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.

 

Comments

  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!

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