Seven Things We Learned from the “Harry Potter: A History of Magic” Documentary

Last Saturday, the long-awaited J.K. Rowling documentary about the new British Library Harry Potter: A History of Magic exhibition aired in the UK. We were excited to get a chance to learn more about the exhibition, and the documentary reminded us just why we fell in love with Harry in the first place – plus, we got to see some of our favorite extracts from the book read (by such actors as David Thewlis, Evanna Lynch, Warwick Davis, and Mark Williams) and of course, see J.K. Rowling herself talk about the magic in the books.

For those of us who watched it and loved it, or those of us who haven’t been able to watch it, here are our some of the things that we learned.


1. The documentary made it clear that the curators of the exhibition really dove into the British Library archives, delving into places that are rarely touched – they’ve been combing the archives for a year! These items include such weird and wonderful things as a real Elizabethan spellbook, a love charm, a bone used for divination, and more.

2. The classical origins of many of the spells in the books are evident, thanks to Jo’s French and classical studies. The spells that carry more weight in the series  – such as Avada Kedavra – are the ones that who are rooted in a richer province. Sometimes, she just invented them (such as Wingardium Leviosa). Avada Kedavra actually comes from Abracadabra. Originally, it was used as a protection spell.

3. Flamel’s gravestone is one of the rare items on display. A magical artifact, the Ripley Scroll, outlining the making of a philosopher’s stone was also unraveled and will be on display. Jo spoke about a vivid dream about Flamel she had during the writing, where she watched Flamel at work, but she says, as a typical writer, she only observed him!

4. The Potter universe takes much inspiration from both mythology and the living world. Jo used a book called Complete Herbal by Nicolas Culpeper to inspire and inform many of the potion ingredients and plants used in the novels.

5. Everything about wands in Potter was made up by Jo because she couldn’t find out anything about what had been said before. While writing the Ollivanders chapter in Sorcerer’s Stone, she was sitting under a tree, which helped to inspire the contents.

6. An image of Professor Sprout, which Jo drew while staying with friends and staying up to watch The Man Who Would be King, is one of the images on display. This has a special place in Jo’s heart because she discovered the next day that her mother had passed away the previous evening while she was watching. That same evening also gave her the subconscious inspiration for the Deathly Hallows symbol, thanks to a masonic symbol on the costume of one of the characters – something she only realized 20 years later.

7. For the exhibition, Jo has picked out things that mean something to her (including the Professor Sprout image). These items include handwritten chapters, some of her own drawings, and the synopsis for the first book. It’s the first time any of these items will be displayed. It’s also the first time that a living author will have a solo exhibition at the British Library.


The documentary is currently available to view on BBC iPlayer.

Harry Potter: A History of Magic is on now at the British Library and will run until February 28, 2017. Book your tickets now!