Space, Time, and Magic in the Harry Potter Universe

by Michael Silberstein

Harry Potter and Philosophy is the latest in the Open Court Pop Culture and Philosophy Series edited by William Irwin. This book will be released soon…you saw it here first!

Where is Diagon Alley relative to the rest of London and the actual world? Where is platform nine and three-quarters? And where is Hogwarts relative to the actual world?How do wizards travel through space-time shortcuts such as those provided by Floo powder, the Knight Bus, and teleportation (Disapparating/Apparating) via spells and Portkeys? Of course, these where and how questions go hand-in-hand.

A key philosophical question regarding any work of fantasy is where and when the fantastical realm in question is relative to the actual world of everyday experience. What spatial-temporal and causal relations do the fantasy world(s) and its inhabitants bear to our own? For example, if the two realms are distinct then how does one travel between the fantasy world and our own? Does time “pass” in the fantasy realm at the same rate it “passes” on Earth? What is the nature of space and time in the fantasy world compared to our own? For example, does the fantasy world allow time travel, teleportation, etc.? Is it logically and physically possible for normal humans to replicate these feats by technological (non-magical) means alone? If these things are possible in the real world—–which is the concern of metaphysics–—does the fantasy world contain space-time phenomena disallowed by the logical or physical laws of the actual world? Do the magical means of manipulating space and time miraculously break or bend the natural laws of the actual world or merely exploit unknown possibilities?

Where/when: The Harry Potter universe and our own world

About any fantasy story, we must ask the question: Where or when is this mythical world relative to our own? For example, in the case of Tolkien’’s Trilogy, Middle-earth is a forgotten and ancient period in Earth’’s actual history, a period, according to the story, we now wrongly regard as mythological. By contrast, C.S. Lewis’’s land of Narnia was a distinct magical realm that could be entered from our own world via certain magical portals. Narnia is a magical land with different laws where time flows at a much faster rate with respect to Earth time. Months might pass in Narnia where only minutes have passed on Earth. The world of Harry Potter is neither a faraway time in Earth’’s past or future, nor a distinct magical realm, but is Earth’’s present day. J.K. Rowling makes it clear that the magical world of Harry Potter and the actual world are one and the same. The best way to illustrate this is by asking where are the major “magical” places such as Diagon Alley, platform nine and three-quarters, and Hogwarts relative to “the Muggle world.”

Magical and non-magical places

It would be easy to get the impression that Diagon Alley, platform nine and three-quarters, etc., really are distinct magical locations because they are arrived at by secret and magical means. “”He [Hagrid] tapped the wall three times with the point of his umbrella. The brick he had touched quivered–—it wriggled–—in the middle, a small hole appeared—–it grew wider and wider—a second later they were facing an archway large enough even for Hagrid, an archway onto a cobbled street that twisted and turned out of sight”” (SS 71). This is the passage where Harry first learns how to access Diagon Alley via the back wall of the London pub the Leaky Cauldron. Take Harry’’s first encounter with platform nine and three-quarters. After Harry miraculously walks through the wall separating platforms nine and ten he finds himself next to the Hogwarts Express, and a sign overhead says eleven o’clock. He looks behind himself and reads another sign which says “Platform Nine and Three-Quarters” (SS 117).

But upon closer inspection we find that while these places are special, they are right here on Earth:

The trouble is, about a hundred thousand wizards turn up at the World Cup, and of course, we just haven’’t got a magical site big enough to accommodate them all. There are places Muggles can’’t penetrate, but imagine trying to squeeze a hundred thousand wizards into Diagon Alley or platform nine and three-quarters. So we had to find a nice deserted moor, and set up as many anti-Muggle precautions as possible. (GF 69)

In this passage we learn from Mr. Weasley that what makes a place “magical” is that “Muggles can’t penetrate,” not that such places are not part of our space-time continuum. We also learn that for whatever reason magical sites are small and perhaps rare.

