Fantastic Beasts: Shedding Light on the Obscurus

SPOILER ALERT: This post contains information from the new Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them movie.

For me, and I’m sure for many other Harry Potter fans, the most exciting part about watching the new Fantastic Beasts movie is the ways in which it connects to the magical world that we all know and love. Nifflers and bowtruckles come straight off the pages of Harry’s fourth year Care of Magical Creatures lessons, house elves give jazz entertainment, and a young Grindelwald causes mayhem in New York. One central plot point that was completely new to Harry Potter lovers, however, was the concept of the Obscurus, a dark, powerful force created when a young witch or wizard tries to suppress his or her magic.

Or is this concept completely new? Although the term Obscurus was not used, we have seen a situation where a young witch tried to contain her magical powers with disastrous consequences. When Aberforth Dumbledore describes his little sister Ariana, he says, “She wouldn’t use magic, but she couldn’t get rid of it; it turned inward and drove her mad, it exploded out of her when she couldn’t control it, and at times she was strange and dangerous” (The Missing Mirror, DH). In fact, one of the times that Ariana becomes “strange and dangerous” she accidentally kills her own mother. Nobody was around to see it, so it is quite possible that she became a dark, swirling force like Credence in Fantastic Beasts. Did Kendra have the telltale marks of an Obscurus on her face when she died?

This theory further illuminates why Ariana had to be so well hidden. Aberforth says, “If the Ministry had known what Ariana had become, she’d have been locked up in St. Mungo’s for good. They’d have seen her as a serious threat to the International Statute of Secrecy” (The Missing Mirror, DH). Judging by the reaction of MACUSA in Fantastic Beasts, however, if Ariana was an Obscurus she could have been in much more danger than just being sent to St. Mungo’s. Aberforth’s language is also telling: he says, “what Ariana had become,” which implies that Ariana was something no longer quite human.

And then there’s Grindelwald… In Fantastic Beasts it appears that Grindelwald has been masquerading as a member of MACUSA in order to find an Obscurus that he can use as a dark force against other witches and wizards, or possibly as a catalyst for a war between wizards and muggles. He might have been inspired on this mission during his teenage years when he discovered the powers of a different Obscurus: Ariana Dumbledore. Which leads to another question–could Grindelwald, more than just wanting a partner and companion in his search for the Deathly Hallows, also have had a different motivation for gaining Dumbledore’s trust? Could he have been planning all along to use Ariana for “the greater good”? And, even more disturbing, could Albus have known that fact? Was his sister, perhaps, part of the plan?

If Grindelwald was planning to use Ariana, he would have been thwarted by her sudden death. The depiction of Obscurus in Fantastic Beasts is as a terrifying destructive power, almost impossible to control. After watching the movie, it is hard for me to imagine that a wayward curse killed Ariana–it seems more likely that in an attempt to defend themselves from her, any of the three men, or possibly all of them, might have taken it a step too far. It is also possible that Ariana died due to the sheer destructive power she held within herself. At age 14, Ariana had already survived longer than most Obscuri, who generally don’t live past the age of 10. Fantastic Beasts, however, implies that witches or wizards with unusual amounts of power (such as Credence, who seemed several years older than 14) may be able to live longer as Obscuri.

The mystery of Obscuri is just starting to be unraveled, and it is impossible to know yet about Ariana’s behavior, Grindelwald’s true motivations, and what Dumbledore did or did not know. Hopefully the next Fantastic Beasts movie will reveal more clues to the connection between Obscuri and Ariana Dumbledore.


Happy Birthday Neville!

Neville Longbottom and Harry Potter, their birthdays just a day apart, have many similarities that go beyond the fact that either could have been chosen to fulfill Trelawney’s prophecy. Both Neville and Harry grew up without parents, in the homes of families who were critical of them. Once at Hogwarts, they were both Hatstalls who were eventually sorted into Gryffindor. In Potions class, both were tormented by Professor Snape. In fact, it is quite easy to imagine how Neville could have completed the prophecy just as well as Harry had, if the situation had been reversed. Neville’s bumbling awkwardness and insecurity might have slipped away quite easily if, instead of being treated as incompetent, his family had raised him as The Boy Who Lived. Constantly challenged by Lord Voldemort and his Death Eaters, Neville could’ve discovered his latent bravery much earlier in his life.

