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A History of Magic reveals our compulsion to magical thinking

Harry Potter: A History of Magic, Tuesday.

Harry Potter is the starting point for an enchanting documentary about the history of magic.

Seventeen years ago, with Harry Potter mania at fever pitch, I named my cat for Hogwarts’ resident feline, Mrs Norris. He was not impressed.

Be assured that Harry Potter: A History of Magic (Prime, Tuesday, 8.35pm) does not demand such fandom, or even familiarity, with the world that JK Rowling conjured up.

Nor is it the Potter version of The Silmarillion – the famously interminable backstory to JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Instead, just as Rowling used snippets of real magical history in her books, this BBC documentary uses the Potter-verse as a jumping-off point back into history, exploring everything from alchemy and witchcraft to Ethiopian spells. There’s a stroll in the woods with a couple of real-life wand-makers. We watch Potter illustrator Jim Kay scrutinising mandrake roots, giving them potbellies and bawling mouths. Actors from the Potter films pop up to read, wonderfully, Rowling’s best lines about magic and belief.

That may sound like a series of trivia, but there’s a clear, thoughtful thread holding this together: the human compulsion towards magical thinking, and the making of a story.

The doco is based on an exhibition on at the British Library. (There’s a book version, too; it was a fixture in bookstores’ Christmas displays.)

The library has previously centred major exhibitions on writers, but they have been such literary giants as William Shakespeare and Jane Austen – and, significantly, dead.

“Quite surreal,” says the very-much-alive Rowling, of the whole thing. She explores key exhibits with the viewer, her observations spliced with those of the enthused curators. It’s not all ancient scrolls and spells: her drafts and sketches are there in glass cases, too.

And some of it is delightfully mundane. “I went cold all over,” Rowling remembers, when she realised that her Deathly Hallows symbol looks similar to the Masonic symbol – which features heavily in the movie The Man Who Would Be King, which she was watching as she sketched.

That same night she stayed up late sketching a charming pen-and-ink picture of the Hogwarts herbologist Professor Sprout – a warm maternal character. The morning brought a phone call: her mother had died. Understandably, Rowling has poured her own sort of magical thinking into that picture and, indeed, into the series. It is “hugely about loss”, she says, and means more to her than even the most diehard fan could understand.

This article was first published in the January 20, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.