Beatrice Groves – Secrets of Dumbledore: First Thoughts

In the wake of the UK theatrical release of Fantastic Beasts: the Secrets of Dumbledore and the (long awaited) US release on 15th April, Beatrice Groves, Research Lecturer and tutor at Trinity College, Oxford, and author of  Literary Allusion in Harry Potter, has written a Hogwarts Professor Guest Post: Secrets of Dumbledore: First Thoughts. Many spoilers after the jump…….Beware!

When Secrets of Dumbledore opened in the UK on April 8th I was queuing up with my popcorn, and I hope lots of you have now seen it too. So here are some first thoughts – about qilins, mirrors and Shakespeare – and I hope you’ll share yours below. Spoilers galore to follow!

As those who read my blogs beforehand will know, I suggested back in December that the qilin would play an important part in the plot and, more recently, once the ‘Walk of the Qilin’ was named by MinaLima:

The idea of the Walk of the Qilin as the name for a ceremony, coupled with this head-lowered position, makes me wonder if the Walk of the Qilin is the ceremony by which the new political leader of the Wizard World – the head of the International Confederation of Wizards or Supreme Mugwump – is chosen—or perhaps ratified? It would fit with the mythology of the qilin and its connection with just rulers if its ability to understand a person’s innate goodness were to be used to choose just such a ruler.

I was, therefore, delighted by how central the qilin was – it was in fact the lynch pin of a simplified plot (in comparison to both the earlier movies): it opened and closed the movie, and much of the remaining film involved getting both qilin twins to the final Walk of the Qilin.

A number of commentators have complained that The Secrets of Dumbledore appeared to be eschewing the ‘beasts’ aspect and focussing instead on the Dumbledore/Grindelwald back-story. But, I would argue, this is the movie in which the disparate threads of human and beast – begun as two opposing strands in the first movie – finally came together. It is Newt’s love for fantastic beasts which causes him to return to the dying qilin and discover she had given birth to twins. By making this qilin, and its shadow twin (a qilin Inferi) central to Grindelwald’s attempted rise to power, the plot successfully intertwines the beasts & Dumbledore storylines, presenting a pragmatic reason for why Albus would consider a Magizoologist such an asset in his quest to stop Grindelwald.

This was one of many links between the first and third movies – for, at least as planned, this is the ‘pivot’ of the five movie series, so (just as we see in the central novel of Harry Potter) we should expect a number of echoes of the first (and putative final fifth) movie here. The central one, perhaps, is the importance of suitcase swaps in each. Newt and Jacob confusing suitcases opens and closes the whole plot of Fantastic Beasts 1, and this plot-crucial opening farce is replayed as something more serious in Fantastic Beasts 3. Another of the most obvious parallels is the animal ‘dance’ which we first saw Newt doing for the Erumpent, and now with the baby manticores. Manticores are mentioned only twice in Harry Potter – and the adult manticore is just as horrific as we might expect from their first appearance in Azkaban when Hermione says hopefully: ‘This might help, look – a Manticore savaged someone in 1296, and they let the Manticore off – oh – no, that was only because everyone was too scared to go near it …’ (Chap 11). Both the look of the baby manticores (strongly reminiscent of crabs) and the fire-blasts of the adult recall Blast-Ended Skrewts – the only other time that Manticore’s appear in Harry Potter, in Rita Skeeter’s descriptions of ‘creatures he has dubbed ‘Blast-Ended Skrewts’, highly dangerous crosses between manticores and fire crabs.’ (Goblet, Chap 24).

The manticore scene was one of the most dramatic of the film, but there was another reason I enjoyed it – for it was a scene of Theseus in a labyrinth with a manticore (did she choose this beast because it sounds so like minotaur?!). The source of Theseus’s name finally becomes explicit, and he escapes via a Wizarding World version of a spool of thread (a Port-Key tie) a gift from Ariana’s brother (rather than, as in the myth, Ariadne herself). Ariana’s name is – of course – a version of the name Ariadne (as in Joseph Haydn’s cantata Arianna a Naxos).

