Headmasters in the Canon
The recent news of a Fantastic Beasts film has gotten us all in a tizzy – when I saw the headline, I assumed it was an April Fool’s joke, before remembering it was September. Once the initial reactions of “!!!!!” were over, talk then turned to the Potter fandom’s favorite activity: theorizing. Except I think many in the community are a bit rusty, because in lieu of actually looking things up in well-worn copies of Fantastic Beasts, people turned to the Harry Potter Wiki . This led to quite a bit of confusion, which I will now be happy to clear up.
Before we launch into any actual discussion of facts, we shall have to establish the foundation of all our theories: what exactly is canon? Canon is what we can take as fact in the world of Harry Potter, and sources of it come in three levels: canon, dubious canon, and fanon.
Back in the day, there was a much clearer distinction among them: canon was the books that were published by Jo, dubious canon was her website, and fanon was what happened when one read too much fanfiction and had the lines blurred. However, things are far more complicated now: there is Pottermore, there is a plethora of new interviews, there are numerous adaptations that have inspired fanon, and it’s all gotten a tad jumbled. So, let’s decide what is what once and for all.
CANON sources are the most clearly defined: the seven published Harry Potter novels, Fantastic Beasts, Quidditch Through the Ages, The Tales of Beedle the Bard, the Black Family Tree, the short prequel about James and Sirius1, the Daily Prophet newsletters 2, and the “Wonderbook: Book of Spells” video game. There are a few very minor gaffes among here, but generally if something is in one of these sources; it can unassailably be taken as canon.
DUBIOUS CANON is what starts giving people headaches when figuring out canon. In general, dubious canon refers to those sources that can be taken as canon unless they contradict something that is already in canon (and sources only fall into this category if there are already proven contradictions). Currently, five things fall into this category: Pottermore, Jo’s website (jkrowling.com) back when it provided HP info, Jo’s interviews, the “Famous Wizards” cards from the video games3, and the class list Jo showed us in “Harry Potter and Me” back in 20014.
The latter two are self-explanatory. The class list is a draft, so although we can glean quite a bit of information from it5, much of it is contradicted in canon (such as Daphne Greengrass’s name and Hannah Abbott’s parentage). The Famous Wizards cards are in a video game based on the movies, so most of them are canon but there are some minor contradictions. While we’d all like to think that most of what Jo wrote on her website is canon, there are blatant contradictions: most significantly about what happens when a Secret-Keeper dies. But most of it can be taken at face value. Interviews are trickier, because it’s incredibly difficult to have a comprehensive list of all she’s said in her myriad interviews. Generally, though, what she says can mostly be taken as canon (though there are mistakes, such as Hermione’s middle name – “Jane” in earlier interviews6, “Jean” in Book 7).
And then there is Pottermore. We are supposed to take it as canon, but truthfully, Jo’s done such a shoddy job with some of the new information that it falls into dubious canon. It would take a separate essay to enumerate all the mistakes, so I’ll just link to two posts about them over at the HP Companion: problems with Book 1 and Book 3. This is also why I would have preferred an encyclopedia – perhaps a continuity editor would have been involved.
FANON is stuff that is not in any of the canon sources (dubious or certain), but has entered the fandom’s collective consciousness to the degree that it can’t be ignored. There is really no way to define what fanon is, since different sub-communities in the fandom will have their own fanon. It used to consist mainly of prevailing fanfiction tropes – Lucius abusing Draco, Lupin and Sirius having feelings for each other, etc. As long as it didn’t blatantly contradict canon (since that would be AU), it was allowed.
But we’ve since had so many interpretations of the series, that it’s hard to even keep track of where the fanon comes from. For example, everyone now thinks that Hufflepuffs are particularly good finders – this comes from A Very Potter Musical. We also now equate Hufflepuffs with making sandwiches – this comes from wizard rock. Ginny being promiscuous – I don’t know where that’s rooted, but the whole fandom now believes it. And so on and so forth.
