‘Story Time:’ Chronos and Kairos in Harry Potter

With this post, I welcome M. Brett Kendall of Muggle Matters and Fordham University to the Faculty of HogwartsProfessor.com. Longtime readers of this site and serious readers of Harry Potter know Professor Kendall as ‘Merlin’ and as the man who both predicted the central place Harry’s ‘Expelliarmus’ spell would play in Deathly Hallows as well as the chiasmus structure of the seven book series. This last is the foundation of all discussions of Ring Composition in the books and Prof. Kendall’s insight here reflects his background in Hebrew Bible studies and traditional literature. His opening post is a challenging piece on the understanding of time within the narrative of the Hogwarts Saga. I hope you will join me in welcoming Professor Kendall to the forward dais and faculty table here in the Great Hall.

Thank you, Professor Granger.

I have a joke that when I am not doing much and a friend asks what I am up to, I reply that I am busy committing “chrono-cide” … just killing time. “Chronos” is one of two Greek words for time. It means “clock time,” the simple material succession of events. The other Greek term for “time” is “kairos.” This is the term for “special time,” unique moments. In this post I will discuss narrative in Harry Potter (and in general) as an intersection, and special relation, between these two concepts of time. In short I will say that Harry Potter as “story time” is part of what attracts us so much to the works.

In Genesis 1:14 kairos is translated “seasons” and coupled with “signs.” There is a world of significance (pardon the pun) that could be drawn from this single verse concerning kairos itself. For instance, “signs” is the same Greek word in the Septuagint version (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, which was authoritative for Christianity, and even for most of Judaism at the time of Christ), as is used in the New Testament Gospels for the miracles of Christ. But for here what is important to note is that in the Hebrew Bible kairos is the word for “loaded” or special time, such as liturgical festivals – times that are packed to overflowing with the reality and meaning of religious interaction with the divine, or at least meanings that go beyond the merely material (when we think of Christmas and Advent, we mean much more than simply four weeks in December every year). In the sense of literature in general, I would say kairos describes the “meaning” of a work.

(But just as a taste of the riches of Potter-connections I must pass by to stay focused, the Greek “seimeia” for “signs” is where we get the word “semiology” for language as a system of signs. But it is also used in medieval debates on theology, philosophy and science, for the “semiological” side of astrology – basically “signs” in the sense of divination.)

The other, and most important, reason that I begin with Gen 1:14 is that “signs and seasons (kairous)” is followed by “days and years,” terms of chronological time. My definition of “narrative” (or simply “story”) is that it is a “kairotic chronology,” a series, or chronology, of loaded events (with meaning), in which not only the moments as individual events are loaded, but also the plot movement between them, the chronology itself. In this verse of Genesis we see chronos (days and years) subjected to kairos (signs and seasons).

But there is a further part to my definition of narrative: chronos is not only subjected to kairos … it always breaks under its weight. I use the term “weight” and the image of breaking under it because of the particular discipline I work in academically, Hebrew Bible. The term for the “Glory of the Lord” that is used in the Pentateuch for theophanies such as the cloud and pillar connected with the Tabernacle comes from the Hebrew verb that literally means “to be heavy.” I find it particularly apt because the central examples of chronos breaking under kairos, or the meaning of the events/plot/work, that I will be drawing from Harry Potter come from Goblet of Fire, a book that is all about the eternal glory of the Triwizard Cup (as evidenced in the fact of Cedric “walking away from the sort of glory Hufflepuff house hadn’t had in centuries” [GOF 634] – forecasted on GOF 293, “Hufflepuff house very rarely got any glory.”)

(And for a trip, try the SS opening potions lesson on for size as a 2-4-6 ring/chiasm connection with: Bottle Fame = Lockhart in COS, Brew Glory = GOF on glory, Stopper death = Dumbledore’s hand in HBP, as per the excellent sleuthing done by many on the presence of the first portions lesson in HBP for stoppering death, with a nice tie-out of the glory theme in Dumbledore’s confession speech in the King’s Cross chapter of DH. And if you haven’t looked into Prof. Granger’s newest work on Ring Composition … it is a must read.)