The story of Theseus and the minotaur likewise lies behind Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream – though in Shakespeare’s play the minotaur’s replacement is the rather less terrifying Bottom with an ass’s head. Shakespeare’s Theseus and Hippolyta appear to be directly remembered in the unusual name of Theseus’s original love (Leta) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream had a number of other influences on the original Fantastic Beasts movie (as I discussed here). As mentioned above, we were expecting to see many echoes of FB1 in this movie, and I was hoping that Dream echoes would resurface. And there was a subtle parallel – linked to the vexed question of Queenie and Jacob’s marriage. It was set out explicitly in the first movie that this union would be impossible under MACUSA law and Crimes of Grindelwald continued with this prohibition (without explaining why they couldn’t have just moved to England, where no such law existed). Secrets of Dumbledore then ends with this marriage taking place on American soil, with no explanation of what has happened to the law which forbad Magical/Muggle marriages. Plot-wise this is somewhat unsatisfactory, but it is highly Shakespearean.

At the beginning of A Midsummer Night’s Dream Hermia is told that Athens has just such a draconian marriage law. Hermia must marry the man her father chooses for her, rather than the man of her choice, and if she declines so to do, she must either be put to death or become a nun. Theseus claims to be bound by this ‘ancient privilege of Athens’ (1.1.41) ‘which by no means we may extenuate’ (1.1.120). At the end of the play, however, this suggestion that Theseus is powerless in the face of the law is simply forgotten in a volt face in which the rigour of the law is subordinated to the comedic triumph of romantic union, as Theseus declares:

Egeus, I will overbear your will,

For in the temple by and by with us

These couples shall eternally be knit.    


Susan Snyder – in her wonderful work on the comedic patterns that underly much Shakespearean tragedy – has pointed out that this overturn of the law in favour of the desires of the protagonist is not as common to Elizabethan comedy as we might expect. She argues that while it is ubiquitous in early Shakespearean comedy – essential to The Comedy of Errors, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Two Gentlemen of Verona and, to some extent, Love’s Labour’s Lost – it is sufficiently uncommon elsewhere that it could legitimately be considered as a Shakespearean contribution to the genre.[1] So, while Secrets of Dumbledore might had been more coherent with an explanation about why this marriage could suddenly take place under the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, the film’s comedic overturning of legal constraints in the face of love’s young dream felt satisfyingly Shakespearean. It is just possible that it was even a nod to Dream – a play central to Jacob’s characterisation, and likewise, in the Queen of the Fairies who falls for Bottom, a possible source for Queenie’s name.

Dream is structured around pairs – pairs of friends and pairs of lovers, and the echo of Theseus and Hippolyta in the warring fairy King and Queen – and it was a strength of Secrets of Dumbledore, I think, that it had two pairs of awkward brothers: the relationship between Newt and Theseus deepening the importance, and rapprochement, in that of Albus and Aberforth.

Aberforth’s new importance was signalled early on by the writing that mysteriously appeared on the mirror behind his bar. It was a good way to simultaneously introduce some mystery and allow a relationship to develop between Credence and Aberforth. Mirrors – both in the general history of magic and in Harry Potter – are connected with both writing and truth: so it works well to have words from the heart written in them here. In this movie mirror writing functions as form of Mirror of Erised-like desire (both Credence and Aberforth open up to each other through the medium, and it is to this at-a-distance intimacy, I think, that Queenie refers when she tells Credence that she does not tell Grindelwald everything). But is also a form of the two-way mirror – satisfyingly as Aberforth was the most important user of the two-way mirror in Harry Potter.

The centring of Aberforth, and the summer in which Ariana died, in Secrets of Dumbledore likewise acts a pivot, recalling Albus and Gellert’s first duel as a form of pre-echo for the final duel which will take place in Fantastic Beasts 5. (This film is concluded in such a way that it could end here, if Warner Bros consider that the financially politic move, but also allows for the original five movie structure to be followed if the film is successful). That emphasis on the original duel also makes more sense of the crucial event – the breaking of the Blood Troth – which occurred in this film, enabling the final, future confrontation. It was broken in a moment which works best, perhaps, if we recall it as the reverse of that original teenage duel – Aberforth and Albus once again unite to try and save a family member from Grindelwald. The fact that this time they succeed sets Albus free – an inversion of the guilt he has carried all his life at what happened to Ariana.

