Guest Post: The Allegory of Fantastic Beasts, 2 (Rowling’s American Gothic)

FB 9The Allegory of Fantastic Beasts 2: Rowling and the American Gothic

by Chris Calderon

In discussing the American Puritans as J.K. Rowling’s latest target in her upcoming Fantastic Beasts film, it’s important to realize just why she chose such an obscure group of Christian sectarians for her satire.

The Puritans have long since passed into memory in America, yet they’ve left behind an artistic legacy whose impact has proved beyond measure.  It is this legacy, I’d argue, and that Rowling is tapping into in with her latest outing in the Wizarding World.  In order to understand what kind of artistic tradition the Puritans have left behind, it’s important to know a little bit about the Gothic Tradition in fiction, and in particular how the history of the early American Colonies shaped its modern form of expression.

English and American Gothic

BookshelfThose who wish for a good overview of the Gothic Tradition in English literature should consult Chapter 4 of Harry Potter’s Bookshelf.  In that section, the reader has all the bells and whistles of the English Gothic Novel laid out before them, along with a handy guide for how these same elements are used in the Hogwarts books.

With the value of that chapter in mind, I’d still like introduce a geographic distinction into the mix.  In Chap. 4 of Bookshelf, John Granger makes note of the Calvinist influence on the English novels of that period, a lot of which stems from the spiritual leanings of the Bronte Sisters as the major trend setters for this type of writing in England at the time.

If the expression of the Gothic in British art was tinged with Calvinism in its DNA, then at a certain point, it’s arguable that there was a notable split or branching off of one sector of the literary gene pool.  This particular branch carried with it the trappings that make up the Gothic Tradition, yet it also caused a literal sea-change in how these elements were given expression.  When the Puritans fled the English shores in self-chosen exile, they couldn’t have known how their choices then and after would help create a distinctly American Gothic idiom.

The key moments were the Salem Witch Trials, and the negative fallout from Plymouth Rock.  Those two events really helped set the template both for the American expression of Puritanism, and the reaction to it that would be expressed in both politics, culture, and art.  In laying out the American conception of the Gothic in its relation to the Puritans I’ve drawn from the works of critics Paul Elmer More, Harold K. Bush, Irving Malin, George Santayana, Christopher Lasch, and author Stephen King, as together their works provide the necessary overview for the shape Gothic Romance has taken in this Country.

I would like in this and  the following posts to take the reader on a brief guided tour of the Puritan influence on ‘American Art and Letters’ as it is expressed in three major epochs: the early origin point outlined below, the transitional period best exemplified by the work of Mark Twain, and a general overview of it’s third and still current phase in the modern era as typified by such authors as H.P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, and their various literary heirs.  After which, I’ll try and connect the various threads together and suggest at least a possibility of how Rowling may utilize the American Gothic tradition in Fantastic Beasts film.  However, to gain a proper perspective on such an outline, we must begin at the beginning.

Shaping the American Form: Poe and Hawthorne

In his first volume of Shelburne Essays, mythopoeic critic Paul Elmer More stresses the influence the Plymouth settlers and their descendants had on shaping the American Literary Landscape.

In an essay titled The Origins of Hawthorne and Poe, More makes an explicit connection between the work of both New England authors and their Plymouth and Salem forebears.

“…the weird, unearthly substance molded by their genius is from the innermost core of the national consciousness…Their work is the last efflorescence of a tradition handed down to them unbroken from the earliest Colonial days, and that tradition was the voice of a stern and indomitable moral character. The unearthly visions of Poe and Hawthorne are in no wise the result of literary whim or of unbridled individualism, but are deep-rooted in American history. Neither Professor Woodberry in his Life of Hawthorne nor Professor Harrison in his Life of Poe has, it seems to me, brought out with due emphasis these spiritual origins of a school of romance which is so unique in its way as to have made for itself a sure place in the literature of the world (More, Shelburne Essays, First Series, 53).” 

