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Why doesn’t Harry just go back in time to save Sirius or his parents?

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The Harry Potter Canon


"Well, the time-turner was a very difficult invention for me, because it created as many problems as it solved."
-- J.K. Rowling (BP2)

"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.... Professor Trelawney, bless her, is living proof of that ..."
-- Albus Dumbledore (PA22)

Why doesn’t Harry just go back in time to save Sirius or his parents?

I’m sure you’ve seen things online where writers take great pleasure in finding holes in the plot of the Harry Potter stories. There are memes floating around, blog posts, and videos on YouTube with titles like “10 Dumbest Harry Potter Plot Holes.” Now, it’s not that the Harry Potter stories don’t have plot holes — they do. But the ones you find in these online rants aren’t plot holes. Most are film mistakes, which are just that … film mistakes. You can’t blame Rowling for those. But others do seem like problems until you dig a little deeper into Potter lore and discover that they’ve pretty much all been explained.

One favorite “plot hole” is that if time travel exists in the Harry Potter world, why can’t it be used to fix every bad thing that happens? Rowling addressed this question in an interview in 2007 (BP2) and in more detail on Pottermore. In the interview she talked about time travel as a problem for her as a writer for the very reason that it makes it possible for characters to fix mistakes, and therefore removes the element of danger from their actions. This was the reason that she wrote the scene at the end of Order of the Phoenix where the Ministry’s entire stock of Time-Turners was destroyed:

Q: Why didn’t Harry use the time-turner to save his parents?
JKR: Oh, that’s a very good question, that … Well, the time-turner was a very difficult invention for me, because it created as many problems as it solved. And anyone who’s read Order of the Phoenix may have noticed that during the climactic scene in which they chase through the Ministry of Magic, they shatter all the time-turners, thereby preventing them using those in the future. (BP2)

Rowling wrote more about this on Pottermore in an essay on Time Turners. She tells us through the voice of Saul Croaker, who studies time with the Department of Mysteries:

“As our investigations currently stand, the longest period that be relived without the possibility of serious harm to the traveller or to time itself is around five hours. We have been able to encase single Hour-Reversal Charms, which are unstable and benefit from containment, in small, enchanted hour-glasses that may be worn around a witch or wizards neck and revolved according to the number of hours the user wishes to relive.” (Pm)

So why in the world would Hermione Granger, a third year student at Hogwarts, be allowed to use such a power magic item? Rowling explains that as well:

Even the use of the very limited amount of Time-Turners at the Ministry’s disposal is hedged around with hundreds of laws. While not as potentially dangerous as skipping five centuries, the reuse of a single hour can still have dramatic consequences and the Ministry of Magic seeks the strictest guarantees if it permits the use of these rare and powerful objects. It would surprise most of the magical community to know that TimeTurners are generally only used to solve the most trivial problems of time-management and never for greater or more important purposes, because, as Saul Croaker tells us, “just as the human mind cannot comprehend time, so it cannot comprehend the damage that will ensue if we presume to tamper with its laws.”

So why didn’t Harry just go back and save Sirius or Dobby or his parents? Because he can’t. It’s extremely dangerous, it would probably kill him, and all the Time Turners were destroyed in the Battle of the Department of Mysteries in 1996.


Pensieve (Comments)

  • Iain Walker

    Rowling could probably have solved the “Why doesn’t Harry use a Time Turner to do X” problem a lot more easily by making the Stable Time Loop model employed in PoA the only possible model of time travel in the Potterverse (instead of just the safest). I.e., a model where you can’t actually change history – you can only be an agent who brings about what’s already happened. Hence, he can go back in time to save Buckbeak, because Buckbeak didn’t die – Harry and Hermione had already gone back in time to save him (i.e., time loop is already established). But he can’t go back in time to save Sirius, because he’s already seen Sirius die (i.e., no room for time loop to be inserted). Smashing the Time Turners in OotP would probably still be necessary from a story-telling POV, of course, just to prevent him trying.

    • A very excellent point. In PA effect preceded cause, as Harry saw himself conjuring the patronus, meaning that one cannot change time without creating a paradox.

      I.E. had Harry gone back to save Sirius, he never would have needed to go back to save Sirius, therefore he wouldn’t have gone back to save Sirius, therefore Sirius wasn’t saved in the first place, therefore he needed to go back to save…

    • Laineth

      That’s the problem with the info on Pm and the Cursed Child. PoA makes it clear that time travel internally functions on a casual loop. The fundamental nature of time cannot be changed, no matter what device someone has.

      • While I see what you are saying, the one VISIBLE time travel in PoA does indeed appear a casual loop (because Harry sees himself), however the DESCRIPTION of time travel in PoA indicates that this is not always the case.

        “Exactly! You wouldn’t understand, you might even attack yourself! Don’t you see? 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!” (PA21)

        • So how then does Harry see himself? There is one very interesting possibility that would explain this, which does jive with what is shown in Cursed Child. And that would be… that we actually see his second try. Think about this for a moment:

          Prime Timeline: There is no patronus, Harry and Hermione survive by some other means. Harry and Hermione travel back in time creating a new timeline where they attempt to save Buckbeak and Sirius, Harry casts the Patronus.

          Second Timeline: Harry sees the patronus, thinks it is his dad casting it, has the conversation with Dumbledore but at this point he does not know that the Prime Harry and Hermione have already traveled back in time to try and fix it. They leave BEFORE the Prime Harry and Hermione return to the infirmary with Harry still believing he saw his Dad. This second timeline Harry then realizes that he saw himself, not his father, and casts the patronus.

          At this point the second timeline becomes a stable loop, in each iteration, Harry sees himself, thinks it is his dad, and then goes back in time again before realizing that the previous iteration is stable.

          If we follow Harry from the perspective of the second timeline, then things make sense while still allowing for the possibility of changing the past.

          What we don’t know from this, is what prompted Prime Harry to cast the patronus the first time.

          • Laineth

            But there IS no “other means”. The book makes that clear.

        • Laineth

          But that still fits with a casual loop. All Hermione (and McGonagall) are saying is that (for example) Harry would have killed Harry, instead of Harry saving Harry.

          • Causal Loops would have to always be consistent by their very nature. If older Harry kills younger Harry, it could not be a loop because younger Harry could not grow up to be older Harry in order to travel back in time again, meaning the loop would break. For the model of a Causal loop to work, time must be immutable.

Tags: mystery Rowling's writing time time travel