A History of Magic reveals our compulsion to magical thinkingby Catherine Woulfe
Harry Potter is the starting point for an enchanting documentary about the history of magic.
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.
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.
A Government-initiated working group suggested putting a speed limit of 130km/h on motorways to lower emissions and make roads safer. Big mistake.Read more
John C Reilly and Steve Coogan are lifelong devotees to comic duo Laurel and Hardy – and it shows.Read more
With his second book about Sam Hunt proving a hit, Colin Hogg ponders why so much of his writing career has been inspired by his mates.Read more
Vote for your favourite dish in the 2019 Peugeot People’s Choice Award and be in to win dinner for two.Read more
The closer you get to a kauri, the more you realise you are looking at one of the wonders of the planet.Read more
National's Bluegreen wing are set to hold their annual conference this weekend. Greenpeace’s Steve Abel will be there to challenge the party.Read more
Lidu Gong first started learning te reo in bed.Read more