Ice Queens and Obscurials

You know who Credence from Fantastic Beasts reminds me of? Elsa from Frozen. Yes, you read that right. What do they have in common? Both are born with magic, and both try to suppress it, with disastrous results.

Of course, there are some major differences. While Elsa has a loving and supportive family who just have no idea how to help her, Credence is the son of a woman whose mission in life is to eradicate magic. Therefore, he suppresses his magic far more than Elsa does, to the point that he himself is not even aware he’s a wizard. While Elsa runs away from home after her powers are revealed, her loving sister finds her and helps her find a way to control them. Newt tries to fulfill a similar role for Credence after he is revealed as the Obscurial. However, Newt has only met one such person before and was not able to save her. Unlike Elsa’s ice magic, Credence’s suppressed powers are a death sentence, and all characters involved are shocked that he has managed to survive to young adulthood as an Obscurial.

It is not enough for Credence to acknowledge his powers or to accept that his mother is wrong about magic. In fact, Grindelwald is easily able to manipulate his desire to be a part of the Wizarding World long before either of them suspects what he is. When he becomes aware of his powers, his bottled-up anger is released, and if anything, the Obscurus in him seems to grow stronger. We’ll see how that plays out in future Fantastic Beasts movies, but if he ever manages to channel that power in a controllable way, it’s clear it won’t be an easy process.

I’m also reminded of Morgana from BBC’s Merlin series. Like Credence, she grew up in an environment that was completely hostile to magic, and she quickly had to come to terms with her magic, which she struggled to control. However, she soon gained control, and from that point on it was really her own anger, rather than her powers, that consumed her and caused her to lash out against others.

If anything, Elsa’s situation is more like Arianna Dumbledore’s. Arianna was fully aware she was a witch, and yet she still suppressed her magic and refused to use it. Her condition is described in a way that has convinced many people, me included, that she may have been an Obscurial. Arianna, like Credence, lived longer than most Obscurials, and I wonder if that might be because she grew up in a family of wizards who did not judge her and had at least some idea of how to help her.

However, being a Disney heroine, Elsa has something that none of the other characters I’ve mentioned have had: a happy ending. With her sister’s help, she is able to gain control of her magic, thaw the winter, and overcome her own fear and anguish.

There’s something about these stories that rings true, even though the magic powers part is fiction. Bottling up emotions never really works the way we intend it to, does it? Someday, that shaken-up bottle of emotion explodes all over everything. But besides that, the hostile environments these characters grew up in left their mark. Isolation and loneliness. Fear. Anger. Learning to hate or be afraid of themselves because of something beyond their control. In Credence’s case, outright physical abuse. Although all the characters I named have harmed or killed people, they all (aside from Morgana) come across as victims rather than villains, and it’s the people that drive them to those extremes that truly look horrible. I think the message, if there is one that we can apply to the real world, is that it’s very easy for hate and fear to breed more hate and fear, so that everyone involved ends up suffering. It’s better to look at others with kindness and understanding, and to love those around us regardless of their differences.

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What if Helena Ravenclaw was Slytherin’s protégé?

Silly question, I know. She wouldn’t have even been in his house; she was a Ravenclaw, after all. But they have a lot in common. They both played a direct part in the founding of Hogwarts, Slytherin as one of the founders, Helena as a founder’s child and part of the first generation of students. They both grew apart from the other three founders and eventually fled the castle, never to return. They both did something or took something with them that left Hogwarts in a fractured state. And they both played an unknowing role in Voldemort’s rise to power, Slytherin as his ancestor and inspiration, Helena by telling him where to find Ravenclaw’s lost diadem.

Helena didn’t have the greatest relationship with her mother, so perhaps there was another teacher she saw as a role model instead – and there’s not much Gryffindor or Hufflepuff about her. Perhaps she looked up to Slytherin and wanted to be more like him; perhaps he even told her that if she weren’t Rowena’s daughter, he would have picked her for his own house. The lover who comes to find her when she runs away was a Slytherin, so perhaps she associated herself with Slytherin house in other ways as well.

Depending on the timing, her decision to steal the diadem and flee might even have been influenced by Slytherin’s own departure. She didn’t steal it out of longing for the wisdom it could bring, but rather, because she thought it would help her become greater than her mother. That’s pure ambition right there. If she witnessed Slytherin’s fight with Gryffindor and subsequent departure, if she knew what he had left lurking inside the school, if she saw the growing fracture between the houses and perhaps felt torn between her mother and her mentor, she might not have had much reason to want to stay.

