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Warning: This article contains spoilers for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is already giving Harry Potter fans plenty to chew on, whether it’s about Ron's ill-advised gift to his nephew or the continuity of Draco Malfoy’s hair. But the biggest headache of all might be in the very device the play chooses to tell its story.
In the two-part play, Albus Potter and Scorpius Malfoy (the sons of Harry and Draco, respectively) steal a Time-Turner that has the ability to travel back in time longer than five hours—the maximum amount of time a wizard or witch can travel without having a profound effect on time or themselves—so they can prevent Cedric Diggory from dying at the end of Goblet of Fire. Their attempts to do so by sabotaging him during the Triwizard Tournament results in a number of alternate realities—one with devastating ramifications.
Time travel is a tricky plot device, no matter which sci-fi or fantasy story you’re talking about. With the exception of Prisoner of Azkaban, the Harry Potter series doesn’t even touch on time travel. But when it did in Cursed Child, it painted a much different picture than the one J.K. Rowling wrote nearly 20 years ago.
How time travel worked in Prisoner of Azkaban
Throughout the year, Hermione Granger secretly uses a magical device called a Time-Turner that allows her to attend all of her classes, and it’s not until the book’s climax that time travel plays a crucial role: Hermione and Harry use the Time-Turner to go back in time in order to save Sirius Black, an innocent man, from a fate worse than death.Rowling doesn’t go into too much detail about the semantics of time travel in the wizarding world, but she emphasizes just how dangerous it is to muddle with time. Hermione warns Harry that countless witches and wizards have killed their past or future selves, thinking they’ve gone mad, due to time travel, and she needed special permission from the Ministry of Magic to even use it. But for the most part it goes off without a hitch. They work tirelessly to not be seen by anyone—save Buckbeak—and rescue Sirius, and Harry rescues everyone with a powerful Patronus Charm (after he believed he saw his dad cast it).
While the concept of time travel isn’t touched on too much, Harry and Hermione’s time travel is in line with a causal loop. Even though they went to “change” time, those events had already been changed. Harry cast the Patronus Charm to protect himself, who would later go back in time to cast that same protection spell. The Time-Turner, in the books, also had the ability to transport the wearer near their location at the time they traveled back to. (The film’s version of the Time-Turner transports Harry and Hermione back in time, but they remain in the Hospital Wing when they go back.)
Hermione returned the Time-Turner to Professor McGonagall at the end of the book because she couldn’t do another year of time travel for her classes.
The Time-Turners made one more appearance. In Order of the Phoenix, the Ministry’s supply of Time-Turners are destroyed during the battle in the Department of Mysteries and caught in a time loop, so nobody can use them.
That’s simple enough, right? But Cursed Child blew everything we know about time travel in Harry’s world out the window.
Time travel in the realm of Cursed Child and the alternate reality where Voldemort won
Meanwhile, the way time travel is used in Cursed Child, when something substantial—or seemingly inconsequential, such as a 15-year-old Hermione running into Albus and Scorpius before they disarmed Cedric in the First Task—is changed, it can alter everything.
Hermione’s interaction with Albus and Scorpius, who were in Durmstrang uniforms, made her distrust Durmstrang students so much she turned Viktor Krum’s invitation to the Yule Ball down, which eventually led to her and Ron never marrying. (She also became a Hogwarts professor instead of Minister For Magic, which come on, she’d have had that ambitious drive regardless.) But Cedric still died, being all the more determined to win the Triwizard Tournament.Their interference during the Second Task, however, resulted in Cursed Child’s Darkest Timeline: Cedric survived (only to become a Death Eater), but that meant Harry died during the Battle of Hogwarts and Voldemort cemented his control, but Ron, Hermione, and a still-living Severus Snape continued to fight in Dumbledore’s name.
The catch in the newly discovered Time-Turner, which the Ministry of Magic secured from Theodore Nott (a former classmate of Harry, Ron, Hermione, and Draco), is that it has a time limit. You can only travel back in time for five minutes, and you have to be in the same location where you want to travel—so the time travel logic is more like Prisoner of Azkaban the movie than Prisoner of Azkaban the book.
The time limit is thrown out the window after Delphini, the secret daughter of Voldemort and Bellatrix Lestrange, crushes the Time-Turner she used to travel back to October 1981 from June 1995 to stop Voldemort from killing Harry in the first place so he won’t set the prophecy involving him and Harry into motion. (Albus and Scorpius, who traveled with her in an effort to stop her, are stuck in time with it. It's a bit hard to follow at times.)All seems lost until the revelation of another secret Time-Turner, one that works without the time limit—and in true Lucius Malfoy fashion, is plated in gold. That allows Harry, Ron, Hermione, Ginny, and Draco to travel to 1981 after receiving a hidden message through a Love Potion-stained blanket. By the time they thwart her plans, they know better than to interfere with Voldemort’s attack on a 15-month-old Harry and his parents, as heartbreaking as it is to watch.
