Re-Reading Harry Potter: Prisoner of Azkaban ch. 19-22

Time travel is never easy to write – or to read! More than any other kind of fantasy, it defies all the laws that govern our world. It’s far easier to imagine waving a wand to levitate a feather, brewing a potion, or discovering a magical beast than traveling back in time to change the past, because there is simply nothing even close to an equivalent in the real world. The past is untouchable. Set in stone.

Sure, we can think about what we’d do if we could travel in time. Would you take life-saving medicine back to the days of the Bubonic Plague? Would you try to stop Hitler’s rise to power? Would you copy down the winning lottery numbers and go back in time to buy a ticket? Could you do any of those things without risking irreversible damage to time itself? It all seems to depend on which theories you buy into. In some fictional worlds, messing with the past at all is a risky business, while in others, time seems to fall into place around the time travelers as if they’d always been there. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban seems to be the latter, but there are subtle hints that it is in fact the former.

In the movie in particular, Harry and Hermione’s actions in the past only seem to explain things that came out of nowhere before. The patronus that saves them is a big one, but smaller scenes are added, such as Hermione imitating a werewolf’s howl and Harry throwing pebbles at their past selves to make them realize they have to leave. However, in the book, Hermione explains how dangerous time turning can be:

“We’re breaking one of the most important wizarding laws! … Professor McGonagall told me what awful things have happened when wizards have meddled with time. … Loads of them ended up killing their past or future selves by mistake!”

If it’s possible to kill your past self, then it sounds like the Grandfather Paradox is in full effect here. The consequences of doing such a thing are not fully explained. However, in Cursed Child, Albus Potter’s actions in the past inadvertently cause his father’s death, erasing him from existence. I’m not sure whether to apply Cursed Child logic to Prisoner of Azkaban, since it was written so long after and the time turners there seem to follow different rules (or at least allow the user to travel back much farther into the past). However, there are hints even in Prisoner of Azkaban that time travel is a messy, dangerous business.

There is still one important moment, though, when it seems that Harry has already changed the past before he goes back in time to do so (which makes time travel seem more stable and less risky than it might be otherwise). During the trip back in time, he casts a patronus, saving his past self. If he hadn’t already been there to cast the patronus, he wouldn’t have lasted long enough to go back in time and do so. The only things they change are things that they didn’t personally witness the first time around, or things that they did see, but didn’t fully understand. Is this simply because Hermione is careful and knows to keep out of sight? Or is that just the way time travel works – and if so, why all the sinister warnings about wizards who ended up murdering their past selves?

Re-Reading Harry Potter: Prisoner of Azkaban ch. 13

Many people joke about needing more hours in a day, but can you imagine what it would really be like? Hermione doesn’t seem to be handling it too well, and if anyone can be counted on to manage a crazy schedule, it’s her. But it’s not hard to see why. She’s been living for months now on at least 26-hour days!

And that’s assuming as little time-turning as possible. It’s assuming that – since the other kids seem to be taking 2-3 new classes and she’s taking 5 – she has to travel back in time twice each day. It doesn’t take into account the “double” class periods Hogwarts students often seem to have, and it doesn’t take into account the time allotted for homework.

Most people have a natural body clock that runs on a 24-hour schedule. They go to sleep, wake up, and go about their daily routine. Hermione is pushed out of that sort of schedule and into an unnaturally long day, meaning it’s probably impossible for her to get into any kind of predictable rhythm. Her body isn’t expecting all the repeated hours, delayed meals, and longer days.

Speaking of meals, for that matter, how long is she going without eating? If most of her overlapping classes are in the morning (which seems to be the case), is she eating lunch before or after she goes back in time? If before, that’s a long time until dinner; if after, that’s a long time between breakfast and lunch. Either way, it doesn’t seem like a healthy schedule.

And how much sleep is she really getting? She has not only extra classes but extra homework as well. It seems as if she’s constantly tired and miserable. Even if she’s using the time turner to make sure she gets 8 hours of sleep, that would only make her day longer, meaning she’s sleeping 8 hours out of … 27? 28? 30? Just how long have her days become?

If Hermione’s days are 28 hours (2 extra hours to sleep + 2 extra hours for classes), and if she’s sleeping 8 hours a night, she’s awake 20 hours. If she’s also time turning another 2 hours for homework, that makes 30 total, and 22 hours awake in a row. Most people who are awake that long would be falling asleep on their feet.

Is it any wonder, then, that Hermione is working instead of celebrating after Gryffindor’s Quidditch victory? Is it any surprise that she doesn’t have the patience and energy to make amends with Ron when they squabble? And is it shocking that she loses her temper and storms out of Divination? Maybe not.

If Hufflepuffs Had Time Travel …

If I handed you a time machine, good for one and only one round trip to the past, what would you go back in time to do? This week’s Sorting Hat Saturday made me think about how those impulses fit into the Hogwarts house system, and that got me thinking about time travel in the Harry Potter series itself, and how characters from different houses would use it. Here’s what I came up with:

Gryffindor: to right a wrong. This is the easiest; Harry and Hermione travel back in time in Prisoner of Azkaban to save an innocent man condemned to a fate worse than death. Their use of the time turner is all about righting a wrong. They barely knew Sirius and had spent the year thinking he was a murderer, but they put themselves at risk to help him escape. It’s the Gryffindors who think about traveling back in time to prevent tragedies, whether that means stopping a war or just saving one person’s life.

Hufflepuff: to help others. I know, that sounds a lot like what I said for Gryffindor. But the approach is different. Gryffindors would be more likely to risk paradoxes to follow their heart, whereas Hufflepuffs would change things for the better in subtler ways, with more focus on the people they’re helping rather than the gut instinct to fix things.

Ravenclaw: to learn the truth. The past is full of unanswered questions, and a Ravenclaw might choose to observe and discover rather than change the past. Much like real-world historians, they would believe that understanding the past is important to make good choices in the future. If they did decide to change things, they would be careful, thinking about the bigger picture and making sure that their actions didn’t cause a paradox.

Slytherin: to get what they want. That sounds harsher than I mean it. A lot of people, given the option to change the past, would probably think of something that benefits them. Maybe they would buy a winning lottery ticket with numbers they memorized in the future, or leave a note to their younger self with advice to help them succeed. Maybe “what they want” is to prove a point, like Albus in Cursed Child. Maybe it’s to see a loved one they’ve lost again. Or maybe it’s world domination. My point is, Slytherins would see time travel as a way to achieve their own goals, with anything coming in second.