Beatrice Groves: ‘Nagini Maledictus’ Literary Allusion in Fantastic Beasts

A Guest Post from Beatrice Groves, Research Fellow at Trinity College, Oxford University, and author of Literary Allusion in Harry Potter — Enjoy!

John has recently posted on the current fan theory that Claudia Kim’s character in Crimes of Grindelwald – ‘a Maledictus, the carrier of a blood curse that destines her ultimately to transform into a beast’ – will turn into Nagini. 

John notes that ‘the Nagini theory has legs,’ which is a rather satisfying pun. It is pun I particularly like because the serpent in Eden is ‘cursed’ (maledictus) to go without legs:

‘So the LORD God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, “Cursed are you above all livestock and all wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life.’ (Genesis 3.14)

Or, in the Vulgate (Latin):

‘Et ait Dominus Deus ad serpentem : Quia fecisti hoc, maledictus es inter omnia animantia, et bestias terræ : super pectus tuum gradieris, et terram comedes cunctis diebus vitæ tuæ.’ 

If the Maledictus becomes Nagini it will continue the link between Voldemort and the Satanic snake of Genesis which Rowling began in Harry Potter [John says: see chapter 4 in Prof Groves’ Literary Allusion in Harry Potter]. In Christian visual heritage the Satan-inhabited-snake in Eden is – rather surprisingly – often depicted as half-woman. This rich medieval visual tradition flourished despite the fact that Satan is described by a male pronoun in the biblical text. It culminates in the famous image of Michelanglo’s Satan-as-snake-woman on the roof of the Sistine Chapel. 

Within Harry Potter there are many hints of Nagini as a snake-woman rather than simply a snake. Not only does she take the form of a woman in Deathly Hallows, she also has a disturbingly humanoid relationship with Voldemort from the moment we meet her in Goblet. She tells Voldemort that Frank is listening at the door of the Riddle House and while his not-to-be-named form resembles a baby – ‘the thing… looked like a baby’ (Goblet, Chap. 32) – Nagini keeps him alive with her ‘milk’ fed to him from a ‘bottle’ (Goblet, Chap. 1). Nagini takes the place of the mother to this parody of a child.

Then there is her name. Nagini is a name for Ma Manasa Devi, the Hindu snake goddess:

The idol of the goddess is depicted as a graceful lady with her body, adorned with snakes and sitting on a lotus or standing on a snake, under a hooded canopy of seven cobras…. Also known as ‘Nagini,’ the female serpentine avatar or ‘Vishahara,’ the goddess who annihilates poison, Manasa, in the Hindu mythology, is believed to be the daughter of sage Kasyapa and Kadru, the sister of the serpent-king Sesha…. Manasa, due to her mixed parentage, is denied full godhead.

Within Harry Potter the snake-woman aspects of Nagini resonate with Voldemort’s Satanic portrayal by linking her with the traditional imagery of Satan as a half-woman/half-snake in Eden. But her name points towards a much more complex (and positive) hinterland for her character. If fandom is correct that the Maledictus will transform into Nagini then perhaps Claudia Kim’s character will bring her a nuanced history, more fitting for the august source of her name.

If so, then it won’t be the first time that Rowling has engaged with an Indian faith tradition post-Potter. Rowling is an Anglican and her faith tradition underlies the religious imagery of Harry Potter. But, post-Potter, we have already seen her engage with faith traditions that are not her own. Of particular relevance to the topic under discussion, she has already used extensive and nuanced echoes from another Indian faith in Casual Vacancy.

Casual Vacancy is a novel of deeply flawed adults and, on the whole, rather more attractive teenagers. Among these Sukhvinder stands out and – for those searching the novel for a Harry avatar – Sukhvinder, an outsider with a good heart, is the only possible candidate. At the climax of the novel she, like Harry, commits a heroic and self-sacrificial act, risking her life to save another – although, as we’re not in Hogwarts anymore, it fails. Nonetheless, despite the death that follows, Sukhvinder’s act does have redemptive aspects, and these connect with some of the deeper metaphoric resonances of Harry’s sacrifice.

Earlier in Casual Vacancy Sukhvinder, who is a Sikh, is asked to explain her faith to her classmates in St Thomas’s:  

She had stood obediently at the front of the class and told the story of the Sikh religion’s founder Guru Nanak, who disappeared into a river, and was believed drowned, but re-remerged after three days under-water to announce: ‘There is no Hindu, there is no Moslem.’

The other children had sniggered at the idea of anyone surviving underwater for three days. Sukhvinder had not had the courage to point out that Jesus had died and then come back to life. (Casual Vacancy, part 3, chap. 8, p.339).

