Grindelwald’s rhetoric: Trying for metaphor in the age of Brexit and Trump (FBCoG #7)

Seventh blog post about Fantastic Beasts:  The Crimes of Grindelwald.


Yes, the Fantastic Beasts film series is about World War II.  It is significant that Queenie and Tina Goldstein are Jewish, and that will become more apparent in later films.  The final showdown between Dumbledore and Grindelwald takes place in 1945.  The series locations will continent-hop, with the next installment purportedly set to film in Rio de Janeiro.

It may be that you don’t trust J.K. Rowling and David Yates to write an international story about characters who are Jewish or people of color, with a gay wizard as a central figure.  Considering that there are three known Jewish characters in Potterverse, all named Goldstein; two acknowledged queer characters; and representation of people of color that is often tokenist and sometimes truly hurtful (there is no redeeming the flippant racism of the Ilvermorny backstory on Pottermore)… I would advise viewers to go into these films remembering the demographics of the people who created them.  I would urge anyone who is looking for accurate representation in art to seek out exciting work from artists who create from perspectives that encompass queerness, people of color, Jewish experience, and many other identities that aren’t centered in this series by Rowling and Yates.

Mindful of that context, then, let’s look at some aspects of Crimes of Grindelwald.

Some viewers have wondered if the World War II imagery that Grindelwald uses in his rally means that Grindelwald, and the movie, are saying:  If the characters in this series oppose Grindelwald, they will bring on World War II and the Holocaust.

I don’t think that’s the intended message.  It looks to me like we’re being shown Grindelwald’s rhetorical strategies for whipping up crowds to manipulate them for his own purposes, and one of his tactics is to accuse an enemy of exactly the kind of criminal intention he has himself.

When he and his followers kill a French Muggle family to steal their home for headquarters, Rowling adds another fascist reference to Grindelwald’s character by having him say of the house, “This will be suitable after a thorough cleanse” (emphasis mine).

His follower, Rosier, says with satisfaction, “When we’ve won, they’ll flee cities in the millions.  They’ve had their time.”

Grindelwald shushes her, giving an impromptu lesson in propaganda:  “We don’t say such things out loud. We want only freedom. Freedom to be ourselves.”

Rosier continues, anyway:  “To annihilate non-wizards.”  She’s slow to catch on to this lesson in doublespeak, giving Rowling a chance to underscore what this group has as its goal.

Grindelwald spells out some refinements for her benefit, as well as the benefit of the audience:  “Not all of them. Not all. We’re not merciless. The beast of burden will always be necessary.”

(Excuse me for a moment while I run around in my mind, screaming, “Gross.”  Shudder.  Shudder.  Shudder.  Shudder.  Shudder.)

Grindelwald is shown repeatedly to be a manipulator who tells people whatever they want to hear in order to influence their behavior.  He’s peerless at this skill.  Seraphina Picquery reveals that they removed his tongue as punishment, although it turns out that they didn’t manage this in time to prevent him from talking his body double into receiving the amputation instead; the punishment proves ineffectual as well as barbaric.  His lies do not have internal logic; they do not need to.  He bypasses his listeners’ logic and speaks only to their fears.  He plays on Queenie’s desperation to marry Jacob by claiming that he wants wizards to be free to love, knowing she won’t pause to reflect that his pureblood platform does not support wizard-Muggle marriages.

This parallels, in a direct and blatant fashion, LGBTQ voters who somehow claimed, in 2016, that Trump would prove supportive of LGBTQ rights.  I don’t know what made people think such an argument could be supported and I’m not about to go looking.  Since 2016, between repeated and baseless attacks on trans people’s basic human rights, erasure of LGBTQ people in census categories, appointment of homophobic justices and policymakers, double prejudice against asylum seekers fleeing gaybashing, and on and on, we’ve built up a terrifying mountain of evidence to the contrary.  Absolutely none of it was a surprise.  All of it was telegraphed… and yet, this argument was made at all.

We have known since Deathly Hallows that Grindelwald’s aim was to build an army to subjugate Muggles, who vastly outnumber magical folks.  Dumbledore told Harry, even then, that Grindelwald wanted the Resurrection Stone to create an army of Inferi.  The Dumbledore of Crimes of Grindelwald knows exactly what kinds of tricks Grindelwald will employ.  He tries to warn Travers, “Your policies of suppression and violence are pushing supporters into his arms.”  When Travers doesn’t listen, Dumbledore warns Theseus, “If Grindelwald calls a rally, don’t try and break it up. Don’t let Travers send you in there.”  Theseus tries to act on this warning, but Travers overrules him.

When Grindelwald inhales from his skull-hookah at his rally, in what seems likely to be a reference to Nazis’ heavy use of drugs, he exhales what he claims to be “my vision of the future that awaits if we do not rise up and take our rightful place in the world.”  This is when the movie shows imagery of World War II.  Based on what we have seen of Grindelwald’s aims and strategies, though, he’s lying.  Contrary to his claim, these images are not anything he’s trying to avert.  He’s simply showing his own fantasies of what he is trying to cause.  All he has to do is play on his listeners’ fears and heighten their emotion, then turn their hostility toward a common enemy.

After inciting his followers, he claims, “That is what we are fighting! That is the enemy—their arrogance, their power lust, their barbarity. How long will it take before they turn their weapons on us?”

He then goads his followers until one of them inevitably loses control and draws her wand on an Auror who responds with violence, playing into Grindelwald’s hands.

The parallels between this scene and mob rallies such as the Make America Great Again crowds could not be plainer.  As many observers have noted, Trump and his people accuse foes, incorrectly, of crimes that they themselves commit; it is one of their primary tactics, and it galvanizes their base whether the accusations are disproved or not.  In this instance, the overwhelming whiteness of the Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts casts is functional rather than indicative of institutionalized racism:  white people make up almost all of Grindelwald’s crowd, as is true of such rallies in current events.

It turns out to pose a bit of a problem, though, that when this series was first planned, we had not yet entered the Trump and Brexit eras.  The first Fantastic Beasts film premiered the weekend following the 2016 U.S. presidential election; ticketholders attending J.K. Rowling’s promotional event at Carnegie Hall walked past thousands of protesters at Trump Tower.  At that time, the first draft of Crimes of Grindelwald had already been written.  These first two Fantastic Beasts films were plotted out during an era when Godwin’s Law was still in effect, before Godwin himself suspended it.

In other words, when Rowling was writing those scripts, Nazis were still being mentioned rhetorically, as metaphors.

When she originally created Grindelwald, and the formative Dumbledore-Grindelwald clash of 1945, they were meant as metaphors for World War II.

We are in the post-Godwin’s Law era now.  I’m not sure how a writer can strike the right note, or anything approaching it.  Is the barely-coded Nazi Grindelwald too on the nose, or too subtle?  I think Rowling was probably following the usual rules of good storytelling by showing us his persuasiveness without spelling out that we should not believe a single word out of this liar’s mouth, but in the current climate, I would suggest to artists that subtlety is not the best strategy.  I wish the film had given one or two more blatant moments spelling out that Grindelwald doesn’t believe a word he is saying and is only playing on his followers’ emotions in order to exploit them.

This would have helped with Queenie’s storyline.  It feels alarming in the extreme that she has gone to Grindelwald’s side, considering that Rowling has written precisely three Potterverse characters identified as Jewish and she has not earned her audience’s trust that she can portray them well.