What separates magical from non-magical places is that the latter but not the former must be heavily protected by spells in order to keep Muggles from seeing or otherwise finding them:

““Seats a hundred thousand” [World Cup stadium],” said Mr. Weasley, spotting the awestruck look on Harry’’s face. “”Ministry task force of five hundred have been working on it all year. Muggle Repelling Charms on every inch of it. Every time Muggles have got anywhere near here all year, they’’ve suddenly remembered urgent appointments and had to dash away again–…bless them”” (GF 96).

From this passage we learn that the World Cup stadium is not a magical place proper and therefore must be charmed to keep humans away. Additionally, Hermione tells Ron that Hogwarts itself and other schools of wizardry such as Durmstrang are also not magical places but must be protected from prying Muggle eyes by spells and enchantments (GF 66-67).

There is ample evidence that all the other key places and creatures in the Harry Potter universe are right here on Earth as well, even dragons, as the following passage suggests: ““Charlie’’s in Romania studying dragons, and Bill’’s in Africa doing something for Gringotts”” (SS 107). Indeed, even “magical places” such as platform nine and three-quarters and Diagon Alley, which require magical means to enter, are right here on Earth in our space-time continuum. In both Diagon Alley and platform nine and three-quarters, wizards go “through walls” by some magical means in order to enter the hidden areas (SS 89-94). Moreover, there isn’’t any suggestion—–in either the books or the films–—that any sort of teleportation or apparating is occurring. As we shall soon discuss, whenever any sort of apparating occurs in the Harry Potter universe it is accompanied by tell-tale signs such as the feeling of motion, strange colors, sensations, etc. In the case of both platform nine and three-quarters and Diagon Alley, what wizards experience is continuing into another apparently connected location. Hagrid gives us further evidence for thinking that Diagon Alley is a part of this Earth.

“”Why would you be mad to try and rob Gringotts?”” Harry asked.

“”Gringotts is hundreds of miles under London, see. Deep under the Underground. Yeh’’d die of hunger tryin’’ ter get out, even if yeh did manage ter get yer hands on summat”” (SS 64).

So, Gringotts is directly under London and we know that the entrance to Gringotts is in Diagon Alley (SS 71-72). Since apparating or teleportation isn’’t used to get inside, it must be that Diagon Alley and Gringotts are in the heart of London right here on Earth. But then why is it that Muggles never sense platform nine and three-quarters if it is literally part of King’s Cross station, or Diagon Alley if it is literally nestled a wall’’s breadth away from the rest of that part of London? Because, as we just learned, these are “magical sites,” which are undetectable by Muggles.

Consider that in the Harry Potter films one can see Earth’’s sky in both of these magical places. Note also that in Chamber of Secrets—both the film and the book—there is a scene in which we see Hermione’’s parents in Diagon Alley, which makes it clear that Muggles can enter magical places if they are accompanied by wizards. Also recall the scene in Chamber of Secrets where Harry and Ron miss the Hogwarts Express and end up taking the flying car to Hogwarts. The fact that on this flight they are seen by Muggles, that they can find and follow the train and tracks of the Hogwarts Express, and that they can fly directly to Hogwarts just as a normal plane would, all constitute more evidence that everything in the Harry Potter universe is part of Earth’’s space-time continuum. We can only assume the reason that Muggles do not notice the Hogwarts Express is the same reason they do not see Hogwarts itself. We might well wonder why train transportation is necessary at all, given teleportation and such. The answer, as we are repeatedly told, is that for security reasons apparating is not allowed in or out of Hogwarts (PA 419).

Other key locations, such as the Ministry of Magic and St. Mungo’’s Wizard’s’ Hospital, are in London too (OP 482-83). Recall that wizards enter the hospital by stepping through an enchanted window display. The location of the Ministry is underground in London and is entered via an old, broken-down red phone booth (OP 125-26; 768-69). Further evidence that the Muggle world and Wizard world are the same world is that time “passes” at the same rate at magical places that it does in London; for example, if it is 11:00 AM at King’s Cross station then it is 11:00 AM on platform nine and three-quarters.