The interesting case of fanon is the movies. Let’s get this straight once and for all: love them or loathe them, the movies are NOT canon by any stretch of the imagination. The only bit of canon to emerge from the films is Luna’s Patronus, which was confirmed by Jo later. Otherwise, none of it is canon. The problem is that the movies are so ubiquitous at this point, they have very firmly entered the fanon, even when they’re wrong. In the latter books, Harry is described as tall, but everyone thinks he’s short because of Dan Radcliffe. Some other things the movies gave us are Lupin having had feelings for Lily (Movie 3), and the story Slughorn told in Movie 6 about Lily and the fish. Again, none of this is canon.
Which brings us back to the Fantastic Beasts films. The minute it was announced, everyone went to HP Wiki. But the Wiki is NOT CANON! The HP Wiki does a strange thing, which I really cannot begin to fathom the reasoning behind: they attempt to reconcile the canon with the Movieverse, which often results in a hot mess. Therefore, when looking something up on the HP Wiki, always check the citation for the source. Alternatively, check a more reliable source like the HP Lexicon, the Unknowable Wiki, or just look something up in the books.
So, what is all the hoopla about? The HP Wiki lists Newt Scamander, the protagonist of the upcoming films, as being Headmaster of Hogwarts. What is this based on? A screenshot from the Chamber of Secrets movie. The set designers were being clever, using a name from the Potterverse to caption a portrait, and now everyone is taking it as canon. Newt Scamander was not Headmaster of Hogwarts – not only is this not canon, it makes no sense in compliance with canon, as I will now prove.
Headmasters of Hogwarts
To figure out who was Headmaster of Hogwarts and when, we shall work backwards from present day. We know that Dumbledore was Headmaster until his death in 1997, so let us begin with him. Through several clues, we can pinpoint the start of his tenure at December 1956. McGonagall says that she will have been teaching Transfiguration for “Thirty-nine years this December,” (OP321) in 1995. So she started teaching in December 1956. This doubtlessly coincided with Dumbledore, the previous Transfiguration teacher, becoming Headmaster.
This fits in with the time-table around Voldemort’s visit to Hogwarts and Dumbledore to ask for the DADA position. In the flashback, Voldemort says, “I heard that you had become headmaster,” (HBP441), incdicating this was a recent appointment. We are told that this is “ten years” after Tom Riddle murdered Hepzibah Smith (HBP440). Tom Riddle graduated Hogwarts in summer of 1945, so if we assume he worked at Borgin and Burkes for a year or so, that would place this visit in the winter of 1956-1957, just after Dumbledore became Headmaster.
We know that Armando Dippet was Dumbledore’s immediate predecessor. Since he was at Hogwarts during Riddle’s tenure, he was Headmaster from at least the mid-1930s onwards. However, we also know that he put Professor Kettleburn on probation sixty-two times (TBB39). Let us assume that Dippet put Kettleburn on probation twice a year on average (which is still quite impressive!). That would give Dippet a tenure as Headmaster of 31 years, meaning he would have become Headmaster in 1925. Of course, it could have been quite a bit earlier, since Dippet is portrayed as very old, but we can be reasonably sure he started no later than the mid-1920s.
Now, let us take Newt Scamander. We only have two pages of solid biographical information on him – Fantastic Beasts pages vi and ix – but that’s enough to be getting on with. He was born in 1897, which is our first proof he likely wasn’t Headmaster. If Dippet became Headmaster in the mid-‘20s, that would put Scamander in his twenties as Headmaster – which doesn’t seem likely. Even if Dippet didn’t become Headmaster until the late 1930s, Scamander would still be in his thirties as Headmaster, which seems absurdly young for the position (Snape notwithstanding; he was 37 when appointed Headmaster but there were extraneous circumstances).
Moreover, we know that Scamander joined the Ministry after graduating Hogwarts. He spent two years in the Office for House-Elf Relocation before transferring to the Beast Division. This puts Scamander at twenty, and we are in 1917. The following year, 1918, is when Fantastic Beasts was commissioned by Augustus Worme. So Scamander set out adventures to research fantastic beasts.
This is where the films will take place – the nine years that Scamander spent travelling the globe researching Magizoology. For we know that the first edition of Fantastic Beasts was published in 1927, giving the film series a timeframe of 1918-1927.
Since Scamander is accounted for until 1927, and we know that Dippet was Headmaster by the mid-1920s, when exactly is Scamander supposed to be Headmaster of Hogwarts? Moreover, why would a Ministry researcher in his twenties, with absolutely zero pedagogical experience, become Headmaster all of a sudden? I think we can refute, completely and utterly, that Newt Scamander was ever Headmaster of Hogwarts.