It seems that Grindelwald has won over Queenie by a combination of drugging her, lying to her, and simply persuading her as he persuades others, appealing to her fears.  A hallmark of his tactics is that he depends upon his followers to make an active, seemingly unforced choice to join him, as we see in this conversation about Credence.

KRALL

Well, we know where the boy is, don’t we? Why don’t we grab him and leave!

GRINDELWALD

(to KRALL)

He must come to me freely—and he will.

GRINDELWALD returns his gaze to the vision of CREDENCE suspended in the center of the drawing room.

GRINDELWALD

The path has been laid, and he is following it. The trail that will lead him to me, and the strange and glorious truth of who he is.

What Credence wants most is the truth of who he is.  What Queenie wants most is the freedom to love a Muggle.  (Whether that Muggle reciprocates is an open question after the events of this movie, of course.)  Grindelwald appeals to their desires to obscure their ability to see his true motives.  If he can get people to join with him of their own volition, because of desires that overpower their good judgment, he turns their inner conflict and lack of self-trust to his own advantage, against them.  They might later come to their senses, but they will blame themselves, knowing it was their own weakness that encouraged them to ignore warning signs about Grindelwald.  He gets people to be complicit in their own downfalls, resulting in the kind of profound shame that is written on every line of Dumbledore’s guilty face when he is forced to admit, “I cannot move against Grindelwald.”

Queenie does fall for Grindelwald’s persuasiveness.  We also see Rosier drugging her with tea from an insistent teapot, not introducing this natural Legilimens to Grindelwald until after she’s drunk the tea, not letting Queenie leave without meeting Grindelwald.  When Queenie first sees Grindelwald, she leaps to her feet and draws her wand, snarling at him to stay back:  “I know what you are.”  What, not who.  We don’t know what she means by that “what,” but in a film series that is focused upon the humanization and dehumanization of monsters, any such word choice will prove to be significant.  Grindelwald approaches her and starts his persuasive talk, lying to her that they will not harm her because she’s an “innocent.”  Once he has stepped toward her and even touched her wand, his manipulative powers have overwhelmed the resistance of this naive and desperate witch.

(One wonders why Grindelwald needed to recruit Queenie.  We see him using her in the last scene to tell him what Credence is thinking.  Is there something about Credence that makes it difficult for Grindelwald to read his mind, creating a need for him to rely upon another Legilimens?  After all, he couldn’t see who the Obscurial was in the first movie, although he could see the immense power of the Obscurus.  Does it have to do with the blood bond?  But I digress.)

I can understand the worry that Rowling may be using World War II and Holocaust history in a throwaway manner as an easy plot device for this series.  Based on the scripts and films, I do not think she is doing that.  I think that is her story, and there is no other:  the mechanics of fascism, the dehumanization that results in genocide and unwanted humans and monstrous rage, and the counter-strategy of recognizing the dignity and worth of all beings, including monsters and beasts.

Whether she can earn the trust of viewers in writing the characters of these stories… we shall see.

The writer and director are only two of the people creating these characters.  The actors, and what we know of them outside of their characters, embody them in a way that writing cannot.  The Asian face of Nagini, conspicuously non-white at the rally and whispering to Credence that this crowd will kill their kind for sport, says something without words.  The mixed-race face of Leta Lestrange, ostracized by her white classmates, shows us something.  I know I feel trust in the performance of Claudia Kim, showing what it feels like to be an Asian woman in a white-dominated environment.  I feel trust in Ezra Miller as a queer Jewish actor and Zoe Kravitz as a Jewish woman of color.  I felt trust in Samantha Morton as a survivor of the kind of institutional upbringing that Marylou Barebone enforced.

In an interview with Esther Zuckerman of Thrillist, Ezra Miller gave some perspective on how he understood his character’s reaction to Grindelwald’s lure:

This is like an ISIS recruit or a military recruit, [who] I see as very similar characters in the world. Essentially they both were people who were left [with] a deficit of identity. You know? A deficit of real connective tissue of culture, of family, of education. And so they, in their thirst for purpose and identity, were easily manipulated by people who wish to use them as pawns for their ultimate agenda or objective.

Credence is like this military recruit now, or like this ISIS recruit, anyone who’s ever been recruited to fight in a battle that is not their own. Credence becomes that figure, and what’s been manipulated, it’s his own trauma. And this is what they do. This is how people are systematically turned into murderers, into monsters, into the people who then become an enemy to someone else. They use trauma, they manipulate belief. They will utilize someone’s religious beliefs as a means to create an enemy, sometimes even for their own cause, just to perpetuate war. These are observable historical tactics.

Know that this is how, historically, hegemons get people to be their pawns. So that’s happened in a big way. The film ends with a would-be general putting a gun in a private’s hand, saying, “Here’s who you are now, you’re a soldier of this denomination and this country’s allegiance. And here’s why you’re angry and here’s who is your enemy.” He gives him a gun, a name, and an enemy in one.

I could use some stories about how to combat this kind of manipulation and its consequences.  I’m on board for the next three films.  I’m pretty sure I’ll need them.


Previous blog posts about Crimes of Grindelwald:

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Leta Lestrange, Time to Come Home (FBCoG#6)

Sixth blog post about Fantastic Beasts:  The Crimes of Grindelwald.


Did Leta Lestrange temporarily host an Obscurus before passing it to Credence?

That was a listener theory from Episode 75 of the SpeakBeasty podcast and it seized my imagination immediately.

It would make a lot of things click.

The Absence of Love

We learn in this movie that, according to Dumbledore, “an Obscurus grows in the absence of love.”

We also learn from Yusuf Kama that Leta’s father never loved her.

Perhaps those two pieces of information are supposed to go together.

The Timeline

Leta Lestrange was probably a baby or small child at the time of the fight that killed Ariana.

How can Credence be a sibling to Albus?  Kendra died and Percival started his life sentence long before Credence was born.

Suppose Credence hosts an Obscurus that makes him a sibling to Albus.  Maybe this Obscurus used to be attached to Ariana, as some fans theorize.  Or maybe, as Susan Şipal theorized (and I believe, at least for now), this Obscurus was attached to Grindelwald but was replaced when Grindelwald took the blood oath with Albus.

Either way, in this scenario, the Obscurus would have needed a new host between the summer that Ariana died and whenever it joined Credence.

Leta’s age fits that timeline.

“This One I Believe I Know”

When Leta challenges Grindelwald during his rally, he registers her with the creepy welcome, “This one I believe I know.”  The film doesn’t tell us how or when he knew her.  From the way they interact, as though unfamiliar with each other, as well as his phrasing, this acquaintance must have been some time ago.

Perhaps if Leta hosted or somehow harbored an Obscurus sometime after Ariana’s death, Grindelwald had something to do with this, or tracked it somehow.

He said, looking at her:  “Leta Lestrange . . . despised entirely amongst wizards . . . unloved, mistreated . . . yet brave. So very brave.  Time to come home.”

“Unloved, mistreated” sounds like a person who would have been a good candidate to host an Obscurus for Grindelwald.  “Yet brave” — perhaps she resisted him and refused to be used this way.  Perhaps there is more to the story of how she switched the babies on the ship, and she was trying to keep her brother or the Obscurus safe away from Grindelwald.

“Time to come home,” though.  What does that mean?

“You Never Met a Monster You Couldn’t Love”

Leta thinks of herself as a monster.  Or at least, she fears that she is one.

Does she feel monstrous because the hatred that Grindelwald saw inside her, the hatred that made her a good candidate to host an Obscurus, was real?

Or was there more to the story of child Leta switching babies and causing a baby’s death than she told everyone in this movie?

