Guest Post: The Allegory of Fantastic Beasts, 4 (Meet Newt Scamander)

FB1By Chris Calderon

It seems the Wizarding World has a new Hero.  On November 18th, 2016, Potterphiles around the world will get their first glimpse of J.K. Rowling’s latest champion.  That person is…

Well, he’s this sort of funny little fellow with a ridiculous name and, judging from his looks, he suffers from what the late Richard Attenborough would call “a distinct lack of personality”.  Who is he, though?  What is it about the character of Newton Scamander that makes Ms. Rowling feel he’s so darned important?  There are answers to that question, and when taken together the overall picture they present may come as rather a pleasant surprise.  Let’s find out!

Johnny come lately, the New Kid in Town – The Eagles

On the face of it, there’s very little reason why anyone should pay attention to Newt Scamander.  He started off as just a name on a piece of paper.  He’s known for the most part as the fictional by-line of a book that was written for Great Britain’s Comic Relief Charity Fund, making it hard to take him seriously as well.  According to his fictional biography he does very little that sounds exciting.  He’s the Wizarding equivalent of a Muggle zoologist.  While the idea of observing dragons sounds like fun, one soon realizes that hiding out of sight and watching animals do their thing is just what it sounds like; in all its unvarnished glory.  Heck, he doesn’t even play a key role in the main Hogwarts series!  Even his character description from the movie makes him sound dull.  He’s noted in his Potter wikia biography “as eccentric and felt more comfortable around creatures than he did around humans (web).”

Also, his preferred method of defense in case of animal attacks was to “occasionally beat them with his travelling kettle if they got too dangerous (ibid).”  It’s easy to shake your head at such a person and think, “Son, you’re a dreamer if I ever saw one, Heaven help ya!”  In essence, the overall impression we’ve got of Newt is that of a schlemiel, a putz, maybe even a bit of a schmendrick.  He’s fundamentally someone like Neville rather than the more dynamic Harry.  To put it another way, far from being in any way remarkable, Mr. Scamander is/was as unremarkable as it’s possible to be.  And she expects us to follow a guy like this on an adventure?  How could anything remarkable happen to someone like that?  The biggest thing that ever happens to guys like Newt is if the postal service puts his stamps on wrong.  Well, the answer may surprise you.  In order to understand it though, you need to know the real life man behind the fiction.

Meet the real Newt

The Harry Potter wikia offers the first clues as to Newt’s real identity.  In discussing the etymology of his name, they note the following (italics mine):

Scamander’s full name is drawn from a variety of sources; Newton refers to the newt creature, which in turn is used as Scamander’s nickname, the surname is possibly also taken from the known English mathematician Isaac Newton; Artemis is the name of the Greek goddess of the hunt; Fido is a common dog name, from the Latin for faithful; and Scamander sounds like “salamander”. His nickname “Newt” is a small, brightly coloured salamander (web).

That Newt Scamander might be based off the real, historical Isaac Newton isn’t as far-fetched as it seems.  For one thing, the real life Newton has more in common with Rowling’s fictional wizards than any might guess based on surface appearances.  No less an authority than Stanton J. Linden confirms this in The Alchemy Reader when he notes:

Thanks to much pioneering study in the last quarter century, it is now known that (Newton)…was also a tireless experimenter in matters alchemical.  The last professor (Betty) Dobbs has stated that “most of [Newton’s] great powers were poured out upon church history, theology, ‘the chronology of ancient kingdoms’, prophecy, and alchemy…(Linden, 243).

The claim that Newton might have used physics and the Sciences as a means to further his theological studies was made as far back as the time of the Inklings, when Louis Trenchard More (see Ward, Planet Narnia, 278, footnotes 28, 29), in his 1934 tome Isaac Newton: A Biography, made the following claim:

In this day of the utilitarian omnipotence of science, it is extraordinarily difficult for a biographer to sympathize with, or even to appreciate, the conviction of Newton and his contemporaries that their purpose in the cultivation of science was to demonstrate the action of divine will in the natural world, and not to contribute to our comfort (More, ii).

It’s not surprising that the post-modern materialist, as opposed to scientific, establishment would like to forget the fact that the man who gave the world gravitation, dynamics, and the concepts that laid the ground work for the space program based most of his thinking off religious concepts.  That would mean grappling with the implications that all science is ultimately grounded in religious history, thought, principles, and perhaps even religious oriented goals.  However, these are thoughts best left for 3 a.m. in the morning.  The main focus here is to figure out what counts as definitive proof that Ms. Rowling’s new hero is really a symbolic stand-in for Sir Isaac himself.  Well, would some words straight from the pen of the writer herself be of any help (italics mine)?

The properties of ‘my’ Philosopher’s Stone conform to most of the attributes the ancients ascribed to it. The Stone was believed to turn base metals into gold, and also to produce the Elixir of Life, which could make you immortal. ‘Genuine’ alchemists – the forerunners of chemists and physicists – such as Sir Isaac Newton and (the real) Nicolas Flamel, sought, sometimes over lifetimes, to discover the secret of its creation.

Three things can be gleaned from her statement.  1. She has a knowledge of who Newton is.  2. She mentions the physicist in connection with the Philosopher’s Stone.  3. She lobs him into the same category with Nicholas Flamel, a real life alchemist.  Is there anything to learn from these three facts?  Yes, and they boil down to the following points.

  • Why on earth would she bother mentioning Newton in the same breath as Flamel and the Stone?
  • Bear in mind that Linden already made known Newton’s alchemical connections.
  • If Rowling wasn’t familiar with the great scientist’s more esoteric studies that still doesn’t explain why she mentions him in connection with Hermetic subjects, especially if there’s no logical need to even bring him up at all.
  • However, Linden and More have already given us a reason, and Ms. Rowling’s comments echo their contention that Newton was an alchemist along the line of Renaissance Humanists like John Dee or Pico Mirandola.
  • Therefore, she couldn’t have bothered to bring up Newton in connection with alchemy for no good reason.
  • In conclusion, she is well aware of Newton’s connection to alchemic studies, and the character of Newt Scamander is her fictional homage to one of the great minds of both science and metaphysics.

In the next post, we’ll examine what Rowling’s fictional treatment of Isaac Newton could mean in terms of what to expect from her Fantastic Beasts narrative.

Stay tuned — and please share your thoughts in the comment boxes below!

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