Finally, the evidence points to a continued Ministry career, for Scamander’s biography talks about legislation he created decades later – the Werewolf Register in 1947 (for which Scamander is “almost solely responsible”) and the Ban on Experimental Breeding in 1965.
For the sake of completion, what else do we know of Scamander? He was in Hufflepuff House, according to the Pottermore welcome letter for Hufflepuffs. He got the Order of Merlin, Second Class, in 1979 in recognition of his research. He has a wife named Porpentina and they have three pet Kneazles. He must have had children, since he has a grandson named Rolf (who marries Luna). And at the time of the publication of the Muggle edition of Fantastic Beasts, which is supposed to be 1995 (the book was published after Goblet of Fire, and everything is written as if it were around then – including Dumbledore being alive to write a foreword), Newt and Porpentina are both still alive, though he’s retired. That means he lives to be at least 98 years old.
So, if not Scamander, who was Armando Dippet’s predecessor? All signs point to it being Phineas Nigellus Black. Phineas Nigellus’s dates from the Black Family Tree fit perfectly. His date of death is given as 1925 – which is exactly the year we’ve deduced Dippet became Headmaster! Clearly that’s no coincidence. Moreover, if Phineas was born in 1847, he would likely be the Headmaster preceding Dippet; otherwise, he would have been a very young Headmaster.
Why? Because we know who was likely to be Phineas Nigellus’s predecessor. In the Pottermore entry for Peeves, we get mention of Eupraxia Mole being Headmistress in 1876. Phineas can’t have been before her (he’d only be thirty-one in 1876), so he’d have to come after. Is he the direct successor to Eupraxia Mole? Most likely, because the Headmasters seem to serve lengthy terms – wizards have long lifespans, and it looks like the Headmasters don’t often retire, but die in office. The events of 1996 to 1998 notwithstanding (we get four Heads in three years if you count Umbridge), Dumbledore served for 41 years, Dippet for 31, and Dilys Derwent for 27 years. So Phineas Nigellus likely started at the end of the nineteenth century or the very early years of the twentieth. Barring exceptional circumstances, this would put Mole’s tenure right before his.
This is about as far back as we can go. We know that Dilys Derwent served as Headmistress from 1741 to 1768 (OP485). And we know that at some point, a very celebrated Headmaster named Everard served at Hogwarts before or after an illustrious Ministry career (OP469).
The only other Headmaster we know of is Dexter Fortescue, who gets mentioned nearly every time we enter Dumbledore’s office. Fortescue uses a hearing trumpet, which according to Wikipedia was invented in the seventeenth century, so we know Fortescue was Headmaster no earlier than the mid-seventeenth century. Fortescue also says, “The Ministry did not cut deals with petty criminals in my day, no sir, they did not!” (OP614). From this we can surmise that he was Headmaster a very long time ago.
All of the other Heads listed on the Harry Potter Wiki are not canonical – indeed, if you observe closely, they are mostly the authors of Harry’s first-year schoolbooks. This can be taken as conclusive evidence that the filmmakers were having a laugh – much as they did putting crewmembers’ names on the gravestones in Movie 4 – and not intending to be taken seriously.
This has been a good exercise, and we can now create a thorough list of the Heads in the twentieth century:
- Late 19th century (including 1876): Eupraxia Mole
- Late 19th/early 20th century – 1925: Phineas Nigellus Black
- 1925 – 1956: Armando Dippet
- 1956 – 1997: Albus Dumbledore
- 1996: Dolores Umbridge (Disputed)
- 1997 – 1998: Severus Snape
- 1998 – present: Minerva McGonagall
Hopefully we’re all a bit clearer now on what is and isn’t canon. I’ve enjoyed this; I will probably tackle other canon conundrums in future essays. The only question remaining here is where the new Fantastic Beasts series will fall canon-wise. Naturally, what I’m hoping for is that it will be new canon – it is, after all, from Jo. However, WB will doubtless try to keep it consistent with its Movieverse, so I’m anticipating it being dubious canon… which still means a lot of new canonical info for us! I can hardly wait; it’s good to be looking forward to new Potter material!