Was child Leta feeling burdened by an Obscurus, as well as a crying baby, and trying to bring herself a moment’s relief by putting it from herself, only to see this attempt go wrong?

Or did the switch have something to do with an attempt to keep a baby, or an Obscurial, from being found and exploited or killed?  Is that what made her brave?

Perhaps Grindelwald put the Obscurus into her when she was small.  Perhaps he simply reads her fear that she’s a monster.  Either way, “Time to come home” sounds like an appeal to her self-doubt.

“A Real Brother or Sister Out There Who Can Take Its Place”

Dumbledore tells Newt, “I know this:  An Obscurus grows in the absence of love as a dark twin, an only friend.  If Credence has a real brother or sister out there who can take its place, he might yet be saved.”

How does Dumbledore “know” this?  It is quite different from Newt’s information about children developing Obscuri when they are forced to suppress their magic.  What has Dumbledore seen?

“Take its place” is strange wording from Dumbledore.  I know nothing about stories of changelings, but a witch switching babies on an overseas voyage and then being haunted by her secrets from that act…?  This is deeply uncanny storytelling.

Is Leta really dead?

Grindelwald uses his Protego diabolica fire to admit some people and attack others.  Is it an automatic test of faith, like the silver hand that strangles Wormtail without direction from Voldemort, or does Grindelwald consciously control how it behaves with each person?

It looks to me like he controls it.  We see four ambivalent people passing through the flames:  Krall, Credence, Queenie, and Leta.  Krall is trying to save himself; Grindelwald looks directly at him as he’s punished by the flames and disintegrates.  We know from Queenie’s dialogue later that Credence is “still not sure he made the right choice,” so he is ambivalent as well, but the flames do not affect him.  Queenie emits ghastly screams as she crosses the flames, as though entering hell, as though the flames are burning away her humanity or chance to turn back.  Leta has ambivalence, as well, and we see her disintegrate in the flames, but does that necessarily mean she is dead?  Could Grindelwald have Apparated her away instead?

The way that she and Grindelwald interact makes me think that we will see her in future installments, and not only in flashback.

Leta deliberately walks toward the flames as a challenger and tells the Scamander brothers that she loves them before destroying Grindelwald’s skull hookah.

(What does she know about that skull?  Hmm.)

Is she casting a love protection spell over them, as Lily Potter did for Harry?  Did she sacrifice her life so the Scamanders could escape alive?

I don’t think so.  I think she is offering Grindelwald a different option, one that many characters in Harry Potter offered but rarely had to fulfill:  “I’ll do anything.”  Lily begged Voldemort that she’d “do anything” if he spared baby Harry.  When Dumbledore went into flashback from the potion in the cave, he begged, “I’ll do anything,” if only Grindelwald would stop hurting Aberforth and Ariana.  Narcissa said there was nothing she would not do to protect Draco.  Ron begged Bellatrix to take him instead of torturing Hermione.  Snape offered “anything” to Dumbledore in return for his protection of Lily.

It feels to me that there has been too much buildup to Leta’s story for her life to end as a simple distraction to enable the Scamanders to get away.  This installment in the five-film series has only started to lay out the intricacies of her story.  Grindelwald was, I believe, looking at her appraisingly when she challenged him, and she was defying him knowing that there would be a battle of wills and certain physical pain to come if he took up her challenge.  Grindelwald doesn’t only want to kill; he wants to put people to other uses, as well, and the woman loved by both Newt and Theseus Scamander would be useful to him.

I think there is something unresolved in Leta’s past that she knows she must continue to work through, and she may believe that an evil person like Grindelwald would understand it better than the good-hearted Scamander brothers.  Her “I love you” might have been not a love charm but a talisman-like reminder that in the near future, when they hear of her doing inexplicable things, she will be acting out of love for them, not out of delusion.

It is not commented upon, but through costuming, we see that she is, after all, a Slytherin.  Perhaps she has enough sense of self-preservation, and enough cunning, to see alternatives to sacrificing her life at this early crisis point.  Perhaps the plan she is clearly formulating, steeling herself to execute as she walks toward Grindelwald, is not to get herself killed but to work behind the lines, as a spy, mole, or double agent.

“Time to come home” doesn’t sound like Grindelwald intends to kill her on the spot if she shows resistance.  I think he’s announcing his intention to settle in for a long battle with the aim of assimilating her to his cause, and his battleground is going to be Leta’s understanding of her own true nature.

At the end of the film, Dumbledore asks Newt, “Is it true?  About Leta.  I’m so sorry.”  He doesn’t specify what might be true.  If Leta has gone over to Grindelwald’s side, for whatever reasons she might have in mind, that will make the story much more complex than if she had simply died.

Since I am a Snape fan, it is not surprising that I see possible similarities between Leta being recognized by Grindelwald and Snape being called by his Dark Mark to return to Voldemort at the end of Goblet of Fire.  Like Snape, I think Leta has depths and reserves of strength so she can make enormous, and unique, contributions before her time is up.

It took me several viewings, but focusing on Leta crossing over to Grindelwald clarifies to me that this movie’s story arc is about choosing sides.  By the end of the film, with Jude Law’s majestic gesture of defiance and freedom in raising his arms to be unshackled, like a fantastic beast unfurling its wings, we know where each of the characters has lined up for the upcoming battles.


The next post is  Grindelwald’s Rhetoric: Trying for Metaphor in the Age of Brexit and Trump.

Previous blog posts about Crimes of Grindelwald:

Triggered by Grindelwald (FBCoG #5)

Fifth blog post about Fantastic Beasts:  The Crimes of Grindelwald.


Grimmson, a “beast hunter for hire,” is the opposite of Newt Scamander.  When the Ministry wants someone to kill Credence to prevent Grindelwald from using him as a weapon, Grimmson looks at an image of Credence’s face and says, “Is that it?”

“It.”  Not “him.”

Newt walks out in revulsion.

But Grimmson does not kill Credence, despite taking on the job for the Ministry.  On Grindelwald’s orders, he kills Irma Dugard in front of Credence, a servant who had been kind to Credence and might have been able to tell him more about his own history.  In response to this violence, Credence’s Obscurus explodes and attacks Grimmson, but Grimmson smirks at Credence from behind a Shield Charm and Disapparates to Grindelwald.

 

GRINDELWALD

How did the boy take it?

GRIMMSON

(shrugging)

He’s sensitive.

 

This is the third time Grindelwald has triggered the appearance of Credence’s Obscurus.

The first time, in the movie Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, was unintentional.  Grindelwald is still impersonating Graves.  The Obscurus bursts out when Grindelwald, thinking the Obscurial is Credence’s sister Modesty, sneers at Credence and starts trying to exploit Modesty.  Instead of attacking Grindelwald where he stands, near Modesty, the Obscurus storms out through the city, luring Grindelwald away from the building.  Grindelwald follows; it’s the Obscurus he wants, the Obscurial he must control.

The second time, later in that movie, Grindelwald is in the subway tunnel, where Newt has called to the Obscurus by Credence’s name and calmed him back into human form.  Grindelwald can’t have that.  Knowing that Credence has a history of being whipped, knowing that Credence has protective feelings toward others, Grindelwald methodically whips Newt, long past the point when he has bested Newt in their duel, until he triggers Credence into exploding again.  We can see how hard Credence tries to control himself and how violated he appears to feel when he cannot help his reaction.  It is in Grindelwald’s interests for Credence to lose his sense of self and be out of control.

