Here Be Dragons (And Phoenixes) – Part 2

by Lana Whited

This is Part 2 of a two-part discussion. In Part 1, we established Rowling’s characterization of Gellert Grindelwald as a dragon. In Part 2, we’ll examine what the dragon parallels portend for the rest of the series.

Draco Dormiens Nunquam Titillandus.” (Never tickle a sleeping dragon)

In the last frames of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, J.K. Rowling’s dragon man, Gellert Grindelwald, curries favor with Credence Barebone but christens him and his chick with names that link them to Albus Dumbledore. The vial representing Dumbledore and Grindelwald’s blood pact is back in Dumbledore’s hands, increasing the likelihood that Dumbledore can break the pact. The two men will eventually fight, in 1945, and Dumbledore will win.

While we wait for that confrontation, a review of dragon clashes in Anglo-Saxon literature can clarify why Rowling has chosen the dragon as Grindelwald’s iconic beast and what the confrontation between dragon and phoenix will mean.

Grindelwald’s vision of bombers in the skies has a clear historical reference: the Blitz, or German bombing campaign of British targets including London in 1940–1941. History tells us how the conflict between Allied and Axis powers ended, and the mythology of the dragon and phoenix tells us what that ending means. The dragon, icon of the beastly attributes of human nature, must be defeated by the “better angels” of that nature, transformed, as the phoenix transforms, through fire, death, and rebirth.

The association of dragons with power is inherent in the ascent of Britain’s first king. The prophecy of Arthur’s birth is revealed to his father, Uther Pendragon, in the vision of a great star whose beam morphs into a fiery dragon. Interpreting the prophecy, Merlin predicts both Uther’s triumph over the invading Irish and Saxons and the death of Uther’s brother – King Aurelius Ambrosius – both of which came to pass on the same day. (Is this the source for the name “Aurelius” being bestowed upon Credence Barebone? Perhaps John Granger is right that the name derives instead from a Nabokov short story.)

Norse warriors, the Anglo-Saxons’ ancestors, decorated their shields with dragons to frighten enemies and reflect their own ferocity; these dragons of Norse myth are surely literary ancestors of Grindelwald, given his Germanic ethnicity and enrollment at Durmstrang. Three stories deriving from the Germanic sagas involving dragons may be relevant to Grindelwald’s formation: the saga of Fafnir, the tales of Siegfried (or Sigurd), and the Anglo-Saxon epic of Beowulf. In all these stories, the dragon reminds us that man is also beast, and the dragon’s defeat represents the triumph of both superior strength and superior virtue.

The Scandinavian saga of Fafnir involves a dwarf king’s son who is transformed into a dragon because of a despicable act: He kills his own father to acquire the riches of the gods. (His story is also a tale of three brothers.) Fafnir is eventually slain by Seigfried or Sigurd in a quite Smaug-ish manner, via a blow to his weak spot. The notion of the Elder Wand passing from owner to owner via homicide or subjugation (such as Grindelwald stunning Gregorovitch) is thematically consistent with Fafnir’s legend.

The Germanic hero stories surrounding Siegfried are especially significant to Grindelwald not so much in their origins but in their revival concurrently with the founding of the German Empire (1871). During this period of empire creation, Siegfried increasingly represents German nationalism, and the legend of him reforging his father’s sword is increasingly equated with Otto von Bismarck’s uniting of the Germanic nation. Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle (1874) reinforced Siegfried’s status as the quintessential natural man, and many paintings and monuments representing Siegfried date from this era. After Germany’s defeat in World War I, propagandists invoked Hagen’s murder of Siegfried to suggest that leftist German politicians who agreed to an armistice had stabbed the German Army in the back. This Siegfried is the misunderstood victim of political zealots, just as Grindelwald portrays himself as the target of hypervigilant Aurors looking for trouble where none exists.

When the dragon appears in literature, its role has been as the antagonist, providing an opportunity for the hero to demonstrate his mettle. In a narrative considered a precursor to the Epic of Gilgamesh, the protagonist Enki confronts a dragon named Kur, who has kidnapped a maiden and taken her to the underworld. In defeating the beast and rescuing the maiden, Enki has also tamed the nether or beastly aspects of human nature. The Golden Fleece is guarded by the Drakôn Kolkhikos, or Colchian dragon, who, in various versions, is either slain by the hero or lulled to sleep by the witch Medea’s magic or by Orpheus’s music. (The notion of subduing a beast with sound resurfaces with Fluffy’s music in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and the use of the clankers to hold off the dragon in the Gringotts vaults in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.)

In the Middle Ages, the dragon’s defeat by figures such as Saint George usually represents a restoration of the moral order. The customary paradigm is the dragon as evil antagonist slain by forces associated with moral virtue. Whereas the dragon generally represents strength (sometimes the strength of undesirable or immoral forces), the phoenix generally represents virtue through its power of regeneration and renewal; this accounts for its association with the resurrection of Jesus, the act through which Christians may triumph over their own sinful (beastly?) natures.

