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How old is Minerva McGonagall? (and a lesson in humility)

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Finally, after two years at the Ministry, [McGonagall] was offered a prestigious promotion, yet found herself turning it down. She sent an owl to Hogwarts, asking whether she might be considered for a teaching post. The owl returned within hours, offering her a job in the Transfiguration department, under Head of Department, Albus Dumbledore.
-- J.K. Rowling (Pm)

How old is Minerva McGonagall? (and a lesson in humility)

So a few weeks ago I published a timeline pulling together events involving Dumbledore, Newt Scamander, Grindelwald, and Voldemort. It’s fascinating to see how the struggles and ambitions of each of these characters overlap and connect. While I was at it, I put a few other interesting dates on the timeline, dates like the publication of the “Pureblood Directory” and its Sacred Twenty-Eight families and the aborted school experience of Rubeus Hagrid.

I also included Minerva McGonagall’s approximate first year at Hogwarts: circa 1936.

A few people asked about that. Why was it approximate? She wasn’t at Hogwarts with Riddle, was she? I explained why I had her birth year listed as 1925, which was based on something Rowling said back in 2000 in an interview with Scholastic books. I explained that it was approximate because Rowling hadn’t been specific enough to peg the exact year. Then someone asked me why the Harry Potter Wiki listed her birth year as 1935. I’m not proud of my response. I said something to the effect that the only canon information fans have to go on is that interview, and if the Wiki had a different date, well…you have to be careful about the Harry Potter Wiki, they include things that just aren’t canon.

I wish I hadn’t said that.

You see, I learned quite a few years ago not to act so cocky about canon. It’s not that I don’t know what I’m talking about — I generally do. It’s just that there have been plenty of times when I wasn’t right, when someone else has figured out things that I never noticed or worked out dates using some comment in the canon that I missed. And when that happens, I want to be able to say “Great catch! I’ll update the Lexicon!” But in this case, my response was a little bit cocky, a little bit dismissive, a little bit arrogant.

I really do wish that it hadn’t been, because as it turns out, the Harry Potter Wiki was right and I was wrong.

They used Rowling’s writing about McGonagall on Pottermore (that she started teaching at Hogwarts after two years at the Ministry and that she started at the Ministry just a couple of months after leaving school) and the passage in Order of the Phoenix where McGonagall told Umbridge that she’d been teaching at Hogwarts for “thirty-nine years this December” to work out that McGonagall must have been born in 1935.

And I wish like anything I could just say, “Great catch! I’ll update the Lexicon!” But it’s not that simple when I’ve just shot off my mouth about being right, based on an old interview, the lowest form of canon. To make things worse, that source included other incorrect information about Dumbledore’s age in the same quote.

The Lexicon is supposed to be the ultimate source for canon information. Fans have turned to the site for the correct answers for almost twenty years. That’s a big responsibility, and one I and my editors take very seriously. And in order to make sure we have the best information possible, we need to always be open to being proven wrong. In this case, I was definitely wrong, and I’m truly sorry for being cocky.

And hey, Harry Potter Wiki? Great catch! I’ll update the Lexicon.

Commentary

Pensieve (Comments)

  • ironyak1

    The HP Wiki has thousands of editors to help ferret out the facts (or jarvey them out – that one’s for you Newt and Leta 😉 but also has thousands of contributors adding layers of speculation, fanon, and misinterpretation. Meanwhile, the HP Lexicon has more modest editorial resources, but is more tightly controlled and fact checked. Both have a role in helping untangle the puzzles JKR has crafted for us. However, all us readers should check the references and source material instead of simply saying any website told me so – a useful skill to practice especially in this day and age! Keep up the good work HP Lexicon!

    • Thanks! And I completely agree. That’s why we’re including more and more links in our Commentary sections to the Wiki pages. I love the idea of each of our pages providing a jumping-off point for people who want to research using multiple sources.

  • I actually prefer to use that interview over Pottermore, since Jo’s interviews have generally been more canon-compliant than her writing on Pottermore. But hey, to each fan his own.

  • I don’t think we have any indication of who was older or younger. I have a friend from high school who started turning gray in her twenties. It’s just like Rowling to tease us with a comment like that, casually skipping over one key bit of information so that we can’t definitively say Sprout’s Hogwarts dates and therefore her age. It’s like Hooch’s first name — the card game gives it as Rolanda but the designers at Wizards tell me they’re bound by NDA not to tell who came up with that name. Then the game designers at EA tell me in a personal conversation that everything in the game came from Rowling but that their contract doesn’t allow them to say that it did. Why play these games with us? What would it hurt to actually state this stuff, especially on big things like names and dates? What’s the purpose of withholding information?