A frame from the famous (in cryptozoological circles) Patterson-Gimlin footage of what’s supposedly a Bigfoot walking through the woods. (via Wikipedia)
This may or may not be a known fact to our readers, but in case you missed it, I love cryptozoology. I think it’s a fun and harmless interest, and while you won’t catch me out in the woods doing Bigfoot calls, I won’t pass up the opportunity to watch a “documentary” about someone else doing just that. But despite the efforts to make cryptozoology seem like a serious branch of science to tie Sasquatches to a missing evolutionary link and lake monsters to dinosaurs who never went extinct, I think a lot of people, myself included, are interested in cryptids because they offer an element of somewhat fantastical chaos into a world in which it sometimes feels that there’s not a ton left to discover otherwise—especially if you’re a layperson without a handful of science degrees. Anyone can go sit on the edge of Loch Ness and hope to spot a monster. And hey, isn’t it hubris to assume we’ve discovered every known species when we’re constantly discovering new and bizarre creatures in remote areas?
That said, the general belief is that people who take chupacabras, skunk apes, Jersey Devils, and the Mothman too seriously are stubborn, stupid, and naïve. But though cryptids themselves are often fantastical creatures, the attitude we have toward them in the real world seems to be exclusive to the real world. While some fantasy stories do feature cryptid-esque animals, they’re never treated with quite the same sense of dismissive derision—by either the narrative or the people involved—that real-world cryptids and cryptid enthusiasts get. In fact, the farther you get from realism, the more likely it is they’ll be celebrated rather than mocked.
After Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them came out, a good number or people looked at how Newt talked and acted and started to believe that he was autistic. It’ssomething that many people seem to be discussing and enjoying as a headcanon, andthat’s great. But if Newt isreally autistic in the movie, is he good representation, and how would this expansion of the Harry Potter world deal with an autistic character?
I very recently started watching Star vs The Forces of Evil (no spoilers, please!) and was amused by an episode where Star needs to undo a spell she’s cast on Marco. She pulls out the wand’s manual, an ancient, crumbling tome filled with the wisdom of ages of wand users to consult, only to realize that all of their notes are so cryptic and poorly organized that it will take her ages to make any sense of them. This got me thinking about magical journals in general. A common staple of fantasy fiction is a magical guide to the world in question, typically in the form of some kind of handwritten diary or log. Sometimes a book is just a book; I can’t imagine, for example, that Newt’s finished version of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them will be anything but a basic bestiary. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. However, these books are often most compelling when they serve a greater purpose than simply as a how-to or a reference of some kind. By including these books in a layered way, we can add additional complexity to the stories we tell.
Harry Potter is a pillar of civilization by this point. What began as a series of children’s/young adult novels is now a virtual empire, with eight movies, several spinoff books, movies of the spinoff books, theme parks, and the website Pottermore to ensure that the franchise is constantly alive and being added to. Given the impact this series has had since its release in the ‘90s, you’d be hard pressed to find someone in the Western world who hasn’t been influenced by it—and it would be nigh-impossible to find someone who hasn’t read the books that have shaped a generation.
You’d think that, but you would be wrong—Mike Schubert, a twenty-four-year-old American man, has never read the Harry Potter novels that so defined the childhood of his peers. And so, in a grand experiment, he’s sitting down to read them all one after the other, and discuss them with his Potterhead friends in this week’s web crush: the Potterless podcast.
Not long ago, Ace and I were discussing how the wizards in the Harry Potter universe never seem to grow as a society. They are still stuck with very basic technology, and while many tasks are certainly made easier with magic, no one can deny that Muggles seem leaps ahead of wizards in a lot of ways. From being able to explore space, to using computers, to even having pens, Muggles have it better—seriously, why would I ever use a quill? But this got me thinking: this isn’t just in the Harry Potter world. A lot of magical societies in fiction seem to be stuck in a more medieval era. This led me to considerhow we evolve as a society. It is just a fact that human beings are more likely to grow and change to fulfill a need. It’s easier to wash clothes with a machine than by hand, and having a computer makes it easier for us to access information, keep in touch with friends, or learn new things. But for magic users, when you can wave a wand to conjure fully prepared food or teleport yourself somewhere in an instant, is there ever really a need or desire to grow and change?
Like most of you, I grew up devouring Harry Potter, but I’m not sure how many of you had problems understanding just how the big prophecy worked. I know I did. Basically, Voldemort’s stooge overhears a seer prophesy that a true adversary to Voldemort will rise, and that “neither can live while the other survives”. Much ink is spilled, both in fandom and in the canon, over just what this prophecy means. Does it mean that Harry is fated to kill Voldemort (or Voldemort, Harry) or does Harry’s free will operate outside the confines of this prophecy? If the prophecy is true, it means Harry really is the Chosen One, chosen by fate to confront Voldemort. But that could mean that Harry doesn’t really have a choice in the matter. In the final book, Harry doesn’t seem like he does have a choice; the universe seems like it’s manipulated him to the point where he feels utterly compelled to fulfill the prophecy. The conflict is between fate, or providence, and free will. If we look at real-world ideas about providence and free will, we can get a better idea of how these might work.
