The Phoenix and the Qilin in “Secrets of Dumbledore”: Fantastic Bestiaries and Where to Find Them – Part 3
by Dr. Beatrice Groves
Fawkes is a phoenix, Harry. Phoenixes burst into flame when it is time for them to die and are reborn from the ashes.” (CoS 207)
The phoenix is crucial to the plot at the end of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, and from the trailer and advertising posters, it looks like it will take something of a starring role in Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore. Although the phoenix is all over the posters and trailers of the film, we have not (yet) gotten a clear sense of what its role will be. However, in the Japanese trailer for Secrets of Dumbledore, Credence’s portentous phrase – “He’s not here for you; he’s here for me” – sounds like Credence asserting that the phoenix is his, rather than Dumbledore’s. (If this phoenix is Fawkes, we’ll have to assume Credence is wrong about that – for Fawkes, as we discovered in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, would come to a person in need if they showed only loyalty to Dumbledore, let alone being him.) The importance of whom a phoenix will come to may (perhaps) have been on Rowling’s mind even as far back as 2001, legible in the footnote to the phoenix entry in the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them textbook: “The phoenix gains a XXXX rating not because it is aggressive, but because very few wizards have ever succeeded in domesticating it.” The special relationship between Dumbledore’s family and the phoenix appears to have been due to an ancestor long before Albus.
There might even be a subtle hint as to the phoenix’s importance in Secrets of Dumbledore in the appearance of Diricawls, for this is the animal that is paired with the phoenix in the original Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them textbook. (It is twice noted that the Diricawl’s ability to “vanish in a puff of feathers and reappear elsewhere” – a talent we see on display in the trailer – is one that the phoenix shares.) The Fantastic Beasts textbook, likewise, mentions the mountains of China as a place where the phoenix is to be found, which fits with the movie’s setting. Underlining the importance that phoenixes are likely to have in Secrets of Dumbledore is the fact that Rowling has both named it as her “favorite creature” and used it as her example of a universal magical creature in the documentary brought out in part as a tie-in with the movie – Fantastic Beasts: A Natural History (aired February 27, 2022):
I am even more fascinated by the fact that discrete cultures who’d never met create such similar archetypes and such similar creatures. So we see the ‘firebird’ – the phoenix as I called it – but you see the creation of a firebird throughout different cultures. And what is that telling us about what it is to be human and what lives at the back of our minds, in our subconscious? You often see this in magical beasts, that very similar beasts have been imagined by – by after all peoples who are living among different real animals, we’re talking cultures across different continents – and that fascinates me because that’s clearly telling us about ourselves.
There is a Chinese version of the phoenix – likewise a firebird – but, as described by Jorge Luis Borges in his Book of Imaginary Beings, it is quite different from the European version of the bird:
In prehistoric times it visited the gardens and palaces of virtuous emperors as a visible token of celestial favour. The male (Feng), which had three legs, lived in the sun. The female is the Huang: together they are the emblem of everlasting love.
In the trailer, we have seen a red phoenix that looks like Fawkes (with Dumbledore) and a black, fire-laced phoenix (with Credence) – it is not clear yet whether these are two birds (perhaps a male and a female?) or different showing of the same bird.
One of the major breaks which Harry Potter made with traditional phoenix lore was to have Fawkes as one-among-many phoenixes; for traditionally (as part of the bird’s Christological symbolism), there can be only one. I do wonder, therefore, if this traditional symbolism will be returning and the apparently distinct phoenixes of the trailer will turn out to be ‘one’ – both Fawkes – after all. Either way, it is interesting to note that there is (in admittedly a very niche Chinese text) such as thing as a black phoenix:
Gu Yewang in Furui tu (‘Images of auspicious portents’) says, ‘As to the jiqu, when the King is virtuous, then it appears. When its head and wings are vermillion, and it is called the cinnabar feng; when they are blue/green, then it is called the yuxiang (‘Soaring feathers’); when it is white, then it is called the huayi (‘Transforming wings’); when it is black, then it is called the yinzhu (‘Hidden flight’); when it is yellow, it is called the tufu (‘The auspicious earth’). By these different five colours, it takes its name.1
Here again, as above in Borges, we have the link of phoenixes and auspicious portents – when the King is virtuous, then it appears; it visited the gardens and palaces of virtuous emperors as a visible token of celestial favor. This seems pertinent for the Wizarding World lore that a phoenix will always appear to a Dumbledore in need – must members of the Dumbledore family, therefore, always be virtuous? – but also for its parallels for the most interesting new beast who will appear in Secrets of Dumbledore: the qilin.
