Guest Post: The Allegory of Fantastic Beasts, 1 (Rowling and the Puritans)

The Allegory of Fantastic Beasts 1: Rowling and the Puritans – Some Preliminary Background

By Chris Calderon

FB 8The call themselves “The Second Salemers.”  They are a group of non-magical reactionaries modeling themselves on the participants of the Salem Witchcraft Trials.  Their one goal is very simple: the outlawing, and gradual abolishment of all magical persons (and perhaps also beings) more or less across the globe.  With such a description in mind, it’s not too difficult to see exactly what kind of target J.K. Rowling will be going after for her latest outing in the Wizarding World.  It seems that with Fantastic Beasts Ms. Rowling will be setting her satirical sights on the Puritans, the earliest known settlers to the New England Colonies, and who, for better and/or worse, were the ones to really get the ball rolling on the establishment of a truly American identity.

However, what is the nature of her latest target, anyway?  Can anything be learned at all about Ms. Rowling’s goals for these characters by examining the history of their real life counterparts?  Is it possible that, by putting a (sometimes) recognized target in her sites, Ms. Rowling (an English citizen) is nonetheless taking part and participation in a long established tradition in American Literature?  I believe there are answers to these questions.  I also think that looking into them will reveal some interesting thematic resonances in her upcoming film, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

In order to answer these questions, however, requires covering a lot of ground, for there a lot to discuss and talk about when it comes to Rowling’s target of satire. The simple fact is that the Puritans, though long defunct as a collective, have managed to cast a long legacy over our Nation’s history.  I would argue that it is an examination this legacy, and it’s implications for the Country, that Rowling will be taking up as the second major theme of her movie.  First things go before Last, however, and in order to gain as comprehensive an idea as possible about her latest target, we’ll have to start at the beginning.

Witch Trials 2Origins and Coming to America.

The Puritan sect of Christianity had its start in Tudor England during the Renaissance, where their ultra-conservative points of view resulted in their choosing to leave the Sceptered Isle for a place where they felt they could live out their principles unencumbered by what they felt was a too loose, and intolerant society.  The consequence was the historical Mayflower Voyage and landing on Plymouth Rock.

That’s a basic summary, one every kid is taught in school, yet the picture is more complex than any standard history book can tell.  Another view is that then Monarch of England, James I, was aware of the political problems the Puritans posed to both Empire and the Crown.  For years the sect had spread a reputation of sometimes violent disagreement with those they judged as “not Orthodox” enough.  This attitude came to a head in the persecution of Catholic believers, once famously resulting in the martyrdom of philosopher Thomas More.  Indeed, the Puritan’s fundamentalism rose to the point where the result was the English Civil War in 1642.

Before all this, however, King James, a staunch supporter of the Renaissance experiment, and patron to the likes of John Dee and Shakespeare, eventually passed edicts that forbade such intolerant practices on behalf of the larger British public.  This meant that if Puritans stepped up their persecution of Catholics, or others sects, they could face both imprisonment and execution.  The truth of the matter is the Puritans saw very little options except for self-imposed exile.  Therefore it was very easy to obtain permission to leave England from a King and public who were all too happy to see them leave.  However, their relocation may have been more of a failed geographical cure, for while the Plymouth settlers may have escaped England, there were still the inner demons of their own zeitgeist to contend with.

The Puritans and the Salem Witch Trials.

It’s a black spot in our Nation’s history.  It’s also (for better and worse) one of the earliest historical moments that helped mark the American Identity.

The Salem Witch Trials centered on accusations made by a group of young girls, some of them the children of highly influential members of the community, that many of their closest neighbors were in fact witches, or practicing witchcraft out of spite for their fellow men.  That witchcraft was ever involved in Salem, I doubt it.  That spite played a great role is, or should be, beyond a doubt.  The events of the Salem Hysteria have been documented countless times since.  Anyone seeking further information should consult the following:

The Cardinal Difficulty with Puritanism.

In carrying things as far as they did, the Puritans pretty much cemented their image forever for future generations.  It is a legacy that is made up of equal parts, class snobbery and possible greed, combined with an underlying form of racism that is noteworthy only in how all-encompassing it is regardless of appearances.  However these elements, I’d argue, are just the symptoms of a much more fundamental malady at the heart of the first American society I think that what happened in the Witch Trials is that what people experienced was the first demonstration of a troubling self-contradiction at the heart of their new formed American life.  I believe this contradiction is deep ingrained in this nation, going as far back to its unofficial Founding at Plymouth Rock.  This contradiction is, at its core, a question of our religious identity; a question of faith, or lack thereof, in other words.  It is also in my mind whether or not Ms. Rowling may use Fantastic Beasts as a platform to address this contradiction, and its unfortunate contributions to history, even beyond the trials themselves.

The heart of the matter can best be summed up in a literal Cliff-notes version.

These early Puritans followed the writings of a French Protestant reformer named John Calvin (1509-1564), whose teachings saw the world as a grim conflict between God and Satan. Calvinists were a very introspective lot who constantly searched their souls for evidence that they were God’s Elect. The Elect were people chosen by God for salvation. According to Puritans, a merciful God had sent His son, Jesus Christ, to earth to die for the sins of man, but only a few would be saved. The rest, known as the “unregenerate,” would be damned eternally.

It goes without saying (or at least it should be obvious (one hopes) that such ideas, by their very nature, are contradictory to the very basic teachings and beliefs of Judaeo-Christianity.  It’s important to notice just how fundamental is the flaw that the puritans based their beliefs off of.  It was what C.S. Lewis called the Doctrine of Total Depravity.  What this so called “doctrine” is founded on, is the belief that man, as created, has no redeemable goodness in him.  For this reason, this offshoot of Calvinism can best be described as a faith founded on a lack of faith.  There is a word for beliefs that claim to stand for the Gospel, yet really aren’t.  That word, is Heresy.  Indeed, it could be argued, if given some thought, that best description of Puritanism is: The Great American Heresy.

In the next article I’ll outline the American literary tradition I think Rowling might be attaching herself to, and how this might affect her portrayal of the New Salemers.  Till then, I leave you with the above idea to ponder.

Please share your thoughts in the comment boxes below!


  1. Below is the list of sources for the main text above.

    Edward J. Ingebretsen in Imagining the Worst Ed. Kathleen Margaret Lant and Theresa Thompson.
    Paul Elmer More: Shelburn Essays Vol. 1 (pgs. 22 – 70)
    Charles Williams: James I.
    H.P. Lovecraft: Supernatural Horror in Literature and “The Unameable”.
    Irving Malin: New American Gothic.
    Victor Sage: Horror Fiction in the Protestant Tradition.
    George Santayana: The Last Puritan.

  2. Brian Basore says

    It isn’t just Fantastic Beasts: there is also a Puritanical undercurrent in the HP books, as I discovered by reading The Shorter Catechism of the Westminster Assembly Explained and Proved from Scripture (first published in 1674, reprinted 2004), by Thomas Vincent, from the Puritan Paperbacks series published by The Banner Of Truth Trust.

    I’m glad I read the HP books, then read Vincent. Not many people would read Vincent first, then say to themselves, “I’ve just gotta read Harry Potter now!”, regardless of Vincent’s sincere and loving preface, “TO THE YOUNG ONES OF MY CONGREGATION, especially those that answer this explicatory catechism in our public assembly.”

    Nabokov’s book title Pale Fire has an earlier echo in that preface by Vincent. Indeed, the underlying morality of Nabokov’s Lolita is explicated in Vincent’s catechism.

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