Could Fantastic Beasts be Doctor Dolittle with a Wand?

Newt s.As soon as the first pictures of the movie Newt Scamander were released, people started remarking that he looked like a wizard version of Doctor Who. However, I was instantly reminded of another Doctor: Doctor John Dolittle, of Hugh Lofting’s classic children’s series. Please note that I am talking about the *real* Doctor Dolittle of the books, not Eddie Murphy (his films Doctor Doolittlehave nothing in common with the books other than the name and the fact he can talk to animals and will *not* be further discussed here!) or even the Rex Harrison version–though his 1967 movie musical included elements from several of the 12-book series, the handsome, singing and romantic lead Harrison bore little resemblance to the mild-mannered, portly and completely asexual John Dolittle of the books.  Though Newt is younger, slimmer and has more hair and less hat than Dolittle, the coat and vest, as well as the mannerisms and demeanor in the trailer (“It was open?” “…Just a smidge.”) evoked my mental picture of Doctor Dolittle… just a smidge.

Doctor Doolittle hatThe Doctor Dolittle series was published between 1920 and 1952, and the second in the series, The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, was awarded the Newbery Medal in 1923. My father read most, if not all, of the series to me as a child, as they were read to him in the 1930’s when he was confined to bed with a long illness.

The series fell out of favor in the 1970’s for its perceived racial insensitivity, particularly for the illustrations and portrayals of native Africans and South American “Red Indians,” as well as the paternalistic attitude taken toward them, which was of course typical for colonial times. I don’t know if Rowling ever read or enjoyed the Doctor Dolittle series, and she is unlikely to say so publicly if she did. But, if you can see past the racism–which is actually quite mild for its era, when Stepin Fetchit was a staple of the movies, Girl Scouts cheerfully sang about cannibal kings with big nose rings, and Bing VoyagesofD_0-1Crosby performed minstrel songs in blackface–you will find children’s stories with a special kind of charm (They don’t hand those Newberys out to just anyone!) and more than one Wizarding World echo. Certainly the Doctor never behaves in a bigoted fashion towards anyone: part of the character’s appeal is that he approaches every living thing with the same calmness and unfailing courtesy–not unlike Dumbledore. He doesn’t treat the narrator, his apprentice, 10-year-old Tommy Stubbins like a child, just as he doesn’t treat animals like animals. For 1920 (and even more so for the 1830’s, when the series is set), he is quite respectful of other cultures: Prince Bumpo of Africa is one of his closest allies and he calls Long Arrow the greatest naturalist in the world. Most of the racial insults come from the irascible parrot, Polynesia; and she makes equally disparaging remarks about plenty of Europeans, having little use for any humans other than the Doctor.

So, where does Doctor Dolittle intersect with the Potterverse?

  • For starters, Doctor Dolittle is the greatest naturalist of his day and a world-famous author, just like Newt Scamander. He travels all over the world and studies all manner of fascinating and exotic creatures. Like Newt, he brings some home with him (although, unlike Newt, not dangerous ones).
  • He knows the language of all animals, albeit after years of diligent study rather than inborn ability. Still, there could be a wizard with Parseltongue in his ancestry, right? This is also another similarity with Dumbledore, who is multi-lingual, including the language of decidedly animal-like creatures like merpeople and trolls.
  • While he is Dumbledore-like in his demeanor, John Dolittle also occasionally behaves like Luna in terms of his selective attention to only what interests him. He doesn’t care when his ever-increasing menagerie drives his human patients away. He doesn’t care about money and will happily give away his last twopence without a thought to the future. In The Story of Doctor Dolittle, after wrecking his ship on the coast to Africa on his way to treat a monkey epidemic, he briefly ponders how they will get back to England: “‘What I am wondering,’ said the Doctor, “is where we are going to get another boat to go home in…. Oh well, perhaps we’ll find one lying about on the beach that nobody is using.'”  Luna, of course, according to extra-book material, will eventually marry Newt’s grandson, who followed in his grandfather’s naturalist footsteps.
  • quidditch-through-the-ages-fantastic-beasts-and-where-to-find-themDoctor Dolittle hails from the fictional English town of “Puddleby-on-the-Marsh.” The companion book to Rowling’s published “textbook” Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is Quidditch Through the Ages, where we learn that the oldest Quidditch team in the world puddlemere_united_by_pako_speedy-d46r7mris “Puddlemere United,”  which has crossed bulrushes for its emblem, and is presumably near Queerditch Marsh, where Quidditch originated.  That’s bound to be the same place, right?