I wrote about the moral aspect of the qilin back in December when the first trailer was released – one of the most interesting aspects being that (just as with the zouwu and the Chinese phoenix) the qilin was considered a righteous animal. Its appearance proved the existence of a just ruler or monarch, and it could be used to judge who was innocent in a trial: “Twenty-two centuries before the Christian era, one of the judges of the Emperor Shun was in possession of a “one-horned goat” which refused to attack the wrongly accused but would butt the guilty” (Borges, Book of Imaginary Beings). This aspect of judgment has likewise been hinted at by the two images of the qilin that have been brought out by MinaLima. These two images are of the Portkey that we have seen in the Room of Requirement (named by MinaLima as the “Qilin Ceremony Portkey”) and of a ticket named “The Walk of the Qilin Ceremony Ticket.” On the latter (an image which we likewise saw as a banner in the first trailer), the writing is now decipherable as “The Walk of the Qilin,” – and the image of the stylized qilin is identical to that on the Portkey. The qilin in these images, however, is not walking but standing with its head and front legs lowered. It could indeed be taking precisely the position that Borges describes and be preparing to “butt” someone. The idea of the Walk of the Qilin as the name for a ceremony, coupled with this head-lowered position, makes me wonder if the Walk of the Qilin is the ceremony by which the new political leader of the Wizard World – the head of the International Confederation of Wizards or Supreme Mugwump – is chosen—or perhaps ratified? It would fit with the mythology of the qilin and its connection with just rulers if its ability to understand a person’s innate goodness were to be used to choose just such a ruler.
The qilin has also, much to my delight, reappeared in the second trailer. Now we have glimpsed the presence of a qilin foal with Grindelwald (standing beside the pool from which Grindelwald leaps), a qilin foal beside its mother on the Portkey, and a qilin foal carried through the forest by Newt. We also know that this foal will be important because the foal of the qilin in particular, and its responsiveness to the moral worth of the humans it encounters, are mentioned inside the tie-in book The Secrets of Dumbledore: The Magic of Cinema.
Shortly after first writing about the qilin, I went for a walk with John Donegan-Cross, a friend who studies Chinese literature. So (of course), I asked him if he knew anything about this particular Chinese beast and was somewhat startled – and even more delighted! – to discover that the qilin plays a starring role in his research. John’s description of a qilin – “the body of a roe-deer, the tail of an ox, the feet of a horse with round hooves, light brown in color, and with a single horn, not of bone but of flesh” – although it is unlike the dominant image of the animal present on the internet, is gratifyingly close to the way in which the illustrators of the film appear to have chosen to depict it. John’s most important information about the qilin, however, (in terms of its importance in Secrets of Dumbledore) is that it is paired in Chinese mythology with the phoenix.
The qilin is one of the “Four Numinous Animals” of Chinese mythology – while it is the most magical and wise of the four-footed beasts, it is the phoenix which is the numinous beast of the birds. The parallel between these two animals is interesting because they seem, likewise, to be the two most important mythological beasts in Secrets of Dumbledore.
We know from Harry Potter that Dumbledore has a special relationship with Fawkes – a relationship embodied not only by the fact that Albus’s Patronus is a phoenix or their ability to talk to each other but more profoundly by the reciprocal way each reminds Harry of the other. When Harry hears phoenix song, he thinks of Dumbledore, and the sight of Dumbledore sustains him like phoenix song: “[Harry] felt as though the song was inside him instead of just around him… it was the sound he connected with Dumbledore, and it was almost as though a friend was speaking in his ear” (GoF 664); “a powerful emotion had risen in Harry’s chest at the sight of Dumbledore, a fortified, hopeful feeling rather like that which phoenix song gave him” (OotP 139). We know from Crimes of Grindelwald that there is a special relationship between all of Dumbledore’s family and the phoenix – and the phoenix chick that appears to Credence is the only evidence we have so far that Grindelwald is not lying, and Credence truly is Aurelius Dumbledore.
