The Years in Which the Stories Take Place
Steve Vander Ark
One of the more interesting mysteries about the Harry Potter universe is when the stories in the books take place. There have been a lot of discussions and debates about this subject and some fans have done amazingly detailed research trying to determine the years involved. This page presents some of the intriguing timeline-related details in the books.
Recently, Rowling confirmed that the commonly-accepted timeline which dates Harry's starting school in 1991 is correct. The family tree of the Black Family which Jo recently created for a Book Aid International charity auction shows Draco's birthyear as 1980 [Y0]. This confirms what is already a canon fact from book two, that Harry was born in 1980 [Y0] and that the books cover his school years from September 1991 [Y11] through, presumably, June 1998 [Y18]. I am pleased to say that this timeline has been the one used here at the Lexicon since 2000, when we were the first to publish a detailed timeline of the series. It is also the timeline used on the DVDs of the feature films.
Rowling is not consistent in her use of dates, however. Many people over the past six years have pointed out that any range of actual years simply does not work for the stories. A number of key points have been brought up during these discussions, and these points are detailed below. Some fans have expressed a stong belief that Rowling does not want her stories dated at all, pointing out that she has intentionally avoided giving dates when it would have been natural to do so. This point of view is also discussed below.
These discussions are enjoyable. There is no way around the fact, however, that the range of years for the stories is now known and regardless of problems, must be considered canon. Harry was born in 1980, he started school in 1991, and that's that.
The Deathday Cake
Sir Nicholas de Mimsy-Porpington died 31st October, 1492
This party was to celebrate Nick's five-hundredth Deathday, which means the 500th anniversary of his death. Add five hundred years to 1492 and you get 1992 [Y12], so the party, which took place on Hallowe'en night, took place in the fall of 1992 [Y12]. This reference is the only direct date given for an event in the Harry Potter books. It is from this single note that all the rest of the timelines of the books have been derived. By the way, an inconcistency found in book one, where Nick bemoans the fact that he hasn't eaten in "almost four hundred years," has been remedied. The text of book one has been amended to say "five hundred years," which supports the Deathday Cake date as canon.
The Official Timeline
Yes, there is one. According to sources at Warner Bros. who worked on the DVD of Chamber of Secrets, here's what happened. The folks at Warner came up with a timeline. There is pretty strong evidence that the timeline they came up with was from the Lexicon--the master timeline and the day-by-day calendars of the first two books. They showed this timeline to Rowling. She looked it over and made one or two comments or little changes, then approved it.
That timeline now appears on the DVDs of Chamber of Secrets, Prisoner of Azkaban, and Goblet of Fire. You can't get to it on your television; you need to put the second DVD in a computer's DVD drive. Since it was approved by Rowling, it is considered to be official. Some folks don't consider anything to be canon except the novels themselves, so they do not consider this timeline to be the final answer. As far as the Lexicon goes, since Rowling approved it (and not without making corrections, which suggests that she made sure it was accurate), that timeline is canon.
How do I (Steve Vander Ark) know that they borrowed the timeline from the Lexicon? Because I had made a tiny, stupid little typo on my day-by-day calendar of the first book. I had accidentally put the first visit of Harry and Ron to Hagrid's cabin on Saturday instead of Friday. I did that because I write Monday-through-Friday schedules all the time as part of my job, filling information onto week grids. The last square of the calendar I work on usually is Friday, so I put the visit to Hagrid's cabin in the last square without thinking. That typo is reproduced in the "official" timeline on the DVD.
There are a few characters from history in the series, but most of them are long-deceased and any dates associated with them are mentioned only on their Chocolate Frog Famous Wizard Cards. These give us no clues about the dates of current events. However, one "live" character, Nicolas Flamel, is mentioned along with his age. Since Nicolas was a real person, and since the actual date of his birth is known, we can derive the date of the book where he is mentioned.
The real Flamel was born, according to most reports, in 1330, and in the first book he is mentioned as having "turned 665 last year." Add 666 to 1330 and you get 1996. Using Flamel as a reference point, then, dates the first book to 1995 or 1996.
While this seems pretty cut and dried, this date doesn't agree with the date given on the Deathday Party cake. They can't both be right, and in this case, the Flamel reference is the less clear of the two. It assumes that the Flamel of the Harry Potter universe is in every way identical to the one in real history. Given the way the rest of the books are written, this might be an unwarranted assumption.
