Christian Content in Newt’s Adventure? Third Thoughts about J. K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them

fb17We’re working our way through the Seven Keys to J. K. Rowling’s artistry and meaning to work the locks on the novelist of renown’s first screenplay, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. So far, we’ve covered the Ring Composition structure of the Newt Saga’s first installment and Narrative Slow Release, the over-arching questions that the author introduces in the opening episode of her various series. There is a fairly lively discussion still going on at both those threads and I hope you’ll join in to share your comments and corrections.

The key I want to take in hand today was once fairly controversial among serious readers of Harry Potter, not to mention the dedicated legion of Harry Haters, academic and church divisions. That key, of course, is the Christian content and traditional symbolism of the Hogwarts Saga. When I first wrote about this in 2002 at perhaps the height of the Potter Panic, Harry Potter had become something of touchstone or litmus strip for devotion or apostacy among certain Evangelical, Catholic and Orthodox sects. Back then few professors were interested in Rowling’s work except as a cultural artifact and evidence of a world-wide return-to-the-intellectual-cradle.

fb28My demonstration in the book which eventually became How Harry Cast His Spell that the first four novels were nigh to overflowing with Christian symbols and artistry (and magic!) taken directly from the English literary tradition’s extensive vault and my argument that this was actually the reason for Harry’s global popularity were both well received among serious readers, less so with church ladies and academics. Now this radical idea is usually found in the “we’ve always known that” file of Rowling appreciation. Which is good news.

Today I want to open the discussion of the Christian content in Fantastic Beasts. I think, after seeing film once and having read the screenplay in the Scholastic 297 page edition, that Beasts promises to be at least as misunderstood as Harry’s adventures were and for much of the same reasons. The movies will have a traditional message and it will almost certainly be as obscured by cultural war concerns and virtue-signalling as was the Hogwart’s Saga’s artistry and meaning. For much more on that, join me after the jump. Spoilers everywhere below!

dh3Percival Graves gives Credence Barebones a Deathly Hallows pendant in Fantastic Beasts, through which device he is to contact the Chief Auror when he has located the Obscurial that is ravaging New York and killing No-Majs. Much of the Harry Potter finale, from its title to the hero’s sacrifice and final victory, is wrapped up in this symbol and how it is understood. I think a review of the in-text interpretations of the “triangular eye” will give us the necessary critical lens through which to look at Beasts, see its Christian content, and appreciate why it it will almost certainly going to be, is already misunderstood.

Before the complete secularization of the West, when the human person was understood to be a psychosomatic unity but in essence an immaterial soul rather than a mind that is a biochemical by-product of the physical brain, the world was understood to exist at four levels corresponding to the four ways human beings know.

  • The sensory level of existence, the data we pick up through our capacities for perceiving the material world of time and space, is the ‘surface story’ or events of our life. It corresponds with our ability to know information, unqualified and unsorted.
  • The moral level of the world is the good and evil of our judging this information by running it through the filters of ‘advantageous’ and ‘disadvantageous’ we have in our heads. As these filters in all but the most exceptional human beings are unexamined products of our acculturation and beliefs, untied to absolute principles and reasoning, our moral knowing is opinion.
  • The allegorical aspect of the world is our ability to look through the information we have gathered and experienced and to see principles or laws behind the data. These greater realities we come to know through the transparencies of ephemera and what we can deduce from the discovered principles and laws by induction and deduction are scientific knowledge and logic. 
  • The anagogical or sublime quality of time and space are truth, goodness, and beauty are not ‘facts’ they we can ‘have’ the way we know information, hold opinions, and reach valid scientific conclusions. The correspondent type of human knowing for what is super or supra-rational is wisdom, knowledge we become, which transforms us as we participate in what is greater and less mortal than our transient desires, understanding, and identity.

harry-spellDante instructs Con Grande to read his Commedia at these four layers, as Jews, Christians, and Muslims of his age read their Holy Books or scripture. This was not a pedagogical exercise or assignment he was giving his friend, nor was it an example of the Florentine Bard’s Gilderoy-esque self-importance. He was simply asking the serious reader to bring all of his capacities for interpretation and understanding to the poetic work of genius before him.

Rowling is no Dante, as she would be the first to tell you (actually A. S. Byatt has already been there, albeit only to tell us Rowling is no A. S. Byatt, for which truth, praise to God). She does, however, include in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows a reading lesson that is instructive. The way the Deathly Hallows symbol is understood and misunderstood by various characters in the story, a task of interpretation assigned by the wisdom figure of the series to the smartest member of the trio, is almost certainly a guide to how Rowling believes the meaning of her books are best — and worst — deciphered.

As I hope you’d expect after my four levels introduction, Rowling shows us the four layers of meaning and understanding in her in-flight presentation of what the triangulated and bisected circle represents.

  • bookshelfTo Ron and Hermione, who interpret the symbol in light of ‘The Tale of the Three Brothers’ in the collection of children’s stories made by Beedle the Bard, it has a moral meaning. As Ron explains, “That story’s just one of those things you tell kids to teach them lessons, isn’t it? ‘Don’t go looking for trouble, don’t pick fights, don’t go messing around with stuff that’s best left alone! Just keep your head down, mind your own business, and you’ll be okay’.” (Hallows, p. 414) The symbol, like the story it represents, ‘instructs while delighting,’ the Spencerian formula for edifying literature. It shapes our opinion filters of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ behavior.
  • f21782758The sublime reading of the “triangular eye”? The wisdom aspect of the symbol is not given a character to voice its meaning in the story line; it has to be seen in silence and grasped rather than explained, say, as the majesty of the Grand Canyon or Pacific presents itself wordlessly and profoundly. The brief vignette in which Rowling spells out in one image the most profound meaning of the Deathly Hallows symbol is the scene in which Harry buries the eye of Alastair Moody beneath the oldest tree in the forest and marks the tree magically with a cross.

In brief (see Deathly Hallows Lectures or Harry Potter’s Bookshelf for more on this), the tree is the Tree of Life, corresponding to vertical, heavenly understanding, Moody’s eye, the Eye of Providence or divine knowledge, and the CrossHarry is not a Christian — the polarity without duality of the world, the resolution of which is to arrive at the mystic center, the alocal place where God’s Immanence and Transcendence elide into absolute Unity. Each of these is represented by a correspondent part of the Deathly Hallows symbol: the vertical line and the base is the Tree, the triangular eye of the circle the Mad-Eye, and the mirrored triangles that are one equilateral triangle reflect Harry’s Cross.

super-heroHarry’s great victory in Deathly Hallows is his coming to the understanding of this symbol and becoming it consequent to Dobby’s sacrificial death. He has seen the single eye in the mirror which saved them and accepted it as his essential reflection and identity. He transcends the most difficult polarity in the created world, self and other, and chooses in the end to die sacrificially in love for his friends. He gets the “no greater gift” heart of the Christian Way.

That’s the long way of getting to the theme that resonates throughout all of Harry’s adventures: love’s victory over death. You don’t have to be a denominational, church going Christian to experience and accept that message as your own; it’s a human thing. People everywhere thrill to Harry’s resurrection from a near death after his annual Saving-People-Thing in the presence of a symbol of Christ because we are hard-wired for experience of that noetic message, whatever our conscious beliefs or beliefs in no beliefs, by the nature of existent reality.