Whether Newt Scamander’s adventures in his multi-film saga will bear any noticeable resemblance to Doctor Dolittle’s voyages remains to be seen, although I am definitely crossing my fingers. But it is worth revisiting the Doctor Dolittle books to see if any common themes show up.  Let’s remember what Polynesia taught Tommy Stubbins: “Being a good noticer is terribly important.”

good noticer

Comments

  1. David James says

    Brilliant early literary connection between Newt Scamander and Doctor Dolittle Louise.
    The fact that they both naturalists in their own literary worlds is good start. The really interesting similarities in the names between Dolittle’s fictional birthplace and the wizarding worlds oldest Quidditch team is where I feel you can tell Rowling has read the Dolittle series at some point in her life.
    Louise, you may have just started a new series of posts on HogwartsProfessor.

  2. Dr Doolittle is aimed at young children. Harry Potter is aimed at a Young Adult Audience, and increasingly, an adult one.

    Judging from the fact that, for a fantasy series, Harry Potter is quite gritty, dark, and violent, Fantastic Beasts is so far away from Dr. Doolittle that I have no idea why you choose to patronize it as such.

    The Harry Potter series has always been for an older audience. A much older audience. And is much larger in scope and is far more mature than such a juvenile story as Dr. Doolittle. Judging from what I’ve heard about Fantastic Beast’s darkness, it’s political storyline, it’s character deaths, it’s violently racist antagonists, it’s adult characters, it’s settings that include dingy NYC apartments, fancy Gallas, and gritty speakeasies and bars, with its cast of characters that includes a number of prostitites and gangsters, how could it be at all similar? Dr. Doolittle and Harry Potter are very different types of stories aimed at very different types of audiences. Dr Doolittle is a very lighthearted story meant for very young children. Harry Potter is a complex and dark urban fantasy aimed at teens and adults. They’re incomparable.

    Jk Rowling always writes dark stories for an older audience.

  3. Louise Freeman says

    I’m not expecting a sweet children’s tale from Fantastic Beasts, and I don’t deny that the series will be targeted at teens; I am just pointing out some possible similarities between the two naturalist characters. And the Doctor Dolittle books can be surprising dark at times, as was not uncommon in children’s stories of that era. Among other things, the Doctor saves an innocent man from hanging, attacks a slaver’s ship and fights in a bloody tribal battle on Spidermonkey island.

  4. I have no idea why Mr Declan chooses to patronise children’s stories. There is absolutely nothing inappropriate in a comparison with a story written for young children. Such an attitude smells too strongly of the kind of literary snobbery that we can well do without (and one, I might add, that rings particularly false to Harry Potter fans who have been constantly criticised for wasting our time with children’s stories).

    Because the trouble is not that the critics have mischaracterised Harry Potter as a children’s story, but that they fail to understand that a children’s story might be worth reading.

    I think we do a terrible disservice to the Harry Potter series if we are to insist on its value being in its darkness, grittiness and young adultness. It might indeed exhibit those traits occasionally, but those are not its dominant characteristics (especially in the earlier books), and certainly not wherein its value lies for most readers. If the opposite were true, I’d expect readers would be embarrassed by the ‘childish filler’ between the dark moments, and I would expect most wouldn’t even acknowledge Philosopher’s Stone – which would be their loss, of course.

    For these *are* children’s stories. Good children’s stories. And worth reading for their lightness and whimsy as well as their darkness.

  5. “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.”
    ― C.S. Lewis

    “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.”
    ― C.S. Lewis

    good old C.S. Lewis
    Kathleen

  6. Emily Strand says

    Great post, Louise! We’ve been looking for a good “new” (to us, anyway) classic children’s series to delve into at our house… Doolittle sounds like it will please both the 4yo who loves animal stories, and his mom (ahem) who loves uncovering possible Potter source material. Thanks!

  7. Louise Freeman says

    Excellent, Emily! Like the Narnia series, the publication order is different from the chronology of the stories, but I don’t think it matters too much what order you read them in. Though I would guess starting with Story, and then Voyages would be best.

    See http://puddleby.tripod.com/books.html

    Any “new” editions (e.g. 1970’s or later) have probably been edited to remove racially inappropriate images and themes, so you will need to use your discretion, especially if reading to a 4 YO. Fortunately the originals are available on Gutenburg if you want to preview.

    See also http://blog.plover.com/book/Dolittle.html

    I look forward to hearing what you think.

  8. Was just thinking the same thing! Here I am working on my own version of the good doctor, and I start thinking about how much Fantastic Beasts was like Dr. Dolittle. Increasingly, Newt would rather hang around animals than humans, knows their ways–if not their languages–and while Dolittle may be missing the thriller aspects of loose creatures in NYC, I think you’re spot-on in seeing a connection between both Newt and John Dolittle. Any doctor in a British setting tending animals over people, getting a name for himself, shy, would lend itself to comparison. And Rowling certainly wrote for children—as I see children picking up her books and growing with them. I wonder if she’s ever consciously thought of the connections… and it’s okay if it’s a little homage too.

  9. Your blog serves as a gentle reminder to live life with purpose and passion.

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