The Sorting of Albus Dumbledore

Hatstalls are rare. In Harry’s generation, only Neville, Hermione, and Harry himself even came close. Albus Severus Potter was probably a hatstall, as were Minerva McGonnagall and Peter Pettigrew. Many Harry Potter fans see themselves as a combination of more than one house, and I would argue that most of the characters are as well, but the Sorting Hat rarely has such trouble picking out the house where a character will fit best, and it is almost never wrong.

Has there ever been a four-way hatstall? It seems doubtful. And yet, I can think of one character who just might fit the bill: Albus Dumbledore.

Dumbledore was a Gryffindor, and as far as we know, that’s all he was. A straightforward, moment-the-hat-touched-his-head Gryffindor. In fact, given that Pottermore calls McGonnagall and Pettigrew “the only hatstalls personally known to Harry Potter”, he probably wasn’t a hatstall, at least not in the technical sense of the hat taking 5+ minutes to decide. That doesn’t mean he can’t have been close, though, or that he doesn’t have strong traits of the other houses.

Gryffindor is obvious. Dumbledore founded the Order of the Phoenix, stood up to Voldemort when others were living in denial, and was never afraid to put his own life on the line. Not to mention Grindelwald. After all, “It takes a great deal of courage to stand up to your enemies, but a great deal more to stand up to your friends”.

Ravenclaw is pretty obvious, too. Dumbledore is one of the wisest and most knowledgeable characters in the series. He’s always full of ideas that are usually very close to the truth and figures things out about five steps ahead of everyone else. Pottermore describes Ravenclaws as “eccentrics” who are “often out of step with ordinary people”, and Dumbledore fits this description as well: from his quirky idea of saying “a few words” (“Nitwit, blubber, oddement, tweak!”) to his willingness to keep on telling the truth even in spite of efforts to silence him, Dumbledore is never overly concerned with how others see him. He is known for breakthrough discoveries such as the nine uses of dragons’ blood, and he always has a better idea of what’s going on than any other character, both due to his vast experience and knowledge as well as his innate intelligence.

Helga Hufflepuff valued fairness and equality, believing – contrary to her three co-founders’ ideas – that all magical children should be welcome at Hogwarts, not simply the bravest or most intelligent or those from all-magical families. This is the kind of attitude that Dumbledore embodies as well, drawing criticism from those who disapprove of his openness. He welcomes muggle-born students to Hogwarts, encourages Hermione in her campaign for House-Elf rights, converses with merpeople in their own language, and made special arrangements to allow a young Remus Lupin to attend Hogwarts even though he was a werewolf.

And finally, Slytherin. As a young man, Dumbledore was tempted by ambition, although he soon changed his mind and opposed Grindelwald instead of fighting alongside him. In his old age, he used some of the same tactics to serve a genuine greater good. He was still extremely clever, and one might even say cunning. He seemed to be able to predict what every character would do before they did it and what to say and do to achieve the outcome he wanted. He definitely had most of the series planned out before it ever happened.

As he tells Harry, “It is our choices, far more than our abilities, that show who we truly are”. Dumbeldore may well have chosen to be a Gryffindor, but that doesn’t cancel out the fact that he could have done well in any of the houses. In fact, one might say that he had the courage of a Gryffindor, the mind of a Ravenclaw, the heart of a Hufflepuff, and the intricate plans of a Slytherin.

Voldemort’s Mistake

When I was writing my Taylor Swift Slytherin playlist, I said this about “Getaway Car”:

It’s not that Slytherins are in any way incapable of loyalty, but they are loyal to themselves first, along with perhaps one or two others. The driver of a getaway car, the rebound boyfriend, or the partner-in-crime doesn’t factor into that.

I’ve always thought that one of Voldemort’s biggest mistakes – second only to underestimating love – was making himself an army of nothing but Slytherins – Slytherins who all had their own reasons for joining him, almost none of which were about loyalty to Voldemort.

Dumbledore describes Tom Riddle’s school friends – and by extension, the Death Eaters – as “the weak seeking protection, the ambitious seeking some shared glory, and the thuggish gravitating toward a leader who could show them more refined forms of cruelty”. That seems pretty accurate from what we see. The Malfoys and Barty Crouch Jr. are of the ambitious type, Wormtail and Snape are definitely the “weak seeking protection”, and Bellatrix Lestrange and Fenrir Greyback are in it out of bloodlust. While they all gravitate toward Voldemort as a leader and are on board with his poisonous rhetoric, in a way, he’s just that getaway car driver.