Here’s the thing. We get that message most strongly in Deathly Hallows, a book ‘Christianity Today’s reviewer described by saying “Harry Potter 7 is Matthew 6.” It was obvious to many readers, though, in the title of the first book — a Philosopher’s Stone is often used as a symbol of Christ — and certainly in that novel’s big finish, where Harry sacrifices himself in selfless resistance to the Dark Lord and rises from seeming death in three days.

A lot of Christians didn’t see that; many still don’t.

Why not?

They’re locked into mechanical interpretations of the text at its most literal levels, the surface story and associations it has with goods and evils of their moralizing understanding.

The Potter Panic took place in the context of Christian resistance to the absolute secularization of Western Civilization, a disenchantment of the world into meaningless relativity, that the faithful naturally resist as a denial of everything true, good, beautiful, all that is most real even if immaterial. This resistance on the political and social rather than the personal and spiritual planes is called the Culture Wars. I’m guessing you’ve heard of it. If you haven’t, you’re a fish in water unaware of being wet.

Harry Potter became a football in the public battles between religious conservatives and secular progressives.

  • Magic and magicians are bad, we learn from Holy Writ, Harry Potter celebrates occult magical powers held by a gnostic elite, therefore the Wizarding World of the Hogwarts Saga is evil and a portal to the underside of spiritual life.
  • Harry Potter is a story of good versus evil, in which those disenfranchised or ostracized by the power-holders, heroically strike back against the bigoted and evil servants of the Pure Blood regime, the government, the media, others.

chestnut-hill-logoYou don’t need a score card to guess which sides in the Culture Wars took which positions — and it doesn’t really matter. Both the theologically and politically correct partisans are all stuck at the level of reading through the filters of right and wrong, good and bad, that they have from their respective ideological ghettos. They miss the allegorical and sublime readings in their fixation on the surface and its conformity or conflict with their political and cultural totems. In a book inviting the reader to elide the difference between self and other in sacrificial love, too many readers found a club with which to beat their neighbors over the head or just dismiss them as either godless or ignoramuses.

Ironic, no?

I think we can expect the same kind of conflict around Fantastic Beasts. Oddly enough, the author seems to be deliberately choosing to excite both sides in the Culture Wars. I expect that once again this must mean that public appreciation of her work will be restricted to the moral level of understanding, the theologically and politically correct mechanical readings against a checklist of acceptable and unacceptable positions.

The issue isn’t magic this time. It is Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender-Queer identities and Christian beliefs about people who define themselves in these sexual categories.

f38722022On the American political scene, which is to say the stage on which the Culture Wars are acted out, there are few if any more divisive and touchstone issues for the Left and the Right. Only abortion, I think, trumps it as an issue (sic). Those advocates for LGBT rights have won a string of victories in the courts and are pursuing more by Executive fiat and media shaming of anyone imprudent enough not to celebrate publicly every progressive win. The election of Donald Trump, an evident and odious narcissist without principle, spiritual or political, is perhaps best understood as populist push-back to the government and media elite who neglect and diminish everyone not on board with their cultural agenda of limitless transformation.

Enter Fantastic Beasts.

On the political left, Rowling knows that she must wave the rainbow colored flag by at last featuring a gay man, preferably Albus Dumbledore, as a hero in her work. She expected questions on this subject at the film premiere and had answers at the ready. As reported in Variety:

Fans hoping to get a glimpse of a young Albus Dumbledore will need to wait for the second movie, part of a five-part prequel series planned by Warner Bros. But although the older Dumbledore never revealed his sexual orientation in the books or films — it was the author herself who coaxed him out of the closet during a 2007 interview at Carnegie Hall — the younger incarnation of the character might be less private. “Well, I’m very comfortable with the question,” Rowling said to reporters when asked about a gay Dumbledore. “I would like to say because this is obviously a five-part story, there’s lots to unpack in that relationship.” 

“You will see Dumbledore as a younger man and quite a troubled man,” Rowling added. “We’ll see him at that formative period of his life. As far as his sexuality is concerned,” she said taking a beat, “watch this space.”

f39159206Rowling had to have expected that question because the LGBT community in the US and UK all but demands her support and will accept no deviation from the party line. Evidence for this is their response to her recent Twitter comment that Sirius Black was not gay. Read about what even the progressive press calls “abuse” and “rage” from LGBT partisans, several of whom called her answer evidence of her homophobia and of her continued refusal to champion LGBT issues.

Crazy? I think so. I cannot imagine a more principled champion of the rights of minorities and against prejudice than J. K. Rowling, even given her gaffes on PotterMore about Native Americans.

It is understandable, though, that Dumbeldore, a giant of contemporary fiction, is a hero to all Harry Potter readers, gay and straight, nonetheless. It should be noted that what Rowling calls “gay” is probably what in America would call someone experiencing same-sex attraction. He has never been actively gayaccording to Rowling in one interview, but the headmaster is a celibate old man who at least once fell in love with a man, an infatuation that may or may not have been consummated. The LGBT community and the cultural right, however, both have chosen to see him as something of an LGBT activist and icon. Those who claim him as one of their own, correctly or incorrectly, are understandably very eager to see how younger Albus will be represented in these films.

 From Pink News (UK), 21 August:

Dumbledore was revealed to be gay by author JK Rowling after the publication of the final Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. His sexuality is not made overtly clear in the series, though it is hinted at through his relationship with dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald. 

However, some fans are hopeful that if the character does appear in the new films, it will more openly deal with his sexuality in a more open way – Grindelwald is still ‘at large’ in the universe at the time the film is set, though the pair are no longer romantically engaged.

[Please note that again that there is no canonical evidence or Rowling testimony they were ever “romantically engaged.”]

From Pink News (UK), 14 October:

JK Rowling has hinted that the relationship between gay wizard characters Dumbledore and Grindelwald will be central to her upcoming Harry Potter spin-off films.

From Pink News (UK) 10 November:

JK Rowling has refused to open up about whether Dumbledore will come out as gay in the upcoming Fantastic Beasts films series.

This last note of disappointment was because of Rowling’s “watch this space” comment at the premiere. I thought that remark a fairly clear sign that Rowling has moved on from her statements that

[Dumbledore sexuality is] a shade of character. Is it the most important thing about him? No, it’s Dumbledore for God’s sake. There are 20 things that are relevant to the story before his sexuality.

New story, new Dumbledore? So you’d have to think, if we’re told to “watch this space.”

fb13And, as you know, there was nothing in the film about Dumbledore beyond his admiration or “fondness” for Newt offered as an aside by Percival Graves. A lot can be made of that, of course, but not in terms of sexuality.

Fantastic Beasts, however, can be read as a Culture War narrative, one written from the politically and socially progressive side of that battle. Take for example this reading from an article in The New York Post, a tabloid famous for its conservative bias,J. K. Rowling’s Latest Really About Gay Liberation:’

J.K. Rowling’s latest fantasy blockbuster explores a clandestine world of stylish, secretive creatures who live undetected among an oblivious, mistrustful majority in New York City, and have their own cool underground bars.

That’s right: “Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them” is a gay-liberation epic. It might be the gayest superhero movie since “X-Men: First Class.”