Rowling wasn’t always a fan of time travel as a plot device
Rowling didn’t actually write Cursed Child—that honor goes to playwright Jack Thorne—but she worked on the story with Thorne and director John Tiffany. The plays have her stamp of approval as she promotes the plays on Twitter and she asked fans attending preview performances to #KeepTheSecrets, and according to Rowling, fans should consider Cursed Child canon.
Pottermore, an official Harry Potter site that functions like the Encyclopedia we never got, is also generally considered canon. Aside from getting sorted into Hogwarts and Ilvermorney houses and getting peeks into upcoming projects like Cursed Child and Fantastic Beasts, Pottermore has information on pretty much everything you’d want to know about Harry’s world. Everything from Draco’s life story to Harry’s family tree, why the Dursleys don’t like Harry, and information on newly revealed wizarding schools are available on the site, and some entries are sectioned off in “collections.”
But at one point, Pottermore revealed that Rowling had some pretty interesting thoughts on Time-Turners and time travel and the potential holes the very possibility could open up for future books.
On a Pottermore page from July 2013 that’s no longer live (its last archive is dated March 2016, months after Pottermore’s redesign), Rowling made a special entry about Time-Turners, which was revealed after you clicked on a special item in Pottermore back when Pottermore was more like a semi-interactive game.
From its first sentence, which says that “time travel is possible in only a limited sense even in the magical world,” Rowling’s concept of time travel is very different from what we eventually learn in Cursed Child.The entry covers the basics of Professor Croaker’s law, which Scorpius states in Cursed Child is that “the furthest someone can go back in time without the possibility of serious harm to the traveler or time itself is five hours” as well as the kind of catastrophic harm that comes when someone travels in time outside that period. (One witch was trapped in a five-day period in 1402 and aged 500 years after returning to her present, along with several people being erased from existence.)
The beginning of the entry reads like a page out of a history book, but the bottom section, called “J.K. Rowling’s thoughts,” allows Rowling to pull back the curtain and reveal her mindset on particular items or characters.
I went far too light-heartedly into the subject of time travel in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. While I do not regret it (Prisoner of Azkaban is one of my favorite books in the series), it opened up a vast number of problems for me, because after all, if wizards could go back and undo problems, where were my future plots?
I solved the problem to my own satisfaction in stages. Firstly, I had Dumbledore and Hermione emphasize how dangerous it would be to be seen in the past, to remind the reader that there might be unforeseen and dangerous consequences as well as solutions in time travel. Secondly, I had Hermione give back the only Time-Turner ever to enter Hogwarts. Thirdly, I smashed all remaining Time-Turners during the battle in the Department of Mysteries, removing the possibility of reliving even short periods in the future.
This is just one example of the ways in which, when writing fantasy novels, one must be careful what one invents. For every benefit, there is usually a drawback.
Harry Potter fans noticed the page had gone missing around mid-June—about a week after previews of the plays debuted at the Palace Theatre in London. The Time-Turner entry isn’t the only page missing from the newer Pottermore, but none of the others (so far) have as big of an effect on a new Harry Potter story as the apparent retcon regarding Time-Turners.
So can J.K. Rowling nix HP canon?
There are a couple of ways to look at this.
One, Rowling did scrub her own canon. She, Thorne, and Tiffany wanted to create a story involving years-long time travel, and at some point during the creation of Cursed Child the Time-Turner entry was no longer accurate to what they crafted. If there is a hierarchy of canon for Harry Potter, printed works might trump what’s written on Pottermore, although the ability for Rowling and the Pottermore staff to edit and remove entries could delegitimize Pottermore as a source for Harry Potter information and make it harder to keep track of canon.
It's not completely unprecedented; Lucasfilm announced that the Expanded Universe was no longer canon in 2014 so it wouldn't have to keep track of and work around decades of story in regards to the new trilogy. In comparison, changing the rules of how time works when the internet is forever seems a bit odd.
(Also, sometimes mistakes end up on the site, such as Pottermore temporarily killing off Lavender Brown in one of its character files.)
Second, both assertions—that time travel was limited but it’s now possible to travel back years thanks to the creation of special Time-Turners—could also be true. More than 20 years pass between the events of Prisoner of Azkaban and Cursed Child, and the Department of Mysteries's research on time travel could’ve been halted with the destruction of its Time-Turners in 1996.The manner in which a Time-Turner takes someone back differs between the book and the plays, but that could potentially also be explained with the invention of the new Time-Turner, and it avoids writing in an explanation on how to transport a person from Point A to Point B when Point B occurred before that person's birth. (Every event Albus and Scorpius travel to during Cursed Child occurred before they were born.)
But this isn’t something that can be easily solved. Fans have debated what constitutes canon in Harry Potter for years, both during Rowling's time writing the books (does what she say in an interview count?) and after Deathly Hallows’s publication. Is canon only the seven main books in the series, or does it include everything Rowling’s ever said about a character on Pottermore, Twitter, and public events? Fans have largely agreed to disagree on the matter, regardless of when Rowling has said that a particular story is canon and especially when it involves such a divisive story.
Until then, the debate rages on in real time.