Crimes of Grindelwald: The Salamander

Here are three notes about the “salamander eyes” conversation in Crimes of Grindelwald and the literary alchemy of it. Believe it or not, I think Tina and Newt’s back-and-forth in the French Ministry’s Records Room amounts to something like a wedding proposal and her acceptance, an alchemical wedding of fire and water, the aquatic newt and the fiery salamander. First, we’ll review the conversation from the Original Screenplay (sic), then the mystery of Tina’s volunteering “Salamander” to finish Newt’s sentence about the quality of her eyes, and finally, the alchemical glyphs and cryptonyms involved! All after the jump —

(1) The Conversation: Newt and Tina finally have a private moment in the Records Room. Newt decides to tell her about her salamander eyes despite Jacob Kowalski’s insistence that this is something he must not do.

Newt: — you know, your eyes really are —

Tina: Are what?

Newt: I’m not supposed to say.

Pickett is climbing out of Newt’s pocket onto the nearest shelf. Newt doesn’t notice.

A beat. In a rush [both speak simultaneously]:

Tina:  Newt, I read your book, and did you —

Newt: I still have a picture of you — wait, did you read –?

Newt pulls the picture of her from his breast pocket and unfolds it. She is inordinately touched. He looks from the picture to Tina.

Newt: I got this — I mean, it’s just a picture of you from the paper, but it’s interesting because your eyes in newsprint… See, in reality, they have this effect in them, Tina… It’s like fire in water, in dark water. I’ve only ever seen that — (struggling) I’ve only ever seen that in —

Tina: (whispers) Salamanders?

A loud bang as the doors to the records room fly open. (scene 96, French Ministry Records Room, pp 210-212)

(2) The Mystery: How has Tina ever seen or even just heard about salamander eyes and their quality, this “fire in dark water” conceit that Newt offers her as a bouquet?

I thought it was because, as she has just told him, “I read your book.” It seemed an endearing thing; she hasn’t just read his book, she has memorized its details down to the quality of salamander eyes.

But that’s a mistake. I’ve checked the three editions of Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them, the textbook, that I have on the shelf and the salamander notes in each do not say anything about their eyes.

SALAMANDER: M.O.M. Classification: XXX

The salamander is a small fire-dwelling lizard that feeds on flame. Brilliant white, it appears blue or scarlet depending on the heat of the fire in which it makes its appearance.

Salamanders can survive up to six hours outside a fire if regularly fed pepper. they will live only as long as the fire from which they sprang burns. Salamander blood has powerful curative and restorative properties. (p 38, first edition)

We know that Porpentina’s parents may have been working with dragons  because they both die of Dragon Pox (scene 44, Fantastic Beasts: Original Screenplay), but members of the Malfoy and Potter families died from it as well and none of them were early day Hagrid-types. I don’t think Tina learned about salamanders from mom and dad. It’s as likely that the fire in dark water comment is a reference to her near death experience in Fantastic Beasts in the pool of black water. And that’s a stretch.

Then again, the name Porpentina is a variation on the Elizabethan word for “porcupine” (cf., Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 50, l 20, when the Ghost of Hamlet’s father says, “I could a tale unfold whose lightest word/Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood, /Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres, /Thy knotted and combined locks to part/And each particular hair to stand on end, /Like quills upon the fretful porpentine“). It’s something of a joke between Jeeves and Bertie in Jeeves in the Offing as well; Bertie: “Odd that he [Hamlet’s ghost] should have said porpentine when he meant porcupine. Slip of the tongue, no doubt, as so often happens with ghosts.” [For salamanders in Goethe’s Faust, check out Faust’s first meeting with Mephistopheles.]

Maybe her parents were really into exotic animals and the girls, as long as their parents were alive, used to watch the salamanders play in their magical fireplaces… Just as likely, I’m afraid, is that Rowling’s love of Shakespeare and Wodehouse was in play here.

So the question remains, how did Tina come up with her “Salamanders?” question to finish the stuttering Newt’s sentence in the French Ministry of Magic? Is Tina via her parents really into the care of magical creatures or is there something more here we need to know? Say, something about the “powerful curative and restorative properties” of “salamander blood”? 

