Here Be Dragons (And Phoenixes) – Part 1

by Lana Whited

Beware the sleeping dragon, for when she awakes the Earth will shake.” (Frequently misattributed to Winston Churchill)

The Fantastic Beasts storyline is emerging as a confrontation between a phoenix and a dragon. Have you noticed how often Grindelwald exhales smoke or conjures fire? The phoenix and dragon are Albus Dumbledore’s and Gellert Grindelwald’s inner beasts, and Rowling has made clear in recent online posts that internal monstrosities interest her far more than the Niffler, Bowtruckle, or zouwu.

In September 2018, Rowling was asked on Twitter why Dumbledore recruited Newt Scamander – a Magizoologist, not an Auror – to pursue Grindelwald. She replied that answering this question “would give you the whole plot of the Fantastic Beasts franchise.” Citing her response, Michael Walsh offered the theory on Nerdist that Newt Scamander was the man for the job because of Grindelwald’s essential nature as a dangerous beast, likely a dragon.

Walsh, of course, had not yet seen the second Fantastic Beasts installment. With that film’s release, there seems ample evidence to validate his guess and to assert that the sleeping dragon is now awake.

A review of dragon/phoenix lore from Asia to Europe will give us insight as to where the Fantastic Beasts series is headed, thematically and maybe even geographically. And a recap of primary Anglo-Saxon dragon legends including Beowulf, Fafnir, and St. George might help us predict how these confrontations will play out.

Why does the greatest wizard of his age enlist an awkward Magizoologist to defeat the dragon man, Gellert Grindelwald? Because Albus Dumbledore needs a dragon tamer.

About halfway through the publication of the Harry Potter series, my colleague Tina Hanlon expressed surprise that dragons didn’t play a larger role, considering their general prominence in fantasy literature. Yes, Hagrid tends baby Norbert(a) in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and the school champions face a dragon task in the Triwizard Tournament, but even when you throw in the dragon on which the main trio escapes Gringotts in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, dragons appear in relatively minor plot points. There may be dragon allusions, including the work of Charlie Weasley and the first name of Harry’s Slytherin nemesis, but dragons in the wizarding world, through the first Fantastic Beasts film, appear primarily in the background.

Considering Scamander’s claim in his famous book that dragons are “[p]robably the most famous of all magical beasts,” their limited presence in Rowling’s fantasy realm does seem surprising. But with some of the hints dropped in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, this is about to change.

At the particular moment in the underground arena that Grindelwald exhales the vision containing images of the Blitz and Hiroshima, I was struck by the dragon-like nature of that exhalation. The incantation, Protego Diabolica, that Grindelwald chooses to ward off the Aurors brings fire (black in the screenplay, blue on-screen). And he can control the flames, conducting them “as though leading an orchestra, the Elder Wand his baton, as the forks of fire strike at AURORS attempting to Disapparate or flee,” and finally hurling a ball of fire at Theseus and Newt. (Recall that in telling Harry about his own youthful infatuation with Grindelwald, Albus Dumbledore confesses that he had been “inflamed” by the Dark wizard’s ideas.)

Grindelwald’s weapon of choice in this second installment of the Fantastic Beasts series is fire, and the weapon he covets, the Obscurial, is also conjured through exhalation. What beast exhales its weapon? A reader (or viewer) familiar with dragon legends worldwide is sure to know.

In literature and art, dragons have been concentrated on the two continents whose history and mythology are both relevant to Crimes of Grindelwald: Europe and Asia. Asian folklore is apparent in the subplot involving the Maledictus, Nagini. The dragon is elevated in Asian mythologies; from at least the Yuan dynasty in China (1279–1368), it has been the emblem of the ruler, while the phoenix has represented his mate. To the present day, Bhutan designates its emperor as the Dragon King and also uses the dragon in its national anthem and on its flag. The use of the dragon as a symbol of superior power and riches makes its association with Grindelwald all the more appropriate.

The appearance of the dragon and the phoenix together was regarded as particularly propitious. An ancient Chinese proverb says, “When the dragon soars and the phoenix dances, the people will enjoy happiness for years, bringing peace and tranquility to all under heaven.”

But such a dance of tranquility seems unlikely for the dragon and phoenix figures of the Fantastic Beasts series – Grindelwald and Dumbledore – despite the mutual attraction and ambition of their youth. The two men have a respect for each other’s abilities bordering on apprehension, like the great Chinese philosophers Confucius and Lao Tzu, who characterized each other as phoenix and dragon. The fact of Grindelwald and Dumbledore’s having made a blood pact not to fight each other reinforces the fragile nature of any détente they have achieved. Humans tend to set the stakes highest when they fear they will collapse in the face of temptation.

The association of the phoenix legend with the Dumbledore family is well developed in the Harry Potter series. Dumbledore has a phoenix, who comes to Harry’s aid on more than one occasion. The resistance effort against Voldemort is called the Order of the Phoenix. The phoenix connection is so strong that when Credence Barebone’s chick is revealed to be a phoenix, there can be no mistaking what that means.

