Last week, the news emerged that the sequel to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, scheduled to start filming this summer, would feature a young Albus Dumbledore, and that he would be portrayed by Jude Law. As with any casting decision these days, there has been controversy (honestly, uproar from readers prompted the Hunger Games movie people to re-cast a cat), but Law is actually a good choice for a couple of reasons, including his impressive resume of bringing to life on the screen characters we have already met on the page.
Last month, I was pleased to take part in a Signum U./Mythgard Institute-sponsored symposium to discuss the two hottest fantasy films of the holiday season, and their various and sundry implications: Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Also taking part were friends of this site Katherine Sas and Kelly Orazi (whom you’ll remember from their brilliant essays in Harry Potter For Nerds 2), Curtis Weyant (who is one of my own, personal go-to Star Wars nerds), Brenton Dickieson, Mythgard faculty member and author of the brilliant blog A Pilgrim in Narnia, and of course our moderator, Sørina Higgins. It proved a lively, lengthy and interesting discussion, especially after our host ended the “official” program, and the remaining panelists, having too much fun to hang up, chatted on unreservedly. Please enjoy, and feel free to add your own thoughts on these two films, and our nerdy discussion of same, in the comments.
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Ever since I learned to speak Star Wars at the Mythgard Institute a year ago, I’ve been eyeing the places where the Harry Potter and Star Wars franchises seem to intersect, and these places are many. So the fact that Warner Brothers and Disney Studios have, within a month, released film tie-ins to their beloved epics is no great shock. Neither is the fact that the films employ common elements and themes in seeking to delight long-time fans while enticing new ones. Let’s talk about four elements Fantastic Beasts and Rogue One share.
In his recent post on the Christian content in Fantastic Beasts, John wrote about the “Culture War”: that is, the ideological conflicts of recent years between those of traditionalist or conservative worldviews, and those with more liberal or progressive ways of looking at the world. John said anyone who doesn’t know about the Culture War is “a fish in water unaware of being wet.” I have a slightly different take; I’d say this so-called Culture War is something you don’t think that much about, if you’re winning it. Now by “winning it”, I simply mean you’re on the more dominant end of society (whether consciously or through the influence of family, culture, academics, media or entertainment) which currently tends toward a more liberal worldview. (Signs this state of affairs may not hold include Brexit and President Trump.)
I don’t wish to discuss the Culture War at any length in this post. I don’t go in for things with “War” in the title (Star Wars being the major exception). But John said something about it that bears repeating. “Oddly enough, [in Fantastic Beasts, J.K. Rowling] seems to be deliberately choosing to excite both sides in the Culture War.” Well-spotted, John. But it isn’t just in Fantastic Beasts that JKR pulls this Culture War double-agency trick. It’s throughout Harry Potter as well. I’m not convinced “exciting both sides” was intentional in Harry Potter, but it may well be in Fantastic Beasts.
In Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling sets a very universal story into a thoroughly magical setting. In this setting, magic is opposed to Muggle, a term synonymous with the mundane. This prominence of witches, wizards, spells and broomsticks in the popular books excited the new-age spiritualists (and anyone who sees the use of magic as a way of thumbing their noses at the Church). In many places, especially in the U.S., in the era of the Potter Panic, it also set the children of the Christian right, often denied the books, well apart from their more “liberal” or non-religious peers, who devoured them. Score a big one for the new agey, secularist folks.
But then along came John Granger and a few other brave voices, crying out in the wilderness: “Harry is a Christ figure, starring in a Christian story! Look at all the evidence!” And the evidence was incontrovertible. Then enter Deathly Hallows, with its direct references to the New Testament, and Jo’s own comments to MTV soon after publication that the religious parallels had always been obvious to her, but she didn’t want to give away the ending by revealing them. Not even to combat the Harry-Haters. Duh, many of us said to ourselves. Duh, duh, duh.
I don’t think Rowling intended, with her Harry Potter saga, to thrust herself directly into the cross-fire of the so-called Culture War. She probably just underestimated the extent to which fear of traditional manifestations of evil like the occult still grips those marginalized by the disenchantment of the social culture, especially in the U.S.