The scoffing students mean that the parallel between Guru Nanak’s three-day disappearance and the three days between Jesus’ death and resurrection is explicitly made within the narrative. And, while the narrator does not note the link in the duration of time, it is left for the reader to supply. (Rowling has used these three days before, of course. As any HogPro reader will know, it is the length time that Harry lies unconscious after the climax of  Philosopher’s Stone – giving the reader their first little nudge about the ‘messiah traits’ that will follow).

Guru Nanak’s message after his re-emergence from the river – ‘there is no Hindu, there is no Moslem’ – is also the message that Paul finds in the death and resurrection of Jesus: ‘there is no Jew nor Greek, there is no slave nor free, there is no male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians, 3.28). Paul and Guru Nanak phrase their understanding of God’s unifying love in culturally specific terms: the terms that would have been most shocking to those for whom their message was first framed.

In some senses Paul’s statement goes even further than Guru Nanak’s (no male or female? It is a binary that feels hard to break two thousand years later – it must have sounded truly extraordinary to the Galatians) but, in another sense, it is less far-reaching. Paul is only explicitly speaking about the barriers broken down between Christians – those baptised into Christ’s death and resurrection through the waters of baptism – but modern Christians can read these words as carrying the same message as Guru Nanak’s revelation. The message that barriers between people are human constructs; in God’s eyes people are equal, and equally loved.

In Harry Potter Rowling follows this passage from Galatians (and another biblical passage traditionally attributed to Paul: ‘Christ has made peace between Jews and Gentiles, and he has united us by breaking down the wall of hatred that separated us’ [Ephesians 2.14]) when she marks Harry’s victory over Voldemort as a moment that breaks down barriers within Hogwarts. The barriers enshrined within Hogwarts, of course, are the houses. After Harry’s victory over Voldemort – when, in pretty Messianic terms, he has become ‘their leader and symbol, their saviour and their guide’ (Deathly Hallows, Chap 36 p.596)’ – the house divisions are broken down: ‘nobody was sitting according to house any more: all were jumbled together, teachers and pupils, ghosts and parents, centaurs and house-elves’ (Deathly Hallows, Chap 36).

While in Harry Potter (as I have discussed in Literary Allusion) this reconciliation echoes traditional Christian imagery; in Casual Vacancy it echoes Guru Nanak’s vision. The climax of Casual Vacancy takes place in a river and, for all the tragedy of what happens under the water, the reconciliation Sukhvinder’s act enables recall Guru Nanak’s rising from the river to declare ‘there is no Hindu, there is no Moslem.’ What happens in the river washes away some of the seemingly indissoluble divisions of Pagford: ‘just as Robbie had come out of the river purified and regretted by Pagford, so Sukhvinder Jawanda, who had risked her life to try and save the boy, had emerged as a heroine’ (part 7, p.559).

It is not only reputations that are washed clean by the river, however. The episode calms racial and class tensions within Pagford (expressed by Sukhvinder being able to enter the Fields alone and unafraid) and it also knits up Sukhvinder’s shattered relationship with her parents (as they finally become aware of, and concerned by, what she has been suffering). Even at the funeral (where the old barriers reassert themselves as the congregation splits resolutely into a Fields side and a Pagford side) one of the most broken relationships of this novel of fractured families – that between Fats and his father – is noted as having been healed.

I think the links between Harry Potter and Casual Vacancy here show that Rowling is interested by the parallels she perceives between her own faith tradition and one with which she is less familiar. (I’m sure it’s no coincidence, for example, that those students who doubt Sukhvinder’s story are from St Thomas’s. By having these ‘doubting Thomas’s’ snigger at Guru Nanak’s return from the river, she performs a striking sleight of hand to link the Christian and Sikh narratives.)

In the case of Nagini, however, the Hindu source of her name and the traditional Christian link between snakes and Satan point in in diametrically opposite directions. The example of Casual Vacancy nonetheless suggests that post-Potter Rowling may be interested in exploring other faith traditions. In Harry Potter, despite her name, Nagini fell firmly in the Christian tradition of a Satanic snake-woman. It will be interesting to see if Crimes of Grindelwald follows down the Satanic path – as suggested by the ‘maledictus’ link in Genesis – or pursues the origins of Nagini’s name to enable a more positive, subtle and nuanced backstory.