On the connection between phoenixes and qilin, John writes:
The phoenix is associated with virtue.2 It is itself virtuous, it causes virtue to arise, and when it appears (particularly along with the qilin), then the realm is virtuous, and so are the rulers. It is the sage of the birds, as the qilin is the sage of the four-legged creatures. The qilin is likewise associated with virtue. Along with phoenixes, immortals, and auspicious trees, they frequently appear on ancient tomb walls. Here is an interesting quote from Wang Chong’s (fl. Han Dynasty) Lunheng: ‘The scholars hold that the phoenix and the unicorn [quilin] appear for the sake of a sagely emperor. They regard the phoenix and the unicorn as benevolent creatures and wise animals which have deep thoughts and keep aloof from all danger. When virtue reigns in the land, they appear; when virtue is lacking, they abscond.’
We seem to have a symbolic connection, then, between the phoenix which identifies Credence as a Dumbledore in Crimes of Grindelwald, and the actions of the qilin (likewise commandeered for Grindelwald’s purposes) in Secrets of Dumbledore. The phoenix connects Dumbledore and Credence, but it will be the qilin that will be at the center of Newt’s part of the story. Based on the suitcase mix-up from the first film, I predicted that the many identical suitcases that we’ve seen in the trailer would be decoy cases designed to conceal which case contained the qilin – and subsequent footage of the Room of Requirement scene (released at the end of March) has shown this guess to be correct. It makes sense for Grindelwald and his supporters to be looking to find the qilin, for: When virtue reigns in the land, [the qilin] appear; when virtue is lacking, they abscond.
Borges’s writing about the qilin in The Book of Imaginary Beings contains many interesting aspects, both in its connection with the phoenix and in its innate goodness: “It is so gentle that when it walks it is careful not to tread on the tiniest living creature and will not even eat live grass but only what is dead. Its appearance foretells the birth of an upright ruler.’” The gnomic prophecy given to Confucius’s mother by the qilin (“Son of mountain crystal when the dynasty crumbles, thou shalt rule as a throneless king”) has echoes of the gnomic prophecy of the previous film. (It is also the case that if the qilin is linked with prophecy in Secrets of Dumbledore – as it is by Borges – Grindelwald sending his minions to take it from Newt carries strong echoes of Voldemort sending his Death Eaters to take the prophecy from Harry in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.) We have discovered from the TV spots released for Secrets of Dumbledore that Grindelwald can see into the future – perhaps the qilin assists him in this feat when it stands beside his giant Pensieve-like pool.
The most hopeful section of Borges’s discussion of the qilin is the passage in which it was, in its gentleness, able to turn back from war even so violent a warrior as Genghis Khan:
In the thirteenth century, a scouting expedition of the Emperor Genghis Khan, who had undertaken the invasion of India, met a creature in the desert ‘like a deer, with a head like that of a horse, one horn on its forehead, and green hair on its body,’ which addressed them, saying, ‘It is time for your master to return to his own land.’ One of Genghis’ Chinese ministers, upon consultation, explained to him that the animal was a chio-tuan, a variety of the k’i-lin. ‘For four years the great army has been warring in western regions,’ he said. ‘Heaven, which has a horror of bloodshed, gives warning through the Chio-tuan. Spare the Empire for Heaven’s sake; moderation will give boundless pleasure.’ The Emperor desisted in his war plans. (Imaginary Beings)
It seems implausible that the qilin foal will be able to turn Grindelwald from his stated plan of burning down the Muggle world, but we can hope.
Looking forward very much to finding out more when we watch Secrets of Dumbledore!
1 With thanks to John Donegan-Cross.
2 The presence of a phoenix can cause virtue to arise (Yi Zhoushu, 8.286b; Xin Shu, 10.135), and it is virtue that makes it soar (Bai Hu Tong De Lun, 2.165a); it is described as “patterned with the five virtues” (Shanhaijing tuzan, 1.2). Furthermore, the phoenix is associated with the junzi, a moral paragon. In the later divination text Yilin, as the phoenix’s chicks grow up in the south, the junzi 君子 is healthy and tranquil (Yilin, 6.60). In the Yangzi fangyan (6.16), the example of the phoenix is used to encourage people to strive for virtue.
Dr. Beatrice Groves teaches Renaissance English at Trinity College, Oxford, and is the author of Literary Allusion in Harry Potter, which is available now. Don’t miss her earlier posts for MuggleNet – such as “Solve et Coagula: Part 1 – Rowling’s Alchemical Tattoo,” – all of which can be found at Bathilda’s Notebook. She is also a regular contributor to the MuggleNet podcast Potterversity.