Let’s face it: the time travel in Harry Potter kinda sucks. Don’t get me wrong! I love the series! Even now, when I am grappling with the fact that Rowling has a problem with people like me, I can’t pretend I don’t love it. The Wizarding World shaped a big part of my childhood. There is a lot that the series does right! Time travel, though, isn’t one of them.
I know. I know. It’s not a very big revelation, is it? People have pointed out so many issues with the way time travel works. It kinda seems like I’m just jumping on the bandwagon, doesn’t it? I get that! But hear me out, ok?
When I say that it isn’t great, I’m not trying to poke holes into the Harry Potter universe. Well, not this time, anyway. In fact, for the most part, I disagree with a lot of the issues people have pointed out. I’ll explain why in a little bit.
My problems with time travel in Harry Potter come from the point of view of a writer. After all, this is a writing advice blog, isn’t it? I’m not here to tell you about every little plot hole in the series you love. Nope!
Rather, I’m going to use the issues in the Harry Potter universe as a cautionary tale. I’ll show you what is wrong with the way time travel was handled and what you can learn from it. So, stick with me!
What Isn’t Wrong With Harry Potter Time Travel
First of all, I want to address the things I don’t think Harry Potter got wrong. You see, a lot of people out there point out flaws with the time travel system that I just don’t think apply! You’re going to find nit-pickers trying to poke holes in every story ever. While they sometimes have a few good points, you shouldn’t let them turn you off from your writing.
So I’ll say right now that I don’t think it’s a problem that Harry didn’t use the Time Turner to save his parents. For one, I don’t even know if it’s possible (well, if we think about the way time travel originally worked, anyway). Secondly, with all of the excitement, I don’t think that he had the time to think about it. Once things calmed down and they’d saved Sirius, the Time Turner was quickly taken away.
It’s also not a plot hole that Hermione had a Time Turner in the first place. Sure, it is silly. It’s very irresponsible, in fact! But that’s not a plot hole. I mean, we’re talking about the same series in which an old man hires a phony as the teacher of one of the most important classes in school! It’s silly. That’s just how it is, really.
I think that’s it for things that Harry Potter time travel didn’t do wrong, though. I’m glad we’ve got that covered. Now we can get onto my real point.
What Is Wrong With Harry Potter Time Travel
Most of my issues with the way that time travel works in Harry Potter aren’t about how the characters interact with it. Sure, I think it could be made stronger if Harry questioned why he couldn’t try to use it to bring back his parents. Even worse, I don’t think you can fix a question like that by sticking a plaster over the issue like they did with The Cursed Child.
However, it’s much more about how Rowling treats her own time travel laws as a writer. I would say that she is pretty disdainful of the whole thing! She doesn’t give it anywhere near the same love and care that she does the idea of horcruxes.
To be honest, I don’t think time travel should have been used in Harry Potter at all. I feel like it was a cheap way to solve the problems the characters faced and that it would have been much more interesting to see them try to smuggle Sirius out of the castle some other way. That’s my own opinion, though.
While I admire the fact that the hints for the whole time travel thing were there from the very start of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, I don’t think it was handled well at all.
There is plenty that other writers can learn from her mistakes.
It Undermines the Themes
In my post about why you should plan your magic systems, I talk about the importance of making sure your magic doesn’t go against the themes of the story.
You can, and should, apply the same logic to time travel systems. You can come up with so many ways to use time travel in your story! Plus, it can work in loads of different ways, too! Take a look at the cookies examples in this (9-year-old) video for more info:
Of course, there is also the Open Culture post on the matter that you can have a look at.
The one that you choose for your story, however, should not cause any issues with the main themes in your books.
In Harry Potter, the time travel theory is in direct opposition with one of the big, important themes.
You see, Dumbledore spends a whole lot of his time talking about how it is your choices that matter. It is the thing that makes Harry different from Riddle in the book before this one.
However, in the very next book, time travel seems to prove that wrong! Harry can’t change the past even if he chooses to.
Even worse than that, he sees his future self doing things he hasn’t even done yet! That means that his future is already set in stone before he gets the chance to live it. If that’s the case, it means he never chose to go back in the past in the first place. It was predestined.
Looks like choices don’t matter in Harry Potter, after all. Theme undermined!
It Is Never Mentioned Again
When it comes to the main, canon Harry Potter universe, no one ever mentions time travel again. In fact, Rowling goes out of her way to break all of the Time Turners in the Battle of the Department of Mysteries to solve the problem.
This doesn’t solve anything. It is an obvious retcon that doesn’t look very great. Instead of making an effort to write a reason why the characters can’t use time travel in the way they think, Rowling instead decides to erase them completely from the Harry Potter universe!
And before she gets rid of them, we have a whole book. In that book, characters could have really used the ability to travel through time. I mean, Cedric’s dad works for the Ministry. They could have used it to save his son, right? Well, no, since the timeline is linear, but that’s the question she was avoiding.
I’m sure we’ll all need to make a retcon or two in our writing. After all, we just can’t think of every single plot hole ever! Sometimes, readers of your work will find faults in your plot. When this happens, you will have the challenge of correcting those faults in a way that makes sense and feels natural. It’s a hard skill to get right.
Destroying the problem completely is just lazy. If the only way to solve a problem is to ignore or get rid of it, maybe you shouldn’t have written about it in the first place?
The characters in Harry Potter aren’t stupid (for the most part). It would have been nicer for them to ask the questions we were all asking. Then Rowling could have given us a proper reason why long before she needed to destroy the Time Turners.
The Rules Are Never Explained in the Books
If Rowling had taken the time to let her characters ask the questions we all did, she could have given good answers in the book that make sense for all of us.
- The Time Turner can only take you back an hour.
- Timelines are fixed, so if you can’t actually go back and change the past. Otherwise you’d remove the point of going back in the first place, which would create a paradox. We see what future people do in the present. We see Harry get hit by a stone even though Hermione hasn’t thrown it yet. If the event happened, time travel wouldn’t change it.
- She could have said unauthorised time travel was highly illegal.
But instead, she shoves the whole one-hour charm thing into Pottermore years after the book came out. While Pottermore is a super useful resource, she used it badly. You should never use supplementary material to patch up plot holes. As I said in my post about The Death of the Author, you should take the effort to make another book to explain things if you need to. Not everyone reads the supplementary stuff, after all!
The book series should make sense on its own. If that’s not true and you’re using extra posts to correct your plot, you’ve messed up somewhere along the way.
The Way That Time Travel Worked Changed
This is probably the worst issue with time travel in Harry Potter. In an effort to one-up the people asking why Harry didn’t just go back and save his parents, Rowling makes a whole play – The Cursed Child. This play breaks the established time travel rules that were already in play in the Harry Potter universe.
In the original books, time travel was a fixed thing. Going back in the past would not change the present, because you are already living through the reality of what life would have been lief if you did go back in the past. Your present self sees the effects of your future self’s actions. So, if something happened, going back in the past clearly wouldn’t change it.
In The Cursed Child, Rowling changes this completely. The kids can go back and save the Potters. They go back and save Cedric! They even manage to accidentally make one of them not exist.
Now, that isn’t in line with how time travel works in the books. You can’t alter a fixed time line like that (see the Charlieissocoollike video I linked above for a better explanation). The only explanation you get is something about how magic has changed or something. You can’t just change the laws by which your story operate and expect people to go along with it!
But then again, it doesn’t surprise me that she messed this up. I mean, in her own page about Time Turners, she shows that she doesn’t really get how her time travel is different from Back to the Future time travel, anyway.
Then again, a whole lot has been disappointing me about Rowling lately.
Trans women are women.
Happy writing – sort of.