Harry Potter has indisputably become an important part of our modern mythos about witches, wizards, and magical know-how. We’ve discussed the series a lot on this blog, but as I was randomly thinking the other day, what exactly prompted Rowling’s choice in animal companions for her young magic users? Creatures like toads and cats have long since been staples of witchiness in the current pop media consciousness (although as far as cats go, Hermione’s fluffy ball of grump Crookshanks isn’t exactly the stereotype), and rats kind of fit in by virtue of so many people having an aversion to them. But owls? From where I stood, owls seemed like a random choice. Rowling has stated that she chose the creatures because they’re “traditionally associated with magic” and just because she likes them—both valid points—but in my pop culture experience, owls aren’t the go-to bird for shorthand magical implication. No, that honor goes to ravens. Still, this got me thinking further: what are the symbolic differences between owls and ravens when it comes to magic? Surprisingly, their purpose in folklore and their general symbolism are quite similar.
Recently, I have started watching Vsauce3, a great YouTube channel that discusses a lot of interesting philosophical and scientific theories. It’s really cool, and if you have never watched it, definitely check it out. I became particularly intrigued by one video that discussed four logical paradoxes about what really makes you, you.
The Theseus Paradox considers Theseus’s ship as an example. Say you have this ship, and after a while you replace the sails, then the mast, and all the rope, and eventually you even replace all the wood so that none of the elements of the original ship are there anymore, even if it looks exactly the same. So then the question is: Is it the same ship anymore? Furthermore, it also states that if you took all the parts you removed from the first ship and used them to build a second one, is that actually the original ship? Or are they both entirely new ships?
Another paradox discussed in this video is the Sorites Paradox, which asks: If you have a heap of sand, and you keep taking away one grain of sand until there is only one grain of sand left, at which point during this process does it stop being a heap of sand?
Then, if you combine the Theseus and Sorites Paradox and apply it to a person, we ask the question: when do we stop being ourselves? If your leg is cut off, yes, you are still you, but think about how most of your cells have replaced themselves since birth. You look different, act different, maybe even have different opinions and a different personality since you were a baby or even a little kid. Is the you who was a baby the same person as the you you are now?
Finally there is the Teletransportation Paradox, which discusses being in a transporter where you are broken down into little pieces and then rebuilt somewhere else. It would essentially kill you and then put together different atoms in order to remake you. The last you would remember is stepping into a transporter and then coming out the other side. You would have all the same memories and same personality, but we wouldn’t know what happened in between moving from one location to another. And really, how can you even be sure you do have the same memories and personality?So then the question becomes, is the person who walked into the transporter the same as the person who came out?
I started to wonder about these paradoxes in relation to the soul and religion. Most religions believe that there is more to a person than just their body; their soul is also a key part of who they are. In some religions the body takes second place, and the body is viewed as an illusion or a prison for the soul, while other religions see the soul and body as very much linked and equal in value. For example, in Christian sects, gnostic Christianity views the body as less important than the soul, but most mainstream Christians view the body and soul as equally important. Because I am Christian, I will talk about the mainstream Christian view of the soul and body, but I would love to know what other religious belief systems have to say about this issue, so please let me know in the comments! Are any of the Star Trek characters still the same person after having been broken down and rebuilt in the transporter? Is Voldemort still Voldemort even after he split up his soul and then basically built himself a new body? Let’s dive in!
After I saw Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, I admit that I was a bit confused. I didn’t understand how the future movies were supposed to include Newt when the main focus seemed to be shifting to the conflict between Grindelwald and Dumbledore. Was there just going to constantly be a side plot with Newt losing and trying to find his creatures again? Would the niffler steal something of Grindelwald’s and find the real Percival Graves hidden inside (please let this happen)? No matter what I could think of, nothing seemed to really fit, until I realized—oh shit—Newt might be the current master of the Elder Wand!
We’ve called out the Harry Potter series before for using magic and various conditions in the wizarding world as a metaphor for different kinds of oppression in the real world, such as lycanthropy as a metaphor for AIDs and discrimination against non-purebloods as a metaphor for racism. The problem with these metaphors is that readers might not make the connection to the real-world problem, so in order for them to really have impact, there should be examples of the real-world issue too. For instance, the series could have featured more prominent characters of color who experienced racism in the Muggle world in addition to discussions of blood “purity”. Instead we got a cast of all white protagonists, with characters of color getting very little development.
J. K. Rowling makes no secret of her support for social justice causes (just look at her Twitter feed!). In fact, she’s totally fine with headcanoning Hermione as Black and applauded the casting of Noma Dumezweni, a Black woman, as Hermione in the Cursed Child play, and racebending Hermione helps to relieve some issues about her Muggleborn blood status acting as a stand-in for discrimination rather than discussing any real-life discrimination. But real-life discrimination is still not discussed in canon. You would think that maybe Rowling would have listened graciously to some of these criticisms about hiding real-world issues behind metaphors that not everyone is going to get, and would have worked harder to avoid them in her next work. What is that next work? Fantastic Beasts. Did she listen? Nope. Instead the movie gave us a new metaphor to grapple with: obscurials as coded LGBTQ+ children repressed by overzealous religious families, in this case represented by the Second Salemers. And it isn’t pretty.
Spoilers for many aspects of Fantastic Beasts below the jump!