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In the Harry Potter books, you can only see a threstral if you've seen someone die, right? In the beginning of the fourth book (The Goblet of Fire), Harry sees "horseless carriages", but after seeing Cedric's death, in the fifth book (The Order of the Phoenix) he can see the threstrals. Why couldn't he see them in the first place, as he saw his mother (and several pieces of Voldemort) die?

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    Similar question on another SE site: Why couldn't Harry see Thestrals at the end of Goblet of Fire?
    – Rand al'Thor
    Oct 1 at 14:25
  • For the record, I feel that Gareth Rees's newer answer here is better than mine, offering a deeper analysis and checking out more of the facts and dates involved. You're free to choose which answer you accept, but I suggest you might want to accept Gareth's (you can transfer checkmarks from one answer to another any time).
    – Rand al'Thor
    Oct 6 at 15:36
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The author answered this question by saying that you need to have seen death and fully comprehended it in order to see Thestrals.

From a 2003 interview with Stephen Fry, in which the latter read out questions from fans (transcript at Accio Quote):

Stephen Fry: Internet question from Jessica Wells, originally from Australia now living in London.

Email: “Harry saw his parents die so why hasn’t he been able to see the Thestrals before?”

JK Rowling: I knew I was going to get that one…that is an excellent question. And here is the truth. At the end of Goblet of Fire we sent Harry home more depressed than he had ever been leaving Ho[g]warts. I knew that Thestrals were coming, and I can prove that because they’re in the book I’d produced for Comic Relief (UK) “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”.

These are lucky Black Winged Horses. However, if Harry had seen them and it had not been explained then it would cheat the reader. So, to explain that to myself, I decided you had to have seen the death and allowed it to sink in a bit… slowly…these creatures became solid in front of you. So that’s how I’m going to sneak past that one.

Now the real question is, especially for this particular author, how much should we believe her?

Well, it's certainly true that the companion book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was published in 2001, two years before The Order of the Phoenix where Thestrals were first mentioned in the main book series, and one year after The Goblet of Fire where she might have been expected to mention Thestrals.

I can also believe that she did have Thestrals in mind while writing the end of The Goblet of Fire, as it does make literary sense to avoid introducing new creatures right at the end of a story (although a simpler workaround might have been to have the characters take a different mode of transport to the train that year). Better to introduce them near the start of book 5, as one of the new features of her fantasy world introduced in that book and then used near the end, rather than introduce them at the end of book 4 and then leave readers waiting for three years before they actually do anything in the story.

It's still possible that Rowling forgot about baby Harry having experienced his parents' deaths, at the time she was inventing the Thestrals. But, on the other hand, her explanation also makes sense: if we want to split people into those who've seen death and those who haven't, then someone who's seen death only as a baby might fit psychologically more with the second group than the first. A one-year-old might not really be able to understand death, even if it happens in front of them. Luna was also a child when her mother died, but she was an older child, able to appreciate the tragedy and its impact. Harry can barely even (consciously) remember his parents at all, nor their deaths that happened in front of him.

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Some consideration should be given to the possibility that Rowling made it up as she went along: that is, she didn’t think of using the Thestrals to pull the carriages, and didn’t come up with the ad-hoc explanation that seeing death allows you to see the Thestrals, until she was writing Order of the Phoenix. The game of “how can we make the new idea consistent with established continuity” is not one that we are obliged to play.

Text

Magic coaches are first mentioned in Prisoner of Azkaban (1999):

at least a hundred stagecoaches awaited the remaining students, each pulled, Harry could only assume, by an invisible horse, because when they climbed inside and shut the door, the coach set off all by itself, bumping and swaying in procession.

J. K. Rowling (1999). Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, chapter 5. London: Bloomsbury.

Note that the invisible horse is Harry’s guess and that other explanations would be consistent with the description here, for example, the carriages are moved by magic.

Thestrals are first mentioned in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2001):

Winged horses exist worldwide. There are many different breeds, including the Abraxan (immensely powerful giant palominos), the Aethonan (chestnut, popular in Britain and Ireland), the Granian (grey and particularly fast) and the rare Thestral (black, possessed of the power of invisibility and considered unlucky by many wizards).

J. K. Rowling (2001). Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, p. 42. London: Bloomsbury.

Note that there is no mention of any types of winged horse being employed to pull carriages, something which I think we would expect to see if Rowling had already had the idea; compare “griffons are often employed by wizards to guard treasure”, “Jobberknoll feathers are used in Truth Serums”, etc.

In Goblet of Fire (2002), the stagecoaches have become “horseless carriages”, with no mention of the theory that they are pulled by invisible horses:

A hundred horseless carriages stood waiting for them outside the station.