So, where do we find chronos in Harry Potter? A standard image for chonos is the clock or watch, like, say, Harry’s wrist-watch issues across out seven book canon. The issue of Harry’s wrist-watch is a strand that presents itself, although sparsely, yet at key points in the series, and beyond the watch formerly owned by Fabian Prewett, although that watch, as I hope to show, is the culmination of the theme and the tie-out of the intersection of chronos and kairos in the series (and props to Travis Prinzi for his excellent work tying out the Order of the Phoenix to the real-world Fabian Society).

It is a little noticed, but I think very important, fact that Harry has been concerned with a watch since the very beginning of the series. SS 29 finds him in his cupboard under the stairs wishing he had a wrist-watch. Further interestingly, he is in the dark, which could be taken as an absence of the kairotic light and luminaries of, respectively Genesis 1:3 and 1:14 (and, on a side note, this might be a thematic correspondence between books 1 and 5 to add to Red Hen’s “redux” theory of the structure of the series as a whole, because book 5’s intro is all about how upset Harry is that he is being kept “in the dark” … but that is a story for another day).  The “dark cupboard image” also resonates strongly with Plato’s “analogy of the cave,” but that is a whole other body of background literature.

As we will see (in GOF), he obviously eventually, at some point, gets a watch … and it broke. And, as we will also see, he eventually gets an even better one (one that represents time by kairos elements, stars), one which JKR makes a specific point of mentioning at the very closing of the series. I think this is a progression: the desire to mark the time of one’s life; the finding of the fact that that chronological projects cracks under the weight of experience; and the finding of a new, richer, concept of time by realizing that chronos is ruled (and broken, although not obliterated) by kairos.

So, we see that Harry has a desire for a watch, a chronological reference point by which to map his experience. And, as I said, in GOF we see he has obtained one. The important thing from here on out is where it breaks. Materially we know that is breaks at the bottom of the lake when he has arrived at the hostages (GOF 500). It may have stopped, and probably did stop, some time previous to this, after he entered the lake, but this is the point at which he notices it, the point at which he is faced with making a decisive situation about saving a friend, and worried about a time limit.

The issue of friendship is key for the series, and most importantly here. I have always felt that the lake bottom scene is important. Here there are three kinds of “friendship” present in four relationships. Harry’s direct type is a sort of brotherly love, his concern for Ron. Fleur and Gabriella are obviously familial love. The other two relationships (Krum-Hermione and Cedric-Cho) are romantic love in a situation where all four of the elements in classical/medieval four-element cosmology (which Rowling confirms as the basis for the four-house system) are present: Hermione = Fire (Gryffindor); Krum = water (Durmstrangs in general connect with Slytherin House); Cedric = earth (Hufflepuff); and Cho = air (Ravenclaw).

Friendship/love, when we get down to talking about its role in human experience and meaning, is obviously a deeper element of our lives than words can usually express (at least discursive expression – we usually have to put it in a story, which is part of what this post is about). There are two further pieces of evidence I wish to give here as to the profound weight of the scene in the lake, and the first relates to two terms I have just used, “deep” and “profound.”

To return to Genesis 1 for a moment, the NRSV translation of Gen 1:2 says that the spirit of God hovered over the face of the “waters.” That term, however, has a broader translation of “the deep.” In Gen 1 it is the potential chaos of the primordial world, but a very close term gets used in Psalm 130:1, “from the depths I cry to you, Lord.” This latter verse is even used in pop lit in M. Night Shyamalan’s movie Sixth Sense. There it is actually used in the Latin of the Vulgate (the Latin translation of the Bible done by St Jerome, the authoritative translation for Western Christianity for almost a millennium and a half): De profundis clamo ad te Domine. And there is my second word I dropped in earlier, profound. This is the profundity and depth (in a very literally murky way in the lake) of human experience, and I believe it is what JKR is meaning when she starts off the lake-bottom scene by noting that Harry dove “into the depths” (GOF 495).