As it is, however, Neville does not need a prophecy to discover the power that will help him defeat Voldemort. He eventually breaks out of his shell because he is motivated by much the same thing that Harry is: love. The biggest transformation we see in Neville is during the fifth book, when he learns that his parents’ torturer, Bellatrix Lestrange, broke out of Azkaban. Neville starts focusing particularly hard in Dumbledore’s Army, determined to fight Bellatrix Lestrange should they ever meet. Just like with Harry, Voldemort (and his supporters) hand Neville the weapons he needs to destroy them. Dumbledore say to Harry in the sixth book, “If Voldemort had never murdered your father, would he have imparted in you a furious desire for revenge? Of course not!…Don’t you see? Voldemort himself created his worst enemy, just as tyrants everywhere do!” (HBP, Ch.23). Neville, just like Harry, is protected by his ability to love. He follows Harry to the Ministry of Magic to protect his friends and face Bellatrix Lestrange. Even more so than Harry, Neville faces temptations to join the Dark side because of his pure-blood status. In the seventh book, Neville takes over Dumbledore’s Army and fights the Carrows, despite the fact that the Death Eaters would have welcomed him into their ranks. In the end of the seventh, Voldemort offers for Neville to join the Death Eaters, and Neville replies, “I’ll join you when hell freezes over” (DH, Ch. 36). Neville is not foolhardy in his bravery; he is not reckless, nor does he pick out fights. He is brave when his love for his friends and his family, and his sense of justice, demand it.

Neville represents the combined power of both choice and fate in the series. He was not picked to fulfill Trelawney’s prophecy, and yet his fate ends up still being entwined with Voldemort, partly because of Voldemort’s cruelty, and partly because Neville himself chooses not to take the easy path.


Any favorite Neville quotes or moments in the series? I’d love to see your questions or comments!


The Potions of a Prince

In honor of Severus Snape’s birthday on January 9th, I have researched the different potions ingredients found throughout the books. On Pottermore, JK Rowling said, “I always enjoyed creating potions in the books, and researching ingredients for them. Many of the components of the various draughts and libations that Harry creates for Snape exist (or were once believed to exist) and have (or were believed to have) the properties I gave them.”

Shrinking Solution:
Chopped daisy roots: Daisies symbolize childhood, innocence, gentleness, and purity, and therefore were probably used in this potion to represent becoming smaller or  younger.

Skinned shrivelfig: The Abyssian shrivelfig is a magical plant  that seems to have been created specifically for the Harry Potter series, with unknown potion making qualities.

A dash of leech juice: leeches drain away from their host, and therefore represent shrinking, or growing smaller

Draught of Living Death: A powerful sleeping potion

Powdered root of asphodel: A plant connected to death and the underworld

Infusion of wormwood: Wormword was historically used in absinthe, and was believed to cause a condition called absinthism, which involved sleeplessness and hallucinations

Valerian Roots: Used as a natural remedy for insomnia

Sopophorous Bean: Probably comes from the root soporific, which means “tending to induce drowsiness or sleep.”

Aconite (Monkshood and Wolfsbane): Aconite is a genus containing many species of plants, most of which are poisonous. Aconite poisoning in humans may ultimately lead to coma, which may explain why they are ingredients in the “Draught of Living Death.” In the first book, Snape claims that aconite is the main ingredient in this potion, although when Harry makes this potion in his sixth year, neither monkshood nor wolfsbane is mentioned.

Potion to cure boils:

Dried nettles: Nettles are used for many medicinal purposes, including to cure hives

Crushed snake fang: Snake’s venom is often associated with either poison or medicine

Stewed horned slugs: The slime from slugs has been used for centuries to cure skin afflictions such warts.