J. K. Rowling (2002). Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, chapter 11. London: Bloomsbury.

Hermione turned away, smiling at the horseless carriages that were now trundling toward them up the drive.

Rowling (2002), chapter 37.

However, the Beauxbatons students do arrive in a carriage drawn by giant flying horses:

a gigantic, powder-blue, horse-drawn carriage, the size of a large house, soaring toward them, pulled through the sky by a dozen winged horses, all palominos, and each the size of an elephant.

Rowling (2002), chapter 15.

These horses correspond to the “Abraxans” from Fantastic Beasts, showing that Rowling was starting to draw on that work for ideas.

Theory

The simplest theory explaining the textual evidence is that

  • In Prisoner of Azkaban (1999), the magic coaches were a piece of background detail with, at that time, no particular idea about what (if anything) was pulling them.

  • In Fantastic Beasts (2001), the various kinds of flying horses were picturesque inventions with no particular idea about how they would be used in the Harry Potter novels. Several entries in Fantastic Beasts are drawn from classical mythology (basilisk, centaur, chimaera, hippogriff, manticore, phoenix, sphinx), and so it is likely that the flying horses come from the myth of Pegasus.

  • In Goblet of Fire (2002), Rowling started to draw on the material she had invented for Fantastic Beasts, and this included using the giant flying palominos to pull the Beauxbatons carriage, but the Hogwarts carriages were described as “horseless” suggesting that she had not yet considered identifying the “invisible horses” from Prisoner of Azkaban with the Thestrals from Fantastic Beasts.

  • When writing Order of the Phoenix (2003), Rowling had the idea to use the Thestrals from Fantastic Beasts to pull the “horseless carriages”, but needed an ad-hoc explanation for why Harry had not been able to see them previously.

Analysis

Is Rowling’s 2003 interview, quoted in the other answer, consistent with this theory? Let’s look closely at what she says:

  • “I knew that Thestrals were coming and I can prove that because they’re in the book” — the second part (“I can prove that”) is false: the appearance of the Thestrals in Fantastic Beasts doesn’t prove that Rowling had decided to use them in future novels. (There are plenty of entries in Fantastic Beasts that went unused.) The falsehood in the second part casts a bit of doubt on the truth of the first part.

  • “However, if Harry had seen them and it had not been explained then it would cheat the reader” — this concedes that she had not anticipated using Thestrals, so that introducing them appears to contradict what she wrote previously, hence the need for an explanation.

  • “that’s how I’m going to sneak past that one” — the use of “sneak” is a suggestion that there is something furtive or shameful about her approach. I interpret this as a (humorous) admission that the way she answered the question is misleading.

In my opinion, there is no need for Rowling to engage in this kind of pretense: there is nothing shameful about saying, “I made it up as I went along”. After all, that is her job as a writer, to make things up! But given that she does do this kind of thing, then as readers we need to be aware that she did not actually work out all the details of the Wizarding World prior to writing the novels, and her public pronouncements to the contrary are a game of make-believe that we can choose to join in, or not.

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I would like to present a different analysis of most of the same facts mentioned in the other answers.

While I am normally skeptical of post facto authorial statements, especially with this author, in this case I think it is reasonable to accept that it is not an invention that was conceived after the story was completed.

Let's begin with the three points of criticism in Gareth's answer:

“I knew that Thestrals were coming and I can prove that because they’re in the book” — the second part (“I can prove that”) is false: the appearance of the Thestrals in Fantastic Beasts doesn’t prove that Rowling had decided to use them in future novels. (There are plenty of entries in Fantastic Beasts that went unused.) The falsehood in the second part casts a bit of doubt on the truth of the first part.

When Rowling said "I can prove that", I don't think she was being as precise as assumed. Indeed, being mentioned in a book is no proof that they will be used in a different book. However, what I suspect she meant is that the existence of Fantastic Beasts proved that she didn't entirely invent the concept of Thestrals when writing the Order of the Phoenix, but had already thought of the concept prior to writing Goblet of Fire.

Alternatively, and approaching this from a somewhat psychological perspective, I would argue that this very assertion of proof is itself (some amount of) proof. If she was lying (or misleading, if lying is too strong of a term for this context) she would know that her proof was not a good proof, and therefore would likely not offer it since it could be easily refuted. The fact that she did offer it seems indicative of the fact that she herself believed it, which would only be the case if the concept was not a retroactive invention.

“However, if Harry had seen them and it had not been explained then it would cheat the reader” — this concedes that she had not anticipated using Thestrals, so that introducing them appears to contradict what she wrote previously, hence the need for an explanation.

