A Young Minerva McGonagall in “Crimes of Grindelwald” Doesn’t Break Canon
by Redmond Sirens
The appearance in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald of a young Minerva McGonagall generated mixed reactions within the fandom.
Some enjoyed her surprise cameo. Many really appreciated the performance of Fiona Glascott in the portrayal of the young version of Maggie Smith’s character.
However, a substantial majority perceived McGonagall’s presence in the 2018 movie as a severe retcon since it contradicted the commonly accepted estimation within the fandom of 1935 as her birth year. And because of this (presumed) retcon, many fans ventured into a variety of theories for reconciling her appearance with the existing lore.
Hence, some have theorized about improbable time travels, similar to the ones performed in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Some have speculated that the movie showed an ancestor of the McGonagall we already knew and loved. Some have even suggested, in order to reconcile the (supposed) contradiction, a separation of Harry Potter canon from Fantastic Beasts canon.
The reality is that even though the fan service purpose is clear, it’s possible to thoroughly demonstrate that a contradiction with the canon is far from being present.
In fact, with a comprehensive look at all the canonical material, the contradictions are absent, and on the contrary, McGonagall’s presence in the 2018 movie further clarifies many passages within many Harry Potter works.
That wasn’t McGonagall’s grandmother
First of all, the hypothesis for which, in Crimes of Grindelwald, we saw Minerva’s grandmother must be debunked.
This is not possible for a couple of reasons:
- The grandmother after whom our Minerva was named was on her mother’s side: Isobel Ross’s mother. And so the name of this grandma can only be Minerva Ross.
- Even if the grandmother on her father’s side (Robert McGonagall, Sr.’s mother), by pure coincidence, was called Minerva, it wouldn’t work. In fact, this grandma never had magical power since we know for sure that Robert was a Muggle.
Therefore, it’s pretty certain that the Minerva McGonagall we saw in Crimes of Grindelwald was our Minerva McGonagall.
What does the canon really tell us about McGonagall’s youth?
All the available information about McGonagall’s youth can be summarized in six points.
Point 1: Dumbledore was McGonagall’s Transfiguration professor.
This is pretty indisputable: From JKR’s essay on McGonagall’s backstory, we know that Dumbledore was McGonagall’s mentor at Hogwarts.
Under the guidance of her inspirational Transfiguration teacher, Albus Dumbledore, she had managed to become an Animagus; her animal form, with its distinctive markings (tabby cat, square spectacles markings around eyes) were duly logged in the Ministry of Magic’s Animagus Registry.”
Point 2: McGonagall’s birthday is October 4.
In Short Stories from Hogwarts of Heroism, Hardship and Dangerous Hobbies, one of the short books JKR wrote in order to expand the wizarding world, McGonagall’s birthday is placed on October 4.
Hence, since she was born after September 1, McGonagall started to attend Hogwarts in the calendar year in which she turned 12.
Point 3: McGonagall started teaching in December 1956.
Pretty indisputable. It’s explicitly stated by McGonagall herself in a famous interaction between her and Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix book.
The noteworthy exchange goes like this:
‘How long have you been teaching at Hogwarts?’ Professor Umbridge asked.
‘Thirty-nine years this December,’ said Professor McGonagall brusquely, snapping her bag shut.” (OotP 321)
McGonagall lying would’ve been, in general, a bit out of character. But it would’ve been extremely out of character in that specific situation with Umbridge because McGonagall wanted (and managed) to show she was impeccable in her job and extremely precise in her answers.
Also, the wording of the exchange seems to exclude that the 39 years may have not been consecutive. The exact phrasing of Umbridge’s question (“How long have you been teaching at Hogwarts?”) refers to a continuative period. If the question were something like “For how many years have you been teaching at Hogwarts?,” then there would’ve been room for a different interpretation. But this isn’t the case. And so since the interaction happened shortly before December 1995, McGonagall must have started teaching in December 1956.
Point 4: After graduating from Hogwarts, McGonagall worked for two years at the Ministry of Magic within the Department of Magical Law Enforcement.
Indisputable. The essay on McGonagall conveys it clearly.
Upon graduation from Hogwarts, […] she had been offered a position at the Ministry of Magic (Department of Magical Law Enforcement).
[…] Finally, after two years at the Ministry, she was offered a prestigious promotion, yet found herself turning it down. She sent an owl to Hogwarts, asking whether she might be considered for a teaching post. The owl returned within hours, offering her a job […]”
Therefore, the conclusion is that McGonagall worked at the Ministry of Magic for two years, from the autumn in which she turned 19 to the summer before she turned 21.
Point 5: Before becoming head of the Transfiguration Department in 1956, McGonagall had a pluriannual non-teaching position at Hogwarts.
This fact is shown, in more than an instance, within multiple of JKR’s works about the wizarding world.
In Short Stories from Hogwarts of Heroism, Hardship and Dangerous Hobbies, which was published in 2016, JKR discusses McGonagall and Dumbledore’s relationship in Chapter 1:
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.”
Consequently, we know that in 1945, McGonagall was already an adult, already Dumbledore’s close friend, and – by consequence – already working at Hogwarts.
The same short book, when speaking about McGonagall’s role in the Second Wizarding War, gives further information about McGonagall’s career.
