My visit to A History of Magic at the New York City Historical Society was more than I could have hoped for. I never expected to see everything that was listed in the book which accompanied the exhibit’s premier at the British Library, London. The whole exhibition is like an out-of-body experience. Because it exceeds my expectations. Yes, I give it an “O” for Outstanding. Not only did I read about and seeing artifacts that inspired J. K. Rowling and the Wizarding World, I saw objects and texts that people actually believed to be as real methods of curing malaria or becoming invisible. The power of belief was evident in every room, every display of this showcase of witchcraft and wizardry. The Potter stories and the Wizarding World as a whole have such a hold on us because it comes from belief systems nearly as old as civilization itself.
I’d like to thank the British Library for sharing these items with the States, the New York Historical Society and Scholastic for hosting, and–most importantly–J. K. Rowling. A History of Magic is the perfect tribute to all Jo’s hard work pre and post-publication. For me as a writer, it’s incredible to see handwritten notes of how she came up with the Sorting Hat, various crossings out and re-writes of lines/paragraphs, and snippets of her writing method. Like this, for example, which accompanies a handwritten page of a draft of Deathly Hallows in which Harry destroyed Hufflepuff’s Cup in the Lestrange Vault:
When I’m planning I often have multiple ideas popping up at the same time, so I’m attempting to catch the best ones as they fly by and preserve them on paper. My notebooks are full of arrows and triple asterisks instructing me to move forward four pages, past the ideas I jotted down hurriedly 20 minutes ago, to continue the thread of the story.” – J. K. Rowling
It’s so gratifying to hear her going through dilemmas and spurts of inspiration during her writing process. This happens to me too! The other coolest writerly thing I found were pages that remain in draft from, pages of the books that never made it to publication. One I was aware of already, a scene where Dursley and Fudge (who was the Muggle Prime Minister) argued about where Harry should go after his parents died. Hagrid was there, telling Fudge not to tell anyone about ‘us’ because the Red-Eyed man (that’s Voldemort) “seems to be only going after us.” Yes, Voldemort was attacking only wizards and leaving Muggles be. Funny how things change. The most interesting unpublished passage is one from Chamber of Secrets in which Harry and Ron land in the Lake not the Womping Willow. This is where we encountered the merpeople for the first time as they helped push the car out of the water. As they fell, Harry says they must be out of petrol, and Ron says, “what’s petrol?” Ha! Classic Ron.
So you can see how this exhibition is a tribute to the fans as much as the work itself. Where would Jo or Harry be if it wasn’t for we who took this story into our hearts for the rest of our lives? A History of Magic feels like a giant thank you for our devotion and love of this world and the real-life sources that inspired its creation. Indeed, it’s our belief in the message of this tale that gives it its power and longevity. The curator of the British Library’s exhibition on A History of Magic says it best, “if you don’t believe in magic, you won’t find it.”
In the Potions room, I read how people believed a bezoar–yes it’s a real thing–to have healing properties and in the claims that unicorn horns possess medicinal properties, when in reality they were severed narwhal horns. Whether or not these beliefs actually worked is yet to be seen. Though I would love to take a look at the stats of how often ingesting a hardened stone of fibrous material from an animal’s stomach aided in curing poisonings.
In the Herbology room, I saw mandrake roots and understood how people created these beliefs and stories behind their uncanny anthropic aesthetics. Of course, the plant and root itself is poisonous so no using it in restorative drafts.
As for Charms, there was a book instructing one plagued with malaria to write ABRACADABRA on a piece of paper several times, omitting one letter, into a triangular shape and wear it in order to rid the disease. Again, whether this worked isn’t mentioned. The power of belief is perhaps more potent than the charm itself.
The Astronomy room I found particularly engaging. There is a scroll dating back to 700CE showing the first recordings of the constellations before telescopes or any instrument to mark the heavens was conceived! The Chinese used the Dunhuang star atlas where “over 1,300 stars named and accurately presented. The chart contains much information that has proved very useful for modern astronomers” (International Dunhuang Project). Various dynastic emperors looked to the skies for favorable or unfavorable signs for their daily life. They believed a solar eclipse was an indication of a forthcoming coup.
Predictably, the Divination room is the place were power of belief is most evident. From scrying mirrors to palmistry, I enjoyed learning about the different arts of foreseeing what is to come. It’s amazing that people actually believed (and still do) they possess the skill to attribute the qualities of a person based on the lines of their palms or which way their tea leaves arrange themselves at the bottom of a cup. Nevertheless, there must a reason why these arts permeate into today’s culture, perhaps not as popular or vital as they once were, but they linger.
I hope I have demonstrated the power of belief and A History of Magic. It goes right back to that quote from the curator of the British Library. There’s plenty more to talk outside of what I’ve mentioned. So if you can afford to, take a day up to New York City and treat yourself to this look into the mind of J. K. Rowling and the history of human culture. It doesn’t matter if you could actually create a philosopher’s stone using blood, sulphur, and mercury or find dragons slumbering over a hoard of treasures. The power of belief allows us to escape our reality to make-believe these things are possible when you look just out of the corner of your eye or wait for the right time of day to find the stuff of our imaginations.