I'm not sure if I am interpreting this paragraph correctly but it seems to be assuming that Rowling meant that introducing Thestrals without explaining how it is consistent with previous information in the books would be cheating the reader, and is thus an acknowledgment that the description of Thestrals is inconsistent with the earlier story. However, I don't think that is what Rowing meant here. I think she meant that introducing a new concept (Thestrals) without explanation of the concept (since it would have been the end of the book) would be cheating the readers. Under this understanding there is no acknowledgement of inconsistency.

“that’s how I’m going to sneak past that one” — the use of “sneak” is a suggestion that there is something furtive or shameful about her approach. I interpret this as a (humorous) admission that the way she answered the question is misleading.

I don't think "sneak" here is referring to the manner in which she answered the question, but to the unsatisfactoriness of the answer within the context of the story. That is to say that it is not an implicit admission that she retroactively added something, but an admission that in order to keep the flow of the books she had to (from the outset) create an unsatisfactory explanation of the concept.

Now let's turn to why I think we should give some credence to Rowling's assertion. First we have the original quote from Prisoner of Azkaban (cited in Gareth's answer) in which the pulling of the carriages was described as "Harry could only assume, by an invisible horse". If you think about it this seems like a rather strange assumption for Harry to make. In a world of magic why would you assume that carriages moving of their own accord are being pulled by horses, which not being seen must then be assumed to be invisible? Why not just assume that the carriages move magically? At this point in the story Harry has already seen several examples of vehicles moving without anything physical pulling them, including Uncle Vernon's boat (bewitched by Hagrid), the Gringott's cart, the boats for crossing the lake at Hogwarts, Mr. Weasley's car, broomsticks, etc. On none of these occasions does Harry assume, or even entertain the possibility, that the motion is actually caused by invisible creatures. Thus, the mention of invisible horses in Prisoner of Azkaban would seem to be entirely gratuitous.

I suspect, therefore, that Rowling deliberately included this (despite it being somewhat odd in context) precisely because she already had the idea that the carriages were in fact pulled by invisible horses. The passing thought by Harry was intended as a harbinger of what was to come later in the story.

This can also help address another issue, mentioned in Gareth's answer:

In Goblet of Fire (2002), the stagecoaches have become “horseless carriages”, with no mention of the theory that they are pulled by invisible horses:

To this we could say that there was no need to reiterate Harry's invisible horse theory since the "clue" had already been given and it was already odd to mention it the first time.

There is another seemingly gratuitous line which can also support the case here. In Fantastic Beasts Thestrals are described as unlucky (more precisely that some people consider them unlucky. No reason is given for this unluckiness, so why mention it at all? Presumably, then, this is another hint to the death-seeing criterion, which is after all the reason why they are considered unlucky (as explained in Order of the Phoenix). The reason for not mentioning anything about death in Fantastic Beasts is then readily apparent: she didn't want to spoil a plotline of a future book.

Another apparent omission by Fantastic Beasts, mentioned in Gareth's answer, is:

Note that there is no mention of any types of winged horse being employed to pull carriages, something which I think we would expect to see if Rowling had already had the idea; compare “griffons are often employed by wizards to guard treasure”, “Jobberknoll feathers are used in Truth Serums”, etc.

However, I this can be reasonably explained within the context of the story. In Chapter Twenty of Order of the Phoenix we find the following passage:

“But tha’s not very interestin’, Hermione,” said Hagrid. “The stuff I’ve got’s much more impressive, I’ve bin bringin’ ’em on fer years, I reckon I’ve got the on’y domestic herd in Britain —”

It is thus reasonable that Fantastic Beasts does not mention that Thestrals are used for pulling carriages, as prior to Hagrid's herd it may never have been done.

Perhaps further support for believing Rowling comes from the fact that her answer did not actually address the question asked. As cited in Rand's answer, the interviewer asked her why Harry couldn't see Thestrals the entire time since he had seen death as a baby, not why he couldn't see the Thestrals after witnessing Cedric's death. In her answer Rowling only discussed why he couldn't see them after witnessing Cedric's death, without mentioning the baby aspect at all. Indeed her response does not directly resolve the baby question, unless you extrapolate and take the idea further, as in Rand's answer, and argue that not understanding the concept of death would be an impediment similar to not processing a death.

However, if Rowling had indeed had the idea of Thestrals all along, and had created the answer when writing the book originally, then it makes sense why she answered in this way. She had previously thought about the inconsistency with Cedric so that was the first thing that would come to mind when being asked a question about the inconsistent nature of Thestrals. She likely had not previously thought about the inconsistency with baby-Harry, and indeed one could argue that that inconsistency still stands.

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