(3) Salamanders of Alchemy: Remember that Queenie and Tina are both Goldsteins, the German or Yiddish word for ‘gold stone.’ Though their parents left them as orphans when they were very young, the name suggests they were not only a witch and wizard but alchemists, those adepts who pursued the creation of a Philosopher’s Stone, the elixir from which would turn base metals into gold and give the mage immortality.

If the Goldsteins were alchemists, what does this have to do with salamanders? In Abraham’s Dictionary of Alchemical Symbolism  we learn one reason why salamander blood, according to Newt, has “powerful curative and restorative properties” — it is the equivalent of the Philospger’s Stone and the elixir of life:

salamander: a symbol of the fiery masculine seed of metals, *sulphur, the hot, dry, active male principle of the opus; the red stone or elixir, the magical *philosopher’s stone which has the power to convert base metal to gold and cure all disease and imperfection. Jodocus Greverius is cited in Zoroaster’s Cave: ‘I tell thee that our Semen is the true Salamander, conceived by fire, nursed by fire and perfected by fire’ (62). The red stone is compared to the fire spirit or salamander because, like this spirit, the Stone is able to live int he fire and is nourished by it. The fifth emblem of The Book of Lambspring shows the salamander shining in the fire symbolizing the augmentationo or multiplication of the Stone. The text informs us that the ‘blood’ of the salamander is ‘the most precious Medicine upon earth’ (HM, 1:294-5). [Abraham, p 176]

The Book of Lambspring text on the salamander is actually alongside Figure X or ‘Ten’ and reads thus:

In all fables we are told
That the Salamander is born in the fire;
In the fire it has that food and life
Which Nature herself has assigned to it.
It dwells in a great mountain
Which is encompassed by many flames,
And one of these is ever smaller than another—
Herein the Salamander bathes.
The third is greater, the fourth brighter than the rest—
In all these the Salamander washes, and is purified.
Then he hies him to his cave,
But on the way is caught and pierced
So that it dies, and yields up its life with its blood.
But this, too, happens for its good:
For from its blood it wins immortal life,
And then death has no more power over it.
Its blood is the most precious Medicine upon earth,
The same has not its like in the world.
For this blood drives away all disease
In the bodies of metals,
Of men, and of beasts.
From it the Sages derive their science,
And through it they attain the Heavenly Gift,
Which is called the Philosopher’s Stone,
Possessing the power of the whole world.
This gift the Sages impart to us with loving hearts,
That we may remember them for ever.

Perhaps what is most important to recall here is that Newt’s names, both first and family names, resonate with ‘salamander.’ ‘Scamander’ has a very specific set of meanings cued to mythology and geography that Lancelot Schaubert explored in this HogwartsProfessor post, ‘The Meaning of Scamander,’ but more easily comprehended is that his surname just sounds like ‘salamander,’ from the Greek for ‘fire lizard.’ Which gives his name a fun back-and-forth, because a ‘newt,’ of course, is a another word for ‘salamander,’ with “more than one hundred known [newt] species.”

So Newt Scamander tries to tell Porpentina Goldstein that she has the eyes of a salamander, having the quality of “fire in dark water” but she interrupts him with the word he is not supposed to use, per Jacob. I suggest to you that this back and forth is close to a proposal and its acceptance if read, “You have the eyes of a scamander,” and that theirs will be an alchemical wedding of fire and water, as newts are semi-aquatic animals and salamanders, at least of the alchemical-gold-stone variety, are creatures who live in fire. They are a union of opposites, the resolution of which, male and female, Jew and Gentile, is another word for Christ (cf., Galatians 3:28), in Whom are eternal life and spiritual riches (gold being ‘solid light,’ as in ‘the Light of the World,’ John 8:12).

How do you think Tina knew that Newt was talking about the eyes of a salamander? Let me know in the comment boxes below!

Update: Does the Presence grasp the difference between an aquatic newt and a fiery, golden salamander? Check out the twitter link sent by Beatrice Groves for the picture of Rowling at the first film’s premiere (16 November 2016), about which she wrote, “Me in a dress with a salamander on. There were no newts available, I checked.” Great catch, Prof Groves! Or as Cormoran would say, “Well remembered”!

Comments

  1. Amnon Halel says:

    Great post (as always) John!