  1. Louise M. Freeman Davis says:

    Fascinating stuff, thank you! I like the discussion of Casual Vacancy. I have been wondering if their is an echo of the protoevangelium of Genesis 3:15: I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.
    The first snake we see is the zoo boa constrictor, which “snaps playfully” at Dudley’s heels before slithering off to Brazil. The last snake we see is Nagini, who is decapitated by back-up Chosen One Neville. Then comes the wonderful “Try for some remorse, Riddle” speech where Harry explains how his sacrifice broke Voldemort’s power, and how, even with the elder wand, he could wound but not fatally injure. And of course, Voldy won’t listen, and gets own head figuratively crushed shortly thereafter.
    As for the maledictus-Nagini connection, it could prove interesting. But do we think differently of Neville if it turns out he killed not just a horcrux-infested snake, but a woman trapped, against her will, in the snake’s body?

  2. Beatrice Groves says:

    Thanks for this Louise, I’m really glad you like the post.

    I like your point about the protoevangelium. It is also appealing that the way that the protoevangelium has been read by Christian tradition (as a little foretaste of the Gospel) links with way Rowling likes to write: hiding Easter eggs (!). The early appearance of the snake in Philosopher’s Stone is, like the protoevangelium, a little foretaste of a much later reveal – in this case about Horcruxes and souls in essence divided. (And I certainly think Genesis influences Rowling’s idea that being able to talk to snakes is *not a good sign*!)

    It is also nice to note how that first snake in Philosopher’s Stone and the crucial denouement with Nagini in Deathly Hallows follow the 1-4-7 story axis neatly (as Nagini’s first appearance is in Goblet), which certainly foregrounds the first snakey appearance.

    Re: your point about Neville. I think this kind of problem precisely underlines the importance of a traditional – or literary – reading of ‘canon’ (in which it is only the text which has canonical status, not the author or other things they say/write). Rowling clearly enjoys adding to her world – from Pottermore to the Fantastic Beasts ‘pentalogy’ – and, however careful she is, there are going to be times when the original meaning of an event in Harry Potter is changed as a result. (Something that happens the whole time in Cursed Child.) If Nagini-Maledictus comes to pass this would be a particularly problematic example, as it would turn the zenith of Neville’s heroism into something akin to murder. It is one of those moments that underlines how nothing about the author’s future thoughts, interpretations and world-building has any effect on the original ‘text’. Neville (the character in Harry Potter) does not become a murderer whatever the Crimes of Grindelwald!

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thank you for this! It leaves me eager for more!

    I have not read Casual Vacancy, but your discussion – plus, Nagaina as wife of Nag in The Jungle Book – leaves me wondering how Kiplingesque JKR may be in some ways (the Kipling of Kim, especially, but also, say, of “The Church that was at Antioch”)?

    Have you any recommendations for further reading (on- or offline) as to the history of that extraordinary Biblical female-serpent iconology? And, indeed, as to the interpretative handlings of the serpent in Genesis, especially as “the Satan-inhabited-snake”? (I remember how I enjoyed Byron’s Cain as a schoolboy, before I had read Milton.)

    I have not read much about ‘a Maledictus, the carrier of a blood curse that destines her ultimately to transform into a beast’ (if there is much to read, yet – ?), but it raises interesting questions about victimization, and openness to active malice on the part of the curse-victim (or ‘possessed’ serpent, come to that). How do, variously, the Imperius curse and the Inferi compare, here? (A variety of interesting Charles Williams possible parallels, here, in War in Heaven, All Hallows’ Eve, and ‘The Prayers of the Pope’, whether JKR has reflected upon them or not – though none of these involve ‘a blood curse’!.)

  4. Beatrice Groves says:

    Thanks David!

    For more about the female snake see:
    A classic overview of the way in which Genesis interweaves a ‘just so’ story about ‘how the snake lost his legs’ into more profound questions is J. M. Evans’s Paradise Lost and the Genesis Tradition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968) – and I think it may well interest you (if you haven’t read it already).

    And just so stories, of course, lead us back to your Kipling point! I think the influence of Kipling on Rowling is likely to be a fruitful avenue – and, indeed, I’ll be blogging sometime soon about the influence of his short story ‘The Man who would be King’ on the Deathly Hallows symbol. (Admittedly the acknowledged influence is via the film adaptation, but, having so enjoyed the film – as do I, it’s an absolute classic – maybe Rowling went back and read the story too?). H.G. Wells, reputedly, called it one of the finest stories in the world.

  5. Prof. Groves,

    I’ll admit, I also was briefly reminded of Kipling after reading your essay. The difference for me is that this is the first time I know of anyone trying to trace a Kipling influence in Rowling’s work. It’ll be interesting to here your take on the subject.

    One other train of thought your essay got me thinking of was what would happen if, say, Rowling makes this Maledictus character a sympathetic one? I almost wouldn’t mind seeing her write a standalone story about such a character. The reason is just mere curiosity. Lately, I’ve begun to think that a good way to engage the disenchanted imaginations of modern readers is if you could refurbish the old tropes of telling a story from a non-human perspective.

