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In The Prisoner of Azkaban, Albus Dumbledore hands Hermione the 'Time-Turner', which they use to free Buckbeak and later on to rescue Sirus Black. One spin on the Time-Turner equals one hour travelling back in time. What prevented Dumbledore and Hermione from using the Time-Turner to kill Voldemort?

Why didn't they use the time turner for good?

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Time Turners can't go back that far.

J.K. Rowling has said that it's impossible for those 1-hour Time-Turners to go back farther than 5 hours. (See quote below.) So: She can't.

If you're asking about making sure he doesn't come back, how would she do that? She can't do anything that would prevent him from coming back, as she doesn't have the power to be anywhere that it would make a difference.

From Pottermore:

As our investigations currently stand, the longest period that may 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 wizard’s neck and revolved according to the number of hours the user wishes to relive.

Now, there was a Time-Turner that could go back years, but they didn't know that existed until the time of The Cursed Child.

J.K.R. has also commented on the issue of traveling back in time to change things:
Also from Pottermore, same article

I went far too light-heartedly into the subject of time travel in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. While I do not regret it (Prisoner of Azkaban is one of my favourite books in the series), it opened up a vast number of problems for me, because after all, if wizards could go back and undo problems, where were my future plots?

I solved the problem to my own satisfaction in stages. Firstly, I had Dumbledore and Hermione emphasise how dangerous it would be to be seen in the past, to remind the reader that there might be unforeseen and dangerous consequences as well as solutions in time travel. Secondly, I had Hermione give back the only Time-Turner ever to enter Hogwarts. Thirdly, I smashed all remaining Time-Turners during the battle in the Department of Mysteries, removing the possibility of reliving even short periods in the future.


And I'm sure that everyone is familiar with How Harry Potter Should Have Ended, which is basically this scenario...

  • Well, the 'Hermione' is just, because she had the time turner. Dumbledore should have been the one, to Kill, stop etc. Voldemort. – RaisingAgent Jan 18 '17 at 21:30
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    @RaisingAgent still impossible, they can't go farther than 5 hours – Mithical Jan 18 '17 at 21:30
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    @Mithrandir no one counts the cursed child... – DForck42 Jan 18 '17 at 22:51
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    @DForck42 - JKR's accountants most certainly count the cursed child. – DVK Feb 2 '17 at 12:18
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Pottermore says:

All attempts to travel back further than a few hours have resulted in catastrophic harm to the witch or wizard involved.

There was longer-range time-turner but it was not available to the characters during the events of Harry Potter books 1-7.

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It seems pretty clear from the time-travel narrative in Prisoner of Azkaban that the past cannot actually be changed by going back in time, because the present has already happened in accordance with the results of all subsequent time travel (Buckbeack had never been killed; Harry had already cast the patronus). Thus, it would be impossible to go back in time and kill Voldemort, for if someone in the future had gone back and killed Voldemort then he would have been dead all along. As he had not been dead all along, such meddling is inherently impossible.

(While this answers the question in the theoretical sense, it does not seem that the characters actually understand that this is how time-travel works, so perhaps it does not explain why they didn't try despite it being impossible.)

  • The plot by itself may suggest that, but it's hard to square the "past cannot be changed" idea with Hermione's words: "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!" This seems to refer to specific incidents; it's hard to see how the characters could be mistaken about the existence of these incidents. – sumelic May 13 '18 at 5:20
  • I think this answer is based too much on the idea that it seems illogical for time travel to be able to work two ways in Harry Potter. But lots of magic in HP seems illogical or inconsistent ... (e.g. how does Parseltongue work exactly? Why is "food" one of the few categories of substances that can't be created from nothing, and what exactly is the definition of "food"?) – sumelic May 13 '18 at 5:22
  • @sumelic Time-travel working two different ways is a fundamental contradiction; Parseltounge and Food Generation are merely unexplained concepts. – Alex May 13 '18 at 5:58
  • @sumelic The quote from Hermione is inherently paradoxical, and indeed some if the comments on the linked post allude to that. – Alex May 13 '18 at 19:56
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TL;DR: They didn't use the Time-Turner to defeat Voldemort because it would have been narratively unsatisfying.

"Time-Turners don't go back that far" does not answer the question. Time-Turners are completely fictional, so they can do whatever Rowling wants. So why not make them go back that far? Rowling's explanation ("if wizards could go back and undo problems, where were my future plots?") is more to the point but it's incomplete. What exactly would go wrong if the future plots were "the wizards use the Time-Turner to defeat Voldemort"?

Well, there are at least four things that would go wrong:

  1. It would get repetitive and boring pretty quickly. Serial fiction has to ring the changes on its plots in order to remain entertaining and engaging. Suspense is a more important dramatic quality than consistency. If dilemmas are too often resolved by cranking up the Time-Turner then the audience is going to drift away in search of something more interesting.

  2. The use of the "reset button" via time travel would rob events of their consequences and thus (once anticipated) of the audience's emotional response to them. If a character's death can be reversed then why should we feel sad when they are killed?

  3. It would be unsatisfying to have the heroes succeed because of their use of an artefact. Such a victory would seem arbitrary because there would be no reason why villains should not have had the artefact instead. Most readers would prefer the heroes to succeed because of their virtues, not because of their inventory.

  4. The heroes' use of the Time-Turner would necessitate giving the villains comparable powers, otherwise there would be little suspense. But this would severely distort the story and its themes would become lost or incoherent. Instead of being about the heroes uncovering the cowardice and corruption of the preceding generation and trying to do better, it would become some kind of "time police" or "time war" story, and this was not the kind of story that Rowling wanted to tell.

  • These are all reasons why someone writing a book should not introduce the concept of time-travel, or at least design it in a way that wouldn't lead to all these issues. But J.K. Rowling didn't do that. The question here is that within the system of time travel that she created for her books it makes no sense why people didn't use it to solve such major problems. – Alex May 13 '18 at 16:23
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    Good to see a Doylian answer as well as the existing Watsonian ones. – Rand al'Thor May 13 '18 at 16:33

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