans-Verres, and given different (adoptive) parents to try and explain away the differences from the historical Harry Potter.
The group places a lot of emphasis on the importance of “secret” knowledge, for example “partial transfiguration” and “carbon nanotubes”. But it doesn’t stop there: Devotees talk about the importance of cognitive science, then police fellow members on their knowledge of obscure psychological experiments. Those who don’t measure up are considered not to understand their own minds and probably crazy.
Where the historical Dumbledore said “To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure”, members of this community see themselves as in a war against death. This war includes apocalyptic visions of the avenging angel known as Roko’s Basilisk, visions so haunting that community members saw it, not Voldemort, as the thing that should not be named.
Some have suggested this record casts doubt on the historical Harry Potter. However, it was clearly never intended to be taken as history. Take for example these words from Dumbledore:
Harry is the hero, so he may be able to do things that are logically impossible.
While it is better developed than most, this legend is actually a covert community handbook, intended only for initiates into the religion.
Would J.K Rowling die for a lie?
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was first published in the UK on 26 June 1997. This was a mere four days before Dumbledore died on 30 June 1997.
It’s often forgotten how much of a gamble publishing this text was. At the time the Order of the Phoenix were in difficulties, Harry was still a student, and Dumbledore had discovered that Voldemort was functionally immortal.
We shouldn’t trivialise the risk - J.K. Rowling knew that if Voldemort triumphed, she would face torture and death. This makes claims that Harry Potter is anything other than genuine history laughable. Would she have died for a lie?
The Bibliographical Test
The Harry Potter texts remain in a class by themselves. The number of early copies demonstrates their historical accuracy, and makes us confident that we have recovered the original texts free from any copying errors. They are by far the most attested ancient works of the twentieth century. There are in fact more references to Harry Potter than to the leaders of his time, like John Major or David Attenborough, or to more distant historical figures like Thomas Edison, Napoleon Bonaparte or George Washington. That is why the majority of scholars today believe Harry Potter existed.
This troubles skeptics, because if they reject the reliability of Harry Potter, then they must also consider unreliable all other manuscripts of the twentieth century.
Does Harry Potter really matter?
I’ve often been asked whether it’s really worth studying Harry Potter. We certainly live in a very different world from the one he lived in. Even the snowy owl, long preserved because of its connection with him, was recently declared extinct.
Sometimes it seems like we have problems enough of our own: Fires and storms continue to rage, the oceans continue to rise, and species continue to slide into oblivion. Why would we care about the struggles of a school boy from a long distant century?
However, the historicity of Harry Potter is not just a question of fact: It has a moral dimension. Put simply, if someone questions the trustworthiness of the Harry Potter canon, they would - for consistency alone - be required to dismiss virtually all documented history. And those who don’t understand history are doomed to repeat it.
Our world is living with the consequences of the decisions made by humans before and after Harry Potter. Their over-reliance on digging substances out of the ground and burning them, their short-term thinking and greed, their overpopulation, and their stubborn persistence with science and refusal to investigate the potential of magic - all of these things caused significant climate change with far-reaching consequences. Each generation grew up accepting the state of the world in their childhood as “normal”, and most were seemingly OK with it continuing to get worse so long as it didn’t change too noticeably.
No-one who rejects Harry Potter can really be confident that any of these other historical events happened. Nor will they be able to accept the reality of human-caused climate change.
Not only would this be erasing the victims of historic injustices, but it’s not even clear that such skeptics would have a good reason to fight against climate change today. Without a knowledge of the past, we can’t know what we’ve already lost, nor can we understand the need to preserve this Earth for the next generation.
– John Smith, Macquarie Island, 22 February 2222
I had a lot of fun writing this, and don’t expect it to be taken too seriously. However, I have heard just about all of these arguments presented as reasons to believe the Bible at one time or another. In fact, I heard many of them in one single talk last weekend, and they were so bad that I felt driven to see how I could parody them.
Harry Potter is different from the Bible in many ways, but I think the analogy shows some of the flaws with these arguments.
What should be obvious is that having a large number of copies still remaining doesn’t make a record true. Having copies that are closer in time to the original doesn’t make a record true. Being written close to when the events are supposed to have happened doesn’t make a record true. Correctly reflecting the culture of the time doesn’t make a record true. Using a few place names from the time doesn’t make a record true.
Getting the picture?
Christianity is based on a number of extraordinary claims, perhaps most notably that of resurrection. If we had eyewitness testimony that a resurrection occurred yesterday, we would still question it, and I doubt the eyewitness getting the place name right would reassure us that a resurrection actually happened.
This means most of the arguments presented in defence of the Bible are red herrings: Yes, they probably make sense to people who already believe the Bible, but they don’t do anything to establish the truth of its claims. Just because the writing of the Bible is shrouded in history doesn’t mean it gets to play by different rules.