Harry Potter: A Journey Through a History of Magic. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $19.99.
You won’t find a better gift book than this for any Harry Potter fan, of any age. It is an absolutely enchanting blend of the real world, where magic does not exist but has a fascinating history, with the realistic underlying elements of J.K. Rowling’s fictional world, where magic not only works but also is central to pretty much everything. Harry Potter: A Journey Through a History of Magic is based on a superb British Library exhibit that uses the Harry Potter books to introduce the history of magical thinking and actions in our (that is, the Muggle) world – showcasing both Rowling’s careful research and the reasons the Harry Potter books have resonated so deeply with readers for more than 20 years.
Harry Potter: A Journey Through a History of Magic is also a rare opportunity to get some of the stories behind the Harry Potter series – or, if not exactly behind, those leading up to the novels, anyway. For example, the book includes Rowling’s own drawings of various parts of the “Potterverse,” ranging from individual characters at Hogwarts to a portrait of Harry with the detestable Dursleys to Harry and his friends seeing Fluffy the three-headed dog for the first time. It includes handwritten drafts of some of the books’ scenes, showing what Rowling kept in and what she (or her editors) removed before publication. It has an early version of the Sorting Hat’s song, and Rowling’s own conception of the opening to Diagon Alley. And much more. It also has finished art, some by Olivia Lomenech Gill and quite a bit by the wonderful Jim Kay, who is in the process of reimagining the Harry Potter world through handsome, oversized, illustrated editions of all seven novels (three of which have been published so far).
Yet there are things here that are even more intriguing than all this – perhaps not for all dyed-in-the-wool Harry Potter fans, but surely for some of them, and very definitely for anyone who likes (even loves) the novels but whose curiosity about magic extends beyond them. Here you will find a picture of the amazing alchemical manuscript called the Ripley Scroll, a gorgeously illustrated 16th-century guide to the Philosopher’s Stone that is so big – some 20 feet long – that it has rarely been unrolled, because there are few tables big enough to hold it. Here is a look at the real Nicolas Flamel and his tombstone. Here you can see the astonishing Battersea Cauldron, which dates to perhaps 800 years before Christ and still looks remarkably beautiful and carefully put together. Here are pages from a book called Ortus Sanitatis, showing a real-world potions master and his students (some of whom look distinctly inattentive). Here are some of the volvelles (rotating paper models) created by Petrus Apianus (1495-1522) to reproduce the movement of the planets. Here is a deck of unusual 18th-century playing cards used in cartomancy – a form of divination – and inscribed with the names of Merlin, Faust and Nostradamus (the first two being legendary and the third real, showing the interplay of reality and fiction even in our own world). Here is a picture, from an 18th-century book, of a giant, bird-eating spider, a creature long thought to be fictional but eventually proved real – juxtaposed with Jim Kay’s illustration of Harry and Ron encountering the giant spider Aragog.
And there is much more. Short paragraphs of facts detail, for example, what a bestiary is and how real-world wands originated (as bundles of twigs used by priests to call spirits). Also here are plenty of magic, or magic-like, activities to try. For example, there is a step-by-step way to make a “ghost in a bottle” with cold water, food coloring, and a little ingenuity. There are instructions to make color-changing flowers, even ones that take on two different colors at once. And there is a way to make a dragon’s egg – or something that looks like one, anyway. Add to all this looks at some crystal balls and Chinese oracle bones, a paper showing how the word “abracadabra” was supposed to be used to cure malaria, a photo of a real (and extraordinarily humanlike) mandrake root, a bezoar stone (supposed to protect against poisons), and a great deal more. And then add references to Rowling material that goes beyond the original seven novels, including Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and the stage play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. What this all adds up to is a wonderful and wonder-filled tour of the world of Harry Potter, how and where that world intersects with our own everyday one, how Rowling got the inspiration to bring the two worlds together, and how magic – even if it does not work in our world the way it does in Harry’s – is everywhere around us and has been for thousands of years. Harry Potter: A Journey Through a History of Magic is a trip through time, through alternative realities, and through a series of now-classic books that deservedly retain their fascination for younger and older readers alike, and are now poised to begin enchanting an entirely new generation of soon-to-be Potterphiles.