Porcupine quills: porcupine quills have the amazing ability to pierce the skin and then expand, making them very difficult to remove. It is unclear, however, what makes them useful in this particular potion

Polyjuice Potion:

JK Rowling said, “I remember creating the full list of ingredients for the Polyjuice Potion. Each one was carefully selected.”

Lacewing flies: JK Rowling says,”the first part of the name suggested an intertwining or binding together of two identities”

Leeches: JK Rowling says were used “to suck the essence out of one and into the other”

Fluxweed: A plant in the mustard family, used to cure dysentery. JK Rowling used it in this potion to represent “the mutability of the body as it changed into another.” Flux means, “a series of changes.”

Knotgrass: JK Rowling used the word knot as, “another hint of being tied to another person.”

Powdered horn of a bicorn: Bicorns were magical beasts in medieval times who were said to feed on devoted husbands. JK Rowling used this ingredient because its name represented, “the idea of duality.”

Shredded skin of boomslang: Boomslang is a large, venomous snake. The skin of snakes represents becoming something new, getting rid of the old, rebirth, etc. JK Rowling described it as “a shedded outer body and a new inner.”

The Draught of Peace: a potion to calm anxiety and reduce agitation

Powdered moonstone:moonstones are given many symbolic meanings, but one of which is calming powers and the ability to help with sleeplessness.

Syrup of hellebore: Hellebore is used for nervous disorders or hysteria

Confusing and befuddlement draughts:

Scurvy grass: Rich in vitamin C, often used by sailors suffering from scurvy. It’s unclear why this ingredient would be used in a confusing and befuddlement draught, as the symptoms of scurvy are mainly spotted skin, fatigue, and bleeding from mucous membranes.

Lovage: In the UK, lovage is mixed with brandy to create a winter drink. If you drank too much of it, you may become confused or befuddled.

Sneezewort: The plant is poisonous to cattle, sheep, and horses. Symptoms include fever, rapid pulse, difficulty breathing, drooling, spasms and loss of muscular control, and convulsions.

Other Potion Ingredients:

Bezoar:  In ancient medicine, the bezoar actually is a stone from the belly of a goat, that was believed to be an antidote to most poisons. The word “bezoar” comes from the Persian pād-zahr (پادزهر), which literally means “antidote.”Modern scientists have shown that bezoars are, in fact, capable of removing arsenic from a solution.


Happy Birthday Professor Sprout!

In honor of Professor Sprout’s birthday, I’ve made this post in order to explore the role of plants in the wizarding world, and to look at some of their origins in folk legends.

Through the Harry Potter series, JK Rowling created a vast array of plants, animals, and bacteria that are unique to the wizarding world. On Pottermore, she said, “I decided that, broadly speaking, wizards would have the power to correct or override ‘mundane’ nature but not ‘magical’ nature. Therefore, a wizard could catch anything a muggle might catch, but he could cure all of it; he would also comfortably survive a scorpion sting that might kill a Muggle, whereas he might die if bitten by a Venomous Tentacula” (Illness and Disability, Pottermore). This principle plays out in Harry’s Herbology class, through the various magical plants he encounters. Although we can presume that wizards have ways of dealing with the negative properties of Muggle plants like poison ivy, hemlock, nightshade, or wolfsbane, this seems to come at the expense of dealing with a whole host of plants whose entire purpose appears to be vicious forms of attack. Evolutionarily speaking, this would make sense: the plants have evolved to protect themselves from aggression even from highly powerful magical creatures and people. Throughout Harry’s seven years, he encounters such fatally dangerous plants as Devil’s Snare, the Whomping Willow, and Mandrakes. In fact, every single one of the plants Harry encounters seems to have threatening defensive mechanisms, which would explain why, unlike for Muggles, Herbology might be a class that is vitally important for survival in the wizarding world. Harry, Ron, and Hermione learn how to handle attacking stumps called Snargaluffs, boil-causing bubotuber pus, stink sap shooting Mimbulus Mimbletonia, and biting Fanged Geraniums. Despite the danger in these plants, many of them do provide unusual remedies. Bubotuber pus can be used to clear acne, and mandrakes can be used to help those who have been petrified. Thus, it seems that there are some benefits to having a magical garden.