“First Class” hit theaters in 2011, a time when the gay-marriage debate was feverish, whereas today gay rights seemingly aren’t much in jeopardy. No problem for Rowling: She sets “Beasts” back in 1926, when a young British wizard, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), comes to New York City, loses control of the magical beasts in his possession, and must round them up before they do too much mischief.

Meanwhile, “Fantastic Beasts” gradually turns into a gay fantasia on national themes. Amid talk of how unfair it is that there are laws against whom you can love, we learn that there is a wide range of witches and wizards living parallel to and undetected by non-magic practitioners. They’re effectively in the closet, made to repress their true natures for fear of unleashing hysteria and hate on the part of the majority, who are trying to out the witches and destroy them. They’re represented by the Second Salemers, a hate group headed by the dour, nasty Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), a stand-in for every buzzkilling church lady in cinema history.

fb27Read the whole thing. He goes on to talk about Rowling’s depiction of American gun control as red meat for conservatives and concludes “what could be more right-wing than a movie whose hero is named Newt?” Pretty funny.

I’d guess that this writer leans to the right, from his working for The Post and from other articles he’s written. The Culture War being the air we all breathe, though perhaps this columnist is not as invested in ‘Gay Dumbledore’ as progressive partisans may be, he still reflexively interprets the movie through the filter of ‘for or against LGBT stances.’ He feels obliged to report it is a “gay fantasia on national themes” with a cookie-cutter bad-guy “stand-in for every buzzkilling church lady in cinema history.” Repression is a key issue in the movie — and that to media mavens can only mean repression of forbidden sexuality.

Is it? Maybe it is. But the film’s repressed nature has to do with self-hatred centered around being magical, being a witch or wizard. If being magical or part of the self-cloistered (let’s avoid ‘closeted’) Wizarding World is an extended metaphor for being gay, we really are in a different imaginary world than we thought. Especially as every character that we meet is an American witch or wizard who is straight, just as in the Harry Potter adventures.

fb23Except perhaps for Credence Barebones, which brings us to the Christian content of this film and perhaps the whole series.

Note that 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.’ Like his adopted sisters, Charity and Modesty, Credence has a name that screams ‘Christian.’ He’s obviously one unhappy camper throughout the film. Beaten by his adoptive mother and manipulated by Percival Graves, he’s leading one miserable existence as a go-fer and newsie for the New Salem Philanthropic Society, a 401-3(c) housed in a Church.

He turns out to be the Obscurial that Graves/Grindelwald and Newt are looking for, a super-powered “miraculous” novelty of a wizard living past the age of a ten harboring an Obscurus, a “parasitical magic force” requiring ever increasing focus and energy to repress or control. We do not know the Barebones family story (beyond the bare bones) except that the mother, Mary Lou, is aware of the parallel universe of witches and wizards and that she has dedicated her life to revealing them and the danger they represent to No-Majs. They live in a building that looks like a non-iconic, not to say iconoclast, Church building without decoration or ornament of any kind. Credence’s round head bowl haircut and the girls’ plain dress mark them as Puritans, a word at least as misused as ‘fundamentalist.’ 

fb12Credence’s problem is that he is a wizard, as noted, in a family dedicated to the exposure of magical folk and, seemingly, to their destruction because of the danger they represent. He naturally represses his magical nature. This has the unfortunate consequence of generating or making him susceptible to invasion by an Obscurus. When he, the Obscurial, cannot control the Obscurus, say, if he is angered, afraid or upset, the parasitical magic force blows up everyone and everything in its path, though Credence seems capable of driving it to harm Senator Shaw and Momma Mary Lou (or his unconscious mind, which perhaps the Obscurus really is, uses it).

Graves/Grindelwald does not know this until the story’s climax. He does know that the young man has some kind of magical power or heritage, and, though he suspects Credence is a Squib, he uses the boy’s dream of learning how to be a proper wizard to manipulate him to search for the Obscurial close to his mother. This manipulation, in alleys or out of sight, is frighteningly intimate and borderline sexual; Gellert’s history with Dumbledore  and his interactions with Credence have made more than one progressive reader describe him with alarm as seeming to be a gay sexual predator who is grooming the young boy with physical and emotional  attention he has never known. At movie’s end, Credence-as-unleashed-Obscurus is attacked after a cross-city rampage of his own and seemingly destroyed by MACUSA Aurors. [We have been told that Credence survives and will be a major player in the at least the next film.]

fb5The NSPS Church, its puritanical highlights, the psychological and physical abuse of Credence by family and by an older man, all of this adds up, doesn’t it, to an allegory of how the conservative Christian Church represses the good in its believers in their hunt for theological cleansing of society of its God-forsaken ways?

I think there are two good answers to that question. The first is kind of funny, so let’s go there.

Ezra Miller, the brilliant actor who plays Credence, is queer and out of the closet. He doesn’t think the movie is about crazy American religious nuts who caused Prohibition and the repression of LGBT folk for centuries. When asked, he said that the movie is about out-of-control American leftists who started the global eugenics movement. I kid you not.

I was interested in what the New Salem Philanthropic Society is originally based on, which is really eugenics communities, which existed on mass in the 1920s in the United States. And eugenics was the practice of, the sort of pseudo-science that paved the way for white supremacy and fascism in the 20th century. And it started, actually, in the U.S. and Scandinavia, and not in Austria or in Germany. Those communities were very real, they existed even in New York; there are photographs that you can find and look at, and very strange pictures of people who believed they were the embodiment of normality. But they looked very strange and very scary in these pictures.

Think American eugenics and German National Socialism is a right wing thing? Check out ‘Progressive Genocide’ at Salon.com, anything but an alt-right site.

Among the many concerns that captivated the American educated class early in the last century, few were thought to be as urgent as the threat posed to the nation by sexually insatiable female morons. This may sound silly; today, our fear of morons is rather abstract, and on a national scale confined mostly to whomever is the current resident of the White House. But a hundred years ago, morons were public enemy No. 1, seen as a drain on the nation’s resources and a grave danger to its stability. The situation was most keenly appreciated by progressives — scientists, businessmen, feminists and liberal politicians — who, as even the best of us sometimes do, feared that within a short time, the nation would be overrun by simpletons.

What to do about morons? Neuter or kill them. Is this social engineering in the name of science one of the ugliest chapters of the political left in America? Ya think? Books on the subject can be found here, here, here, and here. Don’t forget the one that focuses on the progressive commitment to seek out LGBT Americans and eliminate them.

Rowling is not, of course, attacking progressives, historical or contemporary. David Yates makes its clear that her modeling NSPS on American eugenics communities are meant to be a depiction of “extremist” voices in our time and specifically those on the political right.

“There’s a reason [J.K. Rowling] picked 1926, and the world of 1926 to tell this story, because it’s not a million miles away from the things we might be experiencing right now,” Yates said with a laugh. “I think there’s, again, frightening parallels ultimately. And the notion that, how do you identify a community and in some way label it? It’s a very interesting idea in the movie, and something that Jo was very keen to explore. The eugenics movement was really frightening, and so I think inevitably Jo as a writer reflects on what’s happening around her in the real world, and that sort of imbues itself somewhat on the script.”

Yates went on to directly talk about modern anxieties over the rise of far right in 2016, and how it seems to be breaking into the mainstream.