That Rowling has man’s beastly nature very much in mind is abundantly clear from her recent extracanonical commentary. In October 2018 comments about the themes of Fantastic Beasts, Rowling calls Grindelwald “the beast that was in the back of my mind,” noting that his name appears as early as Sorcerer’s Stone. On November 12, 2018, Rowling stated that she was exploring the idea of beasts as a metaphor for the dehumanization of people.

There is the metaphorical sense of the beast inside a man, the crude emotions that a manipulative genius like Grindelwald knows how to stoke and use. We’re also dealing with the idea of beastly people: that some humans are something less than human. Even where there is great charisma and intelligence, there may be an utter lack of conscience. Finally, I’m exploring the idea of creating beasts, which is to say, othering or dehumanising our fellow people, as the first step towards cruelty or extermination.

I’m surely not the first to suggest that Grindelwald may owe his name to the first truly monstrous beast in English literature, Grendel, of the epic of Beowulf (late first millennium AD). Most Beowulf critics agree that Grendel is man’s sin personified; he is a descendant of Cain and therefore of the prototypical lineage of human violence (and of course the protagonist in yet another story of brothers). Grendel attacks the men in the banquet hall because the sounds of their reverie arouse his anger. He kills 30 men in one attack and returns the next night to continue, the fact of his attacking at night only underscoring the darkness of his nature. (Grindelwald kills or orders killed an entire French family merely because he wants to briefly occupy their house.) Beowulf’s enemies – Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon – all represent the evil that Beowulf must destroy in order to be favored by God. Like Harry Potter, Beowulf slays a monster (Grendel’s mother) with a sword of antiquity that represents all that is chivalrous.

But Rowling also cautions against seeing the Fantastic Beasts series as a simple morality tale positioning figures representing virtue and vice in a chess match. For all its virtuous association, the phoenix is also essentially a beast, and not only in its Ministry of Magic classification. Although in his famous book, Scamander calls the phoenix “a gentle creature that has never been known to kill and eats only herbs,” the phoenix of our dragon/phoenix paradigm is a flawed man who has recognized the beast within himself, as he famously explains to Harry Potter at King’s Cross station at the close of Deathly Hallows. He has recognized the costs to his family and himself of his youthful dream of “Muggles forced into subservience. We wizards triumphant. […] the glorious young leaders of the revolution. […] Invincible masters of death, Grindelwald and Dumbledore” (DH 716). And like his Fantastic Beasts adversary, the Hogwarts Headmaster can be something of a manipulator, capable of convincing people to act against their own instincts and judgment. (One of the most painful episodes in the entire Harry Potter series centers around Harry’s realization that his mentor has used him.)

But by the time he was recruited as Minister of Magic, Dumbledore says, he had learned that he was “not to be trusted with power” (717). He is a worthy opponent for Grindelwald primarily because he has undergone that most difficult of metamorphoses: the transfiguring of the beast within himself. His transformation can parallel the phoenix’s cycle as well as the Christian notions of repentance, forgiveness, and rebirth.

In the preface to his Beowulf translation, Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney explains why Beowulf must slay a dragon even after vanquishing both Grendel and Grendel’s mother. In addition to the more conventional requirement of the hero’s tasks coming in threes, the dragon is “a genius of the old order,” Heaney says, thus causing the reader “a premonition that the days of his empery are numbered.” And whereas the other monsters are “creatures of the physical world [and] the right enemies for a young glory-hunter,” the dragon (appearing 50 years later) is the test of the mature hero, so fierce a challenge that Beowulf ultimately cannot subdue the beast without assistance. A dragon, notes Heaney, “is something glorious in the way he manifests himself… more a destiny than a set of Reptilian vertebrae.” Whereas Grendel and his mother are both challenges from outside, which Beowulf might have avoided, “the dragon is a given of his home ground… and equals shadow-line, the psalmist’s valley of the shadow of death, the embodiment of a knowledge deeply ingrained in the species which is the very knowledge of the price to be paid for physical and spiritual survival.” Perhaps heroism cannot truly be achieved until this dragon is bested.

Here, then, in Rowling’s characterization of Grindelwald as a beast/dragon, provides a rationale for selecting the Magizoologist to confront him. What we have is not St. George and the dragon, with a hero alone defeating the sins of humanity, but Beowulf (Dumbledore) and his younger kinsman Wiglaf (Scamander), the only person brave enough to help him confront a beast of such proportions. The parallels are not exact, since Grindelwald is not killed, nor is Dumbledore. But the dragon will be defeated, and Dumbledore and Scamander will triumph. Whether a sword of antiquity will be involved – or what role “Aurelius Dumbledore” will play – is anybody’s guess.

Lest we doubt Dumbledore’s central role in the final confrontation, we should remember that the Elder Wand did not pass from Grindelwald to Newt Scamander. Scamander’s characterization of the dragon as “magical beast” is one of his few mistakes; it is, instead, a creature of myth. The phoenix is the magical beast, one that has the power even to recreate itself. Mythical creatures, for all their spectacle and fury, cannot restore themselves. The dragon slain by St. George cannot rise and walk off the field of combat. Neither can the dragon slain by Beowulf – or for that matter can Beowulf himself.

But the phoenix will always rise again.

Note: Thanks to Katherine Grimes and John Granger for reading early drafts of these articles.