My second piece of evidence from this section concerns the issue of story and myth. On GOF 497 Harry encounters the rocks on which the mer-people have drawn their stories about their own identity, such as them chasing the giant squid (itself a potential sea monster character like Tiamat in the Babylonian creation myth Enuma Elish, Leviathan in the Hebrew Bible, and the Kraken in other mythological sets, also used in CS Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader and the Pirates of the Caribbean films, all of which creatures represent the potential chaos of human existence). Here we are definitely in the land (or water, as it were) of story as a way of understanding our own existence and experience not only as individual persons, but as a collective, as a community. And, most importantly, at one and the same time we are in a mixture of chronos and kairos. We are within the one hour time limit, which is the whole reason Harry checks his watch, right?

This connection may take a little more stretching but I think it is there at least latently. In our story in the lake, “hour” is a chronological term. But in the Christian tradition from the New Testament, from which we know JKR has directly lifted at other points, the term is one of kairos, as in “My time has not yet come” (John 7:8 – kairos used), and “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (John 12:23 – the more specific Greek term for an hour, “hora,” is used as an equivalent of the kairos in John 7:8).

Further support for the importance of the whole issue of the hour time limit is Ron’s criticism/exposition of the time limit, in the context of the song (and that Harry should not have believed the song) on GOF 503. But there are also other instances in GOF as a whole that show that JKR has time “on the brain.” I have usually read the lake-bottom as the center of the whole series. However Prof Granger, in his new work on Ring Composition for the whole series and for each individual book, has read the first task as the mid-point of GOF, and since GOF is the mid-point of the series, that task would be the very mid-point of the series. In a way I think we are both right, but it would take a really long time to explain that one. Why I bring it up here is that going into the first task, JKR describes Harry’s experience by saying, “time was behaving in a more peculiar fashion than ever, rushing past in great dollops” (GOF 347). She is spending a great deal of time thinking and talking about time in this book.

The important thing to note, and really the crux of my whole exposition in this post, is that it is in the lake, at the bottom, in the “profoundness” (the depths) of human relation (the lake as kairos, an hour devoted to decisive saving action in human relation), that the symbol of chronos, the watch, breaks … in the place of myths that portray the fundamental mystery of human existence and relation, chronos breaks down.

Lest someone might argue that the watch breaking is just a side detail of no real significance, JKR mentions the breaking of the watch no less than three times subsequently in the book. At one point Harry has to check Ron’s watch in history of magic because he has finally discarded his own because it doesn’t work (GOF 569). Before this, during the niffler lesson with Hagrid, Harry takes off his watch, “which he was only wearing out of habit, as it didn’t work anymore” (GOF 543). But before either of these, and my favorite instance because she puts the “hour” term on the page, “Harry checked his watch, then remembered it hadn’t been working since it had spent over an hour in the lake” (GOF 533); chronos just couldn’t take the pressure.

So, now Harry needs a new watch and we finally eventually arrive at that old watch of Fabian’s that Molly gives to Harry for his seventeenth birthday. First, it’s very interesting that a watch, a time symbol, is the standard gift for a wizard coming of age, becoming an adult. Beyond this however, note that, like the watch given to Ron, Harry’s new watch is marked by astrological symbols (stars), the heavenly bodies (likeness of the two watches stated on DH 114)… just like the luminaries are created in Gen 1:14 to rule kairos (signs and seasons), under which is subjugated chronos (days and years). That watch is a symbol of chronos being ruled by kairos (the actual presentation is of the heavenly bodies).