“She’s quite intrigued by the rise of the right, or the rise of extreme voices in a world where I’ve grown up, and she has, in a fairly liberal—there’s been a liberal consensus about how the world sort of works. And now that’s being challenged, and establishment should always be challenged, it’s important and healthy to do so. It just seems to me, there’s these extremes popping up everywhere, and it’s a little scary in a way. And ultimately, that just reflects on some of this writing.”

fb30In addition to Rowling’s failure in her research of Native American history for her Beasts backstory posts on PotterMore, we now have her raising a chapter in our chronicles that progressive partisans in this country would very much like left unread and forgotten. To warn us against right wing extremists, populism, and fundamentalists.

And it wasn’t that long ago. From the hard left Mic.com’s article on Eugenics in America:

1909-1979: 20,000 Operations Performed in California
In a 70-year period, California performs a third of all government funded sterilizations in the United States. The practice largely targets Latinos and Blacks, and lead to a 1975 class-action lawsuit by working class Mexican women who were coerced into the procedure sometimes minutes after giving birth. California’s continued and central role in the sterilization programs of the 20th century is highlighted by Dr. Alexandra Stern in
 “Sterilized in the name of Public Health: Race, Immigration and Reproductive Control in Modern California” (2005). In the article, Dr. Stern writes that Mexican-Americans and African Americans were disproportionally represented in the percentages of sterilization, and that this was rationalized by concerns about bad parenting, population burdens and even as “a punishment for bearing illegitimate children or as extortion to ensure ongoing receipt of family assistance (in the 1950s and 1960s).”

You can’t make this stuff up. Read Christian apologist G. K. Chesterton’s defense of those victims chosen by progressives for social cleansing and his attack on the pseudo-science used to justify genocide in his book Eugenics and Other Evils. At least as important, read Potter Pundit Chris Gavaler’s explanation of how anti-eugenics is the foundation message of the Harry Against the Pure Bloods Saga. This isn’t a departure from form for Rowling but her staying right on-message with everything she’s written about the Wizarding World.

Back to the Christian meaning of Fantastic Beasts.

If we make the attempt to get out of the political and social interpretations that we are drawn to because of the ubiquity of Culture War conflict, we can move on to the actual allegorical and anagogical content of the film. Much of Fantastic Beasts‘s substance has not yet breached the surface of the story, if much of the machinations are hinted out in the story we have. I think it is safe to bet, though, that the spiritual allegory of the books and the sublime experience, if such a thing is possible in a theater (I’m doubtful, forgive me), will not only not contradict what Rowling has said her books are about but will confirm her public statements.

jkr-glam-2She said most recently that her writing is about those “others” who have been marginalized by the power holders. If you read all of Ezra Miller’s comments in the interview quoted above, you find that he thinks Credence represents the survivors of abuse, specifically children in failed foster care. This makes sense in terms of Rowling’s statement and her heroic charity, Lumos, for institutionalized children around the world in need of families. She made a large part of her film premiere time, no doubt a first for blockbuster film releases, an infomercial about Lumos‘ critically important work. Again, not a transparency for closeted LGBT men and women.

It seems likely to me that the Newt Scamander series will be a correction of sorts to the rational objection to the realism of Harry Potter, i.e., that a child raised in a home as abusive as the Dursley’s could show so few signs of the psychological damage inflicted by a childhood essentially devoid of affection, approval, and encouragement. Credence is what this young adult looks like, someone like the child-rape-victim Ariana who didn’t magically become an adult without issues. If Rowling’s mother’s death was the personal crisis that launched Harry Potter, the author’s profound engagement with children from and still in abusive or just less than ideal situations may be the genesis of Credence Barebones’ journey.

Even if this proves correct, it bears repeating what Rowling’s grief-exercise Potter adventures wound up being about. Her last Wizarding World book, discounting Cursed Child as fan servicing, was Deathly Hallows and it had a very specific spiritual and allegorical meaning: a believer’s struggle for faith.

Ms. Rowling has compared her own faith to that of Catholic author, Graham Greene: “Like Greene, my faith is sometimes about if my faith will return. It’s important to me.” Even more recently, in her post-Deathly Hallows interviews on MSNBC with Meredith Vieira, she expanded on this idea:

f39169958Meredith Vieira: Harry’s also referred to as the chosen one. So are there religious–

J.K. Rowling: Well, there– there clearly is a religious– undertone. And– it’s always been difficult to talk about that because until we reached Book Seven, views of what happens after death and so on, it would give away a lot of what was coming. So … yes, my belief and my struggling with religious belief and so on I think is quite apparent in this book.

Meredith Vieira: And what is the struggle?

J.K. Rowling: Well my struggle really is to keep believing. 

As I noted above, the Christian content of Deathly Hallows is not, let’s say, obscure. Harry’s struggle for faith in Dumbledore, to find his way in resistance to evil without surety or guidance, is an agony of doubt and missteps. And, yet, selfless as he is by nature, and given the loving example and sacrifices of his friends, Harry chooses to sacrifice himself in love for those friends, in faith and trust that he is doing what God/Dumbledore prepared him to do.

As I explain in Deathly Hallows Lectures, a great deal of the power of the series finale is in how Rowling integrates the ring structure, the alchemical symbolism, the near-explicit Christian content, and the plot of Harry’s Horcrux hunting to deliver the experience of a believer with doubts who chooses to act in faith.

Credence’s name, as I mentioned, means “believer.” He’s the victim of abuse — and one who has to rise from the dead after being executed by the MACUSA Aurors. I think we’re looking at an allegory of another Christian Everyman, again a wizard of destiny and unexpected powers, the subject of prophecy (vision), one who is left without a loving guide in his moment of need, and this one a believer whose imagination has been all but crushed by his puritanical upbringing.

harvardI hope that last made you raise an eyebrow. Rowling’s talk at Harvard, easily the biggest platform from which she has ever spoken, was about social justice, certainly, but was essentially a hymn in praise of imagination and its ability to free us from our interior prisons and the world from its evils.

One of the many things I learned at the end of that Classics corridor down which I ventured at the age of 18, in search of something I could not then define, was this, written by the Greek author Plutarch: What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.

That is an astonishing statement and yet proven a thousand times every day of our lives. It expresses, in part, our inescapable connection with the outside world, the fact that we touch other people’s lives simply by existing.

But how much more are you, Harvard graduates of 2008, likely to touch other people’s lives? Your intelligence, your capacity for hard work, the education you have earned and received, give you unique status, and unique responsibilities. Even your nationality sets you apart. The great majority of you belong to the world’s only remaining superpower. The way you vote, the way you live, the way you protest, the pressure you bring to bear on your government, has an impact way beyond your borders. That is your privilege, and your burden.

If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify not only with the powerful, but with the powerless; if you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existence, but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped transform for the better. We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.

— J. K. Rowling, Harvard Commencement, 2008

obscrurial-fantastic-beasts-4Which brings us to the Obscurus (did anyone else note that Fantastic Beasts was commissioned by Obscurus Books in 1918?). The word obscure can be an adjective or a verb. The former means “not discovered or known about; uncertain” and the latter “to keep from being seen; conceal.” Both senses are in play in Obscurus and Obscurial, clearly. The witch or wizard repressing their magic does so to conceal it from those who will harm him or her if their ability is discovered. Repressing magic in self-defense, however, results in death by age ten when the Obscurus, that “parasitical magic force” that has no power to hurt anyone outside of its host, presumably destroys the child.