Although most of the magical plants in the Harry Potter series appear to be original creations of JK Rowling, the Mandrake is actually a real plant that has been involved in lots of magical folklore. Mandrake is part of the nightshade family, and its roots contain chemicals that work as hallucinogens and hypnotics. It is said that the roots often resemble human figures, and legend has it that when dug up they scream and kill whoever hears them. In ancient practices it was advised to tie a dog to the mandrake and have the dog run away and pull up the plant. Then, the dog would die but the human would be safe. It seems that the idea that mandrakes can help people who have been cursed or transfigured is unique to the Harry Potter series, although mandrakes were used as amulets to protect against evil.



Happy Birthday Lily Potter!

One of the most interesting parts of the Harry Potter series is the great complexity present in all of the characters. What makes this complexity so rewarding, however, is the way that it is revealed to us slowly throughout the series. In the first few books we are presented with Voldemort, Snape, and the Dursleys as the ultimate bad characters, and Dumbledore and Harry’s parents as the ultimate good characters. This simplistic outlook reflects Harry’s age; he’s eleven years old, and as such he views adults as two dimensional people, quite separate from himself. It is too complicated for him to believe that people might have more than one characteristic, that they are capable of both good and bad. This tendency for adult characters to be oversimplified in children’s books is very common, and is explored by Bruno Bettelheim in his book The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. Bettelheim specifically focuses on how children perceive their parents. In many fairy tales there are evil parents, generally step-parents, and good parents, who are often dead. Children find it easier to think of each parent made up of two separate people, one good and one evil, than to admit that they could each be both at once. Therefore, when they are angry at their parents they can believe that these are not actually their real parents, but imposters or step-parents. JK Rowling uses this same strategy by setting up Lily and James as heroic protectors, and the Dursley’s as their abusive substitutes. This status changes throughout the series, however, as Harry ages. Harry learns about his father being a bully, and about Aunt Petunia being bullied. By the seventh book the other adults in his life, such as Snape and Dumbledore, also reveal more complex sides to themselves.

Lily Potter, Harry’s mother, is one of the only people of whom our perception does not change throughout the series. We are given more information about her and learn about her childhood, but our essential belief in her kindness never wavers from the first book to the last. This is because Lily Potter, although a three dimensional character, is still primarily a symbol, a symbolic representation of love. There is one other character who is similarly symbolic: Voldemort. We learn about Voldemort’s childhood, what experiences formed and shaped him, yet ultimately he is a symbolic representation of hatred and fear.

Throughout the series it always appears that the two people representing the fight between the camps of good and evil are Harry and Voldemort. This, however, is fundamentally incorrect. The fight is between Lily and Voldemort, which is evidenced from the very first by Lily’s sacrifice which causes Voldemort’s defeat. Harry does not represent the camp of good, but rather the merging between the two camps. In symbolic terms, Harry is the child of Voldemort and Lily. He has a piece of Voldemort’s soul, and even Tom Riddle’s looks, yet he also has his mother’s eyes, and the protection present in her blood. A whole other post could, and probably will, be made about the significance of Lily’s blood, but suffice it to say that even from the grave Lily is able to thwart Voldemort with her love and sacrifice. It is Harry’s struggle, however, that we focus on, because Harry is not a symbol. He is, as he himself realizes throughout the series, flawed and human, like everyone around him. Harry’s fight is, ultimately, an internal one, a battle to choose between the two parts of himself represented by Lily and Voldemort.
This post was in part informed by a section of Alice Mill’s essay Archetypes and the Unconscious in Harry Potter and Diana Wynne Jone’s Fire and Hemlock and Dogsbody, which I found in the book Reading Harry Potter: Critical Essays. I did not agree with many of her ideas enough to include them in my post, but if you are interested in the potential Oedipal significance of the father-son dynamic between Harry and Voldemort, this would be some good follow-up reading. Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales is another interesting book that illuminates more about the way children’s books represent different stages in childhood psychology.


