Guest Post: Crows, Snakes, & Nietzsche ‘Symbolism in Crimes of Grindelwald’

Valerie Estelle Frankel has won a Dream Realm Award, an Indie Excellence Award, and a USA Book News National Best Book Award for her Henry Potty parodies. She’s the author of over 60 books on pop culture, including Doctor Who – The What, Where, and How; Sherlock: Every Canon Reference You May Have Missed in BBC’s Series 1-3; Harry Potter and Myth: The Legends behind Cursed Child, Fantastic Beasts, and all the Hero’s Journeys; and How Game of Thrones Will End. Many of her books focus on women’s roles in fiction, from her heroine’s journey guides From Girl to Goddess and Buffy and the Heroine’s Journey to books like Superheroines and the Epic Journey and The Many Faces of Katniss Everdeen. Once a lecturer at San Jose State University, she now teaches at Mission College and San Jose City College and speaks often at conferences. You can explore her research at

Symbolism in Crimes of Grindelwald — Valerie Estelle Frankel

Wow, what a film. While the plot certainly had its weak moments, from very few actual “crimes” of Grindelwald to a rather small-scale plot, the film seemed clearer than the last about what it was trying to be. Certainly, there was much fascinating backstory for fans, with a return to the twist endings that got us all so hooked. Beginning with the shocking revelation at the story’s end reveals much about where the characters are heading.

Finally, the chick that Credence has been painstakingly nurturing, believing it to be a baby raven and the Lestrange family crest, is revealed as a phoenix. Symbolically, a phoenix represents regeneration. “A universal symbol of resurrection and immortality, of death and rebirth by fire” (Cooper 129). It’s a Christ symbol, like many that surround Harry in book seven. Credence’s caring for the bird suggests on one level seeing himself as a baby raven, feeding this vulnerable side of the self, hoping to evolve himself into a full-grown raven, and finally discovering he’s the heir to a more magnificent heritage yet. He longs to become bright, brilliant, and immeasurably powerful. Mixed in with the tale of switched babies, there’s more than a visual touch of the ugly duckling. The parallel figure Leta Lestrange meanwhile sees herself as evil and sorrowfully tells Newt, “You’re too good, Newt. You never met a monster you couldn’t love.” Of course, Newt, who has spent his life caring for baby birds, is also caught in this imagery, devoting himself to saving both Credence and Leta. He bonds with the latter by sharing a baby bird with her and tries to keep all his symbolic charges alive, whatever the cost.

Crows and ravens are symbolically identical (and indeed are related biologically), prompting the lost Lestrange boy’s given name of Corvus, their shared biological family. The name is also the crow constellation, linking to the old families’ love of Latin star names like Scorpius and Sirius. To Babylonians, the Raven Constellation, sitting on a serpent’s tail, marked the gateway to the underworld, as Credence and Nagini may finally do – ushering Grindelwald to defeat with their choices.  Odin, god king of Norse myth, was known for the two ravens, Hugin and Mugin (Thought and Memory), which advised him, setting them in a dark counterpart to wise leader Dumbledore and his future beloved phoenix, Fawkes. While Leta is lost and Credence disproven as a Lestrange, the image of Grindelwald surrounded by dark birds would not be shocking.

Crows in the western tradition are birds of ill-omen, war, and death, while in China they’re a bird of prophecy. “The cawing of the black crow can be an omen of change” (Shepherd 202). In Celtic and Norse myth, the birds brought prophetic knowledge, but it was generally of violence, war, and trouble. The battle goddesses Badb (Crow) and the Morrigan (sometimes called an badb catha, or Battle Crow) took raven or crow form to bring dark omens (Davidson 87). Ravens could also be spirits of the dead returning. “King Arthur is thought by Cornishmen to have died and to have been changed into the form of a raven, and in medieval Wales souls of the wicked appear as ravens” (Henderson 360). Ravens today guard the Tower of London, protecting England. Like Leta, who in some ways never grew beyond baby chick status, the birds are ominous and misjudged but not inherently evil.

As the film ends, Grindelwald tells Credence that the phoenix is his destiny. “It is your birthright, my boy. As is the name I now restore to you. Aurelius. Aurelius Dumbledore.” Of course, fans can see that either Grindelwald is lying (not for the first time) or that Dumbledore has a surprising branch on his family tree. Critics have pointed out that given the timing of his mother’s death and father’s imprisonment, Credence is too young to actually be Albus’s brother or half-brother –when he would have been born, both parents were already out of the picture unless de-aging magic was involved. Aurelius Dumbledore will not be changing his name to Aberforth and becoming the grouchy goat aficionado – he’s too young. Percival Dumbledore was sent to Azkaban a year before Dumbledore’s first year at Hogwarts. Kendra’s funeral was just after Dumbledore left Hogwarts when he was only 17. Sarah Doran, reviewer for Radio Times explains:

Ariana’s uncontrollable powers continued to grow and one day, when her beloved brother Aberforth wasn’t there to calm her down, she accidentally killed her mother. This was thought to have happened around June 1899, a full 27 years before the events of the Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them film.