Assuming for a moment that Rowling is writing a spiritual allegory here, what dies in the human person if it is crushed the first ten years of its life? Rowling’s work with the cage children of Eastern Europe means she is all too aware of what happens to people who are deprived of physical touch, emotional attention, and positive relationship even as infants. Their capacity to mature and live fully human lives emotionally, physically, and mentally are damaged almost always irreparably.

Certainly the Credence as played by Ezra Miller, a cross between Buster Keaton on downers and The Mummy, is such a person.

I’m guessing, though, that Rowling chooses the age of ten rather than the cradle as the age beyond which a death of sorts is inevitable because the mortality she is describing is of the human imagination.

We live in a disenchanted world that conspires to crush and dissipate our imaginations. Anthony Esolen wrote a powerful and tongue in cheek work every parent and teacher should read called Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child

Esolen shows how imagination is snuffed out at practically every turn: in the rearing of children almost exclusively indoors; in the flattening of love to sex education, and sex education to prurience and hygiene; in the loss of traditional childhood games; in the refusal to allow children to organize themselves into teams; in the effacing of the glorious differences between the sexes; in the dismissal of the power of memory, which creates the worst of all possible worlds in school—drudgery without even the merit of imparting facts; in the strict separation of the child’s world from the adult’s; and in the denial of the transcendent, which places a low ceiling on the child’s developing spirit and mind.

f38810022C. S. Lewis called the imagination “the organ of meaning” and in his essay ‘The Seeing Eye’ (think Deathly Hallows symbol!), he equates the transpersonal faculty of conscience with Coleridge’s Primary Imagination, i.e., as that power within us that is “continuous with” the very fabric of reality and our means to communion with what is most real.

The Barebones church home. dedicated to the exposure of miscreant magical folk, is equally focused on the repression of the magic, the supernatural quality within us all, our capacity for love that comes from the divine within us. Rowling is on record as hating “fundamentalism:” ‘I’m opposed to fundamentalism in any form,’ she says. ‘And that includes in my own religion.’ She was even more pointed in her remarks in May to PEN. I am confident, given her track record on historical subjects like Native American traditions and Eugenics in the US, that she has no idea what the word ‘fundamentalism’ means, not to mention its origin. I think, though, its clear that she means much the same thing as Brits and Yanks mean by “puritans,” another word far removed from its sectarian roots.

“A person who is strict in moral or religious matters, often excessively so.”

For readers who are concerned by the possibility that Rowling has launched a film franchise aimed at attacking traditional Christian beliefs about sexuality and spirituality, a movie juggernaut that will condemning the faithful as bigoted cave-dwellers beyond redemption, I think those concerns are misplaced. I hope so at least. For those convinced that this story is exactly what we need, an in-your-face attack on “religious discrimination against the sexually liberated,” I think you’re in for a disappointment beyond what I’ve explained above about reading through ideological filters rather than with the heart.

I asked Dr. Amy H. Sturgis what she thought of the film and she told me that

As to the story, I first and foremost perceived a healthy dose of New England Gothic straight out of Hawthorne and Lovecraft: in short, the pressure-cooker perils of Puritanical repression and the cost of secret-keeping. This came through much more strongly than I was anticipating.

For the Gothic in Lovecraft, check this out. For Nathanial Hawthorne, this discussion of the ever topical short story ‘Young Goodman Brown’ is helpful. As usual, I think Dr Sturgis drills it; Rowling is writing American Gothic fiction in Fantastic Beasts about the spiritually destructive force of Phariseeism and religious morality not tempered by asceticism, humility, and sacrificial love.

A long-time reader who has written guest posts for HogwartsProfessor wrote me yesterday about something he read in Michael Polanyi’s Meaning:

It is simply this sort of mechanical reductionism that is the heart of the matter. It is this that is the origin of the whole system of scientific obscurantism under which we are suffering today. This is the cause of our corruption of the conception of man, reducing him to either an insentient automaton or to a bundle of appetites. This is why science denies us the possibility of acknowledging personal responsibility. This is why science can be invoked so easily in support of totalitarian violence, why science has become the greatest source of dangerous fallacies today. Pg.25

He added as explanation:

Just thought it might be an interesting lead in thinking about the origins of the Obscurus in Fantastic Beasts. Seems like a clear tie in to Gellert Grindewald’s desire to use the Obscurus as a weapon of mass destruction.

I admit I thought at first that the connection between Obscurus/Obscurial and Polanyi’s “system of scientific obscurantism” a real stretch. But it isn’t. It’s about imagination:

Establishing that science is an inherently normative form of knowledge and that society gives meaning to science instead of being given the “truth” by science, Polanyi contends here that the foundation of meaning is the creative imagination. Largely through metaphorical expression in poetry, art, myth, and religion, the imagination is used to synthesize the otherwise chaotic and disparate elements of life. To Polanyi these integrations stand with those of science as equally valid modes of knowledge. 

fb21As I explained in my second post on Fantastic Beasts, the five film series is bracketed by the stories told in Deathly Hallows about Ariana Dumbledore at the start and what we know of the first Volde War and the second one told in detail in the seven part Hogwarts Saga. The appearance of the Deathly Hallows symbol in Beasts, here used as something like a Dark Mark talisman for communication with Grindelwald, leads me to think that the Christian content of the series finale, most notably the struggle to believe and the importance of sacrificial love for others to escape the death of ego and of the desire for more individual pleasure and power, will once again be the take-away substance of Rowling’s Wizarding World stories.

Will that anagogical and allegorical content, implicitly Christian, get the press that LGBT issues as perceived by the political ends of the American spectrum will? Just as Harry’s magic controversy and Rowling’s Cinderella story were the subject of the great majority of Potter Panic era news reports and commentary, I think we can expect the Culture War obsession with sexual identity to whelm the challenging, edifying take-away experience and meaning of Newt’s and Credence’s transformations.

new-salem-philanthropic-societyMovies are not an imaginative medium; they are sense perception experiences, which very much restricts the depth to which any story told in film can penetrate the human soul. We just don’t invest enough of our hearts at the cineplex in creating the images from the words on the page and losing ourselves in the process to be made truly vulnerable to the story teller’s greater magic.

Rowling is bringing her best game, however, to the craft of screenwriting and I very much look forward to reading what others have noticed in Fantastic Beasts beyond the noise of the surface and moral meanings. Thank you in advance for sharing those observations below in the comment thread — especially about Frank the Thunderbird, his captivity, sense of danger, and final flight! — along with your criticism and correction.

 

 

Comments

  1. Dolores Gordon-Smith says

    Another excellent, thought-provoking post, John. And I must admit, I really did think Creedence was a goner, so thanks for that correction! As to who the Salemites represent – well, the greatest command Our Lord gave us is to Love God and love one another as we love ourselves. Any group, whatever they supposedly stand for, who deal in hatred not love is wrong, if not downright evil. As the story is about magic, it makes sense to have a anti-magic group as villains and the mindset of the European witch-burning and the Salem witch trials fit right into that. One of the parallels between the 1920s and now is that fanaticism – a one solution fits all to every problem – was flaming.
    As for Dumbledore being gay (I use the word in the UK sense) – well, that, to my mind, explained the intensity of his relationship in Hallows with Grindlewald. That relationship was so destructive and had such awful personal consequences, that I’m not surprised the poor man sidestepped the whole issue afterwards!

