J. K. Rowling’s Description of the Grandfather Paradox as Illustrated in Her Book, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

January 12, 2021 by Essay Writer

Thesis: The Grandfather Paradox is often misrepresented in works of literature and film. However, in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the paradox is represented fairly well with only a few errors.

The Grandfather paradox is commonly known as the myth of killing one’s grandparents in order to prevent his/her own birth. This paradox of time travel originates around the Great Depression and appeared in early works such as “Ancestral Voices by Nathaniel Scachner and Future Times Three by Rene Barjavel” (Grandfather Paradox 1). However, this paradox is not necessarily based on eliminating the possibility of a person’s existence by murdering their source of life. It is rather about doing something when they travel back into the past that would prevent their future self from traveling back (Krasnikov 6). There are two main arguments for and against time travel which are important when looking at this paradox. Argument one is against the idea of time travel and argument while the latter is in favor of it. Argument one’s reconstruction follows:

  • 1. If time travel was possible, then a time traveler could change events in the past.
  • 2. If a time traveler could change the events of the past, then the time traveler could bring about contradictory states of affairs.
  • 3. It is not possible for someone to bring about contradictory states of affairs.
  • 4. (Conclusion) Time travel is impossible (Sorensen 60)

This argument supports Casual Determinism, or the idea that there is only one timeline. This also must abide by the events of the past and the laws of nature. This would align with premise one of that argument that the traveler could not change the past. Argument two however, supports the opposite. Argument number two:

  • 1. There are two different senses of the word ‘can’ or ‘possible’
  • 2. If that is right, then there is an equivocation in NTT (Premise 1 is false)
  • 3. (Conclusion) Time travel is possible, and it is not true that a time traveler can change the events of the past. (Lewis 317)

This argument supports Casual Indeterminism, or the idea of multiple timelines. It hinges on the first argument by the words ‘can and possible’. An example would be like riding a bike. I can ride a bike, meaning I know how to ride a bike and have done this action. The other, refers to your ability to learn this action, but you have no yet done it. This small difference causes the two different arguments which are critical to understanding time travel paradoxes.

Time travel stories using this paradox are rather common in modern literature as well as modern film. One situation of the Grandfather Paradox is present in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. This is the third movie in the Harry Potter series. The story begins with the escape of a very dangerous criminal from a high security prison. The prisoner Sirius Black, happens to be the Godfather of main character, Harry, who does not know this. With the escape, many are incredibly frightened that he will try and track Harry down at their school, Hogwarts. While there, Harry’s best friend, Hermione, is given a timeturner by the Headmaster. This timeturner allowed her to be in two places at once in order for her to take multiple classes at the same time. She can therefore take one class, then proceed to travel back to the same time period, and take another class. This raises issues ass to the brains capacity to have memories from the same point in time however.

As the plot progresses, Harry learns that Sirius is his Godfather and is coming to talk to him at Hogwarts. During this time, the school groundskeeper Hagrid, is about to have one of his pets executed due to it injuring a student. When they think witness the execution, they are mortified and upset as they believed the execution was unjust. Later in the movie, Harry and Hermione use the timeturner to go back before the execution to try and prevent the death of Buckbeak, his pet. They sneak down behind some giant pumpkins to hide from the executioner. They then lure the creature over to them, and take it into the woods to free it from its impending death. This personifies the core of the Grandfather Paradox, traveling back in time to prevent an action from being made. In this particular case, instead of killing their grandparents to prevent their own death, they must travel back in to save the animal. Therefore, it is more of a causal loop than a direct reference to the Grandfather Paradox.

As they proceed through the forest, they see their current selves, the ones who are being observed by the time travelers. They do not want to be seen otherwise they will disrupt time. They are able to evade themselves, for now. They eventually get to a clearing where they can rest. At the clearing, Harry is able to see him and his Godfather being attacked by Dementors, who suck one’s soul away until you die. Harry knows that he must intervene in order to save the life of his current self, but weighs the consequences of disrupting time. He decides that he must save himself in order to be where he currently is, traveling in time. This is another example of the Grandfather Paradox in this movie.

As with many films and novels, there are issues with the way paradoxes are used and portrayed. Each instance of the paradox can be evaluated slightly differently, so each can be taken as a separate instance. Instance one, is when Hermione strictly uses the timeturner to go back in time so she is able to take classes and be in multiple places at once. While she does this, she would effectively be participating in two places at the same time. This would essentially create a timeline that has small loops in which the original timeline is changed. However, what the movie fails to take into account is that Hermione will create a different version of herself on each timeline. One cannot simply learn at two places at once, and retain the knowledge as one being. Even if you include Lewis’s system with little loops on a single timeline, multiple memories coexisting at the same time may not be physically possible. This is difficult to know for sure, as this technology is not available to test this thesis. Moreover, I would agree with her keeping both memories only if it were a multiple timeline system. If the timeline has the loops like strands of DNA, then I believe one memory should have to replace the other.

However, some may argue it is also possible and very plausible that Hermione actually has a different internal clock than the physical time that is going on around her. This would offer a solution to the brain’s capacity to have multiple memories at the same time, because her time does not line up with the timeframe of the universe. I would agree, as this seems plausible for her alone. On the other hand, it would raise more questions that is answers. For example, if others were to travel back with her, which does happen later, would they also have a different personal system of time? Furthermore, since the technology doesn’t exist to test either theory, it is difficult to come to a definite conclusion.

The second case involving the apparent execution falls more within the accepted uses and application of the Grandfather Paradox and time travel. While in the house of the groundskeeper, Harry and Hermione are hushed away back to the castle, as they should not be there during that time. While walking back, they hear the sound of an axe cutting into presumably Buckbeak. However, the animal lives. This is because later in the movie, Harry and Hermione travel back in time and see the animal. This is an occurrence of the single timeline view. It actually makes sense with the story and how it is portrayed. The reason they travel back in time is to save the animal they thought was killed. Therefore, not being completely sure of its death led the pair to go back in time. This part of the paradox, the movie is correct. However, they did mix singular and multiple timelines of travel, which brings about a contradictory state of affairs. The movie also fails to address the causal loop that is supposed to be created. Since they originally do not see the death, they would be inclined to go back. The loop would then be repeated. However, they are able to save the creature, which breaks the original loop. The possible explanations for this situation are a broken loop which spun off into an alternate universe, or it is actually deterministic. If it was a failed loop all along, then the alternate universe would support indeterminism with many universes. If somebody saved Buckbeak from the beginning and they did not see, this would be consistent with determinism. The cinema photography left grey area for debate which does not do this film philosophical due justice.

The final situation occurs when Harry and Hermione find themselves across from a dying Harry and Sirius. This is the best example of the Grandfather Paradox as it is more about the actual paradox rather than the plausibility of time travel. In this section, Harry must either save himself and change events of the past, or let himself die, in which case he would not be able to travel back in time. When the perspective of the movie changes to the Harry who is lying dying, he sees a dark figure in the shadow that casts a spell and ultimately saves his life. Unbeknownst to him, he casted the spell while he traveled back in time. This follows the structure of a Grandfather Paradox and the single timeline view. The film would be constantly deterministic if the second example was able to be proven as deterministic. However, due to the possibility of both determinism and indeterminism in more than one occasion, the film raises questions as to which system it truly prefers.

As a whole, time travel and the Grandfather Paradox show up more than we may think in modern media. The Grandfather Paradox and time travel are a big part to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Although the execution of the movie with regards to the paradox and philosophy, are not perfect, is does not hinder the viewer’s comprehension and enjoyment of the film.

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