An Obscurus is “a parasitical magical force” of destructive Dark magic that usually dies if its human host dies.  Both MACUSA and the British Ministry of Magic order Credence killed to eliminate his Obscurus.  Tina vehemently opposes this plan; in the first movie, she orders, “Newt!  Save him.”

“Him,” not “it.”  Tina sees Credence as a person worth saving.

Newt says, determined, “They’re not killing it.”  He sees the Obscurus, as well as the human Credence, as a living thing worth saving.  When the Ministry impounds his suitcase, including the Sudanese Obscurus he has contained, he cries out, “Don’t hurt those creatures—there is nothing in there that is dangerous.”

In the first film, Grindelwald is interested only in the Obscurus.  The human Obscurial, it seems, is an inconvenience to him.  When he sees that Newt has an isolated Obscurus, he betrays himself by asking, “So it’s useless without the host?”

By the second film, Grindelwald may have learned something about Credence that makes Credence useful to him as well as the Obscurus, or he may have simply accepted that he can’t have the Obscurus without the Obscurial that keeps it alive.  Either way, he orders Grimmson, “You watch over Credence. Keep him safe. For the greater good.”

Grindelwald wants to exploit the Obscurus and possibly Credence as well.

Like Tina, Dumbledore, who tells Newt that Credence “might yet be saved,” is concerned for Credence.  Their tender recognition of his humanity is protective and right.

Newt, whom Dumbledore admires “more, perhaps, than any man I know,” goes further.

The Obscurus deserves protection as much as Credence because Credence developed it.  Even though the destructive nature of an Obscurus will eventually destroy its host, the Obscurus is of the host, part of the host, something that helped the host survive.  In its own way, it is living, and has its own integrity.  Attempts to save the host but be rid of the Obscurus may well feel threatening to the Obscurus — that is, to the part of the human that developed the Obscurus out of mortal need.

Dumbledore tells Newt, “An Obscurus grows in the absence of love as a dark twin, an only friend. If Credence has a real brother or sister out there who can take its place, he might yet be saved.”

A dark twin would feel threatened if replaced, would it not, in a darker version of sibling rivalry?  Wouldn’t an only friend feel grief if replaced?  If a “real” brother or sister takes the place of the Obscurus, what happens to it?  Where does it go?  An Obscurus is too real, I think, to simply disappear.  To kill it, I think, would be destructive, and would wound the host who developed it.

Attempts to save an Obscurial from their Obscurus must find a place for that destructive rage to go, a safe and not hostile place.

I thought, at first, that when Dumbledore said to Newt, “I can’t move against Grindelwald.  It has to be you,” he was telling the truth in the first sentence but exaggerating for manipulative effect in the second.  But I think now that it’s true that it has to be Newt.  The person to find and help Credence has to care equally about saving the person and saving the Obscurus that Credence developed.  He must have the skill to save both intact, but separate the Obscurus to halt harm to the host.  He must be able to win its trust.  Most of all, he must be able to contain the Obscurus, for its own safety.  That safety can bring some peace of mind to the Obscurial, I think.


Previous blog posts about Crimes of Grindelwald:


 

Patriarchy, Racism, Divorce, and Vengeance (FBCoG #4)

Fourth blog post about Fantastic Beasts:  The Crimes of Grindelwald.  Content warning for discussion of sexual assault and racism.

Previous blog posts about Crimes of Grindelwald:


“My father owned a very strange family tree.  It only recorded the men… the women in my family were recorded as flowers.  Beautiful.  Separate.”

Leta Lestrange says these words as she shows the records of the Lestranges, described by her half-brother Yusuf Kama as “a famous French pureblood family.”  She, a mixed-race woman, half French and half Senegalese, is depicted as a faceless flower, like all the other women.  The men of the family are labeled with names and faces, all white.  This inequality bears some resemblance to Credence’s description of living “with no name and no history.”

Kama says of himself and of Corvus Lestrange, “I am the last male of my pure-blooded line . . . and so, if the rumors are correct, is he.”

This kind of patriarchal genealogy strikes me as familiar, not as “very strange.”  Traditional Korean family trees (jokbo), in fact, operate the same way, listing men only.  Women don’t exist, or aren’t fully human, or don’t signify.  

Similarly, in Potterverse, almost all married women take their husbands’ surnames upon marriage.  This was so prevalent in the seven-book HP series that it wasn’t clear how much this was a conscious world-building choice on the part of the author until, in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, we see Muggle-born feminist Hermione Granger-Weasley, parent of Rose and Hugo Granger-Weasley, make a different choice.  

It was clearly intentional, though, that the author used this patronymic tradition as a plot point, showing that it obscured — within a single generation — half of a person’s family history.  If matronymics were not so thoroughly erased, Tom Marvolo Riddle’s identity would have been less of a mystery.  Likewise with the Half-Blood Prince.  Connections to the Peverell and Slytherin family lines would have been easier to trace.  And the grief about “old” or “pureblood” families “dying out” because there were no more sons, even if there were daughters who were just as much a part of the family, could have been reduced or dropped.

In addition to patriarchy, the racist and imperialist implications of Leta Lestrange being unnamed on the family tree feel familiar to me, as well.  Growing up in Korea, I knew of a white family who had lived in Korea for some time.  They adopted Korean children, but only girls, trying to keep their family name from being passed to Korean offspring.  Their daughters, whether Korean or white, were allowed to marry at will, but their sons were permitted only to marry white spouses, not Koreans.  There was, yes, some eye-rolling at this.

J.K. Rowling makes some deliberate choices in how to portray racism, gendered sexual violence, and patriarchy in her allegorical fantasies.  In the Harry Potter stories, she made some ambiguous or allusive references to possible sexual assault:  many readers see the Muggle boys’ attack on Ariana, for example, or Umbridge being carried away by the centaurs, as sexual assault.  However, she writes both episodes ambiguously enough so that it is possible to read them as assault without a sexual component, as many readers do, especially younger ones.  Both times that she writes sexual assault unambiguously in HP, it is a female perpetrator targeting a male victim:  Merope Gaunt drugs Tom Riddle, Sr., and Romilda Vane attempts to drug Harry.  Had she shown the more common scenario of a male perpetrator trying to coerce a female victim into sex, I think the effect would have been less nuanced, more sensationalized.  I greatly appreciate the choices she made in these instances.  For one thing, if these incidents strike readers as less heinous than assaults with female victims, it encourages readers to think about why that might be and to recognize that consent is equally vital for everyone.

Crimes of Grindelwald shows a crime of sexual violence that is both racist and sexist, a wealthy white French man destroying a black Senegalese family through abduction of a woman.  Rowling made a series of fascinating decisions about how to depict racist, sexist violence within a colonial dynamic.  She wrote Corvus Lestrange, Sr. using the Imperius Curse on Laurena Kama, so the audience did not have to imagine depictions of violence but fully understood the crime to be nonconsensual and Unforgivable.  She emphasized that the Kamas were “high-bred” and “accomplished,” of equal standing with the Lestranges, avoiding painful depictions of gross power imbalance.  She wrote Corvus Lestrange, Sr. as marrying Laurena Kama, granting spousal status to her and legitimacy to her child, rather than abducting her as a concubine.

On the one hand, an effect of these choices is that the audience understands the kind of historical violence the movie is referring to without having to sit through scenes of that kind of trauma.  On the other, this sanitized version can feel bizarrely euphemistic and inaccurate, and will probably leave the author open to criticism.  The decision to sanitize may leave some viewers uncertain whether Rowling fully realized the kind of dynamic she is showing.

