Nagini! Thoughts on Horcruxes, Possession, and Dark Magic

Warning:  This discussion gets dark.  (I mean, this whole series is dark.  And it certainly looks as if the Fantastic Beasts series, freed of any concerns about being intended “for children,” is going to go darker.  But yes, this discussion gets dark.)

On Tuesday, September 25, 2018, the final trailer for the upcoming film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them:  The Crimes of Grindelwald revealed that Voldemort’s snake, Nagini, was a Maledictus:  a human woman born with a blood curse, inherited through the maternal line, that doomed her to turn eventually into an animal.

Rowling announced via tweet that she had been keeping quiet about this backstory for Nagini for “around twenty years.”  She described the ethnic context of the Nagini character in a different tweet:  “The Naga are snake-like mythical creatures of Indonesian mythology, hence the name ‘Nagini.’ They are sometimes depicted as winged, sometimes as half-human, half-snake. Indonesia comprises a few hundred ethnic groups, including Javanese, Chinese and Betawi.”

Some fans were repelled at the darkness of a storyline in which a human woman becomes a snake who is beheaded by Neville Longbottom; some expressed skepticism that Rowling could have come up with such a backstory for Nagini 20 years ago.  But this is not the first time we have seen such a dark ending for a being possessed by Voldemort or part of his soul.  In fact, this is a standard outcome for anyone Voldemort possesses, in whole or in part.

On pages 653-656 of Goblet of Fire (U.S. edition), Voldemort addresses the Death Eaters and discusses what powers he had while he was bodiless in the forest:

“Only one power remained to me.  I could possess the bodies of others.  […]  My possession of them shortened their lives; none of them lasted long…”

Of Quirrell, he said, “I took possession of his body…  The servant died when I left his body.”

He explained that once Wormtail offered his services, “Wormtail was able to follow the instructions I gave him, which would return me to a rudimentary, weak body of my own, a body I would be able to inhabit while awaiting the essential ingredients for true rebirth…”

We know that for most of Goblet of Fire, Voldemort resides in a rudimentary body the same size and shape as a baby.  He stays in that form, small and weak, until he can obtain ingredients for a magic potion that includes the maternal nurturing from Lily Potter’s blood protection of Harry, which enables him to grow to adult size.  All of the other ingredients are readily available to him; that’s the only one he lacks.  Until he has it, he remains in his rudimentary and stunted form, all year.

We know from the diary Horcrux’s possession of Ginny that Voldemort, even a fraction of him, could draw life out of the person he possesses and take them over.  Dumbledore, Snape, Lupin, Sirius, and Hermione were all afraid that Voldemort would start to use the scar connection with Harry to possess Harry, and the only time Harry ever heard Dumbledore sound frightened was at the Ministry battle in Order of the Phoenix, when Voldemort possessed Harry and tried to goad Dumbledore into attacking him and thereby killing Harry.

In the Forbidden Forest in Sorcerer’s Stone, when Harry learns that Voldemort drinks unicorn blood to stay alive, Firenze tells him that “it is a monstrous thing, to slay a unicorn…  You have slain something pure and defenseless.”

Rowling has never revealed exactly how Voldemort got himself into corporeal form at the beginning of Goblet of Fire.  She said in interview:  “There are two things that I think are too horrible, actually, to go into detail about. One of them is how Pettigrew brought Voldemort back into a rudimentary body. ‘Cause I told my editor what I thought happened there, and she looked as though she was gonna vomit.”

Combined with the original crime at the heart of the HP series, Voldemort’s attempt to kill a baby, it seems reasonable to guess that Voldemort stole a body by possessing a human infant, kidnapped for him by Wormtail.  The infant didn’t die during the year of GoF, since it seems that Voldemort leaves the bodies of beings he possesses if they die.  So the original human infant within that body either still lived and was overpowered by Voldemort’s stronger personality, or became subsumed into Voldemort’s self, perhaps gradually to disappear or become indistinguishable.  Perhaps once Voldemort rebirthed himself in the cauldron and arose as an adult, the infant body and soul died; that would be a more merciful fate than the possibility that some vestige of the original infant lives on within Voldemort.