By the time of the second wizarding war, Minerva was no longer prepared to act as a spy for a Ministry she believed had become corrupt and dangerous. Her attitude was undoubtedly hardened by the intrusion at Hogwarts of Dolores Jane Umbridge, a Ministry inspector and Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, with whom Minerva clashed more violently than with any other colleague in her long and varied career.” (Chapter 1)
This means that 1995 McGonagall had already experienced an ample set of jobs. Now, are two working positions (Ministry job and teacher) enough for characterizing a career as varied? I highly doubt it.
Moreover, always in the same 2016 book, when deepening McGonagall’s role during Voldemort’s first rise, JKR provides an illuminating passage:
Minerva McGonagall did not teach the young Tom Riddle, but she was privy to Dumbledore’s fears and suspicions about him.” (Chapter 1)
This passage shows that Dumbledore shared with McGonagall his suspicions about the future Voldemort ever since Tom Riddle was a student. But most importantly, this passage explicitly mentions that McGonagall was not a teacher in any of the seven years in which Riddle was attending Hogwarts (1938–1945).
Additionally, from the Professor McGonagall essay, we know about when she rejected a promotion:
[McGonagall] sent an owl to Hogwarts, asking whether she might be considered for a teaching post. The owl returned within hours, offering her a job in the Transfiguration department, under Head of Department, Albus Dumbledore.”
In this passage, the word “under” must be highlighted as it’s easily unnoticeable because the essay is telling us that McGonagall initially had a working position that was under Dumbledore’s within the Transfiguration Department. And since we know that, at Hogwarts, there is one head for each subject, we have to exclude both that McGonagall’s working position was the same as Dumbledore’s and that it was the same as Dumbledore’s peer professors in the other subjects.
Therefore, the inescapable conclusion is that McGonagall’s initial working position at Hogwarts wasn’t the position of a teacher.
Furthermore, it’s worth noting that, in Crimes of Grindelwald, we see McGonagall in two instances (three instances if we look at the extended cut), and in none of these two (or three) instances do we see her teaching.
Actually, even in the old version of the Professor McGonagall essay (the one that included a reference to her youth in the early 20th century), a pluriannual non-teaching position was already designed. In fact, even in that outdated version of the essay, which was originally published on August 10, 2015, McGonagall was hired under Dumbledore after having worked at the Ministry of Magic for two years. Therefore (unless one considers the ’50s/’60s within the early 20th century), the commonly accepted 1935 estimation of the fandom is clearly erroneous, and a pluriannual, unspecified, non-teaching position at Hogwarts was already planned far before Crimes of Grindelwald.
To summarize all these references, the point is that there’s overwhelming evidence that not only did McGonagall have one (or more) non-teaching job(s) for several years but that she had this (or these) unspecified job(s) from the very beginning of her return to Hogwarts before eventually becoming a teacher in December 1956.
Point 6: In Crimes of Grindelwald, McGonagall appears working at Hogwarts both in the present of 1927 and in a flashback of 1910.
In Scene 67 of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald – The Original Screenplay, JKR shows, in one of Leta’s flashbacks, that McGonagall was already working at Hogwarts in 1910. In particular, since JKR mentions that both Leta and Newt are 13 and since she mentions that the scene happens during “the last day of the winter term,” we can infer that we are talking about a period between March and April 1910.
Is it possible to estimate McGonagall’s birth year?
JKR never published or said in which year McGonagall was born.
However, once all the available information connected to McGonagall’s youth is collected and organized, it’s perfectly possible to estimate a delimited time window for her birth year. Actually, this window can be well-bounded and circumscribed thanks to the information we have gathered in this article.
The upper bound can be derived from the previous section’s point 2, point 4, and point 6:
From point 2, we know that McGonagall started to attend Hogwarts in the calendar year in which she turned 12.
From point 4, we know that McGonagall was surely (at the very maximum) 21 when starting whatever job she obtained at Hogwarts.
From point 6, we know that McGonagall was already working at Hogwarts in early 1910 and therefore that she was hired no later than autumn 1909.
Therefore, with the correct backward math (hired at Hogwarts in late 1909 <- hired at the MoM in autumn 1907 <- started attending Hogwarts in September 1900 <- born in October 1888), the upper bound for McGonagall’s birth year is 1888.
The lower bound is derived from point 1: We know that Dumbledore was McGonagall’s Transfiguration teacher. We don’t know when Dumbledore started teaching at Hogwarts, but we know it was after the funeral of his sister Ariana, which occurred in the summer of 1899. We don’t know if there’s a minimum age for becoming a professor. The youngest mentioned professor is Snape (who started teaching at 20 or 21), but nothing suggests it’s a limiting case. Therefore, the earliest moment for the beginning of Dumbledore’s teaching career is the academic year 1899–1900.
Also, we must assume that Dumbledore has been McGonagall’s Transfiguration teacher for at least a full academic year. And we must equally assume that McGonagall and Dumbledore didn’t share years in which they both were students; otherwise, McGonagall would have likely known Dumbledore from before his experience as a teacher.
Therefore, their age gap (always considering that McGonagall started Hogwarts around a month before turning 12) has to be at least six years. Hence, McGonagall can’t be born before 1887.
Consequently, we can safely conclude that the inclusion of an adult McGonagall in Crimes of Grindelwald didn’t generate inconsistencies with the canon. Moreover, we have enough canonical element for conjecturing that McGonagall’s birth year can be safely and consistently placed either in 1887 or in 1888.