How: travel by magical means

How do wizards travel through space-time shortcuts such as those provided by Floo powder, the Knight Bus, and teleportation (Disapparating/Apparating) via spells and Portkeys? Unfortunately the best answer to this question is: it’s magic! None of the descriptions in the books provides us with anything like a detailed explanation. However, some of these methods of travel may not be quite as inexplicable or inconceivable as they seem at first.


[Editor’s note: Silberstein’s equating of portkey and apparation will likely seem incorrect to many readers, given that the following quote describes Portkey travel and the listed side effects–such as splinching–describe apparition. Any comments you have on this subject can be sent via the feedback form and will be forwarded to the book’’s editor, Shawn Klein.]

It turns out that apparating can be quite dangerous and tricky. Potential serious errors include unintended landing sites such as in walls or on top of people or even worse, getting “splinched” (i.e., only half your body teleports away leaving the other half behind). But what does apparating feel like?

It happened immediately: Harry felt as though a hook just behind his navel had been suddenly jerked irresistibly forward. His feet left the ground; he could feel Ron and Hermione on either side of him, their shoulders banging into his; they were all speeding forward in a howl of wind and swirling color; his forefinger was stuck to the boot as though it was pulling him magnetically onward and then—
His feet slammed into the ground (GF 73-74).

So apparating involves motion through some kind of space because apparaters feel as though they are in motion and when they reappear, they are often described as “windswept,” “disheveled,” and “prone” on the ground. Also, most of the passages describing apparation imply that some time goes by from the point of disappearing in one place and reappearing in another. All of this suggests that apparating does not mean literally disappearing in one place and instantly reappearing in another without having traversed any space-time. But where is the connecting space that has been traversed and how do wizards traverse it so quickly? One possibility is that apparating is not so much teleportation (i.e., instantly getting from point A to point B without having traversed any intervening space), but rather it is travel by “wormholes” or their magical equivalent. A wormhole is a tunnel made out of space-time, between two different points of space-time. Imagine, if you will, that space-time is like a very elastic rubber sheet. It might be possible to create a tunnel in the fabric of space-time (for example, with a massive object, by magic, etc.) that connects two space-time locations (such as the Weasley’s house and the World Cup stadium) in such a way that the distance between them is greatly diminished. Such a tunnel would be a shortcut between these two points. Such a shortcut could connect two different places or even two different times. Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity allows for the possibility of such wormholes. One possible conjecture is that apparating can be explained as the creation and manipulation of very small wormholes by magical means. Such a wormhole connecting different points on Earth could be quickly traversed and would be functionally equivalent to teleportation.

Floo powder

There is also some suggestion that travel via Floo powder is not strictly speaking a form of teleportation, but some kind of extra-physical or magical connection between certain fireplaces:

“I had your fireplace connected to the Floo Network, you see—–just for an afternoon, you know, so we could get Harry. Muggle fireplaces aren’t supposed to be connected, strictly speaking—but I’’ve got a useful contact at the Floo Regulation Panel and he fixed it for me.” (GF 45).Harry spun faster and faster, elbows tucked tightly to his sides, blurred fireplaces flashing past him, until he started to feel sick and closed his eyes. Then, when at last he felt himself slowing down, he threw out his hands and came to a halt in time to prevent himself from falling face forward out of the Weasley’s’ kitchen fire (GF 51).

So travel via Floo powder requires that fireplaces be connected in some magical way that is not a mere physical connection (i.e., you cannot literally walk from fireplace to fireplace) and yet is somehow more like normal travel between distant points than apparating. We clearly get the impression that traveling via the Floo Network is a wild ride. Perhaps the Floo Network exists for those who cannot yet apparate or for when it is not safe to do so. If so, we may view the Floo Network as a set of pre-connected magical wormholes that are connected via magic.