Happy Birthday Severus Snape!

Severus Snape is a fascinating character, who can be analyzed in many different ways. Today I am going to be looking, not at the much discussed relationship between Snape and Lily, but at the connection between Snape and James, particularly in regards to life debts.

From the very first book, Severus Snape is set up as a villain, someone who Harry, Ron, and Hermione immediately suspect in anything that goes wrong in the castle. In this book, however, we also see the first sign that he is not who we expect him to be: he saves Harry’s life. Dumbledore tells Harry that the reason Snape does this is to repay a life debt that was created when James saved Snape during their school years.

Not until the third book, however, do we learn more about this act, and even then our accounts are muddled. According to Snape’s point of view, James was not saving Snape’s life, but merely his own neck, since James would have been expelled if Snape had been killed. If Snape is telling the truth, then he most likely saved Harry not to repay a debt to James, but because he had promised to protect Lily’s son. Dumbledore may have lied to Harry in order to protect Snape and not reveal his secret. Or, however, Dumbledore might have understood this type of life debt more than Snape himself, and wanted Harry to recognize the special type of magic that comes from saving someone’s life.

What exactly is this type of magic? How does it work? Dumbledore tells us nothing except that it is “magic at its deepest, its most impenetrable,” which is a fairly vague description (Owl Post Again, POA). If James saved Snape’s life, no matter the motive, is Snape obligated to repay the favor? Is it possible that he saved Harry against his will, without even fully realizing why? Through my own interpretations, and through those of MuggleNet’s book What Will Happen in Harry Potter 7 (WWHIHP7), however, I think not. Throughout the books we are given a few cases where life debt’s are evidenced. We have the life debt between James and Snape, Harry and Wormtail, and, although not mentioned specifically, Barty Crouch Sr and Barty Crouch Jr, since the former rescued the latter from death in Azkaban. In none of these cases are the life debts straightforward one to one transactions. If there was some sort of magic that forced people to save others lives, then Snape would not have waited until James was dead to repay the debt. As soon as he knew that James was in danger from Voldemort (on his information no less), he would have been obligated to do everything in his power to prevent his death. Similarly, Wormtail has every opportunity to protect Harry from Voldemort in the graveyard in Goblet of Fire, but he does nothing. In the connection between Barty Crouch Jr and Barty Crouch Sr, not only does Barty Crouch Jr not save his father’s life, he actually kills him (WWHIHP7). It appears that the life debt, whether a magical force or not, does not command the person to repay it. Repaying the debt involves some type of choice, some type of remorse or mercy, no matter how small. Wormtail chooses not to choke Harry, and as a result is strangled by his own silver hand. There are two possible reasons for this. One is that the magic of the life debt is taking effect, punishing Wormtail for attempting to kill the person who saved him, and allowing Harry to go free. Another interpretation is that Voldemort suspected this mercy in Pettigrew, and in giving him the silver hand created within it a magic that would destroy Pettigrew if he tried to repay this debt. I am more inclined to believe the latter; I see no evidence that the magic of a life debt would kill the person repaying it. Either way, whatever magic happens afterwards, it is clear that Pettigrew himself made the decision to save Harry, and was in no way forced. Pettigrew is described as being punished for his “hesitation, his moment of pity” (Malfoy Manor, DH). It is my belief that Snape also saved Harry because of a small moment of guilt or regret at never attempting to save James. He probably hid this guilt from himself and from Harry, telling himself that he was only saving Harry for Lily’s sake. He was not obliged to save Harry’s life simply because a life debt existed between him and James, but because he felt indebted to James. In short, it was a choice, the type of choice that people like Voldemort or Barty Crouch Jr would never understand.