Which leads us to the question of whether or not Neville Longbottom, in the Battle of Hogwarts, actually beheaded a human woman.  And I would think that the answer is no.  Based on the glimpses we get into Nagini’s thoughts, her urges to strike in Order of the Phoenix or her advanced acting as Bathilda Bagshot in Deathly Hallows, it seems that by the time she is a Horcrux, Nagini is very much a magical form of snake, no longer thinking like a human.

On page 506 of Half-Blood Prince (U.S. edition), Dumbledore tells Harry that he thinks Nagini is a Horcrux.   Harry asks, startled, “You can use animals as Horcruxes?”  Dumbledore replies that it’s inadvisable “because to confide a part of your soul to something that can think and move for itself is obviously a very risky business.”  We know that this is a set-up for the eventual revelation that Harry is an unintended Horcrux, but this also resonates with some themes from the first Fantastic Beasts movie.

There are similarities between Horcruxes and Obscuri.  An Obscurus is a semi-sentient entity that cannot survive independent of its human host; the burden of having an Obscurus kills most Obscurials in childhood.  Newt Scamander is the first person to successfully separate an Obscurus from its Obscurial, keeping it protected in a magical container, which is perhaps similar to the container for a Horcrux or the enchanted bubble around Nagini.

The ability to isolate an Obscurus is of great interest to Grindelwald, who would like an Obscurus to use as a weapon without the pesky inconvenience of fighting the will of the host Obscurial; Credence, for example, proves to be obstinate in resisting Grindelwald’s exploitation.  We know that Voldemort was the first wizard to make more than one Horcrux and that he invented Dark Magic more advanced than any wizard before him.  My guess is that Grindelwald may eventually conclude that it is impossible to harness an Obscurus for himself.  He may turn to Horcruxes as an alternate way of splitting off and containing power, but if he succeeds in making a Horcrux at all, we know it will not be more than one.  This would set the stage for Voldemort to go further than other Dark wizards by embracing the Horcrux strategy wholly, depending only on himself, as Voldemort does, considering himself powerful enough to sacrifice segments of his own soul without loss of power.

But the more Voldemort splits his soul, the more unstable he becomes, which results in his final two soul fragments being encased in living beings.  By the time he goes to create the sixth and final intended Horcrux, he fails to generate the requisite energy by splitting his soul through murder, and he accidentally creates a sort of Horcrux without even noticing.  How embarrassing.  By the time he creates the Nagini Horcrux, he is desperate and settles for this unstable container.

As seems to happen every time Rowling releases new information about Potterverse, many fans object to this expansion of Nagini’s story.  Some argue that it is disturbing to think that Nagini, the human Maledictus portrayed by Claudia Kim, may have joined Voldemort as a sort of slave or lover.  But based on what we see of the Voldemort-Nagini relationship, it seems clear that he has positioned her as a surrogate mother.  In the opening chapter of Goblet of Fire, Voldemort and Wormtail enact a ghastly parody of Hagrid carrying baby Harry to the Dursley home, and Voldemort instructs Wormtail to “milk” Nagini so he can drink snake venom from a baby bottle during the night.  In a book about adolescent metamorphosis, in which Voldemort suffers uncontrollable physical conditions and then rebirths himself at the tomb of the parent he murdered, it is easy to imagine that he might repudiate the memory of the “weak” mortal mother who abandoned him by dying and reinvent himself as the offspring of a magical beast.

Many fans have seemed to resist the human Maledictus backstory for Nagini, but perhaps this is primarily an initial reaction of horror at the darkness of the story.  Rowling has been working up to hereditary blood curses for a while; they played a significant part in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and they are characterized by inevitability and blamelessness.  They fit well into the general Potterverse concept of Dark Magic as harm that strengthens over time (as with the curse that withered Dumbledore’s hand).  Perhaps this kind of hereditary blood curse is too dark for a children’s series, but not too dark for a PG-13 film series for adults about the evil and hate that led to World War II.

