Guest Post: The Allegory of Fantastic Beasts, 6 (The Alchemical Big Apple)

FB2By Chris Calderon

The release of the adapted for cinema Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them will mark the first time J.K. Rowling has set any of her stories in America.  It may be a bit of a puzzle to her fans why she would choose to set any of her stories stateside, as she’s perceived by most people as a UK based phenomenon.  Then again, there’s also the possibility that many fans will either worry or take offense at exactly what kind of treatment they can expect from an author who often writes with various cultural sacred cows in mind, and whether or not this means the U.S.A. itself will wind up as her latest target.

Let’s take a look Rowling’s fictional version of New York to start this discussion.  Here are a few of points about the first film’s setting that may turn out to be meaningful with respect to the author’s aim in moving from Hogwarts to Harlem — to include some thoughts on alchemy and the Big Rubedo Apple.

You Belong to the City”: Rowling, Urban Satire, and the Threat against Women

The earliest speculation about how Ms. Rowling could portray New York was given the by the Hogwarts Professor himself, John Granger:

Forgive me for assuming that Ms. Rowling’s story is going to be about the horrible nightmare of life in the Big City for racial minorities, for religious and ethnic outliers, and the indigent poor all of whom live in tenement ghettos.

At least Dickens had the courage and comic genius in Martin Chuzzlewit to belittle America about slavery as it was in his own times, at the risk of insulting (and losing) his audience, albeit one that didn’t pay him any money and he thought very little of in consequence. The equivalent for Ms. Rowling would be to tell a tale of abortion madness or sexual slavery today, but you know she’s not going to ‘go there.’ Even if she wanted to, and she doesn’t, the Warner Brothers group won’t let her. We’ll get a picture of the US, though, as a racist, homophobic, xenophobic, religiously intolerant, and capitalist juggernaut grinding down the unfortunate, set in a different time so we don’t need to think it’s really about us. Wink, wink (web).

As it turns out, it seems Ms. Rowling will indeed “go there”.  The official list of characters for Fantastic Beasts contains one entry that might be a clue that JKR will trodding very familiar ground.  The character is listed as a “Sex Trade Worker” who will be employed at a speakeasy in 1920s New York in the upcoming film (web).  Furthermore, Ron Perlman is listed as playing Gnarlack, a goblin who runs a speakeasy in NYC’s Harlem district (web).  Also, in her character description, Tina Goldstein is said to have “stood up for somebody of whom her superiors did not approve, and was thus demoted to a position well below her abilities (web).”

Ms. Rowling has already stated that the Wizard/Muggle/No Maj relations in America are more separated than they are in Europe or the UK due to the history of violence stemming from both the Puritans and the Scourers.  This has left a legacy of distrust among American Wizards with regard to ordinary No Magi.  I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that the “Trade Worker” is the No Maj woman Tina tried to take a stand for, resulting in her demotion in the Wizarding U.S. Congress.

I’m guessing, too, that Gnarlack’s speakeasy will be the place where the audience will run into this character.  Maybe it will be revealed that getting a job at the goblin bootleg joint was the best favor Tina could manage for her in the end.  I think we can expect Newt to run into the Worker, and for Tina to fill him in on their shared history.  Based on how low she is on the list, I think this character will be a minor plot point.

If my guess is correct however, Ms. Rowling will be revisiting the familiar theme of Violence and Discrimination against Women, increasingly her touchstone issue, and will be using both Tina and the Worker to make her point.

Aside from that, keep on the lookout for some comment on urban poverty, perhaps with a hint of the impending Stock Market Crash that ushered in the Great Depression. Jacob Kowalski will be the most likely candidate for this exploration.  It’s easy to imagine Jake listening to an old Glenn Frey tune and thinking, “Yeah, that about sums it up for me.”

Harlem and the Renaissance

Moving on to a more upbeat scene, Mugglenet’s SpeakBeasty podcast had a wonderful prediction that Rowling might make use of the Harlem Renaissance in her film.  In fact, Aaron, one of the podcasts, stated that he’d like to see Duke Ellington make some kind of cameo in the film, as the music from that time was just incredible.

To be fair, he’s got a point.  There are several reasons why paying a visit to 1920s Harlem in the film makes sense.  For one thing there is the aforementioned Renaissance.  During the early nineteen-hundreds, the African-American enclaves of several cities both North (New York, Chicago) and South (New Orleans, Mississippi, Memphis) began a series of significant contributions to American music, theater, and letters.   In many ways it was a confluence of several cultural and artistic influences, all them centered around one stretch of neighborhood containing music clubs, speakeasies, and the sound of Jazz and R & B.  Because the influences on the Harlem Renaissance stem from both African and Anglo sources, there has been great deal of debate as to who owes what to whom.