No, that’s not quite right. For Bellatrix, he’s everything. Maybe for Barty Crouch Jr., too. Their primary loyalty is to Voldemort even more than to themselves. But they’re unusual exceptions among Voldemort’s followers. The Malfoys are loyal to their family first. Wormtail is loyal only to himself. Snape is loyal to the memory of Lily Potter before either Dumbledore or Voldemort. This is a group of people who, when they finally managed to capture Harry and his friends, spent so long arguing over who would summon Voldemort that they ended up escaping. There is basically no unity among them, and a common cause in name only; they’re in it for themselves. Their ambitions clash and their ruthless natures mean a lot of betrayals. In other words, they are all Slytherins and all want to be on top.

In contrast, the Order of the Phoenix is made up of people from all four houses, and Dumbledore’s Army is made up of three. From Hufflepuffs with their work ethics and unfailing loyalty, to Ravenclaws with their wisdom and creative thinking, to Slytherins who spy and work in secret, to Gryffindors burning with passion for a righteous cause, they are far from homogenous, and their members’ strengths complement each other. As the Sorting Hat warns at the beginning of the fifth book, the Houses are stronger together and, divided, don’t stand a chance.

Hesitant Vengeance: Hamlet and Harry Potter

I’m getting near the end of Prisoner of Azkaban in my re-read, which means I’m in the middle of the Marauders’ story and thinking about how tragic the Harry Potter books are from their point of view. I mean, all of them die young, one betrays his friends, another is framed for that betrayal and murder, and the fourth is ostracized from most of society for something that’s no fault of his own. There’s a little flicker of hope with James and Lily’s son and his destiny as the Chosen One, but none of them live long enough to see that happen. In preparation to write about that, I went back to look at those old posts I wrote last winter when I was reading Shakespeare. I was shocked to find that I’d never said anything about Hamlet, because I knew I’d written something comparing the themes of revenge and murder there to things that happen in the final few Harry Potter books. So, I dug this out of my unpublished drafts. Better late than never, right?


Revenge is not as central a theme in Harry Potter as in Hamlet, but the fact that it’s not is noteworthy. After all, the central character is a young man fighting his parents’ murderer, and many of the other heroes have suffered and lost loved ones at the hands of the villains. Neville’s parents, for instance, were tortured to insanity by the Lestranges and Barty Crouch Junior. In the Order of the Phoenix movie, when Neville first meets Bellatrix Lestrange, he responds to her mocking question about his parents by saying they are “about to be avenged”. However, vengeance is never his main motive, and he doesn’t kill any of the people involved in his parents’ torture. In fact, as far as we know, he doesn’t kill any people at all. Instead, his big moment of heroism consists of defying Voldemort in front of both assembled armies and destroying his last horcrux, making him mortal again. It’s the conclusion of an entirely different character arc, one about an awkward young boy learning to believe in himself and fighting for what he knows is right. Neville is, in a way, the opposite of Hamlet; instead of hesitating out of doubt, he hesitates due to low self-esteem, and when he grows past it it’s to find a greater purpose than revenge.

At the beginning of Half-Blood Prince, Draco Malfoy seems eager for revenge. While his father is not dead, he has been defeated and imprisoned, and the family has fallen out of Voldemort’s favor. Being recruited by Voldemort and tasked with murder must have seemed to him like a chance to get even, which he embraces without realizing what it entails. As the year goes on, he becomes more and more hesitant, until – facing a disarmed and helpless Dumbledore – he can’t bring himself to kill him. Like Neville, Draco is something of an inverted Hamlet; while Hamlet hesitates at first but later pursues revenge, Draco becomes hesitant later and never kills anyone. Rather than a tragic flaw, this is portrayed as evidence that he still has a conscience (however deeply-buried).