The scenes showing Leta’s childhood follow a similar strategy of “show, don’t tell.”  The mixed-race girl is unwanted by her aristocratic white father, ostracized by fellow students at predominantly white Hogwarts.  Showing Hogwarts from Leta’s perspective makes the almost entirely white makeup of the student body intentionalmeaningful, a choice, rather than default.  

The sexist, racist, patriarchal contrast between her father’s feelings toward Leta (“Say it”) and Corvus Lestrange, Jr. raises the question of whether young Leta might have felt resentment toward her white male half-brother.  I think it is a merciful choice that Rowling writes Leta as having had no desire to hurt the baby, just a caregiver’s natural desire to get a moment’s rest from a baby who will not stop crying.  The theme of guilt for unintentionally contributing to a death is heavy enough in Potterverse, the burden of guilt on Leta is heavy enough, without adding to it through memories of understandable resentment made unbearable by the child’s death.  We have seen that story already through Snape hating James Potter but never wishing him dead, or Albus resenting having to care for Ariana but never wishing she would die and leave him free.  Thank goodness we don’t relive it through Leta.

But we do get the “show, don’t tell” visual of the unwanted, mixed-race girl being sent, along with a half-elf servant, to accompany the white male baby’s passage to safety.  Child Leta didn’t have to be sent away, as her life was not in danger from Yusuf Kama.  She was protected, ironically, by her father’s lack of love for her.  What was she doing on board the ship with baby Corvus?  Perhaps her father was taking the opportunity to be rid of a child he didn’t love.  But what we see onscreen is that this child is taking care of the baby, even though a servant has expressly been sent for that purpose.  For me, the visual called to mind how mixed-race teen Sally Hemings sailed to Paris as the slave and lady’s maid of Thomas Jefferson’s young white daughter, who was also her half-niece by blood, if not by status.  I do not know enough about the dynamic between France and Senegal in the early 20th century to know if my 21st-century U.S. perspective is wildly off, but that was one of the associations that occurred to me as I watched this scene.

As a woman of Korean descent, I also took interest in the appearance of Nagini in this film, played by Korean actress Claudia Kim.  Unlike, for example, the character of Cho Chang, who has an Asian appearance and a possibly Korean name but could otherwise be of any ethnicity, Nagini’s Asian female appearance is part of the story.  She is being exploited as a sexualized exotic spectacle by the white circusmaster for a predominantly white Parisian audience.  With a frankness that Rowling avoided in her children’s novels, she made Skender’s exploitative intentions clear:  “But look at her. So beautiful, yes? So desirable . . . but soon she will be trapped forever in a very different body.”  No euphemisms here, although thank goodness, Nagini has bars between her and the crowd, and can turn into a deadly snake, and is best friends with an Obscurial.  I wish everyone in her circumstances could have similar defenses.

Nagini’s perspective, like Leta’s, makes the predominantly white population of Potterverse intentional and meaningful rather than neutral by default.  Nagini glimpses Grindelwald’s rally and whispers to Credence, “They’re purebloods.  They kill the likes of us for sport!”  I felt that.  I’ve been that one Korean girl in an almost all white, potentially threatening crowd.  Credence and Jacob are Other, according to this crowd’s beliefs, but their Otherness is not apparent on sight, the way Nagini’s is.

Rowling’s decision to show but not tell that Leta endures racism and low status does carry the risk of minimizing or erasing those realities to the point of inaccuracy.  However, it also makes room for the complexity of Leta’s character without risking her individuality being overwhelmed by the heaviness of the crimes committed against her family.  It’s an interesting conundrum:  Leta is not shown as a victim, but her story is most definitely shaped by victim circumstances.  On balance, I feel glad that we see so much of the inner reality of this tremendously sympathetic, dignified character.  The sharp edge of impudence in her retorts to Dumbledore, especially, contribute to the fullness of her character.  I hope future films in this series give us more screen time for Leta.

Just as much as Leta, Yusuf Kama’s life is dictated by patriarchy.  While he is semiconscious because of the parasite’s venom, he says pitifully, “Father… why did you make me…?”  We learn that Mustafa Kama charged Yusuf, who was not yet of age, with an Unbreakable Vow to avenge the ruin of their family by killing whoever Corvus Lestrange, Sr. loved most in the world.  More than 20 years later, even after the death of Corvus Lestrange, Sr., Yusuf is in Paris under the conviction that he must become a murderer or die.  His father should not have dictated such a life for him… but his father was mad when he did so… and they were both destroyed by Lestrange’s crime against their family… the consequences of this crime are far-reaching.

Dumbledore would have had some insight into how Yusuf felt.  His life, too, was shaped by his father’s desire for vengeance:  Percival Dumbledore died in Azkaban after exacting revenge on the Muggle boys who tortured Ariana into madness.  It was Albus’s resentment and isolation while caring for Ariana as the head of the household that pushed him toward the ill-advised closeness with Grindelwald that resulted in Ariana’s death.

The ability to resist vengeance is a strength.  Yes, the world might be better off if Dumbledore hadn’t bound himself with a blood pact that prevents him from fighting Grindelwald, and perhaps Ariana would have still been alive.  But there is a reading of this blood pact that makes me applaud Dumbledore’s vow not to take revenge on Grindelwald, as much as it complicates matters.

The blood pact to make Dumbledore and Grindelwald “closer than brothers” is similar in gravity to a marriage, just as we saw with the life-or-death Unbreakable Vow between Snape and Narcissa, which was formalized in a ritual that resembled a wedding.  Dumbledore and Grindelwald mingled their blood into a vial that prevents them from fighting one another.

The emotions of that blood pact remind me of lovers having a child together before becoming enemies.  The child is a mingling of their blood.  The existence of the child can hold back each parent from attacking the other, since damage to either parent cannot help but affect the child.  Perhaps it was a terribly regrettable mistake for the lovers to join in the first place; perhaps the existence of a mutual child provides one or both of them with the permanent and unpreventable ability to torment the other, and the other’s family.  But if, as I and some others have theorized, Credence contains magic from both Grindelwald and Dumbledore, then refraining from mutual attack is a move to protect Credence.  Had Percival Dumbledore been able to control his desire for vengeance against the Muggle boys, or had Mustafa Kama refrained from swearing Yusuf to an Unbreakable Vow, their children’s lives would have been better.  Seen in that light, the oath between Grindelwald and Dumbledore not to fight one another is an improvement.

J.K. Rowling has never yet written divorce or custody battles into Potterverse.  But maybe the storyline of Dumbledore considering how to destroy the vial so he can fight against Grindelwald is an allegorical representation of divorce.  It can harm a child if their divorced parents fight, but eventually, children grow up, and they can be considered as adults rather than children in plans to safeguard their well-being.

Next blog post to come:  Triggered by Grindelwald.

Credence in Search of His Story (FBCoG #3)

Third blog post about Fantastic Beasts:  The Crimes of Grindelwald.  The first two posts:  “Closer Than Brothers” and “Your brother seeks to destroy you.”


Who is Credence Barebone?

He’s not Credence Barebone. That name was given to him by the Puritanical adoptive mother he killed.  He had a story before he had that name.

He’s not Corvus Lestrange, according to Leta.

Grindelwald says that the name “Aurelius Dumbledore” is his birthright, but we don’t know what that means, exactly.