But the development of Grindelwald as a character with dragon-like attributes is only beginning to emerge. Some of the second film’s dragon imagery is obvious, such as the serpent-like creatures appearing in the fire conjured in the Paris cemetery. The script says that the fire “forms dragon-like creatures intent on annihilation” (262). Shapes of serpents, dragons, and raptors with “fanged mouths… clawed feet… claws and horns and tails” also appear in the Fiendfyre in the Room of Requirement late in Deathly Hallows (632). Hermione reminds her friends that this is “cursed fire… one of the substances that destroy Horcruxes” (635).

This fire incites a panic similar to that of the people of Lake-town in The Hobbit when the dragon Smaug exhales flames to devour their town. Such fire can be quenched only by special magic, such as the black arrow fired by Bard into Smaug’s weak spot, or the spell cast in the Paris cemetery by the alchemist Nicolas Flamel.

Other dragon imagery is associated with Grindelwald in veiled hints, such as the wizard’s mismatched eyes. In dragon lore, the dragon’s vision is always its superior sense. The English word “dragon” comes from the Greek δράκων, or dràkon, meaning “serpent” and deriving from the Indo-European root derk, “to see.” From this etymology likely evolved the notions about the dragon’s visual acuity and the inadvisability of looking one in the eye (advice that persists in the recent children’s series How to Train Your Dragon). Grindelwald’s distinctive eye evokes this lore, and we can bet that the eye will come in handy.

According to The Illustrated Signs and Symbols Sourcebook, dragons’ keen eyesight often makes them effective “guardians of treasure and keepers of secrets of some kind, a trait which gives them great wisdom as well as clairvoyant powers.” For a period of 17 or 18 years (from about 1926 to 1945), Grindelwald quietly possessed one of the greatest treasures known to the wizarding world – the Elder Wand. He also carries the concealed vial representing his blood pact with Dumbledore, the same vial snatched up by the Niffler during the melee in the cemetery. And that Grindelwald may have some future forecasting ability seems clear from the World War II-esque visions he conjures in Paris in 1926. He begins his speech in the underground amphitheater with the statement “The moment has come to share my visions of the future that will come if we do not rise up and take our rightful place in the world” (CoG 249–50).

Grindelwald’s “vision” corresponds neatly with European history between the two World Wars. The increasingly nationalistic tone of German rhetoric during the period in which Crimes of Grindelwald is set is echoed in his declarations, especially his signature slogan, “For the greater good,” words that might be found over the gates of a death camp. Described as “part demagogue, part rock star,” Grindelwald articulates exclusionary rhetoric with a tone of false modesty. In his recruitment speech, he establishes immediate solidarity with the audience, calling them “My brothers, my sisters, my friends,” despite the fact that the audience also contains opponents. He stresses his own humility: “The great gift of your applause is not for me. No. It is for yourselves.” He assumes that his listeners share his desire for a change in social dynamics: “You came here today because of a craving and a knowledge that the old ways serve us no longer… You want something new, something different.” He denies allegations of prejudice – “I do not hate Muggles. I do not” – while still referring to nonmagical people by their unflattering nicknames (“Les Non-Magiques. The Muggles. The No-Maj. The Can’t Spells.”). Note the use of the article “the,” calling attention to the speaker’s status as outside those groups. And he presents himself as misunderstood, claiming that others mischaracterize his views about these stigmatized groups.

Like Adolf Hitler, Grindelwald is a skilled orator. He plays word games: Muggles are “not disposable, but of a different disposition.” He proposes, ultimately, to remake the world to his own liking, assuming his values are shared by his audience. Many of his listeners accept that he is describing their own values because he says he is. Queenie, apparently, is among the persuaded. At this point, the Aurors appear, a visual reminder that these remarks will lead to confrontation. Grindelwald himself has used the word “fight.” Jacob Kowalski, a WWI veteran, is first to recognize what Grindelwald is calling for: “Not another war,” he moans.

The quotation “Beware the sleeping dragon, for when she awakes the Earth will shake” is ubiquitously attributed to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, at least on the Internet. Churchill is rumored to have spoken these words as China increased its naval presence north of Australia, suggesting to some that war involving Indonesia might ensue. And yet a representative of the Churchill Project of Hillsdale College (Michigan) attests that no such quotation exists in the Churchill canon. This representative speculates that the quotation, likely manufactured, was inspired by Japanese Admiral Yamamoto’s warning about “waking a sleeping giant” in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

Except that Yamamoto didn’t actually say these words either, according to the Pearl Harbor Visitors Bureau. Instead, they are the lines of an actor portraying Yamamoto in the movie Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970).

The significance of this misquoting is the dragon’s stock position in the universal imagination as the looming danger: The beast so universally represents peril that no one would question that Churchill or Yamamoto might have said these words, given his fear. What is curious is that the dragon has never really existed at all, and yet the mythological beast persists as a metaphor for the coming terror in Rowling’s current storyline.

In the second half of this discussion, we’ll turn our attention to two questions: Why the dragon, and what will besting the dragon mean?