Neville and Draco are both foils to Harry, so it’s no surprise that similar themes appear in Harry’s own journey. Harry never hesitates to fight against Voldemort, and it’s impossible to say that revenge isn’t at least part of his motivation. In Half-Blood Prince, when Dumbledore asks him how he’d feel if he had never heard the prophecy, Harry replies, “I’d want [Voldemort] dead, and I’d want to be the one to do it”. However, when he faces Voldemort in Deathly Hallows, revenge is the least of his motives. His willingness to sacrifice his life shows that much. Rather, it’s his strong ability to love that drives him: both love for the people he’s lost to Voldemort and love for the people still living who he wants to protect. He would want to be the one to kill Voldemort even without the prophecy because he has seen the worst Voldemort is capable of and will do anything in his power to protect others from him. Any personal desire to see his parents’ murderer die is secondary to this overwhelming, self-sacrificing protectiveness and love.

There are a few moments, however, when he does seem to be motivated by revenge. After Dumbledore’s death, he chases after Snape, shouting out all kinds of curses, including one that he knows from past experience could be deadly. He implies several times in Deathly Hallows that he’d like to seek revenge against Snape, but of course, he never gets the chance. In Prisoner of Azkaban, he initially longs for revenge against Sirius, but later decides to prevent Peter Pettigrew’s murder, preferring to turn him in and clear Sirius’ name instead. He also attempts twice to use the cruciatus curse, which causes its victim immense pain. The first time, he’s unable to, even though Bellatrix has just killed one of his father figures; the second time, he uses it easily, and with much less provocation. In fact, Harry using an unforgivable curse when a stunning spell would have sufficed is one of the darkest moments of Deathly Hallows. These moments stand out because they are uncharacteristic for Harry. He is not usually hesitant, much less cowardly, but he is rarely cruel or vengeful.

In fact, Harry can be described as “reluctant” in one very important way: reluctant to kill. He fights in battles while trying not to cast any lethal spells, which is admittedly much easier when one is a wizard and can stun or disarm the enemy with magic. However, even the other heroes are surprised and dismayed. Once, after Harry refuses to kill a man he suspects to be under the imperius curse, Lupin tells him that “the time for disarming is past”. Harry nevertheless continues in a fairly consistent pattern throughout Deathly Hallows, stunning, disarming, and escaping from his enemies without doing them any lasting harm. The only life he takes is Voldemort’s.

I think it all comes down to what we as a society value. Today, we are less likely to celebrate those who take pursue revenge for its own sake, so we have to find new motivations for our heroes. They instead fight out of a sense of duty, or to protect others, or to defend themselves, all reasons for violence that are viewed more positively today than revenge. This is especially the case in a series like Harry Potter, which emphasizes the importance of love, allows for second chances, and describes murder as “an act against nature” which splits the soul and spoils any innocence a person might once have had. A Harry who acted mainly for revenge would have been much harder to make into a modern-day children’s hero and would not have fit in with the series’ view of the world, while a Hamlet who behaved like Harry Potter would have been out of place in a historical revenge tragedy, even one that often transcends the genre as Hamlet does.

Deadly Dysfunctional Families: King Lear and Harry Potter

I mentioned in my weekly sorting hat post that the siblings from King Lear remind me a lot of Sirius Black and his family. Well, once that occurred to me, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and there are a huge number of parallels – as well as a few obvious differences.

Edgar and Sirius

The eldest son of a nobleman, Edgar is forced to run away from home when his younger brother convinces their father he’s plotting against him. Like Sirius, he’s accused of a crime he didn’t commit against a person he would never want to harm. And like Sirius, he’s forced to flee or face a horrible punishment. However, Sirius really did hate his parents, who were pretty awful people. It was his best friend – whose family treated him as their own son once he ran away from home – that he was accused of betraying. Edgar is also one of the few characters to survive the play, whereas Sirius is murdered by his cousin in Order of the Phoenix.

Edmund and Regulus

To be fair, Regulus Black was a better person than Edgar’s younger brother, Edmund. While he did join the Death Eaters, he quickly came to realize how evil Voldemort was and gave his life trying to stop him. Edmund, on the other hand, seems to repent somewhat as he’s dying but never redeems himself the way Regulus does. His decision to call off Cordelia’s execution is too little, too late. However, the rivalry and hatred between the two brothers and the contrast of a heroic older brother and a villainous (or at least morally gray) younger one is similar.

Bellatrix and Regan

Regan is devoted to two things: her own attempts to gain power, and the equally evil man she loves. These two things consume her and drive her down darker and darker paths. She is arguably the worse of the two “bad” daughters, although that’s more up for debate than Bellatrix being the worst out of her family. Regardless, they have a lot in common.