Ariana was then killed (fans say roughly sometime around August 1899)…So, where does that leave Credence/Aurelius? When could he possibly have been born? And could Kendra have carried him?

Well, JK Rowling’s original screenplay states that the sinking of the ship carrying Credence, Leta and Corvus Lestrange Jr (his dad was called Corvus too), took place in 1901. That’s at least a full year after Kendra Dumbledore is thought to have died so it’s hard to believe she could have been his mother and been on the boat with him when she was supposed to be long dead by then. (Doran)

One fan theory suggests he could be Ariana, an obscuriel revived into this form; he could be Ariana’s son; or perhaps Mrs. Dumbledore faked her own death. An adoption is possible too. Amid all the switching of babies and spouses in the story, these choices are symbolically interesting (and preferable to Anakin Skywalker’s origin, which we hope won’t reappear!) but the most obvious is that Grindelwald is lying and that credible Credence is buying it.  

Then there is the prophecy of Tycho Dodonus: “A son cruelly banished, despair of the daughter, return great avenger with wings from the water.” Doran wonders if this might reference Credence not the lost Corvus: “The son cruelly banished could refer to Corvus Lestrange, indeed, but it could also refer to the mysterious Aurelius Dumbledore. And surely ‘despair of the daughter’ could be linked to both Leta’s heartbreak at the loss of her mother and Ariana Dumbledore’s pain following her torture by the Muggle boys.” The avenger image matches with the phoenix he’s received.

Of both Albus and Credence it’s said that it’s their birthright for a Phoenix to come to their aid when in need, linking them. The baby phoenix seen may even end up with Dumbledore as his Fawkes. Still, at the moment, Dumbledore’s lack of a phoenix emphasizes his symbolic lack of regenerative power and with it the quirky flexibility of age that he hasn’t yet acquired. Across the channel in Paris, Nicholas Flamel acts as Dumbledore’s substitute, sheltering Newt, offering advice, and finally defending Paris from Grindelwald’s magic. He’s a mentor, an image of what Dumbledore can someday become – the wise old wizard at peace with his past but formidable when called upon.

Dumbledore, however, is the unhealed Fisher King, slowly dying as, unlike clever and adaptable Flamel, Dumbledore lacks the ability to heal his own spirit. He is stuck before regeneration, symbolically speaking, unable to let go of his love (still not stated directly to be reciprocal and romantic but love “closer than brothers”) for Grindelwald. Unlike in his older years, when the Mirror of Erised reveals his deepest desire of saving Ariana and his family (as Rowling has explained), it now shows him back with Grindelwald, before their split. In the mirror, the pair are clasping hands in a blood oath, and then combining the drops in a vial that Grindelwald wears as a kind of brooch. This can symbolize affection or, more likely, binding. Blood represents “the life principle; the soul; strength; the rejuvenating force” (Cooper 22). It’s tied to blood sacrifice and also the Crucifixion. All this emphasizes the bond between them, one not yet broken or able to be broken. Basically, Dumbledore isn’t yet over him. At the same time, Grindelwald controls his oath, his actions, and his guilt to a significant degree. This is all echoed in their physical link – the glass vial with blood drops that signifies their blood pact. Newt, Dumbledore’s agent, returns the vial to Dumbledore, giving him symbolic agency, but breaking the link will still be an emotional as well as magical challenge.

Perhaps just as interesting as Dumbledore not yet symbolically appearing the force of valiant good (more the “sleeping giant” of America early in World War II than the warrior of later years) is Grindelwald’s failure to acquire Nagini. As all fans clearly recognized, she is doomed to become not only a snake, but the beloved sidekick and tool of Voldemort, decades on. Certainly there is (justified) criticism of one of the rare Asian characters in the franchise being turned into a monster against her will then later used as a precious receptacle where Voldemort stores a portion of his soul. Dressing her in a low-cut circus performer’s outfit and barely giving her a line of dialogue only adds to this. “So beautiful, so desirable,” the circus owner smirks as he displays her to the crowd. This is all disturbing and literally objectifying. She’s kept in a cage and then dragged in front of a gawking audience and ordered to show off her debilitating curse. It’s humiliating on many levels.

Still, though she resembles a snake, at this point she echoes one of the rare “good Slytherins” – trying to aid Credence but refusing the side of evil. Their pairing is interesting, as, like the Leta-Credence pairing, they’re equally lost, miserable at being used by others and desperate to take their place in the world. Like Leta, however, Nagini rejects Grindelwald and places herself in opposition to Credence – an interesting juxtaposition of symbols.  “When the eagle or stag appears with the serpent, they are solar and manifest light with the serpent as darkness, the unmanifest and chthonic” (Cooper 148). Of course, the solar phoenix might stand in for the eagle here. Together they suggest cosmic unity, opposed, the struggle of light and dark. Harry vs Voldemort offers this stag vs snake imagery, and now Credence vs Nagini is falling into place…though the former has chosen evil and the latter, surprisingly, good.