    I know that’s kind of an oxymoron, because the joke is so far, no such story from a non-human perspective exists. Still, to place the audience in the perspective of a non-human main character might be the next step in getting the public to appreciate the art of stories at this particular moment in time.

  6. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Dr. Groves,

    Thank you! J. M. Evans’s book is new to me, and I will look forward to catching up with it, someday (the downside of Village Life…). Alexander’s post enriched my ‘Lilithology’ by a couple leaps, and I look forward to pursuing the John Bonnell and Jeffrey Hoffeld links and Melissa Huang reference about the ‘snaky-lady’ – or perhaps ‘ser-maid’ (?!) – iconology, though his observations suggest it remains tantalizing…

    I look forward avidly to your post on ‘The Man who would be King’. That film came out when I was an undergraduate (this very week, I see from IMDB – 42 years ago: whew!) and I wrote a paper on the story for my Victorian Lit. class. The film is indeed an absolute classic – I think it was not so long after that I encountered the observation that a feature film is better suited to adapt a short story than a novel, and ‘The Man who would be King’ seems a fine illustration of that, as does John Huston’s 1987 film of Joyce’s ‘The Dead’. What a deft opening up of Kipling’s story in various ways, while remaining true to the text! (Setting “The Son of God goes forth to war” to “The Minstrel Boy” is a stroke of breath-taking brilliance!)

  7. David Llewellyn Dodds says:


    I’m inclined to think anyone under a malefic creaturely curse sympathetic in the first instance, though the response of the unjustly accursed can qualify that a lot.

    But you’ve got me happily puzzling – is it true, “no such story from a non-human perspective exists”? (When – to go back to the 1970s again – I first heard of ‘Jaws’, I somehow got the mistaken – and exciting – idea that that’s what it was, a sort of pistricine ‘apologia pro vita sua’, and was very disappointed when I found out it wasn’t.) It would be fun discussing what might ‘count’ as non-human and as perspective, in thinking about this… (E.g., re. drama rather than narrative, I think Charles Williams is interestingly attentive to this in some sense where Ariel in ‘The Tempest’ is concerned – also via Roger Ingram’s thoughts in ‘Shadows of Ecstasy’.)

    By the way, I have long been struck by a resemblance between ‘The King’s Ankus’ in ‘The Second Jungle Book’ and the third part of Beowulf – is that something everybody notices? And, is it possibly a matter of source or allusion, or more of folk motif? Hmm, thinking of that again, gets me wondering about comparing and contrasting The Chamber of Secrets in this context…(!)

  8. D.L. Dodds,

    I’m more than willing to admit there have been novels and films in the past that feature non-human characters as protagonists.

    The trouble is how to gauge the level of audience awareness of these stories. The best example with the most familiarity is Tolkien’s Hobbits. There’s also Richard Adams’ “Watership Down”, and then there’s always Kipling’s “So Stories”.

    It’s not that there are no such stories out there, it’s just that I can’t recall the last time any recent books were this trope was put to use. As a result, I’m sort of left to wonder what would be the impact of a story that employed this particular narrative device, especially if it were able to garner a respectable mass audience.

    The comment about there not being any real “non-human” viewpoints in fiction came from a realization I had about science fiction in general.

    It occurred to me that even when an author sets his protagonist(s) out in the depth of space, even if they are light years from earth, and encounter an extra-terrestrial culture; it still doesn’t erase the irony that the entire story has been written from a human perspective in terms of authorship.

    In fact, it just recently occurred to me that if you were to take the plot of “Dune”, and set it on earth, you’d have the kind Victorian adventure novel of the type written by Rider Haggard, and the story itself would be about European colonialism, and its effects on the Middle East.

    In much the same vein, Richard Adams went so far as to admit that the characters in “Watership Down” aren’t really rabbits, but humans dressed in the fictional appearance of rabbits. Like Adams, Tolkien’s Hobbits are just normal citizens of the British Midlands imaginatively shrunk down a few notches.

    In that sense, I don’t think it’s possible to write a truly non-human perspective in fiction. Indeed, the Bible aside, if such a perspective ever existed between the pages of a work of fiction, how would the writer even be able to understand it?

    Even Tolkien had to give a fox some anthropomorphic human thought for the sake of a brief cameo in “Fellowship of the Rings”.

    Still, part of the appeal of having a non-human as a main character can be that it just “might” expand the audience’s imagination (if they’re willing to have it expand, at least; mileage is everything) and perhaps get them to take stock of their own situation as actual humans.

