“We Don’t Talk About Delphi”: Shared Themes of “Encanto” and “Cursed Child”
by Lorrie Kim
At Harry’s first start-of-term feast, he was afraid the Sorting Hat wouldn’t accept him at all.
What if he just sat there with the hat over his eyes for ages, until Professor McGonagall jerked it off his head and said there had obviously been a mistake and he’d better get back on the train?” (SS 120)
Of course, Harry had no reason to worry. But that’s what happened to Mirabel Madrigal, the protagonist of the animated Disney film Encanto.
The Madrigals are a Colombian family with magical powers, led by their formidable Abuela (grandmother). When the Madrigal children come of age, a crowd gathers in their sentient house to watch each child open the door to their magical gift. Will they see the future? Control the weather? Hear what animals think?
Every child gets a special gift – except for Mirabel. The magical door disappears at her touch before she can even open it. In Potterverse terms, from then on, Mirabel is considered a Squib.
We find out later that she isn’t a Squib at all. It’s just that Abuela wasn’t ready for Mirabel’s gift, and her terror shut down the room for Mirabel’s power before anyone could even learn what it was. In fact, Abuela’s fears are dimming the whole family’s magic. When Mirabel decides to disobey this suppression and pursue her own magic, we learn that she has the gift of acknowledging the cracks in the family’s foundation and knowing what it takes to heal them.
Mirabel’s story shares many parallels with Albus’s story in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
Albus’s classmates call him “the Slytherin Squib,” even though he is a wizard because his gifts don’t match up to the Potter’s reputation. Harry is disappointed and uncomprehending when Albus has problems Harry can’t solve. Trauma has hardwired Harry to understand only the coping strategies that helped him survive mortal peril: fight for his life, lean on Ron and Hermione, and love Hogwarts as his home. When Albus needs Harry to slow down and empathize with his loneliness instead, it’s too threatening for Harry. This reopens terrifying old wounds from Harry’s past – his scar starts hurting again – and he desperately tries to shut down whatever it is about Albus that brings those memories back. His attempts to control Albus are so bizarrely authoritarian that they push Albus into running away and investigating the past to see the origins of whatever’s affecting his family.
Abuela’s children and grandchildren are all accustomed to her authoritarian pronouncements. She takes enormous pride in their gifts, but only if those gifts can “help the family” by reinforcing their security. There’s no room for uncertainty; ambiguity about the future sends Abuela into uncontrollable dread because of her own trauma and her single-minded determination to keep her family alive and safe. Mirabel’s gift of common-sense empathy is a vague but limitless threat to Abuela’s rigid survival mindset. Abuela gives Mirabel an order that’s impossible to follow: “Whatever you’re doing, stop doing it!” Mirabel isn’t doing anything. She’s just being. If she’s going to exist at all, she has to defy Abuela.
And then there’s Bruno. The Madrigals don’t talk about Bruno, just like the Potter fandom tries not to talk about Delphi. Who is she? What is she? Mirabel’s uncle Bruno, whose gift is all about the uncertainty of the future, does his best to stop existing because his very nature is threatening to Abuela. His visions don’t necessarily foretell doom, but the more afraid people are, the more convinced they feel that doom is inevitable and it’s Bruno’s fault for raising the issue.
Delphi, too, is a projection screen for everyone’s worst fears. Her statement of intent, her gift, is: “I will rebirth the Dark. I will bring my father back.” Her statement doesn’t indicate what she’ll do to rebirth the Dark, whether that’s a good or bad thing, who her father might be, or whether his return will be dangerous or helpful. When Delphi’s statement first appears, there’s nothing in it that identifies her father as Voldemort or someone who poses a threat; it is others who jump to that conclusion since that’s their greatest fear. It turns out that Delphi herself is Albus’s shadow, the most unacceptable and frightening aspect of his psyche, as Voldemort is Harry’s shadow. She shows up in the play when Albus has the strongest negative feelings about his father, and once their relationship is repaired, she disappears and never reappears. Delphi’s father is the enraged part of Harry that identifies with and fears Voldemort. Bringing Harry back into closeness with Albus will be a gift, not a curse. In both Cursed Child and Encanto, as well as in larger Potterverse, it is not the prophecy itself that has power, only our interpretation of it.
Delphi rebirths the Dark by compelling Harry to confront the most painful memories of his childhood. This process restores Harry to a more peaceful state as a father, his scar pain-free again.
Just as Harry seeks out Albus at the site of the original trauma and they witness the attack on Harry’s parents together, Abuela finds Mirabel at the spot where Abuelo was violently murdered, leaving Abuela as a young widow with infant triplets. Abuela tells Mirabel that she’s never been able to revisit this spot before. She lets Mirabel into the memories so Mirabel can understand why Abuela became who she did. That act of trust shows Abuela that she can release some fear and let Mirabel lead the family into other, less trauma-driven ways to thrive. For both Abuela and Harry, the overriding urge that powered their survival was the desire to raise a family in safety. Once that family was established, their new task – and privilege – was to learn to stop sacrificing everything for that one goal of survival. Their old life-or-death rules are no longer necessary precisely because they succeeded so well.
Abuela had thought of her family’s gift as their prosperous home and magic. But in talking to Mirabel, she realizes that she’s most thankful for the gift of getting “a second chance” at all – a phrase that certainly resounds with meaning for Harry Potter readers. Abuela made mistakes that drove away Bruno and almost drove away Mirabel, just as Harry almost lost Albus. But Mirabel led Abuela to face her original trauma and lessen some of its power over her because this time, she had the company of a loved one to sit through it with her. This is similar to what Albus did for Harry through Delphi, Albus’s shadow self: rebirthing the Dark by compelling Harry to confront the most painful memories of his childhood, bringing them back to the surface so Harry can put them to rest and feel greater peace. To put it in Potterverse terms, Abuela could never revisit the site where Abuelo was murdered until Mirabel’s gift helped her take a Time-Turner there.
Encanto includes several cheeky references to other stories of magic: for example, rooms that are “bigger on the inside” or a character encouraging himself to “let it go.” Remember Ron in the Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets film, wondering plaintively why it always has to be “follow the spiders” and not, say, “follow the butterflies”? He should visit La Familia Madrigal. He would love following butterflies with them.