Narcissa and Goneril

Like Regan, Goneril treats her father poorly, forces him to dismiss many of his knights, and eventually joins with Edmund to go to war with him. However, she then poisons her sister and commits suicide, thus ensuring a victory (however hollow) for the heroes. Likewise, Narcissa Malfoy’s lie to Voldemort allowed Harry to conceal his survival and go on to win the battle. As with Regulus, there are more shades of gray in Harry Potter: Narcissa had become disillusioned with her Dark Lord, whereas Goneril turned on her sister out of simple jealousy. The differences are important, but the similarities are there.

Andromeda and Cordelia

Again, these two have as many differences as they do similarities. Cordelia remains loyal to her father and returns to try to save him, while Andromeda walks away from her family and never looks back, never speaking to any of them again except her similarly rebellious cousin Sirius. While Andromeda was disinherited for marrying someone the family didn’t approve of and going against their prejudice, Cordelia’s offense was merely answering a question honestly instead of offering false flattery. However, the idea of a daughter refusing to give up her own principles and suffering for it holds true for both.

I’m not saying the siblings from Harry Potter are exactly like the ones from King Lear. The differences between them are as significant as the similarities: the Harry Potter series has more room for moral ambiguity, is less forgiving of bad parents, and allows different characters to survive the story. The fact that the three sisters and two brothers are cousins, rather than from separate families, impacts the story as well. For example, if Regan had tried to kill Edgar, it would not mean much; when Bellatrix kills Sirius, it’s even worse because they are cousins and likely grew up together.

The fact that Harry Potter is not a tragedy may also have an effect. However, I would argue that this particular family’s story is a tragedy even if the series as a whole isn’t. Sirius’ and Regulus’ stories certainly are, and there are few characters I feel more pity for than Andromeda, who lost her family as a young woman, her only remaining cousin twice after that, and the family she made for herself in a war against the family she was born into.

The families aren’t identical, but the similarities are astonishing: two brothers, three sisters, two good, three evil, the good ones shunned by their parents in favor of the bad ones, all of them pitted against each other in a war that doesn’t benefit any of them in the end. There are so many parallels there that I can hardly believe it was a coincidence, especially knowing that J.K. Rowling has cited another Shakespearean tragedy – Macbeth – as having influenced the series.

Different Kinds of Strength

It would be hard to find two women more different than the Goldstein sisters from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. While Tina is serious, desperate to prove herself, and driven to help others but a bit lacking in self-esteem, Queenie is warm, bubbly, totally sure of herself, and far more than just a pretty face. One is quiet and understated, the other outgoing and flashy; one wears pretty dresses and makeup, the other dull neutral colors; and while both have sharp minds and warm hearts, they show this in very different ways. In this day and age, a lot of movies want to have “Strong Female Characters”, but sometimes I think what gets lost is that there are many different ways for women to be strong. Letting them sometimes save themselves is a good place to start, but it’s only a starting point.

Tina is described in the movie as a “career woman”, and her main motivation is to get her job as an auror back. She’s straightforward and serious, with no time to waste on frivolity. Beneath all that, she has a good heart and cares deeply about doing the right thing. She’s not quite a typical leading lady for a Hollywood movie, not least because her wardrobe and makeup are simple and don’t really make her look “sexy”. The conflict between her shaken self-confidence, determination to impress her superiors, and strong moral compass makes her a complicated character.

Queenie, on the other hand, could easily have come across as a stereotypical “dumb blonde”. However, she’s kind, intelligent, and utterly independent in ways that crush that stereotype into nonexistence. She makes good use of her talents – including legilimency – and is as bold and confident as her sister is uncertain. She doesn’t care one bit what others think of her but uses their preconceptions to her advantage. And she falls in love not with the wealthiest or most handsome man around, but with someone who has a beautiful, earnest mind.

And this wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Seraphina Picquery, the female president of MACUSA. Seraphina is not as warm or caring as the Goldstein sisters, but she’s commanding and believable. She acts decisively, and her authority comes across without feeling like she’s trying too much. She portrays yet another version of what it means to be a “strong woman”, this time one who can make the harsh decisions a leader has to without being vilified for it.

The Harry Potter series has always done a good job of portraying well-rounded, distinct female characters who are strong in their own individual ways. One of the biggest flaws of Cursed Child, in my opinion, is that it didn’t give Rose more of a role and instead focused on the two boys alone. However, the new female heroes of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them are complex, dynamic, and show the potential to develop even further over the course of the sequels.