Unfogging Newt’s Future with Literary Alchemy
Over the past few months, tidbits of information about the upcoming Fantastic Beasts film have been trickling into the public eye. We’ve seen the announcement trailer, we know the basic plot, and we’ve gotten acquainted with the characters, but we Potterheads need something more substantial to quench our thirst for information. How will Newt’s story differ from Harry’s? What sort of personal obstacles will he face? How are witches and wizards in America different than witches and wizards in Europe? To answer these questions, I’ve been searching for clues in every piece of knowledge we have about the films, and thanks to MuggleNet Academia, I think I’ve found a way to put the pieces together.
Literary alchemy uses alchemical language, themes, and symbols to present a story about human transformation. Playwrights, poets, and authors have used alchemy in their works for hundreds of years, mirroring the stages of transformation medieval alchemists hoped to undergo personally alongside their physical attempts to turn lead into gold and to create the famed Philosopher’s Stone. Many renowned authors have utilized literary alchemy in their works, including William Shakespeare, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and more recently, J.K. Rowling.
J.K. Rowling herself has said that alchemy was a huge part of the original Potter series.
To invent this wizard world, I’ve learned a ridiculous amount about alchemy. Perhaps much of it I’ll never use in the books, but I have to know in detail what magic can and cannot do in order to set the parameters and establish the stories’ internal logic.
If alchemy plays such an essential role in Harry’s world, searching for alchemical themes and symbols in the information we have about Fantastic Beasts could reveal some of its secrets. Explanations of literary alchemy can get pretty long and complicated, but we only need a basic understanding of alchemical structure to cast our Fantastic Beasts prophecies. If you’re looking for an in-depth discussion of alchemy in the Harry Potter series, check out Unlocking Harry Potter: Five Keys for the Serious Reader and The Deathly Hallows Lectures, both by John Granger, the Hogwarts Professor and co-host of MuggleNet’s very own MuggleNet Academia.
Most alchemical works can be divided into three stages: the nigredo, the albedo, and the rubedo. In the original Potter series, Book 5 can be considered the nigredo, Book 6 the albedo, and Book 7 the rubedo.
- During the nigredo (the dissolution, or the black stage) the character is broken down to the basic essence of who they are. In Order of the Phoenix, everything Harry holds close is stripped away from him. Ron and Hermione are selected as prefects over him, he’s banned from playing Quidditch, Snape’s worst memory taints his vision of his father, and at the end of the novel, he loses Sirius Black. After Sirius’s death, Harry learned the answer to a question plaguing him since his first year at Hogwarts: Why did Voldemort try to kill him in the first place? Dumbledore finally revealed the contents of the prophecy and Harry’s fate as the Chosen One.
- During the albedo (the purification, or the white stage) the character is cleansed of his former impurities, and new information about himself or his quest is revealed. In Half-Blood Prince, Harry studied Voldemort’s quest for immortality, learning important information about Horcruxes and preparing himself for the Horcrux hunt in the final book. He also learned important information about two of his Slytherin rivals: Draco’s initiation into the Death Eaters and Snape’s secret identity as the Half-Blood Prince.
- During the rubedo (the reddening, or the red stage) the character chooses to resolve his internal conflicts and becomes the best version of himself that he can be. In Deathly Hallows, Harry learned about the piece of Voldemort’s soul living inside of him and sacrificed himself so it could be destroyed. Even though most of Harry’s enemies came from Slytherin House, Harry let go of his prejudice and told his son Albus Severus that it didn’t matter if he was in Gryffindor or Slytherin.
How can we use all of this to predict the plot of Fantastic Beasts? Just like there are three basic stages in literary alchemy, we know there will be three movies in the Fantastic Beasts trilogy, making the first movie the series’s nigredo. The plot synopsis told us that some of Newt’s beasts have escaped their habitats in his magical suitcase, and the character descriptions have revealed that Newt is “far more comfortable around beasts and other creatures than he is around other people.” It sounds like Newt is going to have to overcome his insecurities and learn to work with other people to overcome the obstacles of his story. The loss of his beasts and other conflicts will break him down until he discovers the essence of who he is.
The end of the original Potter series featured the resolution of the Gryffindor/Slytherin conflict, and I think we’ll see a similar resolution of contraries in Newt’s story. The plot synopsis suggests that the No-Maj Jacob is partially responsible for Newt’s extended stay in New York, and we know they encounter beasts together in at least one scene during the movie. We also know that tension is high between American wizards and the No-Maj community and that the Salem witch trials were “a major traumatic event in the history of American wizard and No-Maj[…] relations.” The depth of this divide leads me to believe that Newt and Jacob will both have a role to play in eliminating or reducing the tension between the magical and non-magical communities; however, until that resolution, I think the Second Salemers could cause some serious problems for Newt. If their demands for a second Salem are met, Newt’s escaped beasts put him at risk of being the victim of a modern witch hunt. Oddly enough, Newt’s full name – Newton Fido Artemis Scamander – alludes to medieval ways of detecting magical abilities. Eleanor’s analysis of Newt’s full name concluded that:
Overall, there is a duality to Newt’s name that ties in with a medieval view of witchcraft. Newts were usually associated with water, while salamanders were associated with fire. Salamanders innately possess the duality of being able to survive on land and in water – this ties back to medieval ideas about witches. One of the tests to “discover a witch” was to throw a woman into a pond to see if she floated or sank, that is, to see if she possessed the dual nature of amphibians – and could survive both on water and on land.
I hope the Second Salemers don’t throw Newt into a pond, but the fact that we’ll be seeing merpeople again makes me nervous. If the first installment of Fantastic Beasts resembles Goblet of Fire, Newt could be taking the plunge just like Harry, so here’s to hoping he keeps some gillyweed on hand.
Do you think Newt will be put on trial by the Second Salemers? Have you noticed any other alchemical clues in what we know about Fantastic Beasts so far? To learn more on the literary structure of the Harry Potter series, check out MuggleNet Academia! For more discussion of Newt and his adventures, take a look at our Fantastic Beasts podcast SpeakBeasty!