Updated: Jan 14, 2019
We’re the spoiler zone! Please actually go and watch the movie if you care about spoilers. I’m not giving any warnings before I start giving spoilers, so don’t keep reading, expecting to be stopped before I get into the meaty bits.
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2018 seems to be the year of the franchise villain, with Depp’s Grindelwald following up Marvel’s Thanos and Killmonger. There’s definitely a growing interest in depicting villains with compelling reasons for actions that we, from a certain point of view, describe as villainy.
It's like Wikipedia. Only Nerdier.
I’ll be upfront — I’m more interested in the Fantastic Beasts franchise than the actual Harry Potter Books. I did like the books, but I loved the universe. I loved hearing about it, but without the emotional connection to the books, I’ve never had the drive to invest time in the encyclopedic Pottermore.
While the first Fantastic Beasts movie didn’t rouse much intellectual curiosity beyond ‘I liked it’, I find myself fixated on Rowling’s storycraft, and how she is portraying her latest villain. I am very curious to see how Grindelwald will be used for the rest of the series; he’s a much more complex figure, I find, than Tom Riddle, whose motivations didn’t seem to extend beyond ‘because I’m evil’.
Though, watching the movie, I had a bit of a problem. As far as Grindelwald’s messaging is concerned in this movie, I’m kind of on his side. Totalitarian Wizard wants to take over the world and govern it away from the Holocaust and the atomic bomb? At that point, why is anyone fighting against him? Don’t Newt and Dumbledore’s resistance against him make them villains?
If our values inclined us towards believing that Monarchy and (benevolent) Dictatorship was the superior form of governance, wouldn’t Grindelwald be depicted as the hero? Gallantly enduring torture and persecution? Then launching a revolution to take his rightful seat at the head of a society that has rejected him?
Newt Scamander isn't like other girls...
Isn’t it the Aurors who are the faceless ‘agents’ associated with a government whose sole purpose seems to be keeping the status quo? Doesn’t that describe the political enemy of literally every dystopian young adult novel? Throw in a love triangle and you’ve got a bestseller.
But Rowling gets rid of that romantic geometry real quick, doesn’t she?
As an aside, there’s something I find interesting about the distinction between fantasy literature in Europe versus America. When I think of European fantasy, what comes to mind is something along the lines of Neil Gaiman and, indeed, J.K. Rowling. They’re more personal stories, and focused more around characters exploring and persisting in a certain kind of world. But the focus of any American fantasy story is displacing a despot at the head of a kingdom or empire, and replacing them with the ‘rightful’ ruler.
I find it interesting that a society which never fought to unseat the Divine Right of Kings is so desperately fascinated with the idea of monarchy. (King George doesn’t count. The English Parliament took power away from the Crown long before colonial revolution.) From what I’ve read, and read of, European fantasy tales — modern ones — I can’t recall reading about a monarchy that was of benefit to the people. My assumption is that after 2000 years of Emperors and Kings, the gig has worn thin, hasn’t it?
The twist here is that nobody's the rightful heir because their system of governance sucks. : (
Regardless… Shouldn’t it suggest that, if penned by a different author, Grindelwald could be a heroic figure? One who will use his fantastic power to end pain and suffering?
Now, Potter Heads know this isn’t the case. Grindelwald, in the film, implicitly refers to muggles as ‘beasts of burden’. And thanks to Pottermore, we know that Grindelwald did, actually, make use of muggle slaves.
However… to the people in the mausoleum amphitheatre (akin to Hitler’s Beer Hall speeches), Grindelwald doesn’t talk about Ghettos or camps. In fact, to those attending Grindelwald’s call to arms, his missive is seemingly noble isn’t it? Wouldn’t it have been so much better — so much easier — if someone had stepped in and stopped the Third Reich before it happened? Someone to put an end to weaponized atomic research? Someone to put an end to Stalin's paranoia, keep peace in Rowanda, prevent the tragedies of Korea, Vietnam, Sarajevo, 9/11 and the War on Terror?
Even if you haven't read the books, you’ve seen the movies. You see how Rowling’s arcane world functions without the mundane shortcomings that our society does. The world would want not for energy, and maybe not even resources altogether. Disease would be as insignificant to us as they seem to be for Rowling’s Wizards. Even if we could not use magic, would we not be better off for having it accessible?