    Incidentally, two good reading materials I’ve found for RK are “Kipling Sahib” by Charles Allen, and “Man and Mason: Rudyard Kipling”, by Richard Jaffa.

    The former tackles the albatross around the neck by examining Kipling’s relation to India and non-European cultures as a whole. For Allen, Kipling isn’t schizoid so much as he is double minded. He’ll say one thing with his imperialistic poetry, and yet contradict it all in one of his short stories.

    The perfect example of what I’m talking about is the aforementioned “Man who would be King”. In that tale, Kipling seems to display an awareness that the whole British Raj is ultimately doomed to fail because of a short-sighted aspect of the nation’s English rulers that they are unable to overcome. It is a flaw which dooms their hold on India because they cannot relate to the people of that country on a more equal footing.

    Allen’s main contention is that, as a native-born citizen of India, whose roots were still way back in Britain, Kipling was forever pulled in two incompatible directions at once. He tried to maintain a dual loyalty to both India, and colonial England. The problem is it seems very hard to live a life based on an inherent contradiction.

    Thus Kipling is able to pen a story like “King”, which is a tacit admitted that English Sovereignty in India is illegitimate at best, and then turn right around and write the nonsense drivel that is “White Man’s Burden”.

    Allen posits that Kipling might have made a mistake in never going back to India, as the land seems to have been a necessary background for his best work, and it might have helped keep him away from Victorian politics, as it just seemed to hamper his muse, rather than help it.

    Jaffa, on the other hand, limits himself to how Kipling portrayed Masonic symbolism in his works. He doesn’t goes as far with this premise as he could, yet its interesting food for thought.

    As for an animal “Apologia”, I’m not sure if Spielberg has ever made a film with an ecological message yet, unless you want to count his two “Jurassic Park” outings.

  9. Beatrice Groves says:

    Replying to David Llewellyn Dodds:


    I think (in a nice link between some of these ideas) that there is an echo of Lilithology in Paradise Lost. Milton adds to the Genesis story when he makes Eve’s jealousy of a future wife as one ‘confirming’ motive for her decision that Adam should fall with her. She imagines that if she alone sins:

    Then I shall be no more,
    And Adam wedded to another Eve,
    Shall live with her enjoying, I extinct;
    A death to think. Confirmed then I resolve,
    Adam shall share with me in bliss or woe. (Paradise Lost, 9.827-31)

    The swiftness with which the idea that Adam could take another wife occurs to Eve suggests the presence of a mythology in which he has already done this. The tradition of Lilith – the abandoned first wife – appears to lurk behind these lines.

    My first knowledge of ‘Lilith’ came from watching Bebe Neuwirth play Fraiser’s ex-wife in Cheers when I was a child. When I found out who Lilith was, it seemed a perfect name for Neuwirth’s pale-faced, magnetically watchable portrayal!

  10. Brian Basore says:

    As you say, it’s the public’s awareness of novels and movies with non-human protagonists that matters.

    The science fiction/fantasy writer C. J. Cherryh came out with the novel Cuckoo’s Egg in 1985. The POV in Cuckoo’s Egg is a human representation of a non-human’s narrative, so maybe it isn’t a non-human perspective, or maybe it is.

  11. Prof. Basore,

    I’ve never read Cherryh before, however Jo Walton speculates that it is based upon the culture of Meiji Japan.

    Her review on sort of got me to thinking about one of the uses a non-human perspective can have. Namely, I can force you to look through the perspective of real life cultures different from your own.

    For instance, as I read Walton’s critique, an obvious question just occurred to me for the first time. If there is anyone here from Japan, does the whole Star Wars concept of the Jedi Knight seem normal as an imaginative premise? Or does it seem more ridiculous, or even a bit insensitive?

    I know it sounds like an odd question to ask, yet I just now realized I’ve never seen anyone ask the opinion of people who are familiar with the actual real life Martial Arts that SW takes as part of its inspiration.

    In any case, I also remember C.S. Lewis making a similar point of how non-human perspectives can help. Near the end of “Out of the Silent Planet” the hero, Ransom, sees two alien figures approaching. When they get close enough, their appearances metamorphose into human beings, and Ransom discovers he’d been looking at his own species from an alien perspective.

    I believe CSL also discussed with Brian Aldiss some forgotten magazine story about an extra-terrestrial life form that must live a kind leach-like existence in order to survive.

    These are just some of the ways to use this trope, at least.

  12. Emily Strand says:

    This is a great post, Bea! Finally getting around to reading it. I have always been struck by Sikh-Christian parallels (even noting the historic time period in which Guru Nanak staged is own “reformation” of his religious context). Gives me a firmer appreciation for Casual Vacancy too. Thanks!

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