Thanks to the work of Black History scholars like David L. Lewis and Houston Baker, it is possible to say that the same Mythopoeic Modernism that inspired T.S. Eliot and James was also at work in the writings of such Harlem luminaries as Langston Hughes and W.E.B. Dubois.  This could be something that Ms. Rowling would choose to highlight in passing as Newt makes his way through the City that Never Sleeps.  I can’t say for sure how such a historical situation will prove relevant to the story.  It could be that by pointing out a modern Renaissance, she will find some connections between it and the 17th century one of Shakespeare’s time.  How or if she might do this, and whether or not such a choice meets with the approval of fans is something we’ll have to wait and see about.

Myth and Modernism at the Round Table

One thing I do feel more confident about is that the setting will guarantee some sort of reference to the aforementioned Modernism.  This mythic element could come in anywhere from the plot, to the characters, or maybe just tucked way back in the architecture. Though whether or not Ms. Rowling will be allowed to get away with setting any of her scenes in one of New York’s old cathedrals is something I’m doubtful about, to tell the truth.  However it would be fitting for Rowling to acknowledge this artistic legacy in a story set in the 1920s.

The addition of writers like Joyce and Eliot reveal that the nature and artistic expression of Mythopoeia is something durable enough to be applied to stories outside the normal range of the Fantastic.  Charles Williams once theorized that the same mythic ideas applied to the detective genre for instance.  It would seem Ms. Rowling (along with Dorothy L. Sayers) believes in something very similar.  The idea that the same mythic themes the Inklings dealt with can be explored in other genres and art forms is further attested by the members of the Algonquin Round Table, along with New Yorker authors James Thurber, Robert Benchley, E.B. White, and comedian Harpo Marx and his Brothers.

The Algonquins and Yorkers are notable for bringing a lot of the literary techniques and stylistic methods associated with Modernism to America.  I would have to say that it was because of their efforts, along with the members of the Harlem Renaissance, that most of this Country is familiar with the idea of retelling classic myths in modern garb, or of mixing characters from ancient fairy tales into a modern setting.  They’re also responsible for the subgenre known as the Screwball Comedy.

This particular comedic style blossomed as a form of escapism (in the good sense of the term) during the Great Depression, when most people desperate for a laugh.  A typical Screwball situation would often involve elements or members of the American Upper Class and placing them in embarrassing or compromising situations and seeing how they could get out of their predicaments.  A variation of this theme is the old Country/City Mouse dichotomy.  In other words, other plots revolved around the Working Class gate crashing the citadels of the posh one percent, often making fools of the rich in the process.  A typical Screwball Comedy scene would play something like this:

The Scene:

The elegant, combined dining/ballroom of New York’s Algonquin Hotel.  Various rich and upper crust patrons are seated at their tables enjoying a meal.  The ballroom dance floor is wide and devoid of dancers.  Suddenly a great, green dragon comes bursting through the dining/ballroom and exits by creating a hole in the wall.  Enter Newt Scamander, holding up his wand in one hand, carrying his satchel in the other, the weight of the case making his gate resemble a half-hearted duck walk.  He looks round and speaks rapidly.

Newt: Oh so sorry! I beg your pardon, but did anything out of the ordinary just come through here?

Everybody points to the still smoldering hole in the wall.

Newt: Thank you!

He promptly exits through the hole in the wall.  After a beat the patrons resume their conversation as if nothing has happened.  In the background, a Maître’d walks up to the hole and plants a sign beside it.  The sign reads: Please enjoy our new “Economy” view of Central Park.

With its focus on satirizing the foibles and vices of the rich, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to imagine Ms. Rowling having a fondness for this particular form of American humor.  Sometimes you just can’t argue with the classics.

One of the great things to be said about Thurber, White, and the Algonquins is that they never really looked down their noses at fairy tale and myth.  Instead, they seem to have more or less embraced it, along the idea of popular genre writing as a whole.  E.B. White and Thurber both went on to become bestselling children’s authors.  White later gained immortality as the author of Charlotte’s Web.  Thurber published a terrific trio of tales, The Wonderful O, The White Deer, and in particular The 13 Clocks.  All of these titles are worth tracking down, if you can spare the time.  Even Robert Benchley dabbled in the Fantastic with I Married a Witch, as well as the Mystery/Noir genre by working with acclaimed director Alfred Hitchcock.

It helps to compare the Algonquins with their English counterpart, The Bloomsbury Group.  Both we’re familiar with the use of myth in fiction, yet the difference was the Algonquins never treated it with the same contempt as the Bloomsburys.  Instead, they Round Table embraced it as a natural part of the artist’s repertoire.  In some ways, the ART managed to realize the ideal of combining the popular with the literary in fiction.  The Bloomsburys could have accomplished the same feat, yet they lacked the conviction to do so.  In that sense, the Algonquin Round Table were the Bloomsburys as they perhaps could have been.

What unites the Algonquin’s work with that of the Inklings, I’d argue is the shared process of reshaping elements from past history and old folklore, and giving them a modern expression in a contemporary idiom that was recognizable to the modern public.  At the same time, this artistic exercise of reclaiming the past opened a gateway to the discovery of antiquity as a vital entity.  It let the audience rediscover history with the mythopoeic artwork acting as a mediator between past and present.  The critics referred to this creative recreation of the past as the Modernist Technique, T.S. Eliot called it the Mythical Method, while J.R.R. Tolkien labeled it Mythopoeia.  For all these reasons, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Ms. Rowling make deliberate use of any of these authors in helping to flesh out Newt’s story.

