Find out the intriguing stories behind the magic of Harry Potter

Don’t miss Harry Potter: A History of Magic

Last weekend the BBC showed a fascinating documentary on the history of magical traditions which inspired and informed the Harry Potter books. The documentary told the story of the exhibition of the same name  – currently being shown at The British Library. If you or your children are fans of Harry Potter or are interested in the history of magic, you will be amazed by the artefacts you can see in the exhibition.

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“There was a lot more to magic, as Harry quickly found out, than waving your wand and saying a few funny words.” Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone

At the exhibition we find out how true this realisation of Harry’s is. You may be surprised at the incredible amount of background research into the traditions of magic done by J.K. Rowling while writing the Harry Potter books. She investigated magical traditions, including alchemy and divination, through a multitude of sources.


Image (c) British Library Board

The BBC documentary showed Rowling’s reaction to some of the rare artefacts and documents which are now on display at the British Library exhibition. Though she was aware of them, many of the original sources had not been seen by her before, including a 16th Century scroll depicting alchemy instructions.

Some of the exciting displays you will see at the British Library exhibition

Herbal medicine and potions

The exhibition explores the history of herbal medicine which was also associated with witchcraft and potion making. In Harry Potter the mandrake root is used in healing spells and potions. Historically the root was used medicinally including as an anaesthetic. The roots have an almost human looking appearance. Sources on show include drawings of the mandrake plant in which the root is depicted as a small naked man. People wore coverings over their ears when picking the plant as it was thought to scream.

Alchemy and the real Nicolas Flamel

You can find out about the real Nicolas Flamel. Rowling based Nicolas Flamel, the creator and owner of the Philosopher’s Stone on a real historical figure who, in his pursuit of alchemy, trod a fine line between the worlds of science and magic. The exhibition contains a fantastic 16th Century scroll which provides instructions to make a philosopher’s stone.

Wand making

You can see wands used by real witches and wizards. The exhibition contains wands including blasting rods. These are on loan from the specialist Museum of Witchcraft at Boscastle. In the documentary we are also introduced to modern day wand makers, Dusty Miller. The father and son team, both named Dusty Miller, come from a long line of wand makers who work for the tree spirits. The spirits direct them in fetching wood for their work to make wands.

Saying a few funny words

You can find out about the wording used in various spells in the Harry Potter world. One of the most deadly spells featured in Harry Potter originated historically as a protection against malaria in Roman times. An illustration of the ritualistic use of the words is on display.


A phoenix rising from the ashes in a 13th-century bestiary (c) British Library

The care of magical creatures

The most fascinating section for me has to be on the care of magical creatures. The exhibition includes exploration of the mythology of Hippogriffs, the Sphinx, the Phoenix, Centaurs and other mystical, magical creatures that found their way into the Potter world.

Transfiguration and more…

The exhibition also includes texts which show an African perspective on magical animal transformations and protections against the dark arts.

This is the first time the British Library has shown an exhibition centred on the work of a living writer. There are items relating to Rowling’s creative process and the publishing of her books, including her illustrations, map of Hogwarts and the story synopsis which she sent to publishers.

Reflecting on her personal artefacts being shown in the exhibition Rowling talked about her inspiration for writing. Her comments about her personal experiences during the filming of the documentary were revealing of how much of her own experience was poured into the Harry Potter books. These are particularly insightful and moving to hear about.

So don’t miss this exhibition! If you have seen it already, what did you think?

Useful links for Harry Potter: A History of Magic

The BBC documentary is available on iPlayer for 27 more days, (at the time of writing).

The exhibition is family friendly and suitable for children. It is showing at the British Library till 28th Feb 2018, get tickets and information here.

You can also get a copy of Harry Potter – A History of Magic: The Book of the Exhibition. It’s available from Amazon and other outlets. There is a children’s edition of the exhibition book, Harry Potter – A Journey Through A History of Magic.

Featured image (c) British Library Board

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Angela is the kind of parent who wants to discuss the latest hero movie or middle-grade book series on the school run. She grew up on the Lord of the Rings books and has a background in education & publishing. She believes all children & young people can enjoy wonderful story-telling and loves sharing ideas with others.