But if her books were meant to have a Christian figure and deliver a Christian message, why would Jo have used magic as her setting for Harry Potter? I see three good reasons. First we have to remember her consistent report of how Harry, the boy who didn’t know he was a wizard, simply “fell into her head”. This sounds like sheer inspiration to me – the kind that comes from some numinous source. I can tell you from experience, when you are graciously given ideas like that, you want to stay as true to them as possible. Secondly, most kids, at least those who have not been fearfully indoctrinated, enjoy magic. It makes for good books. Thirdly, magic in Harry Potter is not just an entertainingly ironic setting for a Christian story. It is part of the message. It’s an extended metaphor for the life of grace.
The metaphor begins to do its work from Philosopher’s Stone’s very first lines: “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.” “Nonsense” is a key word here. Think of Luke’s account of Christ’s resurrection. The women who go to anoint Christ’s body are told by the angel that he has been raised, and they “told this to the apostles, but their story seemed like nonsense and [the apostles] did not believe them.” (Luke 24:11) I heard an excellent Easter Vigil homily once which focused on this line as a caution against overly-rational and empiricist approaches to truth. Sometimes the truth, the homilist claimed, is fraught with a mystery that baffles – even frightens – us. And yet, we are called not just to believe, but to proclaim this strange truth, regardless of the consequences of spreading around what, to many, sounds like “nonsense.” People like the Dursleys, of number four Privet Drive will inevitably refuse to hold with such nonsense. This is because, as McGonagall points out a few pages later, “You couldn’t find … people who are less like us.” Less like the magic folk, that is. What she means is, most Muggles don’t believe in magic because it has not been revealed to them. The Dursleys refuse to believe out of stiff-necked pride, or what Jesus referred to in the Gospels as “hardness of heart.”
Then there’s Harry’s eleventh birthday: the day the magic really begins for him. Maybe it’s a funny coincidence that eleven is the age at which Jo herself was baptized into the life of Christ. But probably not, given that wonderful baptismal image of Harry and his fellow first-years crossing the lake in what seems to be a one-time initiatory rite for Hogwarts students. (Eleven was also Rowling’s age when the first Star Wars film came out, but I’ll leave that speculation opportunity for another post.)
But don’t forget about Harry’s fabulous wand from Olivander’s. The wand is the essential way of harnessing magic in the wizarding world, which even our inexperienced boy hero knows, for “this was what Harry had been really looking forward to.” (81) But Ollivander quickly informs Harry that it is the wand that chooses the wizard. Just like grace – a free gift which, in the Christian tradition, humans can not initiate – Harry’s wand must find him, granting him the right to harness its inner power. And what inner power Harry’s wand has! It is an “unusual combination” (84), observes Ollivander: holly wood with a phoenix feather core. For those who know their traditional Christian symbols, the wand’s wood and core pair wondrously. Holly, a popular Christmas adornment, symbolizes the incarnation of Christ (Christmas), while the phoenix feather symbolizes Christ’s resurrection (Easter). Through these powerful symbols, a sublime reading of the scene is possible. Harry’s magical power is the power of Christ: the God-made-Human whom even death cannot destroy.
Given her open use of these potent symbols from the Christian tradition, it must have come as some shock to Rowling when she began to receive hate mail from the Christian right denouncing her books. I know it shocked me, when I received some. In 2009, I was working in full-time ministry at a Catholic University. I had recently been interviewed by the local paper about the Christian themes and symbols in the Harry Potter books, when I received a letter from a concerned grandmother. She enclosed a tract, German in origin, published in 2003 by a small order of women religious, condemning all modern fairy tales for blurring the line between good and evil. According to the tract, images of the occult are giving our children anxiety, behavioral problems and sleep disorders. We can be sure these are straight from the Devil himself. The grandmother in the letter warned me that Harry Potter, and presumably my promotion of it as wholesome literature, is firmly “in the enemy’s territory.” She closed by assuring me I would be in her prayers. Well, how nice.
(Actually, it was nice. Later that week, I received a Facebook message from a scary-looking man who roundly and meanly condemned my comments in the local paper, and suggested I pray in front of a local abortion clinic as a means of reparation. Quickly, my personal Facebook profile became private.)
Honestly, I was more than just shocked by these messages. I was disturbed, hurt and a wee bit afraid. And if they caused this reaction in me, can you imagine how much more shocking, disturbing and fear-inducing being targeted in this way must have been for the author of the books herself?