What we know is that the need to know his own origins, his own identity, is more urgent for Credence than life itself.  When faced with Yusuf Kama, his would-be killer, he utters the heartbreaking line:  “I’m tired of living with no name and no history.  Just tell me my story — then you can end it.”

As Grindelwald “restores” the name “Aurelius Dumbledore” to Credence, he takes a baby bird from Credence and it becomes a phoenix, a bit of stagecraft suggesting that Credence, like a phoenix, has just died and been reborn.  In Potterverse, death is irreversible.  The dead cannot come back to life, with one exception:  the phoenix.

Credence appeared to be killed when the Aurors attacked him at the end of the first Fantastic Beasts movie, but to Newt’s surprise, he survived and made his way to Paris.  According to J.K. Rowling, “You can’t kill an Obscurial when they’re in Obscurus form.”

What if, instead of being none of those identities, the Obscurial we know as Credence is all of them, en route to his final form as a phoenix?

A Corvus Lestrange crossed the water and may have drowned, although Yusuf Kama says to Credence, “The ship had gone down at sea… But you survived, didn’t you?  Somehow, someone had pulled you from the water!”

Did one baby get switched with another?  Were there two babies?  Was there a shared fate?  Whatever those details, what we know so far adds up to the timeline of one individual life:

  1. Before conception until infancy:  a white European baby named Corvus Lestrange was sent across the water to escape an assassin
  2. From adoption until young adulthood:  a white American boy named Credence Barebone, an Obscurial, killed his Puritanical adoptive mother, survived Auror execution and returned across the water to Paris
  3. At young adulthood:  Grindelwald lured that person to Austria and told him his identity is Aurelius Dumbledore

Both times this person crossed the water, there was a death followed by a new identity.  Kama said to Credence, “Someone had pulled you from the water!”  Perhaps Kama’s conclusion was incorrect.  But what if Credence’s connection to phoenixes means that each time he crosses the water, he dies, is pulled from the water by a phoenix, and is reborn into a different identity?

A repeated image in this movie is an effect that Newt sees in Tina’s eyes:  “like fire in water, dark water.”  Perhaps this has nothing to do with this Obscurial, but that wording would also describe the image of a phoenix rescuing a baby who was about to drown.

What if Credence will have a different story for each of the five films in this series, tied to the film’s location?  What if this character’s identity is, for each location, a story that this place does not want?

The first film, taking place in New York, brings up the ugly U.S. history of Puritan witch hunts, segregation, corporal punishment, and worst of all, casual capital punishment.  

The second film, taking place in Paris, gives us a story of French colonial exploitation of Senegal, the sexual violence and racism against women endemic to colonialism, and some of the real-life consequences.  In response to the crimes of his mother’s assailant, Yusuf Kama’s entire life was sworn to being “the avenger of my family’s ruin.”  Grindelwald described Leta Lestrange, offspring of coercion, as “despised entirely amongst wizards…unloved, mistreated.”  Corvus Lestrange, treasured white son of the man who ruined the Kama family, has his life course determined by the repercussions of his father’s crimes.

Perhaps for the third film, Credence will cross the water once again, and the story he lives out for the duration of the film will be tied to a story of that place.  Perhaps it will be another story of a person of no name or history, a “freak” who is vulnerable enough for Grindelwald to attempt to exploit by telling him, as he tells Leta, “Time to come home.”  After all, as Skender the circusmaster tells Tina, “All my freaks think they can go home.”  Even if, perhaps, there is no home other than their uncomfortable place of origin, the drive to find something to claim cannot be suppressed.

The one thing that mattered most to Harry Potter was his own story.  His parents might have been dead, but their story belonged to him.  Voldemort mistakenly thought that nothing motivated Harry more than the “saving-people-thing” impulse that Voldemort created in him through traumatic violence.  What Snape, Dumbledore, Hagrid, Hermione, and Petunia Dursley knew, though, was that Harry’s greatest drive was to have his story restored to him.  Nothing enraged Harry more than Vernon Dursley keeping his Hogwarts letters from him, Dobby preventing Harry from getting his mail, or Dumbledore keeping the whole truth from him.  Voldemort drew Harry to him by threatening to hurt Harry’s loved ones, but Snape drew Harry to him by leaving Harry half of a letter and photo to find, awakening Harry’s hunger to find the rest of the story, knowing Harry would not rest until he did.

Several differences between the Harry Potter stories and Fantastic Beasts mark one as a series for children, one for adults.  In Harry’s case, whenever he went searching for his story, he found something, a solid and even wealthy family background full of love.  We don’t know yet if Credence will even find much of a story for himself.  So far, it seems that whatever story he does find will be less stable, less nourishing, than what Harry found of his family background.  Rarely, if ever, did the leads that Harry followed regarding his family stories result in dead ends or decoys.  We have already seen dead ends and decoys in Fantastic Beasts for both Leta and Credence.  Most grimly of all, we have seen Grindelwald exploiting, for his own ends, this sacred human hunger for the birthright of one’s own story.

Grindelwald tells his followers about Credence:  “He’s desperate for family. He’s desperate for love. He’s the key to our victory. […]  The path has been laid, and he is following it.  The trail that will lead him to me, and the strange and glorious truth of who he is.”

It works, of course.  Even after Credence knows how Grindelwald treated him in New York, after Nagini warns him that Grindelwald’s people kill people like them for sport, Credence crosses the fire to go to Grindelwald, telling Nagini, “He knows who I am.”  It’s a potent lure for someone who values learning his own story over life itself.

Next blog post to come:  Patriarchy, racism, and vengeance.

 

 

“Your brother seeks to destroy you”: More about that blood oath (FBCoG #2)

This post builds upon my previous blog post about Fantastic Beasts:  Crimes of Grindelwald. Header image shows the prop used in the film to represent Credence Barebone’s adoption certificate.


Who or what is Credence Barebone?

Grindelwald has an answer.  Whether it is completely true or not, he has a story that he is telling to his followers and to Credence.

He tells his followers that Credence is “the key to our victory,” “the only entity alive who can kill Dumbledore.”  He claims that he knows “the strange and glorious truth” of who Credence is.

According to Dumbledore, “An Obscurus grows in the absence of love as a dark twin, an only friend. If Credence has a real brother or sister out there who can take its place, he might yet be saved.”

Assuming that this new information is true, it raises the question:  When an Obscurus is replaced by “a real brother or sister,” what happens to it?

We have seen in at least one instance that it’s possible for an Obscurus to be contained outside its host, and that it may still be dangerous.  Newt warned Jacob away from getting too close to the one in his suitcase.  

But usually, an Obscurus dies when separate from its host.  If it is forced apart from the Obscurial because of a brother or sister, it seems likely that the Obscurus would experience this as a fatal form of sibling rivalry and attack the rival.

Dumbledore and Grindelwald performed a blood ceremony that made them “closer than brothers.”  If Grindelwald had an Obscurus, as Susan Şipal has speculated, then gaining Dumbledore as someone even closer than a brother would have forced the Obscurus out.

But if Dumbledore and Grindelwald shared blood, becoming closer than brothers, perhaps that means that any Obscurus tied to Grindelwald is now tied to Dumbledore as well.  If an Obscurus is developed out of suppression and lovelessness, a bond of love like the one Dumbledore entered into with Grindelwald would be a vow to take on and heal the partner’s pain.

In the final scene of the movie, Grindelwald tells Credence, “You have suffered the most heinous of betrayals, most purposely bestowed upon you by your own blood. Your own flesh and blood. And just as he has celebrated your torment, your brother seeks to destroy you.”