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Lethal White: Worth the read

Remember the Opening Ceremonies for the 2012 London Summer Olympics?  They were a feast for any fan of British culture, combining the real Queen of England with James Bond, the real NHS with greats of British music and theater such as Paul McCartney and Kenneth Branagh, and a bedtime story read aloud by J.K. Rowling.  This was a brilliant strategy for a display of national pride from a kingdom that has seen the decline of its infamously bloody empire, but whose arts remain world class.

The events of Lethal White take place during those Olympics, creating a pleasant double effect of a fictional world, written by Robert Galbraith, operating within the timeframes of a real world that includes authorial alter ego J.K. Rowling.  Galbraith/Rowling revealed the title a year ago; I wondered, idly, if the central crimes of the book would have something to do with drugs, perhaps.  Turns out that they don’t, and “lethal white” means something different.  Does “lethal white” also refer to the United Kingdom’s brutal, race-inflected imperialist history?  A little bit, yes, in a background but ever-present sort of way.

Speaking of race, Rowling demonstrates, once again, noticeable but limited progress in her writing of people of color.  Characters who are people of color read as more natural and fleshed out than in her earlier work, but she still includes a few instances of tokenism, specifying race for people of color and more personal traits for white characters.  She has also made noticeable but incomplete improvement in the anti-fat bias that was arguably the most disturbing element of her Harry Potter writing.  There are still instances of an anti-fat authorial gaze, but it’s far less severe than the bullying tone she used to sustain.  A sensitivity beta could be a big help.

For me, the strengths of this book far override any shortcomings.  One passage in particular is worth the price of the book for me.  It takes place in Chapter 55, pages 488-9, and I read it with eyes wide, heart rate elevated, like the most gripping of suspense scenes — but it is completely domestic, not part of her thriller writing.  It calls back to some of Rowling’s most intense writing about Harry Potter struggling with PTSD flashbacks or fighting Legilimency or the Imperius Curse, and it is related to her personal history of fighting back against sexist domestic conflict, as well.

She knew she was on the edge of a panic attack, but she held on, and every second she did not dissolve was giving her strength, and she stood her ground.

The mindful way that Robin Ellacott asserts herself reminded me of Jane Eyre’s most ringing declarations to Mr. Rochester, and indeed, there’s a reference to Jane Eyre in the very next chapter.

In addition to such step-by-step tutorials for feats of inner strength, several other J.K. Rowling specialties make their welcome reappearances.  As usual, she builds cliffhangers into her dialogue when characters on the verge of revealing secrets are suddenly, maddeningly interrupted.  Delicious.  She exposes the horribleness of everyday people, our petty satisfaction in malice, and especially our hypocrisy; it’s especially funny when she reveals that the most unforgivable insult among some protesters is “middle-class.”  But many of her most repellent characters are complex creatures who elicit sympathy as well as revulsion.

And then, first and last, there is the writing.  The playfulness:

So plosive was the ‘p’ of ‘protest’ that a small piece of potato flew out of his mouth across the table.

The manipulation of imagery, deft and haunting:

The shadow stems of the roses closest to the window stretched like bars across the carpet. The Brahms symphony crashed stormily on in the background.

And finally, on page 505, this stunner:

...recognized in Billy’s imploring expression a last plea to the adult world, to do what grown-ups were meant to do, and impose order on chaos, substitute sanity for brutality.

This comes close to perfection as an expression of one of Rowling’s central themes.  All of her stories chronicle this plea, and the horror if it cannot be answered.  Dumbledore always answered it; this is why so many people loved him and were bereft when he died.  Infant Tom Riddle never got an answer; the resulting horror made him a monster.  Adult Harry Potter came through for his son when Albus Severus made this plea.  Credence begged of Grindelwald, “Help me,” and reverted to chaos and brutality when he was rebuffed.  The job of adults is to answer this plea.  Reading how Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott detect order out of chaos feels both satisfying and soothing.