The Perplexity of Reconciling McGonagall’s Appearance in “Crimes of Grindelwald”

J.K. Rowling has heavily implied that we’ll be visiting Brazil in at least one future Fantastic Beasts film. At this point, it seems to me that Rowling is improvisationally constructing many aspects of this series. Presumably, based on the good faith she has earned with the Harry Potter books, Rowling has the overarching plot of Fantastic Beasts mapped out in her head, but not the intricate details of the narrative. Brazil may play an indispensable role in telling the story of our characters, but it’s also possible that Rowling is pandering to fans.

Similarly, Professor McGonagall’s cameo in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald was nothing but fan service. It’s been a month since Crimes of Grindelwald was released worldwide, so why can’t I overlook the film’s aberration from previously established canon? “Trust in Rowling” and “She knows what she’s doing” are arguments I’ve heard from defenders of McGonagall’s appearance in Crimes of Grindelwald. Why should we trust Rowling, though? In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Rowling’s favorite character, Albus Dumbledore, says that he “would never dream of assuming [to] know all Hogwarts’ secrets” (GoF 23). Like Dumbledore, Rowling is not immune from criticism, and as we learned in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, there’s a lot of criticism to be leveled against Dumbledore.

I’ve seen several fans argue that Crimes of Grindelwald‘s McGonagall might not be the same McGonagall we’re familiar with, but according to the film’s screenplay, the character we see in Crimes of Grindelwald is “YOUNG MINERVA MCGONAGALL.” The screenplay would not have used the descriptor “young” unless the McGonagall in Crimes of Grindelwald is the same McGonagall from Harry Potter. Fans have also tried to suggest that the McGonagall in Crimes of Grindelwald might be a relative of Harry Potter‘s McGonagall. However, Minerva’s mother’s maiden name was Ross. It is unlikely that anyone from Minerva’s father’s side of the family attended Hogwarts since Pottermore says that Robert McGonagall “was profoundly shocked” upon discovering that his wife, Isobel, was a witch.

I’ve also seen fans conjecturing that McGonagall may have used a Time-Turner to travel back to Crimes of Grindelwald and that she may play a critical role in future Fantastic Beasts films. According to Pottermore’s article on Time-Turners, as “investigations currently stand, the longest period that may be relived without the possibility of serious harm to the traveler or to time itself is around five hours.” Harry Potter and the Cursed Child did contain Time-Turners that allowed people to travel beyond five hours, but that play also went against the closed causal loop of time travel that was established in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Moreover, I think the theory of McGonagall traveling back in time to help Newt and Dumbledore defeat Grindelwald is contradicted by the fact that we see her not only in 1927 but also in a flashback of Leta as a 13-year-old. Since Leta and Newt are shown to be in the same year at Hogwarts, and Newt was born in 1897, then Leta must have been born around 1897 too. This indicates that in the universe of Crimes of Grindelwald, McGonagall was a professor at Hogwarts as early as 1910.

As far as I know, Rowling has never explicitly revealed McGonagall’s year of birth, but fans have extrapolated from the books that she must have been born in 1935. Pottermore’s article on McGonagall was amended shortly after Crimes of Grindelwald was released. Pre-Crimes of Grindelwald, Pottermore stated that McGonagall “grew up in the Highlands of Scotland in the early twentieth century.” Post-Crimes of Grindelwald, “early twentieth century” was omitted.

Another theory I’ve seen attempting to explain why McGonagall is in Crimes of Grindelwald years before she’s supposed to exist is that when McGonagall tells Umbridge that she would have been teaching at Hogwarts “thirty-nine years this December” (OotP 15) in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, she didn’t mean 39 consecutive years. This theory was first brought to my attention on Reddit, and while I initially thought that this was the best explanation I’d seen so far regarding McGonagall, it falls apart upon inspection.

According to Crimes of Grindelwald, McGonagall is at Hogwarts as early as 1910, and she is also there in 1927. Assuming that she did not take any breaks from teaching between 1910 and 1927, by 1927, McGonagall would have accumulated at least 17 years of teaching experience at Hogwarts. In Prisoner of Azkaban, McGonagall reveals that she taught the Marauders. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, James Potter’s headstone reveals that he was born in 1960, indicating that he attended Hogwarts from 1971 to 1978. Since we don’t know if McGonagall taught the Marauders for the entirety or only a portion of their seven years at Hogwarts, we can only state with certainty that, between 1971 and 1978, McGonagall spent anywhere from one to seven years teaching. This suggests that by factoring into account her previously established 17 years of teaching and assuming that she took a long break from teaching from at least 1927 to 1971, by 1978, she would have spent between 18 and 24 years teaching at Hogwarts.

McGonagall does not appear to have taken a break from teaching post-1978, because she appears in Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery, which is set in the 1980s. Order of the Phoenix takes place in 1995, by which time McGonagall would have spent between 35 and 41 years teaching at Hogwarts. 39 falls into this range, so at first glance, it seems possible that in Order of the Phoenix, McGonagall had been teaching at Hogwarts for 39 non-consecutive years. However, for this theory to be true, McGonagall would need to have taken a break of 46 years between 1927 and 1973. Pottermore heavily implies that McGonagall only spent two years working at the Ministry of Magic and that she started teaching at Hogwarts immediately after leaving the Ministry.

Finally, after two years at the Ministry, she was offered a prestigious promotion, yet found herself turning it down.

After taking McGonagall’s two years at the Ministry into account, we’re still left with an excess of 44 unexplained years during which time McGonagall could not have been teaching, if her statement in Order of the Phoenix that she’d been teaching at Hogwarts for 39 years is true.

The e-book Short Stories from Hogwarts of Heroism, Hardship and Dangerous Hobbies, which was released by Pottermore on September 6, 2016, contains additional information on McGonagall not included on Pottermore’s website. According to the e-book, McGonagall did not teach Tom Riddle, who attended Hogwarts from 1938 to 1945. More interestingly, the chapter on McGonagall contains a paragraph about Grindelwald.

Minerva McGonagall was one of only a handful of people who knew, or suspected, how dreadful a moment it was for Albus Dumbledore when, in 1945, he made the decision to confront and defeat the Dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald.

This information doesn’t bring us any closer to resolving the anomaly of McGonagall’s appearance in Crimes of Grindelwald, but the most optimistic among us might point to Short Stories from Hogwarts of Heroism, Hardship and Dangerous Hobbies as evidence that Rowling has been planning McGonagall’s appearance in Crimes of Grindelwald and any future Fantastic Beasts films since at least 2016. Furthermore, since McGonagall would have been ten years old in 1945 unless she had retrospective conversations with Dumbledore later in life, it looks like Crimes of Grindelwald wasn’t the first time that Rowling messed up McGonagall’s timeline.

At this point, it seems that the only way to reconcile the contradiction of McGonagall’s appearance in Crimes of Grindelwald with previously established canon is to separate Harry Potter canon from Fantastic Beasts canon. However, this concerns me greatly. If Fantastic Beasts isn’t canonically consistent with Harry Potter, then what does that mean for the greater wizarding world lore?

Why do you think McGonagall appeared in Crimes of Grindelwald? Was it simply fan service (this is what I currently believe) or will she play a more important role in the Fantastic Beasts series?

Victor Chan

Growing up with the books, Harry Potter shaped my life in ways that were invaluable. Through the books, I developed my passion for writing. When I’m not obsessing over Harry Potter, most of my time is spent listening to music (mostly, Prince) or podcasts (I am subscribed to too many to keep up with).