The Origin of Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them by Hazel Meades

Magic is in the air this November! With the arrival of The Crimes of Grindelwald in cinemas, it’s time to take a look at the literary origin of the latest cinematic offshoot from the Harry Potter universe.

Since the conclusion of the infamous book series, Harry Potter fans have been crying out for more. The development of Pottermore (a website most fans join just to find out which house they’ll get sorted into), the stage production of the Cursed Child and, most recently, the second installment of the 5 part Fantastic Beasts film series, have valiantly attempted to answer this call to magic. Rowling’s success in doing so varies depending on who you talk to but, in a nutshell, the Harry Potter universe is ever expanding and it delights every Potterhead bone in my body.

Yet, that extensive list still doesn’t cover everything set in Rowling’s wizarding world. Before the creation of the website that lets your wand choose you, there were a couple of Harry Potter offshoots in the form of short novellas for Comic Relief (a third novella was written for Rowling’s own charity in 2007, in the same year as the original book series’ completion). The 2001 book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, was what inspired the eponymous cinematic unveiling of 1920s wizarding America last year. As of 2017, there is even a revised version of the book, presumably updated to better tie into the films. I’m slightly ashamed to admit that I haven’t read all three novellas yet, but it is interesting to look at the considerably milder literary roots for the first film in the new/old era of Rowling’s wizarding world.

The References

Fantastic Beasts is set up as a dictionary reminiscent textbook on the topic of magical creatures so, naturally, it features all of the creatures that Potterheads already know and love from the original series. There are dragons, trolls and more! I now know that Aragog the giant spider (from The Chamber of Secrets) is actually an acromantula, for example. There are also multiple references to Hagrid; a character who most Harry Potter fans know has a hazardous fondness of magical creatures. Hagrid lacks what the film/book version of Newt has in terms of magizoology skill, but he makes up for it through sheer adoration.

Fantastic Beasts also wastes no time in making its affiliations known. The front cover proudly announces its place within the Harry Potter universe in capitals (“FROM THE WORLD OF HARRY POTTER”) and both the blurb and foreword feature Dumbledore in what I like to think of as a literary cameo role. In addition to this, Rowling manages to squeeze Ron, Hermione and Harry into the textbook too via amusing graffiti. My only objection to this was that I often struggled to tell the difference between Ron’s messy handwriting and Harry’s slightly tidier handwriting, although the context generally made it clear who had written what.

The Style

The pseudo-textbook is refreshingly self-aware in both its humour and writing style. Ministry of Magic is amusingly abbreviated to M.O.M when categorising beasts, for example, and the book deliberately addresses both wizards and muggles. I’m sure that many a muggle student can relate to the formulaic textbook conventions of unnecessarily long introductions, forewords, footnotes and indented quotations. The book keeps a supposedly formal format fresh with neat fictional facts about individuals such as “Ulric the Oddball” and notes on how certain creatures have been reported on by the “Muggle press”.

While a lot of creature names may sound like gibberish, such as the jabberknoll, there are also more familiar names in the book. Fairies and yetis are expected, but creatures such as the salamander and diricawl (a creature which muggles supposedly mistook for the now extinct dodo, unaware of its ability to teleport itself from location to location) are a pleasant surprise. Rowling excels in delicately intertwining muggle history with her wizarding “reality”.

The Continuity Errors

As far as continuity errors go, the ones I noticed in this book are pretty minor, but I wouldn’t be a proper fan if I didn’t point at least one out. I’m hoping that it will be resolved on seeing Crimes of Grindelwald (do you have any idea how difficult it is to research something you’re trying not to spoil yourself on?) but, until then, I’ll make a note of one particular blip in the Fantastic Beasts timeline.

The most glaring error that jumps out at me is how the “About the Author” section states that Newt graduated from Hogwarts and went on to work at the Ministry of Magic before going on to do his research trips abroad for the book. In contrast, the films suggest that Newt was expelled before he could complete his studies, and would prefer almost anything else to working a desk job at the ministry. I wonder if the updated 2017 version of the book corrected this particular section…

It amazes me how such a small, pseudo-factual book of only 88 pages can spawn a 5 part film series and raise so much money for charity. The film itself has drawn upon even tiny strands of fiction from the book. In the opening pages, for example, “Obscurus Books in Association with Diagon Alley” is named as the publisher. Anyone who’s seen the first Fantastic Beasts film will be familiar with the importance of the obscurus, or obscurial, but this is a small detail in the book. It just goes to demonstrate that, from front cover to blurb, this short, magical textbook is a Harry Potter nerd’s delight and an excellent example of world-building in creative fiction.

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