    Speaking of Shakespeare, when I watched the movie I thought also about Macbeth and the three witches :
    “Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
    Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
    Adder’s fork, and blind-worm’s sting,
    Lizard’s leg, and howlet’s wing,…”

    and also reminds me Beatrice Groves very nice allusion from harry potter (“His eyes are as green as a fresh pickled toad, His hair is as dark as a blackboard …”) to Shakespeare ‘A Midsummer Night Dream’ with : “Your lily-white lips, your cherry-red nose, and your buttercup-yellow cheeks are gone, gone forever. Lovers, moan and weep. His eyes were as green as leeks.”

  2. Sharon Leighton says:

    The alchemical undertones of this bit of dialogue are fascinating as you describe them. In answer to your question, however, I think your first thought was the right thought: she read about it in his book. I know, you checked, and it’s not there. But do you really think the version we have is the version Newt published? Doesn’t he tell Tina in the first Fantastic Beasts movie that everything she needs to know to help her look after the beasts in his suitcase is in the manuscript he hands her? The excerpt you give does say that if you have to take the salamander out of the fire, you should feed him pepper, but I question that it gives all the information one would require to care for a salamander. I seem to have mislaid my copy of “Fantastic Beasts” (the textbook), but I don’t remember much by way of care instructions for any of the beasts. I suspect the Ministry of Magic insisted on stringent editing before the book was released into the Muggle world. We can’t have muggles hunting down unicorns and manticores and breeding them in their backyards, can we?

  3. I think in the most recent edition it says in the forward that the ‘Comic Relief’ textbook edition made available to Muggles was the ‘first edition’ published by Obscurus Books. I don’t recall any notes about it being edited for Muggle consumption, reasonable as that seems as you explain it, and, given the few differences between the first and most recent editions, I have to doubt it.

  4. Beatrice Groves says:

    Really enjoyed this John! (That ‘fretful porpentine’ line is very famous in England – and Tina is a tad fretful sometimes!).

    Also, in a nice addition to this alchemical signposting, what about that gold salamander dress she wore to the premier of FB1?!
    https://twitter.com/jk_rowling/status/797053316215738368?lang=en

  5. Beatrice Groves says:

    Just thinking about how the ‘canonical’ (i.e. Harry Potter book) references to salamanders might interact with your thoughts John . In HP salamanders are described as ‘fire-dwelling’ and ‘flame-loving’ lizards and while this fits with the Fantastic Beast’s textbook idea of them (as opposed to the Muggle salamander’s ability to live in both water and air). It is noticeable, however, that the first description of salamanders comes in one of those passages (in which Rowling delights) in which the warm and bright inside space is contrasted with the cold and wet exterior. The firework-stoked salamander in Chamber is particularly fiery in this scene, but it is striking that its first appearance in the series is in such a ‘wet/black’ v. ‘brilliant orange’ moment of contrast. (Likewise the second appearance – in Azkaban – although less striking, is another at least moment of cold/hot contraries):

    Rain was still lashing the windows, which were now inky black, but inside all looked bright and cheerful. The firelight glowed over the countless squashy armchairs where people sat reading, talking, doing homework or, in the case of Fred and George Weasley, trying to find out what would happen if you fed a Filibuster firework to a salamander. Fred had “rescued” the brilliant orange, fire-dwelling lizard from a Care of Magical Creatures class and it was now smouldering gently on a table surrounded by a knot of curious people. Harry was at the point of telling Ron and Hermione about Filch and the Kwikspell course when the salamander suddenly whizzed into the air, emitting loud sparks and bangs as it whirled wildly round the room. The sight of Percy bellowing himself hoarse at Fred and George, the spectacular display of tangerine stars showering from the salamander’s mouth, and its escape into the fire, with accompanying explosions, drove both Filch and the Kwikspell envelope from Harry’s mind (Chamber, Chp 8)

    Classes started again the next day. The last thing anyone felt like doing was spending two hours on the grounds on a raw January morning, but Hagrid had provided a bonfire full of salamanders for their enjoyment, and they spent an unusually good lesson collecting dry wood and leaves to keep the fire blazing while the flame-loving lizards scampered up and down the crumbling, white-hot logs. (Azkaban, Chp 12)

    Food for thought perhaps.

    And Rowling ties in her FB entry (on the restorative nature of Salamander blood) nicely into Phoenix, where the blood appears in Strengthening Solution; and its affinity for hot spices (in FB nurturing it with pepper) which becomes in Phoenix curing its scale rot with an application of chilli pepper.

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