‘An Absolutely Remarkable Thing’

A dear friend – and a Harvard PhD whose works on ‘how literature works’ inform my PhD thesis – wrote me yesterday to say I had to read Hank Green’s An Absolutely Remarkable Thing because it is “right up your alley” and “You are the one to interpret it!” I bought the book online and read it off my computer screen last night and this morning. I am writing a short review here — a break from Crimes of Grindelwald and Lethal White! — to recommend you read it, too, and that you think your way past the hard parts to consider its allegorical message about art (hence the title acronym), about the political and technological landscape in which we live, and about the agony of escaping the errors of our age for communion with transcendent reality.

After the jump I will write a brief synopsis of the wonderfully page-turning story (without spoiling it!), my thoughts about its meaning, and why reading it, when more than a few times in my case I persisted only with gritted teeth and eyeballs rolling, taught me something important about the difficulty the Harry Haters experienced in seeing the Christian content of the Hogwarts Saga.

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Agatha Christie: Ginny-Ginevra Source?

One of my first mistakes as a Potter Pundit was in the names chapter of Hidden Key to Harry Potter (2002) in which I asserted that Ginny Weasley’s first name was obviously an affectionate diminutive for ‘Virginia.’ The book wasn’t out for more than a few weeks before Rowling explained that Ginny’s given name at birth was ‘Ginevra,’ an archaic form of ‘Guinevere.’ Given the King Arthur elements if the Chamber of Secrets finale, that was a delightful bit of back story I added to the updates to Hidden Key (now How Harry Cast His Spell).

And I thought that was all I would ever need to know about Ginny Weasley’s name. If you check out the ‘Ginny’ pages at The Harry Potter Lexicon, at Wikipedia, at Harry Potter Wiki, and at PotterMore, ‘Ginevra’ is what you get without much further explanation beyond ‘Guinevere.’ Unless you think it being the Italian word for the Swiss City ‘Geneva’ is a big deal.

I was researching some things Rowling has said about her fondness for detective stories and Agatha Christie in particular yesterday, though, and found a real treasure in an unexpected place. First, though, what Rowling said about Agatha Christie in her Val McDermid interview about Cormoran Strike (2014): [Read more…]

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 —

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Is World War II Wizarding World Canon? Crimes of Grindelwald Means and Ends

Welcome Evan Willis to the faculty at HogwartsProfessor.com!

Crimes of Grindelwald, in its climactic scene, has Grindelwald presenting a prophecy of World War Two. This, I suggest, was one of the largest plot twists the movie provided, in that it leads us to consider Grindelwald’s motivations as good, but his means to achieve them as evil.

Is World War Two Wizarding World Canon?

From the Harry Potter books, films, and other canon materials, one can learn very little of muggle history. We have no guarantee that muggle history unfolded as we know it did, given that we are dealing with an alternate world in which wizards exist and have an effect, however much hidden, upon history. So, what do we know about what happened, within this alternate world? World War One clearly happened, as Theseus and Jacob both fought in it. I can find no evidence of the Russian Revolution in the text, leaving that an unknown.

However, as far as I can find, there is in the entire text only one reference to the existence of World War Two, in a brief comment at the opening of Goblet of Fire, in which Frank Bryce is described as having “come back from the war with a very stiff leg and a great dislike of crowds and loud noises…,” (Ch. 1). This is our only source that World War Two happened in this alternate world in which magic exists, and is a fairly vague reference at that. It could be possible, with minimal damage to existing text (less drastic than certain already existing plot elements), to have World War Two never occur in this alternate muggle history.

The lack of evidence does not prove a thing’s non-existence. However, one could argue that the Wizarding World could not have remained detached from the war, such that they would have seen the devastation caused by the war and known the ideologies from which it arose. Such a knowledge would, perhaps, have rendered far more difficult the rise of Voldemort, possessing a near-Nazi ideology. If however, the Second World War did not occur, the wizarding world would not have been as on guard against such ideologies, helping to explain Voldemort’s rise.

That said, I think all that this shows is that we, as audience, have been left seeing the Second World War as a merely possible, not historically guaranteed, event. We know as much about this version of the 1940s as Newt and Grindelwald themselves do.  However, World War Two not having happened would still be something of a plot twist, and so the following analysis is going to be relatively independent of whether or not it did.

Good Ends, Bad Means

What, then, does the new film give us? While we have certainly been previously led to see a parallel between the Grindelwald wizarding war and World War Two (cf. Dumbledore’s Chocolate Frog Card providing the 1945 date, Deathly Hallows symbol paralleling the swastika, etc.), I think that we have just been given the plot twist that the principles fought for on the two sides do not parallel the two sides of the muggle war.