It is also, I think, a symbol of “story time,” narrative time – the way we construct the chronologies of our “days and years” for ourselves in our memories to try to understand the “meaning” in our lives. And that watch is among the special elements from the series that warrant a presence in the epilogue, closing out the story: “He checked the battered old watch that had once been Fabian Prewett’s” (DH 757).

Although this post is about time as narrative in the series, I would like to provide another example of material accuracy breaking under the weight of meaning, this time in the realm of space (being as we all talk about time and space as a pair, Star Trek TNG always talking about the space-time continuum and all that). As far as I know, Red Hen (Joyce Odell) was the one to discover the missing fourteen feet in the graveyard in GOF, at least I think that is where I first encountered it, in her essay in Who Killed Albus Dumbledore? (Granger et al), in which she was trying to pin down objective physical characteristics of the Avada Kedavra curse. She found it because she was looking at the physical distances. I would say that “distance” is to space what chronos is to time. I read the books looking at them differently, but am eternally grateful to Rd Hen for discovering the discrepancy because it provides me with a wonderful example here (and in my Introduction to the Old Testament course for college sophomores, as a way to understand what scholars mean by saying there are a variety of “methods” for studying texts).

I think that Rowling wrote two moments loaded with meaning in the form of characterizing first Voldemort and then the Death Eaters. The first requires Harry and Cedric to be about six feet from Voldemort and Wormtail. The second requires a circle with a forty foot diameter (twenty foot radius) because it must accommodate thirty-plus Death Eaters, and Cedric (whom, at this point, I would call the “dearly departed”) must be outside that circle. (This is where I would differ from Red Hen on the use of space in constructing meaning: rather than focus on quantifications like distance I would emphasize relation shown through physical positioning, qualification in the service of characterization). But when you put these two moments side by side to show the mentality of the leader flowing into the mentality of the group, material accuracy cracks and breaks under the strain of characterization, of meaning.

All this is not an attempt to diss focus on chronos. As with the example of the fourteen feet, that dealt with material accuracy in the realm of space, sometimes the places where chronos breaks down are the most interesting places to investigate for deeper meanings. But even beyond this revelatory role in its collapse, chronos has a role to play in its positive existence by interacting with kairos, for if we had pure kairos we ourselves would break under it. We live in chronos and it is how we experience our lives; their meanings are meted out to us over time.

I am going to step outside of Potter-dom here because there is an ingenious example of what I am talking about (the positive role of chronos in and of itself, and of its breaking) in the film Stranger Than Fiction (2006, starring Will Ferrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Emma Thompson – our favorite diviner from the Potter movies – and Dustin Hoffman … and, SPOLIER WARNING: I’ll be giving away the ending of the movie – sorry, but I have to in order to make my point).

In the film we find Thompson narrating Ferrell’s life without knowing he is a real person, and Ferrell kind of bugging out because sometimes he can hear her voice in his head doing the narrating. The thing that causes Thompson trouble once she finds out what is going on is that the logic of the story, where the themes lead in order to fulfill them in the best way, demands that Ferrell die by the novel’s end (and obviously this causes a rather large problem for Ferrell himself when he finds out). But where the film ends is with a saving resolution in which what does the saving is a shard of his wristwatch lodged inside his body, and it cannot be removed or he will die; it must stay there for the rest of his life.

Here the watch is still shattered, but it is still also a piece of chronos, and it is essential to his continued life. Chronos always shatters under the weight of kairos, but it is always precisely that shattered chronos that saves the person from being crushed by the sheer weight of pure kairos (which undo the person, much like God and Moses worry that if the Israelites break through to actually touch Mount Sinai and view God in his unmediated glory they will perish, in Exodus 19:21). Dustin Hoffman’s review of the final version of the novel is that it is not as great as it would have been (he read the original ending), but that it is still good. And Thompson’s response is that she can settle for that if it means saving Ferrell’s life.