[1] Susan Snyder, The Comic Matrix of Shakespeare’s Tragedies: Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Othello and King Lear (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), pp.20-26.


  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    Embracing spoilers over first-release viewing where the FBs are concerned, I find this splendid – many thanks!

    If there are FB4 – and FB5, could the breaking MACUSA law come back to sting Queenie and Jacob – and who-all else – in one or both of them? A sort of MSND the apparent Nightmare sequel, until eucatastrophe triumphs? (I think – I’m not sure how relevantly – of Baroness Orczy’s Lord Tony’s Wife…)

  2. Thank you David – delighted you enjoyed! And a fun idea. I really hope FB4 & 5 get made – and then we will see!

  3. Elizabeth Smith says

    Thank you for explaining Theseus’ name and meaning – I love how this movie honors that classic literature history.

    I do hope they make a 4th and 5th movie. My family enjoyed this FB movie the most of all 3, which is saying something as we loved the first one!

    I am thankful for your post – it’s a perspective I had not thought of and it enriches the movie for me.

  4. My goodness, Professor Groves, what a series of bullseyes you have hit here! Congratulations on having doped out the importance and the meaning of the qiln fantastic beast in Secrets! This may be your best bit of crystal ball gazing yet, which is saying something considering your Lethal White guess about the neolithic White Horse.

    I have not yet seen the film but having read these reviews I just want to say explicitly what you have been saying implicitly, namely, that the qiln acts as yet another Rowling exteriorization of internal psychic state devices and beasts in her Wizarding World. As with the Mirror of Erised, the Boggart, the Pensieve, the Howler, and the powers of Legilimens, the qiln externalizes what is otherwise hidden, namely, the virtue or purity of heart of its chosen preference.

    That DDore gets the nod is a bit of foreshadowing to the spell he casts on the Mirror of Erised to protect the Philosopher’s Stone from those who are not pure of heart. That Grindelwald tries to create a sock-puppet qiln to deceive the voters is on the one hand just one more Rowling retelling of the Guardian narrative about the 2020 US Presidential election (insert ‘Hunter Biden laptop’ as a Trump ‘disinformation’ October surprise for the faux qiln) as she did in the City of the Missed psychomachia vote in King Power’s palace (Rowling evidently believes that the GOP suppressed the vote and then try to steal the fair election in narcissistic rage…). With King Fred being a buffoon in The Ickabog and ‘Fred’ being a Trump family name, the degree to which The Presence is consumed by The Donald as Satan narrative seems almost alarming.

    Anyway, stray thoughts from a reviewer reader not a movie audience member! Congratulations again on your brilliant hits — and for all but saying that Rowling’s central fantastic beast is another exteriorizing device, her depiction of what stories are meant to do within her stories doing just that, revealing the inner states of her largely allegotrical figures.

  5. Thank you both very much!
    Elizabeth – delighted this increased your pleasure in the movie. For me too it is real joy to find these kind of allusions in books and films: I’m so glad Rowling writes like this! And completely in agreement – I really enjoyed the first film, but this was also my favourite. Rowling’s ability to create characters who are both good and likeable and yet distinct from each other – one of her great gifts – is once again on display here, as it was in FB1. Roll on FB4 & FB5….

    And thank you John! Agreed about the qilin, and that’s a great way of putting it. It also extends the connection between the qilin and the phoenix – the latter of which is expressly related to the essence of being a ‘Dumbledore’. Presumably Credence’s phoenix is ashen because his Dumbledoreness is, Obscurial-like, repressed – but it also brings a certain hope as for a phoenix to be near his ‘burning day’ is for him to be born anew. Great to see another exteriorization of inner psychic states – and in this case, more explicitly, an inner spiritual state – in her playbook!

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