Grindelwald does not say who this “own flesh and blood” is who betrayed Credence.  The wording does not require the person who betrayed Credence to be the same person as the brother who “seeks to destroy” Credence, which is a kind of omission wordplay that J.K. Rowling has used before.  

Speculation:  If Dumbledore mingled his blood and magic with Grindelwald’s, and the Obscurus within Credence was once Grindelwald’s, that might make Dumbledore as well as Grindelwald into Credence’s “own blood.”  If the Obscurus was threatened by Dumbledore’s union with Grindelwald, it might have attacked Dumbledore dangerously enough for a phoenix to come to help.  

We know that phoenixes can intercept a would-be murder attempt, sacrificing themselves, because Fawkes does that for Dumbledore at the end of Order of the Phoenix:  “Fawkes swooped down in front of Dumbledore, opened his beak wide, and swallowed the jet of green light whole. He burst into flame and fell to the floor, small, wrinkled, and flightless.”  Phoenixes also have other miraculous powers, such as the ability to heal fatal wounds or carry heavy loads.

Is it possible that Credence contains an Obscurus that is a brother to Dumbledore because it was once Grindelwald’s “dark twin”?  That this “dark twin” attacked Dumbledore, attracting a phoenix, and that the phoenix somehow became the Obscurus’s new host and took on a human form?  This is speculation upon speculation, but fun enough to be worth taking further.  What if the “entity” known as Credence is a combination of Grindelwald’s Obscurus and a human form of a Dumbledore phoenix, and this is part of what draws Credence into a friendship with Nagini, another hybrid human/magical beast?

This theory would explain how Dumbledore could be considered Credence’s brother even though Percival and Kendra Dumbledore both died before Credence’s birth (which is given as November 9, 1904 on his adoption certificate, even though infant Credence is shown making a sea voyage in 1901).

Grindelwald told Credence that his brother “celebrated his torment.”  If Dumbledore was happy to separate Grindelwald from a parasitic Obscurus that would eventually kill Grindelwald, that might feel to the Obscurus like a celebration of torment.  

As for “your brother seeks to destroy you,” if Grindelwald once hosted this Obscurus, this “dark twin,” he would certainly count as Credence’s brother.  We know he wants the Obscurus to kill Dumbledore and does not care about Credence, the Obscurial; this could count as seeking to destroy him.  Dumbledore’s desire to save Credence by finding a real brother or sister to replace the Obscurus could also be the meaning behind “seeks to destroy you,” if Grindelwald is talking to the Obscurus more than to the Obscurial.

In the hypothetical scenario where young Dumbledore and Grindelwald, having bonded, have encased Grindelwald’s Obscurus within a phoenix or other magical protection, there might have been a disagreement.  Dumbledore might have wanted the Obscurus destroyed or contained; Grindelwald might have wanted to keep it as a weapon, horrifying Dumbledore.  This disagreement could have led to Dumbledore sending the Obscurus away to hide it from Grindelwald.

I went into Crimes of Grindelwald thinking that perhaps Credence will eventually turn into Fawkes after playing a major role in the 1945 duel and sacrificing himself.  After seeing the movie, I believe less in that theory, since the Dumbledore phoenix connection was brought up explicitly at the beginning of the second of five films.  But this theory is too pretty for me to let go of yet:  Credence as Fawkes, dying and being reborn, perhaps reaching a state of greater purity with each rebirth until he can assume his eventual phoenix shape in a form of alchemical transformation, as hinted by the name Aurelius, “golden.”  

If Credence is, or will become, Fawkes, that would explain two things to me:

What will this series do with the fact that unlike Harry and Draco, who avoided splitting their souls by committing murder although each came very close, Credence has actually caused deaths, including the death of his innocent foster sister?  The guilt of having caused death, no matter how unintentionally, is one of the major themes of Potterverse.  If Credence, as Fawkes, sacrifices himself to protect others and is then reborn into a different identity, a higher form of existence, that could address his culpability for those deaths.

If Credence really is a Dumbledore sibling, why was there no mention of him in Deathly Hallows?  How could something that important be omitted completely?  Unless…it wasn’t.  Perhaps he was in the series all along, giving tail feathers for wand cores, fighting the basilisk, living in Dumbledore’s office, gnawing on cuttlebone, appearing to people who showed great loyalty to Dumbledore, healing wounds and singing phoenix song.

Next blog post to come:  Credence in search of his story.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Closer Than Brothers”: What Does It Mean? A thumbs-up Crimes of Grindelwald post (FBCOG #1)

Spoiler alert!  If you haven’t yet seen Fantastic Beasts:  The Crimes of Grindelwald, be warned that the following blog post contains spoilers.


When a hostile Ministry official accuses Dumbledore of once being “as close as brothers” with Grindelwald, Dumbledore corrects him:

“We were closer than brothers.”

What did that mean?

Possibly over 99% of the theater audience had the first thought:  GAY.  Yes, that was definitely a central part of the picture, and cannot and should not be diminished.

But for me, there are further implications that continue beyond the genders of the characters in this pairing.  I think they hint at answers to several of Dumbledore’s secrets from the Harry Potter series:

  • Why did Dumbledore always seem to despise himself beyond what seemed reasonable?  After all, it was Grindelwald who started the fight that killed Ariana, not Dumbledore.
  • Why did Dumbledore dread “beyond all things the knowledge that it had been I who brought about her death, not merely through my arrogance and stupidity, but that I actually struck the blow that snuffed out her life”?  After all, it would have been an accident, right?  A spell that was not intended to harm Ariana but hit her in the confusion?
  • When Dumbledore relived his worst memory by drinking the potion in the cave, why was this wizard, “a shade more skillful” than Grindelwald, reduced to begging, “Don’t hurt them, don’t hurt them, please, please, it’s my fault, hurt me instead…” instead of working his magic to counter the attack?
  • How does this storyline relate to the “gleam of something like triumph in Dumbledore’s eyes” when he learned that Voldemort had taken Harry’s blood?

Guilt:  Albus didn’t love Ariana enough

When Leta Lestrange asked Albus if he loved Ariana, he answered, “Not as well as I should have done.”  

Albus and Gellert mingled their blood in a ritual that bonded them “closer than brothers.”  From then on, each of them would have contained some of the other’s magic in their blood, and they would be closer to each other than to their own siblings.  The mingled blood, as encapsulated in the blood vial, would have represented a new thing:  magic greater than the sum of its already great parts, a union that would have made these two geniuses, working together, close to invincible.

As Newt asked, and Dumbledore confirmed:  “It’s a blood pact, isn’t it?  You swore not to fight each other.”

During the fight that killed Ariana, we do not see Albus and Gellert attacking each other.  We don’t even see anyone attacking Ariana.  The only confirmed, targeted aggression we see is what Aberforth tells Harry, Ron, and Hermione:  “I had the Cruciatus Curse used on me by my brother’s best friend – and Albus was trying to stop him, and then all three of us were dueling, and the flashing lights and the bangs set her off, she couldn’t stand it – “

If Albus had taken a blood oath not to fight Gellert, and the oath made them “closer than brothers,” and it involved the mingling of their blood and therefore, according to the rules of J.K. Rowling’s universe, some of their magic – then Albus’s magic would have allied itself with Grindelwald against anyone else in the world, including his own siblings.

If Albus had cast magic to try to defend Aberforth from a Cruciatus Curse, it would not have worked against Grindelwald’s intentions.

His magic might even have rebounded and simply lent force to Grindelwald’s attacks against other people.