We spend our lives in the intersection of chronos and kairos, that tension between what is believable in the sense of scientific, material accuracy (which we need because we are humans, biological and time-bound creatures), and what we need to believe in the sense of faith (which JKR has said is very much what the books are about – and we see this strongly in Harry’s resolution of his feelings about the past of Albus Dumbledore in DH, in the conversation with Aberforth), about that which is beyond us (and our time-bound experience) but in which we believe we participate, in some way or another, that in which we need to believe in order to be human.

Chronos always breaks under the weight of kairos, but in a certain sense this is only really the fact that meaning breaks into our daily existence and gives us faith, hope, and (that deeper magic) love. This is what narratives, stories, myths, express for us. This is what Harry Potter has done for us as readers. It’s one of the reasons the books resonate so strongly for us and have sold so well.

Afterthought as Conclusion:

As a disclaimer, I have to admit that for me a reading like this is also very tied to being an avid student of Post-Modern thought. The 20th century German philosopher Martin Heidegger is thought to be the grand-father of Post-Modern thought, and his most defining work was entitled “Being and Time.” By the word “being” he means specifically human existence in the sense of human experience, and being time-bound is essential to that experience. Of course, in his 1949 “Letter on Humanism,” Heidegger also wrote that, “language is the house of being.” However, my thoughts on how magic and spell-work represent language as human expression must wait for another post (especially after some much-desired source-work on the Avada Kedavra I have been progressively trying to pin down for some time now … and some equally desired delving into some concepts from Derrida on language). Also, while I came up with this definition of narrative before reading (well, more like studied certain selections of) Paul Ricouer’s three-volume “Time and Narrative” (and, if you believe it, having had to revise the definition from “a chronology of kairotic moments” to “a kairotic chronology” because of the Star Wars prequels), I must also mention that work because Ricouer, in his own language, deals with some of the same concepts.


  1. This is fantastic! I look forward to chewing on this for quite some time. Thank you!

  2. a2paper,

    You’re most welcome! I am simply glad that you have enjoyed it … and I appreciate your playing with the word time 🙂

    In doing a post like this one always reads back over and says, “oh … why didn’t I include [this other thing, whatever it is]?”; and then some other things that were too tangential to insert.

    1. The time-turner of POA is definitely a part of thinking about time in the books: altering chronology can wind up in big trouble in that you risk running into yourself (as they say, “self-realization can be a real bugger”), and there it is done for the sake of “over-loading” the time span in question (loading it with a saving of a life, and not just one life, but, as Dumbledore specifically notes, saving two innocent lives). But notice too, Harry does precisely encounter himself. Actually both he and Hermione observe themselves, which is a form of self-realization, learning and progress (the 3rd movie had a nice tip on that, inserting Hermione asking if her hair really looks like that). But Harry’s is the central one: through breaking the rules of Chronos he encounters himself in a new light and realizes potential, actually adding a 3rd saving action to make a a sort of trinity (saving buck-beak from McNair, Sirius and himself from the dementors by the lake, and Sirius from the dementor’s kiss at the end).

    2. In GOF Harry “breaks chronos” by stepping outside the hour time-limit to save an extra life (although, as Ron notes, they would not have let Gabriella die, but like his self-sacrificial death in DH, it is the intent that counts for the story).

    3. After writing this some thoughts came to mind about the question of whether task 1 or task 2 is the center of GOF and the series. I would say it is the connection between them. Task 1 is obviously centrally important to Harry and JKR, in that it is stated that he felt like his whole life had been leading up to and would end with the first task (GOF 313 – and JKR puts this at the end of the first paragraph of the Hungarian Horntail chapter … I would call that a double-emphasis position: first paragraph puts it up front, but end-point is also an emphasis position many time in literature – so, last sentence of first paragraph of the chapter that introduces the task seems to me to be really important). BUT, notice that tasks 1 and 2 have a material connection that neither has with task 3. All 3 share the single elimination rule: you have to finish 1 in order to progress to 2, and you have to finish 1 and 2 in order to progress to 3. But the content of task 1, the egg, is necessary to the preparation for task 2 – a material connection between the contents of the tasks. I now think that , at least event-wise (which is a slightly different schema than chapter-wise, in which Prof Granger’s ring composition work materially operates, and which is definitely crucial because it is the same author who is constructing the event flow, who has constructed the chapter flow in which those events take shape) the 2 tasks together form the center of the series. Therefore I would say that what transpires between those 2 tasks could be a very important place to look for very rich material in the meaning of the series.