Symbolically, the snake represents feminine wisdom and regeneration as it sheds its skin. “Living underground, it is in touch with the underworld and has access to the powers, omniscience, and magic possessed by the dead” (Cooper 147). If Dumbledore and now Credence are associated with the positive, masculine regeneration of the phoenix, Nagini’s is feminine, but suggests de-evolution – she will not gain wings, magic, and knowledge, but transform unwillingly into a creature of the earth. While framed as evil in Judeo-Christian lore, snakes in ancient myths guarded sacred places and offered prophecies. She may become a wise advisor or helpful warrior like Newt’s creatures. However, her fate is decided as eventual pawn for the forces of evil, meant only, like the snake priestesses at Delphi, to be slain by the fierce solar warrior Neville, wielding the sword of Gryffindor.

Many fans might have expected her to join Grindelwald at the end. Queenie does (won over by flimsy lies since nothing in Grindelwald’s ideology suggests he wants wizards and muggles to make babies). His ideologies, according to every fleeting scrap of history seen before this, suggest he parallels Hitler’s Nietzschean theories of Übermenschen (supermen) and Untermenschen (inferior humans), but applied to wizards and muggles, rather like Voldemort’s beliefs. Grindelwald wants more than to stop hiding and throw off MACUSA’s restrictions; he wants his people to rule the Muggles. “Magic blooms… only in rare souls. Still, we must skulk in shadows. But the old ways serve us no longer,” he insists. At his own rally at Pere Lachaise cemetery, Grindelwald shows his devotees future visions of World War II — rolling tanks, concentration camps, nuclear explosions. Ironically, his argument isn’t that Hitler is right, but that Muggles on both sides will kill millions if not stopped. To do this, however, he is committing murders, juxtaposing his conflicting words and actions. Queenie, for instance, would presumably be appalled by his ordering the murder of the Muggle family at film start.

While the film shows Queenie succumbing to his “charm,” her Jewish heritage in a world of such historical persecution against Jews, when her parents likely would have immigrated to America fleeing Eastern European pogroms, to say nothing of her love for moralistic Jacob, makes her unlikely to fall for such a philosophy of prejudice. Further, she is a mind-reader, and thus the least likely to think that ugly lies like the ones the Third Reich perpetuated are in any way valid. Hitler, like Grindelwald, started off slowly, with rallies to make people feel artificially powerful, but he gained his followers by scapegoating. Presumably Queenie knows that many Muggles are not warlike and will resist being ruled with all they have. If she follows this path, her beloved Jacob will become a menial worker for wizards instead of a proud bakery owner.

It’s unclear what Grindelwald is urging his people to fight for if he’s anti-Ministry and pro-ruling Muggles but also pro-intermarriage. (Perhaps he doesn’t take the philosophy as far as Voldemort does, and believes Muggle-born wizards are fine and even wants to create more of them?) Queenie’s joining Grindelwald to spy would be interesting, but the film suggests that the blue flame ring was a loyalty test and that those who didn’t believe, at least mostly, were destroyed. Thus, as far as we know, Queenie has shed her craftiness, morality, and defiance of unjust wizarding law that characterized the first film to become (though telepathic) a willing dupe.

While several films, especially the Star Wars franchise, have created Nazi visual imagery, Grindelwald’s rally takes a different form. At night in the graveyard, his people fill an ancient atmosphere, like the crumbling mausoleums that house pure bloods and protect their records. Visually, his path to power is already dead, as his and Voldemort’s defeats are certainly decided. It’s eerie that he encourages his people to pledge themselves with silence instead of the fervent shouts Hitler commanded. The blue flame he uses to test his followers is also creepy and unnatural, opposite of the red, living energy surrounding the phoenix and for that matter the endearing Chinese Zouwu. Blue flame is the hottest, most destructive part, while the color blue is often a prophetic symbol of divine revelation (Cooper 40). Still, Grindelwald’s visions, always blown onto a cloud of obscuring smoke, represent a misguided path. He will lead them along it for three more films, while we await the many twists sure to follow.

Works Cited

Cooper, J.C. An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols. Thames and Hudson, Ltd., 1978.

Davidson, H.R. Ellis. Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe: Early Scandinavian and Celtic Religions. Syracuse University Press: 1988.

Doran, Sarah. “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald’s HUGE Ending Twist Explained.” Radio Times, 16 Nov 2018.

Henderson, George. Survivals in Belief Among the Celts. Macmillan and Co., 1911. The Sacred Texts Archive.

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