The Floo Network also serves another function, namely communication between distant fireplaces via “Floo talking” (OP 740). In Order of Phoenix Harry not only sees Grimmauld Place, he is seen by and has a conversation with the disloyal house-elf Kreacher who inhabits it (OP 741). Now we have a real mystery on our hands, for it would seem that Harry’’s head is in the fireplace at Grimmauld Place and his body is still firmly planted at Hogwarts in Umbridge’s office. It would appear that his head and body are still connected, but how is this possible under the circumstances given the large distance between these two places? It seems unlikely that Harry’’s neck is elongated to the point where it literally traverses all that distance, so it would seem that the connection between his body and his head is a magical and not a physical one.

Time travel: The tensed versus the tenseless view of time

In Prisoner of Azkaban, Hermione makes use of the “Time-Turner–”—a device that allows Harry and her to time travel. But before we say more about these events it is important to get straight some basic facts about time travel in general. First, we need to understand that there is only one conception of time in which time travel makes sense, namely, the “tenseless” theory of time. The common-sense view of time is the “tensed” view which holds that time, unlike space, flows or becomes [1]. On this view, time, like a river, is a dynamic or changing entity. According to the tensed theory of time, the future is undetermined, unreal, and open. The past is set, but long gone like faded fireworks. Only the present is real on this view, and the present is where the past and future meet. The tensed view of time is not only the common sense view, at one time it was also widely held by philosophers. Take this passage from Augustine for example: “How can the past and future be when the past no longer is and the future is not yet? As for the present, if it were always present and never moved on to become the past, it would not be time but eternity” [2].

By contrast, the tenseless theory of time holds that the “past,” “present,” and “future” are all equally real [3]. On this view there is no becoming, no change, and the future is not open. In addition to the three spatial dimensions, time is conceived as a fourth dimension that is very much like just another spatial dimension. Events such as your birth, graduation, and death are all equally real (though not equally present) and we can plot them on a space-time diagram just as we would plot a point on a regular map. On this “block” or “static” picture of time the universe is a “four-dimensional space-time continuum.” The notion of “now” or “the present” has no fixed position on this view. Indeed, past, present, and future are relative notions, relative to where you are on the space-time block. The events of your birth and death, just like Paris and Hong Kong, are equally real, they just exist at different space-time points. The temporal relations among all four-dimensional objects are fixed forever. As evidenced by the following quotation Einstein himself held the tenseless view of time because he believed, as do many philosophers and physicists today, that the relativity of simultaneity implies it: “”[t]he distinction between past, present and future is only an illusion, even if a stubborn one” [4].

From a four-dimensional perspective there is no such thing as change. The universe is like a still-born space-time jewel with many facets (e.g., space-time points), hence the name “block world.” The best way to conceive of change in such a world is by analogy with the illusion of change created by still film frames moving through a projector. In frame one (time t1), for example, Lupin is a man, in frame two (time t2) he is part man and part wolf, and in frame three (time t3) he is a full-blown Werewolf.

It should now be easy to see why time travel only makes sense on the tenseless view of time. On the tensed picture of time neither the past nor the future exist; only the present is real. Therefore there is no past or future to travel to on the tensed view! On the other hand, the tenseless view makes time travel possible, at least in principle, because all space-time points are equally real. In the block universe “past” and “future” (relative to our frame of reference) are fixed forever. One interesting consequence of all this is that even if time travel is possible, it is not possible to change the past or the future. Thus all time travel stories in which people go back in time and change events that have already happened are inconsistent. Of course one can always try to render such stories consistent by claiming that the “new” past or future is really a distinct branch of time, different time line, different world, parallel universe, etc. But it is very different to travel “across” possible worlds as they do in the TV show Sliders and to travel in time as they do in the film Twelve Monkeys. For example, the film Back to the Futureis a consistent story about possible worlds travel but an inconsistent time travel story because Marty changes things that have already occurred, such as the past and present events of his parent’s lives. There is nothing wrong with this but such stories are better dubbed possibility travel than time travel, because one is moving through possibility space and not time within our universe. To put it another way, if you go back in time and perform some action, according to block world, this means you always went back in time and performed that action. It cannot be that the past event unfolded the first time without you and then you go back in time and the past event unfolds for the second time with you! For example, if you go back in time and assassinate Hitler before the start of WW II then you were always the one to shoot Hitler; which means that you should not bother trying to do this, because it never happened!