Rowling has borrowed from numerous sources for her books and has altered the facts in many cases to fit the story. One particularly good example of this is the fact that Lupin the werewolf didn't transform into a wolf until the moon came out from behind a cloud. According to the real lycanthropy legends, Lupin would have transformed simply because it was the full moon, whether or not he actually stepped into moonlight. Another example is the Boggart as described by Rowling, which bears only slight resemblence to the Boggart of folklore. It is very possible that she changed Flamel's birth year for her stories as well.
In GF2, Harry tells Sirius that his cousin threw his Playstation out the window. Sony released the first Playstation in December of 1994, and that was in Japan. If we accept the timeline derived from the Deathday Party cake, Harry is telling Sirius about this incident in August of 1994 [Y14], nearly a half-year earlier. Is it impossible, then, for Dudley to have a Playstation if we accept that timeline?
There are two ways to answer that question. One way to look at it is that this isn't our reality, so the Playstation could have been released whenever Rowling wanted it to be. You could say that since Dudley obviously did have a Playstation in July, 1994 [Y14], the Playstation must have been released earlier than December of 1994 in Rowling's invented reality.
The other way of looking at it assumes that the dates of the Playstation's release was in fact December of 1994 in the Potter universe, since that's what it was in ours. Then is it still possible for Dudley to have one? The answer to that, actually, is yes. Here's what Shaun Hately wrote in HPfGU:
Another bit of modern technology which exists in the Dursley home is a "wide-screen television." It's in the kitchen, of all places. I don't know when wide screen televisions became available, but it doesn't seem like it was that many years ago. Perhaps this wide-screen refers only to a particularly large set, what we in the US might call a "big-screen TV," not a true wide-screen.
The Date on the Prophecy
There are a couple of places in book five where Rowling could have easily settled this whole date matter once and for all. Unfortunately she chose not to do so. One of the best examples is the date which was on the little card by Harry's prophecy. Instead of just giving the date, Rowling writes that the date was "sixteen years earlier." Why didn't she write "1980"?
I have to admit that I wish she had. She has gone out of her way to address other fan questions, like the pronunciation of Hermione's name (with Krum at the Yule Ball) and why Hermione wasn't sorted into Ravenclaw. The fact that she intentionally doesn't answer this question suggests that she doesn't want the stories to be too obviously tied to a particular range of years. The connection is there, certainly, but she doesn't want to just come out and state it. Most people just sort of assume that the books are taking place "now" and don't really care how specific that "now" is. It seems likely that she doesn't want to put anything in which would make the stories become dated.
The Drought of 1995
As the first chapter of book five begins, there is a drought in Surrey that has prompted a hosepipe ban. This book, according to the now-approved timeline which appears on the Chamber of Secrets DVD, begins in 1995. Sure enough, the summer of 1995 was extremely dry in England:
Days and Dates
A number of dates are given along with a day of the week on which they fell. None of these make any sense whatsoever. Some of them are flatly impossible, as a matter of fact. For example, Harry was brought to the Dursleys' front porch at about midnight at the end of a Tuesday (PS1). We know that this Tuesday was the first of November, since Harry's parents had been killed the night before and that was October 31, so November 1 was a Tuesday. Ten years later, the day before Harry's birthday was a Monday, according to PS3, which means that his birthday, July 31, was a Tuesday. Now there is no way that those two days can both be Tuesdays using our calendar. It isn't mathematically possible.
This same problem turns of in an even more obvious way in early editions of Goblet of Fire, when both September 1 and September 2 are Mondays! (However, that was corrected officially in later editions, and cannot be used to support timeline arguments any longer.) As if that weren't enough, September 2 of the next year, in Order of the Phoenix, is also a Monday! There are other examples as well.
How do we make sense of this? There is no way we can if we're hoping to somehow fit all the days and dates given to any of our calendar years. They simply won't fit. Rowling seems to be making a point that the wizarding world, the world of her stories, is not real. She's making it very clear that the stories aren't taking place in our reality, in our time, in our space. The exact dates just aren't important.
So then why do we go to all the trouble of trying to figure out what year things are happening in?
This is a very important question. From some of the points raised on this page, it would almost seem like Rowling doesn't want the range of years to be figured out. I don't think that's the case. Rowling's invented universe is simply filled with dates, from the years that Dilys Derwent was headmistress of Hogwarts to the year Dumbledore defeated Grindelwald. If one accepts the Famous Wizard cards and the school books as canon, a huge sweeping history can be detailed, starting from the founding of Hogwarts a millenium ago. It's only the events of the novels themselves which are left dateless, but with plenty of clues. Rowling has inextricably tied her stories to historical events, events with real, stated dates.
So while she doesn't want to come straight out and say the dates of the books to maintain the comfortable-ness of "now," she does offer us enough clues so that if we want to, we can figure out when the stories are taking place. That's what we've done.