  2. Suzanne Lucero says

    You’ve managed to find so much more in Fantastic Beasts than I ever could have, I can’t wait to read the rest of your posts. I’ll only comment on two things.

    I remember reading about the American eugenics movement, but I was so dumbfounded and disturbed that we in America, whose founding principles are “life, liberty, and justice for all,” would actually consider sterilizing a swath of people– with or without their consent– in order to prevent their reproducing, that I think I closed my eyes to it, and so forgot. What a wake-up call.

    Also, for anyone who has a kindle: Amazon is offering an ebook edition of G.K. Chesterton’s Eugenics and Other Evils for free https://www.amazon.com/Eugenics-Other-Evils-Gilbert-Chesterton-ebook/dp/B0082XCCNK/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1480595467&sr=1-1&keywords=eugenics+and+other+evils (if you don’t mind an older edition).

    OK, I think I’ll just go sit in a corner and shut up now. Can’t wait to read the next “key” to the deeper meaning of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

  3. Prof. Sturgis and Mr. Granger.

    Kudos for pointing out Rowling’s use of the Gothic, Professor.

    Ultimately, I think the American expression of the Gothic can trace its way back to the Puritans.

    I also ran across something that may be if importance as regards Credence and the Barebones. The relevant passage comes from Christopher Dawson’s book “The Gods of Revolution”:

    “…if the Revolution of 1688 was victory for Protestantism, it was very different from the triumph of the Kingdom of the Saints of which Milton and the Puritan idealists had dreamed. The children of the saints had become company promoters and financiers, like Nicholas Barbon, the son of Praise God Barebones, and Sir Robert Clayton, The “extorting Ishban” of Dryden’s lines. They were allied with aristocratic traitors and renegades like Sutherland and Romney, and Shrewsbury and Montagu. And behind the whole combination broods the sinister genius of Shaftesbury.

    “Never has the influence of class interests and selfish greed been more nakedly revealed in political action. It was the victory of oligarchy and privilege…For the new regime was essentially a class state i which government was controlled by the great Whig families, while the local administration was in the hands of the squirearchy…so the resultant social order owed its stability to the union of landlords and business men, a union which was reinforced by intermarriage and the purchase of estates by wealthy merchants and bankers…the government had striven…to protect the peasants from eviction and enclosures. Now the rights of property were absolute, wages and prices were left to find their own level, and the principle of laissez-faire took the place of the old ideals…The eighteenth century was the golden age of the great landlords and the squires, and the men of property enjoyed a freedom and a social prestige such as he had never known in the world before. But it was an age of decay and ruin for the peasants and the yeoman and the free craftsmen: it was the age of the enclosures of the commons and the destruction of the guilds; it was an age which abandoned the traditional Christian attitude to the poor and substituted a harsher doctrine which regarded poverty as the result of sloth or improvidence and charity as a form of self-indulgence. It made self-interest a law of nature which was providentially designed to serve the good of the whole so that the love of money was transformed from the roots of all evil to the mainspring of social life.

    “This new view of life was not, however, merely the ideological reflection of the material interests of the bourgeois class and its state. It had behind it…the moral force of Puritan individualism…(Dawson 15 – 16)”.

    The social movement Dawson is talking about is partly the result of what was called “The Barebone Parliament”:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barebone's_Parliament

    It took its name from the aforementioned Praise God Barebone, who was so unpopular that at one point, he was imprisoned in the Tower of London.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Praise-God_Barebone

    Together, PG Barebone and his descendant Nicholas helped pioneer the the reigning philosophy of the 1%.

    The irony is I didn’t set out to find this. When I read that passage I had my mind on other things and had closed the book on anything I could say that was “Fantastic Beasts” related.

    I don’t know if Ms. Rowling used Dawson’s book as a source, however I’m inclined to think she might have found out about the real life Barebones and their policies on her own through some means. Needless to say, if there’s any truth to this speculation, she wouldn’t have liked what she found.

    I can’t say I know what this means, though it could be that Newt might uncover the Barebone legacy in England at some point. That, however, I leave to others, because that’s not my territory.

    I don’t know if this is of help or not, it just sounded interesting.

  4. waynestauffer says

    I agree with Suzanne, “You’ve managed to find so much more in Fantastic Beasts than I ever could have, I can’t wait to read the rest of your posts.” and would only add that I look forward to your Unlocking book on this series when it is out.
    and I’m trying to figure out how to work this series into a sophomore lit class…

  5. April Blaine says

    I didn’t read the screen-play and I’ve only seen the movie once. My first impression of Credence and the Obscurus was that of a passive-aggressive person – someone who represses their feelings, especially anger, letting them build up inside. They will passively punish or get revenge against the people who tick them off without any show of emotion. Children who practice this defensive behavior grow up to be adults who don’t feel anything and can’t have successful relationships, similar to what was discussed about loss of imagination. Credence appeared to be able to control the Obscurus to an extent. I know he was abused and lacked loving guardianship, but there comes a point where he is accountable for his own actions. Perhaps this is why I missed the connection to Ariana because I always thought of her problem as a mental illness and she couldn’t control what she was doing. Why would she kill her mother who was her caregiver? But maybe it wasn’t that she needed a care giver in a disabled sense. Maybe she was more like Cadence and her mother was causing futher repression of her powers. Maybe Ariana, like Cadence, finally became angry enough with her mother that she used the Obscurus against her. I thought that Credence had died, but it will be interesting to see what he chooses to be, and if he will require any kind of redemption or reeducation.

  6. April Blaine says

    Sorry, I had to step away from the computer and some small hands got to the keyboard. I had mostly finished my thoughts, and I won’t be offended if someone wants to correct me or enlighten me. I just hope that the Christian theme of “our choices make us who we are” will be continued in Fantastic Beasts. Credence’s younger sister who was raised in the same circumstances did not become an Obscurial. She was knowingly hiding a wand under her bed claiming it was just a toy. Everyone who is repressed has different ways of hiding things and dealing with the bullying.

  7. Emily Strand says

    John – as always, your post is a treasure trove of great ideas and interesting info. (Your links! So many, so good!)

    One issues I take, as the resident Star Warsian: “Movies are not an imaginative medium; they are sense perception experiences, which very much restricts the depth to which any story told in film can penetrate the human soul.”

    I get what you’re saying, but movies ARE imaginative experiences. They may be less powerful as a medium to some folks, given that they fill in more of the details with reliance on senses other than sight. But they do touch people’s imaginations, and very strongly. Ask the folks at templeofthejediorder.org.

    Folks steeped in Western culture tend to “trust only the sense of sight” (Aristotle, Metaphysics), but in our more mixed cultural milieu (and praise God for it!), movies, which engage more of the senses, are going to appeal more broadly than books ever can. Hence ability of Harry Potter itself to be a true “shared text” [sic]: because of the accessibility of the films. It is always odd, if not infrequent, when I speak to a college-aged student about Harry Potter, and s/he seems to refer exclusively to them as “the movies”.

    Now, John, YOU KNOW I LOVE BOOKS, but I just had to argue with your statement, which seemed a bit harsh on movies – especially those that manage to employ a rich, imaginative, undergirding myth (such as Star Wars) which creates a real ethos by so thoroughly capturing and shaping its viewers imaginations.