The blood pact meant that when Gellert tortured Aberforth with an Unforgivable, the formerly near-omnipotent Albus was reduced to helplessness and begging.  All of them knew that through this blood oath with the silver-tongued manipulator that Aberforth had warned him about, Albus had relinquished his power to stand in Gellert’s way, even against his own interests.  Voluntarily.

No wonder Aberforth broke Albus’s nose at the funeral.

No wonder Albus didn’t want to know if Ariana died of a spell that Albus intended as a defense of her, in his first experience of what happens to your formerly effective magic when you try to cast defensive spells against your blood oath partner’s intentions.

This is what Albus meant when he told Leta that he had not loved Ariana enough.  He allied his greatest magical loyalty with Grindelwald instead of with his siblings, and it killed her.

The memory of his helplessness to protect his siblings from torture and death, how utterly gullible and culpable he had been, how clearly Aberforth had seen the risks from the beginning, how much irreversible damage Albus’s family suffered because of a fatal romantic error he made in his youth:  that would explain the depth of self-loathing that we see, in glimpses, from the elderly Albus who mentored Harry Potter.

How this connects to Harry Potter

The moment Dumbledore heard that Voldemort had taken Harry’s blood, he got the “fleeting instant” of a gleam like triumph in his eyes, even if the “next second […], he looked as old and weary as Harry had ever seen him.”

The Dumbledore of King’s Cross explained to Harry, “He took your blood believing it would strengthen him.”  The mingling of the blood – one-sided, in the case of Voldemort and Harry, but mutual and voluntary with Albus and Gellert – was intended to supplement and strengthen a person’s native magic with another person’s complementary magic.  From the effects of the blood oath that Albus had taken, he knew firsthand that attacks against the blood-pact partner cannot be effective, since the bond’s power overrides the power of the hostile intention.  He knew that a Killing Curse from Voldemort toward Harry would be no more effective than his own countercurses had been against Grindelwald torturing Aberforth.  That if Voldemort persisted in attacking Harry, his one-sided blood-pact partner, Voldemort’s own spells might even rebound, since his magic was bound to this person who was now “closer than a brother” and might do anything necessary to protect this partner’s life.

This is why Dumbledore told Snape that it was “essential” that Voldemort be the one to kill Harry.  Anyone else’s murder attempt against Harry could have worked, but a Killing Curse from a blood-pact partner would behave differently.  It wouldn’t spare Harry any pain, but Dumbledore knew how Voldemort had just compromised his own power against Harry.

What Albus and Gellert wanted out of the pact

Here, I am speculating, based on the incomplete clues we have so far.

Before 2016, based on Deathly Hallows, I thought Grindelwald wanted to join forces with Dumbledore because it would be good to have a partner who was devoted to him and appeared eager to dedicate his powers to furthering Grindelwald’s cause.  I thought the proposal to bring Ariana along was something Grindelwald said to keep Albus from leaving the campaign.

In 2016, based on the first Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them film, I changed my mind.  What we learned about Obscurials, and Grindelwald’s driving desire to control and exploit an Obscurus, made me think that Ariana had been turned into an Obscurial when she was forced by trauma to suppress her own magic.  This angle made Albus look even more foolish.  How cold and frightening Gellert must have been as a teen if he exploited Albus’s attraction to feign a meeting of minds while secretly keeping Albus close only to gain access to his Obscurial sister.  If this was Gellert’s impetus and he was the one to persuade Albus to swear that they would not fight each other, it would be chilling indeed to think that Gellert contrived the blood pact so he would be able to control Ariana while neutralizing Albus’s ability to stop him.

But now in 2018, based on new information from Crimes of Grindelwald, I have changed my mind again.  As Susan Şipal highlighted in her brilliant video review of the film, Albus told Newt, “An Obscurus grows in the absence of love.”  Whatever Ariana’s struggles, we know she did not lack for love.  Ariana’s father’s misguided and disastrous vigilante vengeance, her mother’s round-the-clock care, and Aberforth’s tenderness all evidenced a degree of love that is different from the conditions required for an Obscurus to grow, assuming Albus was correct.

So perhaps Ariana did not have an Obscurus.  Perhaps Gellert mistakenly thought she did.  Or perhaps his aim in mingling powers with Albus had nothing to do with such a premise.

Perhaps both boys were invested in creating something separate and greater:  the combined power of the two of them acting together, each of them having taken the other’s blood believing it would strengthen them and give each qualities that neither had had before, as Voldemort believed when he reconstituted his body with Harry’s blood.  This heightened sum of their powers, a third entity separate from the two of them, is magically stored in the vial containing their mingled blood.

I believe that their blood pact worked.  I believe the boys were right to think that their magical union would prove ecstatic and give both of them powers they had never had before, and that as long as the two of them worked together, they would be so strong as to be nearly invincible.

I don’t know if Gellert wanted this for himself as much as Albus wanted it, or if Gellert used his manipulative powers to divine that Albus craved the ecstasy of greater magical power above all things and Albus would say yes to anything that would grant it.

I thought at first that Gellert was not invested in the magical power as much as Albus and intended from the start to entrap him.  But after watching Susan Şipal’s video, which I highly recommend (although I will not spoil it here), I see that Gellert stood to risk just as much with the blood oath as Albus did, and may have been just as unable to foresee the consequences.

Do I find it comforting to think that teen Gellert rushed into that brash blood oath just as unwisely as Albus did, rather than plotting it coldly to disempower Albus against him and bind Albus’s magic to him?  I do, yes; it frightens me to think of a teenager being brilliant enough in his evil to be that cold.  It frightens me more to think that anyone, genius or not, could be so compelled by a charismatic liar that they would suppress whatever warning signs they noticed about him, then have to live with the consequences of inviting that person close enough to cause irreversible harm to their family.

In that reading of Albus’s desire for Gellert and subsequent remorse, I am reminded again of one of Rowling’s recurring themes:  that bad romantic choices made in youth, even in partial innocence, at an age when a person cannot understand the full implications of the harm they will cause, can still create lifelong consequences.

Middle-aged Albus looks in the Mirror of Erised and still sees the blood oath.  The magic had worked, after all.  Could anything equal the rush of power that came of mingling magic with a fellow genius, so equal, so attractive, so intense?  It seems to me that the Albus of 1927 has never found anything compelling enough to provide a counterweight to the pull of that ecstasy, and that he knows perfectly well that if he were to betray his conscience and rejoin with Gellert, they would raise that ecstasy again, perhaps even more intensely with the powers they have gained with age.  Can he resist that craving?  Is his only safe choice to keep himself well away from Grindelwald, and try to deploy workarounds and safeguards to help himself resist?

It is a blessing that Dumbledore has Newt Scamander on his side.  It is no wonder that Dumbledore admires the qualities in Newt that make him incorruptible by the likes of Grindelwald.  Their partnership is not the heady, heedless ecstasy of the union between Albus and Gellert.  It is deliberate.  Conscious.  The dynamic between Albus and Newt is priceless when Newt holds up the blood vial, as if to say, Would you care to explain? and Albus looks at him with equal parts of shame, gratitude, and relief at being seen.  As Dumbledore told Leta Lestrange, “Confession is a relief, I’m told.  A great weight lifted.”  In Newt Scamander, Dumbledore has an ally who knows his great flaw and still consents to work with him.

I cannot wait for the rest of this series.

Stay tuned for more posts to come this week about Fantastic Beasts:  The Crimes of Grindelwald, including speculation about the identity of Credence Barebone.