Credence Barebone is a wizard, but his magic is being repressed by his puritanical “mother” Mary Lou. This makes him a potential host for an Obscurus: a parasitical magic force which preys on those who try to suppress their own magic for whatever reason. This unlucky witch or wizard who has so repressed the magic inside them then becomes an Obscurial, one who hosts an Obscurus. Eventually the Obscurus will kill the host, and potentially others in a fit of uncontrollable destruction. No known Obscurial has lived past the age of ten.
Pretty dark stuff.
As John noted in his post, “Credence is from the Latin verb credere, to believe. We get the word ‘creed’ from credere and the active participle is credens, or ‘Believing Person.’” Consider the character name, which is always significant for Rowling. Then consider the age to which a known Obscurial can live: only to ten, never reaching the magical age of eleven. Then, when you place poor Credence in continuity with the metaphorical meaning of magic I’ve laid out above (magic as metaphor for the life of grace, the life of faith as opposed to the mundane life of rational empiricism), he becomes a powerful metaphor for the rise of the kind of religious extremism that fuels hate groups and terror attacks. In her pivotal text on religious extremism, scholar Karen Armstrong says to study these various “fundamentalisms” (a controverted term) is to find they all fit a certain pattern. “They are embattled forms of spirituality, which have emerged as a response to a perceived crisis … a conflict with enemies whose secularist policies and beliefs seem inimical to religion itself. … Eventually they fight back and attempt to resacralize an increasingly skeptical world.” (Armstrong, The Battle for God, iv)
With the introduction of Obscurus/Obscurials, the heart of Fantastic Beasts’ message seems to be a warning against the utter secularization of human culture, against the repression and marginalization of faith itself. Seen in this light, Mary Lou Barebone is truly the worst sort of Muggle: narrow-minded, controlling and abusive. In fact, she may be a portrait of the quintessential Harry-Hater who, because of a staunch literal-mindedness, rejected, denounced and even burned the Harry Potter books. These real-life Mary Lous missed the proverbial forest for the trees; they missed the Christianity in Potter because of the ironic package in which it was wrapped. They wished to suppress the magic, without any attempt to understand its meaning or source.
I would be remiss not to add that the dysfunction of the Barebone crew can be seen as a metaphor for, to use John’s words, “Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender-Queer identities and Christian beliefs about people who define themselves in these sexual categories.” In that interpretation, the magic being repressed in children like Credence, Modesty and the others is a stand-in for perceived sexual deviancy, which some from traditionalist religious backgrounds (like the Barebones’) find repulsive and reprehensible. Hence the Barebones live in a dilapidated little church, and call themselves the “Second Salemers,” preach in the street, etc. Every gay personal alive has a story about someone who tried their best to repress them for religious and cultural reasons. Every LGBTQ kid unfortunately has or has had a Mary Lou Barebone in their life.
Even if this LGBTQ-sympathetic interpretation of the Barebone storyline is not what fits best with the prolonged metaphor already established in Harry Potter, the author likely approves of this appropriation of her symbols. Perhaps she even massaged that possibility with the homoerotic tone given to the Credence/Graces scenes. After all, this is Jo, who has – whether you agree with her politics or not – made her self an outspoken advocate against any form of human repression, sexual or otherwise.
As always, we welcome you to continue the discussion below. Find Emily Strand on Facebook (you really can) and Twitter (@ekcstrand).
Fantastic Beast Flashbacks: The Five Things We Want to Know about What Happened BEFORE Newt’s NY Adventure
Even though Fantastic Beasts slipped to number 2 on the Thanksgiving holiday box office (it’s hard to beat a Disney Princess with a boat and the Rock in her corner), it is still a bona fide hit. Audiences are already clamoring for the next installment, eager to find out what happens next to Newt, his creatures, and his friends; however, some of the most exciting unanswered questions of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them don’t concern what happens next, but what happened before that case of critters took a bite out of the Big Apple.
One of the wonderful aspects of this new cinematic sojourn into the Wizarding World is its mystery. Unlike the previous eight Harry Potter films, this one is not working from a novel that has already laid out its plot and characters for us. Astute Potterphiles have, until now, not seen a film without knowing, at least generally, what to expect. As more of the story unfolds in upcoming installments, here are five thoughts on unanswered questions from the film that we hope to have unraveled in the future. Beware, there be dragons (and nifflers, and major spoilers) ahead.