  8. Emily Strand says

    Sorry for typos; still recovering from stomach-yuck.

  9. waynestauffer says

    You make great points, Emily. I understand John’s point about film and imagination this way–the film limits imagination down to the director’s and actor’s imaginative interpretation choices. If the director were different and the actors the same, a different interpretation comes out. and vice versa. But with all of these premutations, that one interpretation is what tens of thousands of viewers take away from their experience with the film version of the story. Many of my literature and film students are like yours, only referring to the film version when they start my class. But as we look deeper at the prose form, they come to realize how much of the story is missing and that their interpretations have been limited by what comparatively little of the story comes out in the film.
    Your point is well-taken, though, that it is easy to be a literary purist about the films as a “lesser” version of the story when, maybe, we should look to see how they can be complementary versions.
    I await the discussion of what “should” be the FBWTFT “canon” since we do not have a previous prose version for comparison.

  10. Emily, Prof. Stauffer,

    Thanks for the interesting conversation Re: the impact of book vs/ film on the imagination capabilities of the audience.

    My own take is bit intricate. If I had to provide a summary version, then it would be that I don’t regard any storytelling “Medium” as “The Message”. Instead, I think books, films, and plays either written or live ought to be understood as the “means of conveyance for a story”. All three are perhaps ambiguous owing to all the possibilities of visualizing the characters and events of any given story.

    I mean that while you can only treat Alice as a pre-teen girl, what she looks like as a girl is up to the individual audience member. I’ve even seen some editions where Alice is portrayed as an African – American. Let’s take a more interesting case, that of Huck Finn and Jim. Obviously, they are fixed in a certain way. However, is Huck a Red – head? Is be blond, or dark haired? Is he tall, or short? Does he speak in a light or deep voice?

    The crux is that is possible for any audience member to have a different image of the character from what another is expecting. If these contrasting ideas were compared, each may find the other lacking. However, I think the answer to such conundrums might lie in the possibility that such ideas of the “look” of any given story might have to do with questions of “personal taste”.

    In other words, it may be possible that each member of the audience will construct a certain image of the characters, events, and settings precisely because this or that image is the only way that audience member will be able to “get into” the story at all. If that is the case, then what we are dealing is the mental abilities people either have to use or else believe they must use if the story is to work for them at all.

    This can have drawbacks. An unimaginative person might not be able to “get into” any story no matter how good he is at visualization. Such a person might find a story irritating rather than entertaining, even if it’s something by Shakespeare.

    Another thing that should be taken into account is how much background knowledge any particular book, film, or play requires. In his book “The Literary Outlook”, S.L. (Samuel Leslie) Bethell points out that the shared cultural knowledge and audience has is what defines the limits to which it can understand any given work of art. “…whilst it is now possible for an atheist to ‘think himself into’ the Christian outlook, this is only because even today Christian categories are widely known and the Christian tradition remains strong; but if scientific materialism were to triumph, it would be no more possible for a future generation to adopt Christianity for the reading of Donne, than it is for us to go temporarily pagan for the better appreciation of Aeschylus or Virgil (Bethell 4)”.

    A little further on, Bethell also observes how the exigencies of life means that when it comes to “digging deeper” into any artwork “We are therefore thrown back on the principle of authority; the common reader must trust the critic, and the critic must be worthy of that trust (ibid 85)”.

    Another thing to keep in mind is that, in spite of all the technological achievements, there still remains only one true “medium” for storytelling: word, or text. Without text, there is no possibility of story. It isn’t even possible to do an all mime version of “Hamlet” if the play never existed. This goes double for films, and for those saying its all about the visuals, it should be pointed out that many of those visual often consist of scenes whose locations were miles apart from each other. The only reason they are combined into an ordered sequence is because of the nature of the text the filmmakers were relying on, even if it’s a so-called mood piece.

    My point is that writing is the one mode of storytelling that is truly “trans-media”; everything else should be considered bells and whistles in my opinion.

  11. waynestauffer says

    great points, Chris C.

    i’m also interested in how, as a culture, we are moving from a primarily text-based means of understanding the world to more visual/video-based means. i’m thinking of the decline of newspapers, magazines/journals, and books and the ascent of video, films, and teevee shows. i see the DVD collections of teevee series as the new book series– think nancy drew/hardy boys books and NCIS series. JKR is now, with FBWTFT, skipping the prose and going straight to the video.
    along with this is the growing impatience with longer forms of discourse– from book-length to magazine/journal article-length to news website-length to facebook trending blurb-length to twitter feed-length to text message length…and the willingnes to be satisfied with smaller and smaller portions…

  12. Brian Basore says

    In history, Charles Lamb was the caretaker of his sister Mary, who in a fit of madness killed her (their) mother. (Charles and Mary Lamb are remembered as the authors of Tales From Shakespeare.) It was better for Mary for Charles to be her legal guardian than for her to be put in the female insane asylum. She lived a long quiet life, unlike the fictional Ariana Dumbledore, as a result. I don’t know if JKR had this in mind when writing about Ariana and her family, but JKR seems to feel that Aberforth would have been the best choice of guardian for Ariana.

  13. Prof. Stauffer,

    In terms of the world moving from a text to an image based style of storytelling, I admit I’m skeptical. For one thing, I’ve been convinced that there’s never been a majority audience for stories for quite a while.

    As C.S. Lewis once pointed out, ever since the Industrial Revolution, the audience has been divided in the Many who barely register or have the time to take in a story, leaving the Few who can develop a proper appreciation for this sort of thing.

    This jibes with something else Bethell once said. “Middlemarch” is a very fine novel, but hardly ‘popular fiction’. It is doubtful whether nowadays it could have found a publisher…Serious writing, whether poetry or prose, does not pay, excepting occasionally by accident, if it should be incidentally topical or pornographical. There seems no way out of this impasse so long as publishing remains an industry whose sole criterion is profit. Even in our universities, whilst colossal sums are spent in the endowment of research, the endowment of the presses is ludicrously small (ibid 14 – 15)”.

    “What it does is to create a demand for the sort of cheap goods it has to sell; and the sales resistance of our fallen nature is pretty low. But if better books were offered, not as well as but instead the worse, I think they would be received – perhaps grumblingly at first, but gratefully after a little experience of what they can do (ibid 16)”.

  14. Brian Basore says

    It’s scary to go from the security of the well-crafted Harry Potter seven volume set to having to trust Harry and Newt to the movies. They still have the author and the companies with contracts with the author to protect them, so I think Harry and Newt are actually going to be okay.

    Consider the case of Lewis Carroll, who still has fans. This should be reassuring to Harry/Newt fans. Harry Potter fans are beginning to experience what Lewis Carroll fans have been going through for over a century. Lewis Carroll, like JKR, is a storyteller for whom the word/book is prime to storytelling.

    The author Lewis Carroll opened his first book with a riddle with no answer. It’s a Socratic teaching question. Here is the first paragraph of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland:
    Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, “and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?” [end of quote]

    That’s a loaded question for a storyteller to ask as the opening of a book, it seems to me. A child observes an adult reading, and doubts the validity of what she sees. (Is everything about understanding and perception the allegory of the cave?) This in the first modern children’s book in English, a best-seller that has stayed in print ever since it was published 151 years ago, but a book nobody reads.