You may ask: but what prevents me from shooting Hitler if time travel is possible? People differ about how best to answer this question but since time travel is only possible in the block universe and since Hitler was not shot before the war, then we know that you cannot go back and shoot him now. It would be a contradiction if both Hitler was not shot before the war started and Hitler was shot before the war started; and logical contradictions just cannot happen. In short, the only time travel events that are possible (that can exist) are those that do not entail a contradiction.

Time travel in the Harry Potter universe

Now we can ask the question: does J.K. Rowling present us with a consistent time travel story in Prisoner of Azkaban? The answer is a qualified yes in that we see aspects of both the tensed and tenseless views of time at work in the story: two logically incompatible notions of time. Let’’s begin with key uses of the tensed view of time by Hermione.

“”No!”” said Hermione in a terrified whisper. “”Don’’t you understand? We’’re breaking one of the most important wizarding laws! Nobody’’s supposed to change time, nobody!”” (PA 398).

Hermione continues, “”Professor McGonagall told me what awful things have happened when wizards have meddled with time”” (PA 399). We see that Hermione, under the tutelage of McGonagall and Dumbledore, is operating with the tensed view of time. That is, why should wizards bother having severe laws against changing the past when time travel is only possible in those worlds in which the past cannot be changed? One need only worry about changing the past if the tensed theory of time is true, but if the tensed theory of time is true then time travel is impossible. Dumbledore further corroborates this mistake when he says to Harry: “”Hasn’’t your experience with the Time-Turner taught you anything, Harry? The consequences of our actions are always so complicated, so diverse, that predicting the future is a very difficult business indeed”…” (PA 426). The point is that if time travel is possible then the future is fixed, so predicting the future should not be difficult at all for wizards with that ability.

There is another clear cut use of the tensed view of time in Order of the Phoenix when Harry and company are fighting Voldemort and the Death Eaters in the Ministry of Magic. Wizards at the Ministry of Magic have actually trapped time itself in a jar and when one of the Death Eaters falls into the jar, his head keeps growing alternatively old and young again because it is trapped in the cyclical flow of time within the jar. This suggests that time is a thing in itself which flows and changes. However, none of these events makes sense on a tenseless view of time. Events do not appear, disappear, and change on this view; time is not a force–—the universe is just a collection of space-time still frames, so to speak.

In the case of time travel we have to make a distinction between personal time and objective time. In objective time, for example, someone might die before they were born; let’s say you are born in the year 1988, and in the year 2004 you travel back to Dinosaur days and are killed by a T. rex. In objective time you died millions of years before you were born in 1988. However there is no real paradox here, because in personal time you were born, traveled back in time fifteen years later, and died.

Prisoner of Azkaban is ultimately a consistent time travel story because upon close examination Harry and Hermione do not change events that have already happened. However, unless one reads the book very closely, the natural assumption is that the pair do change an event that has already happened, namely, the death of Buckbeak. We are primed to this misreading by all the tensed view of time oriented dialogue surrounding their trip back in time. For example, Hermione interprets Dumbledore’’s directive in the following way: ““there must be something that happened around now he wants us to change”” (PA 396). In Prisoner of Azkaban it appears that Buckbeak has been beheaded, and that later on Harry and Hermione travel back in time and save Buckbeak “before” he is executed (331). However, this is exactly the sort of thing that the tenseless view of time will not allow, and only the tenseless view of time supports the possibility of time travel. Again, Buckbeak’s having both been killed and not killed is a logical contradiction and so is not a possibility. Fortunately the film version of Prisoner of Azkaban is very careful; it has a number of devices in place to insure that the audience understands that Buckbeak was never killed and that it was always the time traveling Harry and Hermione that saved him. For example, the film version makes it clear that the time traveling Harry and Hermione were always outside Hagrid’s house watching their non-time traveling selves and waiting to free Buckbeak. Based on the book alone it would be easy to think the sequence of events was as follows:

  1. While exiting Hagrid’’s garden the three hear Buckbeak get executed, i.e., ““the unmistakable swish and thud of an axe”” (PA 331).
  2. Hermione and Sirius are rendered unconscious by the Dementors and Harry is surrounded by them. Just as Harry is about to have his soul sucked out by a Dementor’s kiss an “animal of light” appears out of nowhere and drives the Dementors away and Harry faints.
  3. Harry and Hermione wake up in the Hospital wing of Hogwarts and learn that Sirius is imprisoned upstairs and is about to be administered the Dementor’s kiss. Dumbledore sends Harry and Hermione three hours back in time to save Sirius.
  4. Harry and Hermione go to the edge of the woods and watch all the same events transpire leading up to Buckbeak’’s execution but this time they sneak up and rescue Buckbeak.
  5. While making their escape, Harry sees the Dementors closing in on his “other self,” the unconscious Sirius and “other” Hermione. Harry decides to go and find out who saved him from the Dementors. Harry realizes that it was he (his time-traveling self) who saved himself from the Dementors and he conjures up a patronus in the form of a “stag” which does exactly that.
  6. Harry and Hermione save Sirius and get back to the hospital wing just in time to sense Dumbledore sending their “other selves” off to time travel and save Sirius.

From this sequence of events it appears that Buckbeak both is and is not beheaded, yet this is a logical contradiction that cannot occur. However, a close and charitable reading of these passages reveals that in fact Buckbeak was never killed and that the “events” experienced by the non-time traveling Harry and Hermione and their time-traveling counterparts are, in fact, the same events. Rowling shows this by cleverly tying together the two events with almost the same language. In the first sequence, there is “the “unmistakable swish and thud of an axe”” that we are supposed to take as the execution of Buckbeak (PA 331). And in the second sequence, after the time traveling Harry and Hermione have saved Buckbeak, we hear “a swishing noise, and the thud of an axe” when the executioner swings his axe into a fence (PA 402). In the movie version, we see the executioner chop a large pumpkin in half to the same effect.

The fact that time-traveling Harry saves his “other self” from the Dementors is certainly strange but it does not violate any known laws of logic or physics. This is an example of what we call “a closed causal loop.” In this case the events in the loop are: (A) Harry was saved from the Dementors because he traveled back in time and saved himself and (B) Harry was able to travel back in time because he saved himself. Why was Harry saved? Because he traveled back in time. Why did Harry travel back in time? Because he was saved. This causal loop goes round and round because event (A) caused event (B) and event (B) caused event (A). Normally, causal relations between events form a straight chain and not a loop. Causal loops are standard fare for time travel stories because they are mind-bending and both logically and physically possible.

We have learned that the world of Harry Potter is our present world and that magical means are used to travel around this world by creating and/or manipulating the magical equivalent of wormholes. The best explanation we can come up with for Floo powder communication: it is magic! Apparating and the Floo Travel Network might be physically and logically possible, but it is unclear how to explain Floo powder communication except by purely supernatural means [5]. Time travel is logically and physically possible in our world and thus in the world of Harry Potter. However, time travel is only possible in a block universe (the tenseless theory of time) in which no events can be changed, erased or rewritten. Time travel as presented in Prisoner of Azkaban is, if charitably interpreted, consistent with the block world that makes time travel possible. However, the frequent warnings throughout the book about the dangers of changing the past, present, or future might lead even the attentive reader to conclude otherwise.

[1] See Craig Callender, Introducing Time (United Kingdom: Totem books, 2001) for an ideal historical and philosophical overview of time.
[2] Augustine, trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin, Confessions (New York: Penguin, 1961), 253.
[3] Callender, 33-38.
[4] A. P. French, ed., “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies,” Einstein: A Centenary Volume (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979), 281.
[5] Roger Highfield, The Science of Harry Potter (New York: Penguin, 2002).