  3. The problem with reading the posts on this wonderful website is that the more I read, the more I feel I could study just HP for the rest of my life (and I’m only 22!). I just finished going through the series concentrating on Dumbledore as God, and, necessarily, the struggles of faith that come with it, as well as foreshadowing throughout the whole series. (I have to admit then that it was only my second time reading the series, the first being as they came out…). Now I want to go through and look at ring composition, and especially time. Time has always fascinated me anyway…

    Thanks for the great post, Merlin. I look forward to more.

  4. Thanks Rochelle

    so many books, so little time lol … I have to admit to a number of my “readings” of the books being driving the 6 hours from NYC to my home town for holidays, listening to Jim Dale read them (as much as I hate to be on consumer band-wagons, the large capacity iPod is a modern miracle … my whole music collection plus all of Rowling, Tolkien, Lewis, some Chesterton, some Sayers etc) … Dale is great for the voices (just sad I missed him at the Barnes and Noble at Union square the night of the DH release in 2007, got there too late to get in).

    Time is indeed one of the most fascinating things … if you have not watched it you should watch the Wim Wenders film “Faraway So Close,” in which Willem Defoe plays a character named Emit Flesti (time itself), but you need to watch Wenders’ film Wings of Desire first to be able to follow Faraway so Close – Wings is the better film but both are great

  5. Fantastic post. Thank you for it!

  6. Thanks, very interesting essay.
    Several years ago I was reading the books by Elliot Pattison, who throws in bits of Tibetan culture and history along with the general story. The one thing that stuck with me years after, was a throw away character who was a youngish shephard, I think. The crux of the memory is that he was a young monk who was going to spend the rest of his days locked into a cave inside a mountain, once the elder who had been in the cave for many years died, and that time was fast approaching. His job would be to write some prayer scrolls. Now, this is an incomplete memory, and I do not have the book in front of me, but what I understood was that the young monk would go from our time to eternal time, day would be as night, there was just an endless stream of it. Once he adjusted, he would be gifted with divine insights.
    It made me think about a different depth of time. Is this way off?
    By the way, my favourite word in Genesis was Tohu vBohu, which I think only appeared that one time in the text…but this was very many years ago

  7. D.V.

    It would be hard to say on that concept of time; for Christianity, concepts of eternity enter into the idea of kairos, but the concept of eternal (beyond time) is its own distinct thing from kairos.

    For the term tohu vbohu (formless and void), the combination actually appears only one other place in the whole of the Hebrew Bible, Jeremiah 4:23. The term bohu is never found alone, only in combination with tohu. Tohu is found elsewhere, such as Isaiah 44:9, where it is used to describe idol makers as “nothing.”

  8. Sorry for belabouring the point, but the time issue is interesting. I made the mistake of thinking about kairos in the passive sense, of losing all sense of time, hours passing like minutes. ( Also possibly minutes seeming like hours as so much could pass somehow in a few seconds)

    i think the point you were making was about the active kairos, the moment in time when if you act it makes a difference. the kind of hole in time where if you grab it , it can change the expected outcome

    I did notice on rereading parts of the Potter books that Dudley at the very beginning of the series was given a watch for his birthday, actually a golden watch. Perfect for a Kronos sort of guy.
    Whereas Harry , without a good watch, or with a broken watch had his special time. I would be interested to read more on this and suspect that I might be rereading the series with a view to watches and time

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