In stressing the influence of New England’s Plymouth heritage on EAP and NH, the most important fact to get clear is that both are aware of the cultural lineage they grew up with, and both writers more or less rebelled against it.  They weren’t alone in this, not by any means.  Even during the Witch Trials, voices of dissent being raised here and there.  Yet what is so unique about this dissent is how individual and isolated they were.  The majority rule demanded that the illegitimate practices of the Trials continue to the mordant, bitter end.  Just so, first Hawthorne, and then Poe a good enough years after, took up a discourse of dissent that had started first within the ranks of the Puritan social stronghold, and now would forever after view it mostly from the outside, but with a surprisingly durable working insider’s knowledge of how the Puritan’s had forever determined both the New England Yankee mindset, and how that zeitgeist cast a detrimental stamp on the National Character.

Herman Melville and the Key Feature of Puritanism   
jean-calvinThe fundamental problem with a belief in Total Depravity is that it is impossible for any kind of genuine Faith to grow in such an atmosphere of distrust.  Such was the key error within the inverted Christian doctrines of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  The outcome was a belief with a fatal contradiction in the middle of it.  The inevitable result could only be the slow, yet gradual loss of faith, combined with the necessary decline of community of the faithful it was meant to support.

Whether or not the decline of the Puritans is Tragic, one can’t deny it was downfall laced with Irony.  The greatest one is the fact that for a brief span of time in New England, history repeated itself.  It is a pattern that has occurred historically before.  The most famous example is the Fall of Rome; another being the loss of the Norse Pagan culture.  The same basic process was at work in Salem, and contained the same type of social upheaval on a much smaller scale.  Like Rome in its final decadence, the Puritans were caught between the choice of grounding their lives on a much sturdier Rock, or following the logic of their misguided beliefs to their logical-illogical conclusion.  In the end, total nonsense seems to have taken those who didn’t defect.

While the existence of Puritanism as a going concern may have come to an end, the same cannot entirely be said for the movement’s aftereffects.  The Character of a Nation and its people, according to historian Christopher Dawson, is usually determined by whatever spiritual beliefs are able to imprint their stamp on the culture of that society.  If the origins of America’s first religious outing is anything to go by, then I guess most of us heard the joke but missed the punchline.  Besides, it wasn’t as if it was all that funny to begin with. The greatest effect the Puritans had on the Faith of the Nation was by cheapening it in the eyes of the public, especially the young.  This is perhaps the biggest Irony, as the Puritans felt it their goal to strengthen these bonds of commitment.  Instead, they seem to have reduced the public perception of Christianity

f39168038In many ways, it seems that Herman Melville best summed up the Puritan relationship between God and believer in his portrayal of the obsessed Captain Ahab in what Ray Bradbury called “a masterpiece of bits and pieces”, Moby Dick.  It is in Ahab’s obsession with the title character, and in the portrayal of the White Whale itself, that the effects of an Anti-Theology of Distrust.  Ahab’s problem is that he’s a man of little faith.  Before the events of the novel it is implied he was more or less normal until he lost his leg.  However the loss itself demonstrates just how shaky a foundation Ahab had already built his life on to begin with.  The loss of his leg is both a symbol and demonstration of the Captain’s lost faith.

Curiously, where most would slip into either a simple atheism or agnosticism, Ahab goes a step further.  In many ways, his choice could be considered the final logical-illogical end point to the Puritan mindset, as Ahab concludes that God is just another devil.  It is with this belief in mind that he sets out in pursuit of Melville’s inscrutable figure of the Divine, and pays for it with his soul.  Such, I’d argue, was Melville’s exposure of the essence of the American gothic critique, and of Puritanism as a religious phenomenon.

Over the years, the American form of Gothic fiction has cut a wide swath across the history of this Country.  It’s a rich and varied history that would make a book in itself, and which we won’t have time to go into here.  Suffice it to say that anyone who wants to delve in an unsuspected source of America’s Main Satiric Tradition should check out the work of writers like Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, H.P. Lovecraft, Flannery O’Connor, Ray Bradbury and the California Sorcerers, among others, as each in their way have made possible the vein Ms. Rowling might be tapping into with her latest Wizarding adventure.

In the next post, we’ll examine how Ms. R. “might” employ this tradition in her work, along studying one particular character who is the most likely candidate to reflect a surprising, real life aspect of Puritan history.

Please share your thoughts in the comment boxes below!


  1. Donna Fowler says

    Just so you know, that is a picture of John Wesley, who was definitely not a Calvinist! As one of the founders of Methodism, his theology was Arminian.

  2. Thanks, Donna! I switched out the picture for the real John Calvin.

    Grateful John

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