With the war with Voldemort, the Death Eater’s goal was clearly one of wizard supremacy over the muggle population as an end in itself. At least publically, Grindelwald presents the argument that the muggle population is prophesied to begin another world war and that the only way to stop this is to provide muggles magical help, in the form of rulership by the wizarding population. Wizarding supremacy is for the muggles’ benefit, so goes Grindelwald’s argument (borrowed from Dumbledore’s letter to him in Deathly Hallows Ch. 18), in that being in the magical community places one in an enlightened elite who can solve the muggle’s problems.

Thus, wizarding supremacy is portrayed as a means to the “greater good” of progressive and enlightened policies (and thus, incidentally but not in itself, it appeals to those like Rosier who desire wizarding supremacy for its own sake). And Rowling goes out of her way to present about as clear an enlightened and progressive “greater good” as one could ask for: stopping World War Two from ever having happened. (This reminds one of the old moral dilemma that asks “If you could go back in time and kill Hitler as a baby, would you?” Part of the beauty of the contingency of the Second World War in this universe is that you don’t know what is going to be chosen.)

Dumbledore’s group is opposed to the tyrannical wielding of power to achieve those progressive ends. Thus, this film reveals the battle between Grindelwald and Dumbledore to be one over means, not ends. Both favor progressive policy (e.g. allowing muggles and wizards to intermarry), but Grindelwald wishes to accomplish this by the conquest of the muggles, Dumbledore will not use such means. It is precisely on account of the parallelism that we had been led to expect with the sides of World War Two (i.e. Grindelwald as wizard-Hitler) that this new formulation is such a remarkable plot twist.

This distinction is foreshadowed by prior elements of the plot. At the opposite end of the movie, we see Queenie’s willingness to use magical power to attempt to force Jacob to marry her counter to the regressive laws present under MACUSA. This alone, I think, is enough to demonstrate the natural agreement of her views with Grindelwald’s: progressive ends, tyrannical means. Newt here, in disenchanting Jacob, shows his support for enlightened ends, in that he truly desires their marriage, but denies the validity of the means Queenie attempted to use. 


Beyond this, there is the treatment of prophecy by both sides. Grindelwald, believing that the prophecy will be fulfilled unless stopped, is trying to use whatever means necessary to keep it from happening. It is entirely possible that he, like Voldemort, will be so eager to stop the prophecy from happening that he causes the prophecy to be fulfilled. Thus, I expect World War Two will happen, but largely because Grindelwald attempted to stop it. Part of the value of us not knowing whether the prophecy will be fulfilled is that we can side with Dumbledore and Newt, not willing to step beyond what is right even to stop a terrible prophecy, with the possibility that by thus refraining one might keep it from being fulfilled. This may be the origin of Dumbledore’s insistence that prophecy’s power is only over those who believe it to be true, who consequently wield power rather than relying upon love (Half-Blood Prince, Ch. 23).


Three Crimes of Grindelwald Reviews

My head is still very much buried in the idea that Newt Scamander may be the long-lost Dumbledore rather than Credence Barebone, but, while I wrestle with that idea, its promise as well as its absurdity, I want to share three critical reviews of Crimes of Grindelwald I have been sent by thoughtful readers. Each represents a point of view that you won’t find at fan sites like MuggleNet or here at HogwartsProfessor and every one of them presents a challenge to lazy reading and acceptance of the film.

Kim Kirby writes in ‘Magic without Wonder: Fantastic Beasts as a Cautionary Tale’ that the Crimes of Grindelwald differs from and is much less satisfying a story than the Harry Potter novels and film adaptations because they lack the originals’ excitement of discovery about the enchanted world in which we live and and of which we were largely unaware.

Kadeen Griffiths explores the tired “tragic mulatto” narrative Rowling employs in the life (and death?) of Leta Strange. Leta Lestrange’s Storyline In ‘The Crimes Of Grindelwald’ Is The Last Straw For Me As A Black ‘Harry Potter’ Fan is worth a read despite its neo-Marxist PC content because it highlights and reminds us of the relative laziness of Rowling in her Cursed Child  bad-dad story and misappropriation of Native American beliefs in ‘History of Magic in North America.’ Will Newt turn out to be as good as he is with animals because his mother was a Native American — and ‘all Indians have a mystic relationship with the natural world’? Egad.

The Rev Ted Giese raises a subject, the proverbial elephant in the reading room, inLosing the Magicthat few have the courage to discuss, namely, the centrality of Dumbledore’s relationship with Grindelwald to the story line and the embedded messages about same sex marriage in the Queenie-Jacob broken engagement. Giese thinks that Rowling and Warner Brothers are trying to satisfy simultaneously the LGBTQ+ members of their audience and the traditional believers on these points (not to mention the Chinese censors…) which deftness requires a subtlety that softens the messaging and blurs the story-telling.

Let me know what you think of these reviews — and please feel free to share in the comment boxes below others that are as challenging and novel!