Is there an ethnical argument than we could use to still justify a resistance against Grindelwald?
A government always promises utopia. Especially in a democracy — you can’t sway people on the idea of compromise. Yet we, in our modern setting, are in a weird area of democratic history where everyone on every peg on the matrix feels as if they’ve had to compromise more than anyone else. So everyone feels cheated, and everyone feels like it’s their turn to get what they’ve been waiting for.
To that end, let’s assume Grindelwald is earnest, and that — end game — he does want to bring about a utopic merging of our world and his fantasy one. Let’s assume that through his life, the world is run under stern governance. Violence stomped out, dissident supremacists eradicated, as we’ve only begun to see the Elder Wand used to its full capacity for the first time. No one is enslaved, and everyone is happy.
There are scarce few times where mankind receives a Golden leader. A ruler who unites the people, cuts back on their nations’ suffering and generate what historians call a ‘Golden Age’. And yes, every time this happens, this leader is usually a dictator — because realistically, there aren’t many other ways to ensure that the needs of the people are taken care of, if not for an absolute authority of benevolence. The problem with this kind of totalitarianism isn’t Grindelwald… the problem with this scenario is always who comes after that.
The funniest thing about 'The Death of Stalin' was how much more insane it was in real life.
Now, immortality is possible in Rowling’s world, but even Nicholas Flamel is fresh out of that sweet business after the Philosopher’s Stone was destroyed in 1992. Grindelwald’s golden age would come to an end. And just like Trotsky needed a replacement, ambitious visionaries are often replaced with those who are either less ambitious, or less visionary.
Not saying Trotsky was a figure of upstanding morality… But if you look closer at these golden ages, someone’s always getting screwed over somehow.
Now, in spite of his promises, Grindelwald did end up being a rather abhorrent figure. But once a population is on your side, through the process of a tribal mentality, it’s easy to sway this population.
At the bottom of what I’ve been trying to get at, is that Grindelwald is a villain with a very compelling way of making himself appear as a saviour. But how can we tell our heroes apart from our villains, if they both use the same words? Is there a rule for how we can spot dangerous ideas in politics?
Even if you don’t have access to all the backroom discussions, and all you have is a politician’s word of utopia at the expense of possessing absolute control — even if the promise is absolute paradise — it’s nothing more than the best of intentions. And always a short-lived idea.
Utopia for you, but what about your children? Grandchildren? What about your parrot? (If you have one… they live quite a long time.) While you may enjoy the benefits of a perfect world, there is no guarantee that perfect world won’t slip into despotism.
A dangerous idea in this case is one that, regardless of intention, is entirely dependent on a single individual, or a 'savior figure', for it to exist. Whereas a safe political idea would be one that instills a systemic change to ensure that the idea would persist in spite of the leader. The latter is focused on establishing a system where the idea can function as legacy. The former does not seem to have any regard for how the idea can function in the future.
For instance, if taking back power from abusers is not a bloody struggle, then it is a very slow, clawing process. But if this change is achieved by means of a singular visionary, then society has gained nothing. If the slower process is done, that can serve as a model for future generations to take this power back peacefully in the future. But if all we have are heroes doing the heavy lifting for us, then upon heroes we shall depend.
And as Grindelwald demonstrates, and Trump, or any other similar figure of bold promises on the backs of a designated underclass, it can be very difficult to tell the heroes apart from despots.
I would also like to take a moment to point out that Hitler’s economic plan would have pulled Germany out of its 1920s depression even without the rest of what he ordered. But the real tragedy is that nobody is ever willing to listen to policy unless it’s taped to someone to blame.
Like a kick me sign. It’s not the note that’s funny. What’s so funny is the oblivious fellow who doesn’t realize they’re a target.
Rowling isn’t a fool — well, she may do foolish things, but probably less than most people. However, when it comes to drawing parallels to this world, she is most certainly deliberate. If you think that Grindelwald is an allegory for your particular national leader, please don’t.
Even after all the drugs, Depp looks far better than Trump.
Grindelwald isn’t meant to stand in for any particular leader, because he is the worst elements of all leaders. I'm all about this story to taking place over five movies, so we can have this time to see the clear distinction between Grindelwald’s promises and the reality of what he suggests.
In that case, as Rowling is so good at doing, we can have a framework for spotting Grindelwald’s flavour of despotism without being entirely aware of it.