Beatrice Groves – The King of Beasts: Fantastic Beasts and the Beast Within

To celebrate the countdown to the theatrical release of  Fantastic Beasts: the Secrets of Dumbledore (Friday 8th April for the UK release), 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: The King of Beasts: Fantastic Beasts and the Beast Within. Beatrice takes a look at an intriguing twitter header that J. K. Rowling posted on 7th June 2021.

The King of Beasts: Fantastic Beasts and the Beast Within

In May 2021 J.K. Rowling changed her Twitter header to an image of Nero, the lion who sleeps atop a George Wombwell’s grave in Highgate Cemetery (surrounded by a number of more famous names, such as George Eliot, Karl Marx, Douglas Adams and Michael Faraday).

The London location points to Strike, and Strikefans have pointed out that it is seemingly not a stock photo, which is suggestive of one of those visits to London which we know Rowling enjoys making for her Strike research. The animal theme, however, makes Fantastic Beasts the more immediately obvious reference, and most of the fandom have read it that way.

A discussion that Nick Jeffery, Kenz, Lindsay, Pools and I had (after they generously invited us onto their podcast – The Strike and Ellacott Files – to chat epigraphs with them) about whether this header might be Strike- or Beasts- related led to Nick (wonderfully!) creating two blogs on Rowling’s headers. The first gives each header in order and the second matches them up systematically with what we know of what she was working on at the time. These posts confirm that most of teaser-headers that we can confidently match up with her work, align with something she is either writing or editing (although she does also use headers – usually immediately prior to the announcement of the publication or publication date – to reveal an up-coming work).

Nero the lion’s relevance, therefore, could be revealed in either Ink Black Heart (which she was writing at this time) or Secrets of Dumbledore (which she was editing). I’m expecting the latter not merely because Nero is a beast, but because he guards the tomb of an animal ‘showman.’ Wombwell was the founder and proprietor of an early 19th century menagerie – a menagerie that might well be an inspiration for, and is certainly a parallel to, The Circus Arcanus – the circus menagerie from which Nagini and Credence escape in Crimes of Grindelwald.

The magical Circus Arcanus, like Wombwell’s Menagerie, is full of exotic beasts (a Kappa, a Zouwu, a Hippogriff and Firedrakes) and, of course, a Maledictusa woman who transforms into a snake. Snakes were crucial to Wombwell’s Menagerie, just as they were in Skender’s Circus Arcanus – for exhibiting boa constrictors was how Wombwell started his menagerie (as his entry in the Dictionary of National Biography explains):

His life was changed when he saw a pair of boa constrictors that had just been landed on the London docks. He bought them for, it is said, £75, and soon recovered this expenditure by exhibiting them. He established contacts with pilots who alerted him to ships bringing in unusual animals, and by 1805 he had established the nucleus of a menagerie.

At this time there were no zoological gardens… [and Wombell soon established] a travelling menagerie that eclipsed all rivals… His menagerie was conveyed in brightly painted wagons, which were drawn up into an open square on arrival. Elephants, giraffes, and camels would be picketed in the centre, and uniformed bandsmen played on an exterior platform to entice the crowds in. The price of admission varied from 6 d. to 1 s. The animals exhibited in the early years included elephants, lions, tigers, leopards, panthers, hyenas, zebras, camels, jackals, apes, baboons, and monkeys. Among birds were a golden eagle, emus, cockatoos, and parakeets. Later a rhinoceros was added, with giraffes, a puma, a polar bear, black and brown bears, porcupines, a Brahman cow, and many more.

But Wombwell did not stop there, and some of his more brutal actions (such as exhibiting the dead body of an elephant he had inadvertently killed through ill-treatment or organising lion and dog fights) may have influenced the exploitative character of Skender, whose fictional Circus Arcanus (running in the 1920s) briefly overlaps with final years of Wombwell’s real Menagerie (which ran until 1931, when the surviving animals were sold to Whipsnade zoo).

Nero was one of the beasts that Wombwell exhibited, and he was a notoriously gentle lion. He was the kind of beast who lived out Newt’s attitude towards fierce creatures: ‘a feline creature that is both lovable and frightening, as many of Newt’s favourite beasts are, because he’s attracted to these wild and sometimes quite challenging creatures.’

The central idea of the Fantastic Beasts movies – that true beastliness is in fact a manmade phenomenon – is steadily making itself more explicit. As Rowling wrote of Crimes of Grindelwald one of meanings of the ‘beasts’ of the title is ‘the metaphorical sense of the beast inside a man’ and the history of Nero and Wombwell is a case in point. Nero, the king of beasts, refused to harm the dogs which Wombwell set on him (in the hopes of making money through his destruction of them). Wombwell and his customers were ironically deprived of the satisfaction of watching animals kill each other for sport by the creature that they would have labelled a ‘beast.’ The moral of the story of Nero the lion appears to be the same as that of the Fantastic Beasts franchise – in that it suggests that true beastliness resides not in wild creatures but in humankind. (An idea that Rowling has since spelt out even more explicitly in The Ickabog in which humankind get the ‘monster’ that they deserve.)

