JK Rowling and her Fantastic Beasts

emma-watson-new-harry-potter-and-the-deathly-hallows-promos-02J.K. Rowling has publicly stated that the Forbidden Forest is her favorite place at Hogwarts, a fondness that stretches back to her childhood near the Forest of Dean, where the woods were a “source of shelter and safety to us.” It is perhaps not surprising that, after Harry and Hermione’s narrow escape from  Goodrich’s Hollow, when they needed “somewhere more sheltered,” the “brightest witch of her age” Apparated them to that very forest, where she remembered once camping with her parents. Thanks to Phineas Nigellus Black’s portrait overhearing her explanation, the Forest of Dean becomes the setting for Harry’s pivotal encounter with the Silver Doe, his recovery of the Sword of Gryffindor, and his reconciliation with Ron. Thus, one of the key scenes of the series traces its roots to the simple memory of a Muggle family’s camping trip.

Rowling certainly packs her series full of wild and natural settings, magical beasts and the witches and wizards who love them: from Hagrid, who adores all creatures, even ones who would happily devour him, to Charlie Weasley, who gave up a promising Quidditch career to study Romanian dragons, to Luna Lovegood, would-be tracker of mythical beasts. One common thread that runs through the series is for these wild, fantastic beasts to be caged or captured, then set free by our heroes.

The first act of magic readers see Harry perform is the liberation of the zoo snake from captivity. On his birthday outing, Dudley had more interested in eating ice cream than seeing the animals; after downing one huge chocolate cone upon arrival, he threws a tantrum at lunch because his knickerbocker glory did not have enough ice cream on it. He visited the reptile house in hopes being entertained by movie-style monsters: “huge, poisonous cobras and thick, man-crushing pythons” but, when the snake failed to deliver the desired entertainment, he declared the sleeping boa constrictor “boring”, despite its huge size.

zoos-harry-potter            Harry, in contrast,  makes an immediate connection to the snake, empathizing with it in its captivity before he discovers they (literally) speak the same language. Both Harry and the boa are “bred in captivity,” repressed prisoners in world of that is not their own. The snake does not know what Brazil is like, having never been there; Harry does not even know the wizarding world exists. Harry’s accidental magic frees the snake, who slithers off for Brazil with a grateful “Thanksss, amigo” Fortunately, the great naturalist Hagrid will soon come along to liberate Harry.

The boa constrictor is only the first in a series of animal liberations. Hagrid must eventually accept that Norbert the dragon is too dangerous to be a pet, and Charlie helps spirit him away to Romania. In Chamber of Secrets, we learn that Hagrid had similarly freed another of his pets, the acromantula Aragog, to protect him from an unjust accusation of causing the death of a student; a death that was actually caused by another caged monster, the basilisk. In Prisoner of Azkaban, the baton of freeing unjustly-accused beasts is passed to Harry and Hermione, as they help Buckbeak escape his death sentence. Finally, in Deathly Hallows, the Trio escape Gringotts by freeing the captive (and mistreated) dragon.

484878-fantastic-beasts-and-where-to-find-them-sdcc-2016With the love of nature and naturalists that is apparent throughout the Harry Potter series, it is perhaps not surprising the J.K. Rowling has chosen for her next Potterverse project to follow the adventures of another great wizarding naturalist (and Luna’s future grandfather-in-law), Newt Scamander. The entire movie seems to center around another set of animals freed from captivity, albeit by accident and into an environment that is not theirfantastic-beasts-movie-trailers-demiguise own, namely, 1926 New York City. While the history and political life of American wizards and their troubled relationship with N0-Majs will likely take center stage in this new film series, I trust that, in the end, the animals will return to the environment where they belong, with Newt hopefully a bit wiser after the ordeal.


  1. Thanks for this excellent summing up! I saw the film today in a press preview, and while I was impressed by the political dimension and the hardly veiled criticism of contemporary issues in the USA (such as the death-sentence or the unholy union of bigotry and xenophobic power politics), what actually struck me most was the “ecocritical” tenor. Let me explain (attention, some SPOILERS for the film can’t be avoided, though I try not to be too specific):

    As might have been expected, Rowling wrote a layered screenplay with several different levels of meaning. So beyond the Hollywood family-adventure and the political allegory clothed in conveniently remote-seeming prohibition-era costumes, and the postmodern message of the importance of pluralism, tolerance and respect, there’s also the message that said tolerance and respect needs to be extended to our fellow-creatures if Man is to survive. Not only is Man at one point casually denounced as the world’s most dangerous animal; not only does the hero rely heavily on the aid of his magical creatures – in the end, it is an animal who saves the day and prevents open war, and a magical animal closely connected to Nature at that.

    I’ve been arguing for a while that Fantasy and Nature are categories that increasingly go together in fiction because for many people both aren’t part of the „real“ world any more. They share a lot of characteristics: Both are incompatible with (and/or perverted by) technoscience; both are beautiful and can be frightening or sublime; their worth cannot be measured in economical terms, yet both are exploited and used in order to make money. Incidentally, we are also dependent on both. This connection between Nature and Fantasy crops up everywhere – take Lord of the Rings’ New Zealand, take Game of Throne’s Dragons and Children of the Forest, take perverted nature in The Hunger Games; take „Magical Creatures and Where to Find Them“.

    It’s perhaps worth reading between the title’s lines: „…Where to Find Them“ in New York City is an issue the characters actually have to face on the superficial level of the film’s plot; but where we, as viewers, do find them is, of course, either the zoo at Central park – or in Scamander’s magical suitcase. Nature is literally confined to man-made zoos and man-made fantasy. Scamander’s magical suitcase thus becomes a pretty powerful symbol for a lost world full of magic and nature that we can step into in order to escape from the „real world“ – in other words: a book – and a book is of course what the title „Magical Creatures and Where to Find Them“ refers to…

    I don’t think all of this is a coincidence; I think there is actually another level of meaning connecting Rowling and her new lead character, Scamander – or is it entirely far fetched to read the whole film as a tongue-in-cheek allegory of the reception of and the „Controversy“ about Harry-Potter in the US (remember „The Menace behind the Magick“)…?

    Try this summary (and here I can’t avoid some major details, thus again: WARNING: SPOILERS!): „A Brit with a bagful of magic(al creatures) comes to America where bigots rail against Magic and try to suppress it. The Brit is persecuted, his/her magic denounced as evil. He/she finds some American friends and allies who help him/her and suffer for his/her sake. The suppressed magic causes evil and destruction; the power of „Credence“, i.e. faith, is perverted and breeds a monster whose power is craved by warmongering politicians. In the end, the Brit and his/her magic are proved innocent; they save the day (and,of course, write that book…).

    So we get the combined oppositions of city/destruction/bigotry/the puritans/the world of power vs. nature/creation/tolerance/Rowling/the world of books, all contained in and symbolized by that small, innocent brown suitcase… Pretty neat!

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