    The book went into Public Domain in 1907. The chances of any of JKR’s work going into Public Domain under current copyright law and trademark laws are nil, another reason to feel reassured for Harry and Newt.

    As for finding Christian content, another riddle is presented that Lewis Carroll was personally very Christian but none of that appears in his Alice books or in The Hunting of the Snark. Does that make him a Post Modern writer? I don’t know. That’s why I sit by as others consider the question of “what is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?”

    Despite, or because, of all of that, and despite rough handling of his works by some of his more inconsiderate fans in the form of shows, movies, games, and prejudiced criticism, there are Lewis Carroll fans who read the original Alice books. These days most of them come to Lewis Carroll from those secondary sources. As a result there is a wide variety of Lewis Carroll fans. It’s a good sign that new illustrated editions of the HP books are being published; new illustrated editions of Lewis Carroll’s major works have come out regular as clockwork since 1907, and a few American pirate editions came out before that. (Even I myself, clod that I am, felt compelled to put out yet another new illustrated edition of the first Alice book, and finally did. Its relative popularity surprises me.)

    It’s not so bad for Harry and Newt, is it? Remember, it’s the fans who keep the books going, directly or indirectly. We are the fans, and with luck there will be fans in the future. It has worked for Lewis Carroll for 151 years. It could work for JKR, who has the added long term legal protection Lewis Carroll never had; U.S. copyright did not respect British copyright until fairly recently.

  15. Ok, just reading this post now, and I’m late to the conversation. Perhaps the convo has moved on in additional posts. A few thoughts that occurred to me reading this:

    The movie, like the Harry books, refuses to let us draw tribal circles where we label one group All Good and another All Bad. Thank goodness for that. Muggles can be on the side of good or evil. Witches and wizards can be on the side of good or evil.

    The eugenics movement in the U.S. targeted people with disabilities, particularly mental illness. In my opinion there is a theme in Rowling’s work not just of valuing the least powerful and privileged, but also of valuing those who are different, odd, damaged or hurt by life, sensitive, not cool and hip. See: Luna (seeing wrackspurts, anyone?), Harry being super susceptible to dementors (depression), Neville just being uncool and how some of that can maybe be attributed to losing his parents, Ariana Dumbledore… on and on. Harry himself is an orphan and, as noted, should perhaps be more damaged… but he is the hero. The outcast, damaged-goods kid is the hero who defeats evil. “Listen to me, Harry. You are not a bad person. You’re a good person who bad things have happened to.” <– That right there is what we in the mental health world call a trauma-informed statement. The question in good mental health care is never "what's wrong with you?" it's "what happened to you?" Because saying that something is wrong with you devalues you; but saying that something wrong happened to you gives you value by acknowledging that it is terrible that something hurt you; and it lets you see yourself as strong and trying to cope rather than broken and broadcasting your brokenness.

    "It's our choices that make us who we are." I dislike the idea of scientific obscurantism and don't think it fits. Newt is a scientist. He's systematically studying the world around him, he's a biologist, and he's using science to make GOOD choices. Through his science, he knows an obscurus without its host is harmless. He knows magical creatures (note: some of them awfully weird) should be saved. At a time when the majority opinion in the wizarding world is to just kill them off because they are seen as a risk / drain on the magical society (risk of exposing the magic workd to Muggles). Newt is using science to combat the killing of strange creatures who don't fit in magical society. This doesn't seem like an indictment against science to me, nor does it seem like laying the blame for eugenics at the feet of science. Science is a method of learning about the world and requires imagination to do it right. It's people's choices about what to do with the knowledge gained that results in crap like eugenics.

    Anyway. I'm excited about this series. Thanks for writing about it and for the prompt to think more about it.

  16. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    ChrisC,

    I certainly immediately thought of the Barebones of history, and am confident JKR did, too – whatever exactly she’s doing with the reference. I think of Praise-God’s son as If-Jesus-Christ-Had-Not-Died-For-Thee-Thou-Hadst-Been-Damned Barebone rather than Nicholas, and of the anecdote (I can’t recall of what provenance) that he inevitably got nick-named ‘Damned Barebone’! But your quotation from Christopher Dawson shows me I clearly do not know enough about him – though, again, I am ready to suppose JKR does, whatever her sources.

    I immediately get (sadly, vague!) memories of set-phrases about ‘too-easy’ and ‘too-ready credance’ coming to mind – which would seem in keeping with what is observed here (and in other posts) about Credance Barebone’s character to date. But ‘credance’ need not be ‘crdulousness’ – perhaps something built into this character’s name in keeping with the speculation about possible positive future developments.

    I would like to know more about this business of ‘repressing one’s magic’. Whose language is this, and just how is it being used? Is it ‘Freudian’? And if so, which or whose ‘Freudianism’? Does it matter, film(script)-wise, what had been written by Freud, translated into English, and otherwise popularized by the date of the action? Or is ‘anachronistic Freudianism’ in play? Or is it not certainly ‘Freudian’, but probably some sort of someone’s ‘psychoanalysis’?

    I wonder, because I wonder where abnegation does – or does not – come in. This, with Tolkien’s discussion in his 1956 Joanna de Bortadano letter drafts (Letter 186) in mind, in which he says, “The greatest examples of the action of the spirit and of reason are in abnegation.” People who, so far as they can tell, seem to have ‘psychic gifts’, and deliberately (and as far as they can tell, quite properly) do not attempt to exercise or develop them, are very much a part of my experience. Certainly Christians (I’m not immediately sure, if only Christians, as it happens, or others as well: I’d have to try to catalogue examples).

    Is it some part of the Potterverse, that no-one is free properly to decline the use of any ‘magical gift’ they happen to have? This seems unlikely, but it’s a funny old world…

    Tolkien’s letter has a lot to do with Nicole’s point about science, too. As published, it begins by addressing Atomic power and “Power” more generally, as “exerted for Domination” – or not. “Nuclear physics can be used for that purpose. But they need not be. They need not be used at all. If there is any contemporary reference in my story at all it is to what seems to me the most widespread assumption of our time: that if a thing can be done, it must be done. This seems to me wholly false.”

    Science can be applied, or mis-applied, or not (in certain weighty senses) applied at all. It can be put in the service of ‘scientism’ or pseudo-science – such as various ‘race theories’ or ‘theories of heredity’ – and then applied ‘eugenically’. (A striking instance is Stalin’s embrace of Lysenko’s ideas about heredity. The latter’s Wikipedia article includes, “Scientific dissent from Lysenko’s theories of environmentally acquired inheritance was formally outlawed in the Soviet Union in 1948.”)

  17. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    Historically, the ‘eugenics wars’ were to various degrees wars between (might we say) ‘self-described Christians’ – and, in practice, against some. Reading samples of Margaret Sanger”s Birth Control Review, I get the impression that she particularly thought Catholics should not (be allowed) to have lots of children. And her “Negro Project” explicitly involved (in her words) recruiting “Ministers, preferably with social service backgrounds, and with engaging personalities” to get their flocks and other black fellow Christians to procreate less.

    By the way, Chesterton’s Eugenics and Other Evils is variously available online, in assorted scans in the Internet Archive, in transcription at Project Gutenberg, and even read aloud as audiobook by a volunteer at LibriVox.org

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