The first hint of this ‘beast within’ theme, interestingly enough, appeared in the first publication of the Fantastic Beasts textbook in 2001, before Warner Bros ever thought of optioning the films. Rowling has since written of how Newt ‘loves the purity of creatures that the world might call monsters’ – a word that Rita Skeeter once used of the man himself. The idea that would later become the plot of the first Fantastic Beasts movie is present in an apparently throw-away joke in the introduction to his textbook, when Newt writes that ‘in her recent biography Man or Monster? The TRUTH About Newt Scamander, Rita Skeeter states that I was never a Magizoologist, but a Dumbledore spy who used Magizoology as a “cover” to infiltrate the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA) in 1926.’

In 2001, of course, the reader knew Rita only as the author of intentionally inaccurate poison-pen portraits – we had yet to meet her more accurate character assassination in The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore. Important nuggets of truth can usually be ferreted out among Rita’s lies (I wonder, for example, whether those rumours she printed about the bodies removed from the woods after the Quidditch Cup in Goblet of Fire are in fact a hint to Barty Crouch removing his son’s Stunned body from the woods?). Rita has also hinted at the truth here, as Dumbledore was using a Magizoologist as cover to carry out operations under MACUSA’s jurisdiction. And Rita has caught a whisper of the truth too about the overlap between men and monsters (it is just that she’s pointing her Quick-Quotes Quill at the wrong person).

The word ‘monster’ comes from the Old French mostre meaning ‘prodigy, marvel’ and the related Latin word mōnstrum ‘portent, prodigy, monstrous creature, wicked person, monstrous act, atrocity.’ Interestingly, the Oxford English Dictionary notes it was first used explicitly for mythical beasts that combined the human and animal – a monster is ‘a mythical creature which is part animal and part human, or combines elements of two or more animal forms, and is frequently of great size and ferocious appearance. Later, more generally: any imaginary creature that is large, ugly, and frightening. The centaur, sphinx, and minotaur are examples of ‘monsters’ encountered by various mythical heroes; the griffin, wyvern, etc., are later heraldic forms.’

Such composite ‘monsters,’ of course, – such as centaurs, sphinxes and griffins – are important in Harry Potter; and the wyvern is going to be joining that list in Secrets of Dumbledore. They are also centred in the medieval bestiaries on which the original Fantastic Beasts textbook was based. Like Newt and Fantastic Beasts itself, these bestiaries did not – on the whole – find ‘monsters’ monstrous, indeed one of their modern translators, T.H. White in his Book of Beasts (which I will be discussing in a later post) discerns in the author of the original Bestiary a Newt-like sensibility towards fantastical beasts: ‘the Bestiary is a compassionate book… it has a reverence for the wonders of life.’

The animals in medieval bestiaries are largely divided into those beasts which might guide the reader into recognising truths about the devil, and those which might guide us into understanding aspects of Christ’s nature. And I was struck, in light of Nero the lion, by the very warm assessment that the lion – the very first animal in The Book of Beasts – is given. It is given priority partly due to its traditional position of ‘king’ of beasts, but partly also, it seems, because it is one of the most strikingly Christological animals in the bestiary. It is, however, an animal whose Christian resonance is not widely recognised in modern times – unlike that of, say, the unicorn or the phoenix (although there is, of course, one striking caveat to this statement).

C.S. Lewis’s choice of a lion for the character of Aslan is clearly related to the bestiary figuring of the lion as not only the king of beasts in a general sense, but as symbolic of one king in particular. The bestiary describes how the lion loves to climb on the mountains and then ‘disguises his spoor behind him with his tail. Thus the sportsmen cannot track him. It was in this way that our Saviour (the Spiritual Lion)… once hid the spoor of his love in the high places, until, being sent by the Father, he came down into the womb of the Virgin Mary.’

This startlingly Christic symbolism in which Christ is ‘the Spiritual Lion’ may also be one reason for the choice of the lion as the heraldic animal for Gryffindor – the house which we would, after all, have expected to have been symbolised by a Griffin. The Griffin is itself often understood in divine terms – T.H. White notes, punningly, that ‘it is evidently something of a Hieroglyphin. A sphinx-god who has strayed out of Egyptian art into natural history’ – and perhaps the similarly divine imagery of the lion is what made Rowling choose it as the symbol of the House of her hero.

Tomorrow I will take a look at the bestiary influences we are likely to see in Secrets of Dumbledore and the importance of other books within it.

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