Big Apple Alchemy

We come now to the most important reason why J.K.R. might have chosen New York as the setting for the first Scamander film.  This also serves as a lead-in to what I consider the most important element of her possible Allegory.  To put it in simple terms, after the colonization of America, and the ending of the Puritans (if not their cultural legacy) immigrant settlers from both Europe, Scotland, and Ireland all converged on the New World en-mass.  When the second wave of settlers came to the American colonies they brought with them the whole storehouse of Old World Culture.  This included the baptized hermetic symbolism of Renaissance Christianity.

In doing so, the new settlers essentially brought the medieval mindset with them to pre-colonial New York, and all the other states in between.  The importance of this transition of medievalism from Old World to New carries several repercussions that were to effect the future of the Country.  It meant the modern American mindset originated in a much older view of the Cosmos, one in which both Icon and Symbol had a much more prominent place than they do today.  It meant the Second Wave Settlers view of the land was closer to that of the Renaissance Peasant in that both saw reality as the symbolic expression of the Divine Mind.  The world was seen as a related system of interlocking levels between Nature, Man and the Heavens.  This three-tiered view of life meant that settlers from different parts of the globe were united inwardly by a shared reference point that was capable of bypassing cultural differences, and forming a new united commonwealth.

However controversial this may sound, the fact of the matter seems to be that without this shared Christian outlook, this Country could never have been as unified as it eventually became.  One of the groups responsible for helping to solidify this national identity was the Huguenots of La Rochelle France.  Settling in the port town of New Amsterdam, later renamed New York, the Huguenots set right to work putting the stamp of the Renaissance on their new home.  By embedding traditional/alchemic symbolism (in particular the Snail (Kamil, Fortress of the Soul, 6-7) into handcrafted artisanal furniture like chairs, cupboards, and even architecture, the Huguenots turned old New York into a kind of psycho-geography of the Elizabethan Mind (ibid, 723, 779-80).  It expressed the French Protestant belief of the artisan workman as a kind of alchemist (ibid, 64) working in Co-creation with God, the Divine Artisan (ibid, 74).  At the same time, these beliefs were often kept a professional secret in case of possible persecution, which was never far from the mind of many immigrants to America.

A brief What-If?

There is at least one way Ms. Rowling could reference this hidden hermetic side to the New York of Fantastic Beasts, and its hidden denizens.  To understand this, it’s best to examine the character of Seraphina Picquery, the President of the Magical Congress of the United States.  She’s been featured prominently in most trailers for the film, and however much screen time she’ll have, it’s pretty clear that the character will have some kind of importance to the story.

However, I’d like to focus on how someone like her would have to go about her day just to survive on the mean streets.  Consider the dichotomy of her existence.  On the one hand she is the most powerful woman within the entire Nation.  At the same time she’s an African-American woman of mixed race who would draw lethal stares if she so much as set foot in certain drinking establishments.  Also consider this, while she is one of the most powerful mover/shakers of public opinion in the Country, out in the streets she’s probably just some nothing kid forced to live in one of the more low-rent apartments somewhere in the segregated Harlem district.

Most likely her day starts by getting up out of a bed that’s seen better days, putting on her street clothes, all of which are in various states of shabby, and either walking all the way to Woolworth’s or else taking a crowded bus in which she is forced to sit in the back.  Getting into the Woolworth building unnoticed must be a chore in itself.  The moment any beat-cop notices her she’d be out of there faster than the flash of a nightstick.  Still, once inside she dons her work clothes and for a moment holds the fate of the Nation in her hand.  During her time in Woolworth’s she has the ability to shape the Country’s flow of events.  At the end of the day, however, she still winds up a victim of it all.  It’s easy to imagine her going from her job each day and making her slow way to a speakeasy somewhere, and nursing a bathtub gin in an out of the way corner.  In events like this only one question occurs: “Would you like something to drink?”  The question may be inappropriate in more than one sense, yet as C.S. Lewis might agree, “You have to admit it was natural” (Lewis, Miracles, 7).

That is just one idea of how Rowling might utilize the wizards of New York.  In many ways I wish she would do something with President Picquery like that what was just stated above.  However there is also the possibility that she might also do it in some other way that references the hermetic past of the Big Apple.


It is with the American past that I believe we’ll meet the heart of Ms. Rowling’s Allegory for Fantastic Beasts.  Specifically, it’ll be found in President Picquery’s job.  I believe that in the creation and portrayal of the MACUSA, J.K. Rowling will hint at the philosophical underpinnings of our Nation’s Founding, and the famous personalities that helped give it shape.  In a final series of posts, we’ll examine the Magical U.S. Congress, and see how it reflects in the lives of the Founding Fathers, and the philosopher Ancient and Modern who influenced them.  In a way, it was a literal collection of “Yankees in King Arthur’s Court.”

Let me know what you think in the comment boxes below!

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