Lectures

Beast or Being: Defining Magical Creatures in the Harry Potter Universe

My second lecture was on the film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. I talked about the differences between human beings and beasts, superiority, discrimination, and humanity.

For my second lecture, I was asked to do something on the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them film series. The first film had been an enormous success, and that’s why the Waterstones thought it might be a good idea to have a Harry Potter event, focusing on the film. I agreed it was a good idea, but I didn’t talk about the movie at all. Instead, I set out to read the source material: the textbook of the same name, and it inspired me. What inspired me weren’t the magical beasts mentioned in the book, but rather its introduction, which concerns the trouble of classification. I discovered that people have always loved classifying things and keeping order in their lives, but that this sometimes isn’t possible. Do you want to know what defining others says about us? Do read on.

Over two thousand years ago in Ancient Greece, Plato explored an idea. He wanted to know what Man was, and, after much deliberation, proudly came up with the following definition: “Man stands upright, without feathers, making him distinct from other animals.” His colleague Diogenes of Sinope thought it wasn’t quite specific enough. Instead of simply telling him, he travelled to Athens, showed him a plucked chicken, and triumphantly told him that he held in his hand Plato’s Man. Clearly Plato’s definition wasn’t right. He thought long and hard again, and eventually he presented his second definition: “Man is an upright, featherless biped, with broad, flat nails.” There. Better?

Newt Scamander writes about a similar problem in the introduction of his Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. In the fourteenth century, the Wizarding World was becoming more organised, and those in charge decided to make a distinction between beings and beasts. Beings, they stated, are creatures ‘worthy of legal rights and a voice in the governance of the magical world’ (page xix), while beasts are not. They came up with the following  definition: a being is any member of the magical community that walks on two legs (notice how much it resembles Plato’s definition!). They then made sure to invite every biped creature so they could hold a meeting on magical governance, but as you can imagine, things didn’t quite go according to plan. A lively description can be found on page xx, but I will give a short summary here: witches and wizards were more concerned with making sure trolls didn’t destroy the place. Simultaneously, they were taking care of creatures looking for children to snack on. With all the screaming  and shrieking of annoying little creatures, it was impossible to create new laws. They knew they had to come up with a new definition, since having two legs was no guarantee that a creature would be aware of, let alone be interested in, magical affairs.

                After some time, it was decided that they would no longer focus on prospective beings’ quantity of legs. Instead, their new definition was as follows: ‘Beings are those who can speak the human tongue’. This one definitely felt like it would be more successful, since speaking the human language would imply at least some sort of intelligence. Unfortunately, goblins had not been taking into account, who, as a sort of practical joke, taught some trolls a couple of words of English. They were again accepted to the meeting, and did what they did best: smashing up things. Again, no laws could be made. Additionally, this time ghosts showed up (they hadn’t been invited to the previous meeting since they don’t walk, but glide) but left disappointed since they thought the wizards focus too much on living things. Finally, centaurs, who weren’t invited the last time but could attend this meeting, refused to visit as their friends the merpeople could not speak the human tongue above water. So again no perfect definition could be found, and the only thing that was discussed was the creation of a new one.

                Centuries passed, and still there was no clear distinction between beings and beasts. Until, in 1811, a minister came up with the following idea: ‘any creature that has sufficient intelligence to understand the laws of the magical community and to bear part of the responsibility in shaping those laws’. Finally! It seemed like they were really getting somewhere with this. When a meeting was set up, it all seemed to go smoothly; many creatures first classified as beings were now called beasts because they were simply too stupid, and others, like merpeople, were now, with the aid of translators, redefined as beings. All was well.

But was it?

                No! Some creatures simply wouldn’t fit in nicely to those clear definitions penned up by humans. Firstly, there were some creatures that were definitely considered intelligent and could speak the human tongue, like the Acromantula, the Manticore, and the Sphinx. But it was soon decided that these creatures, with their venomous claws or stings, or their tendency to kill anyone who answers their questions wrong, had better not be included in any law-making events. Therefore, creatures like these were conveniently classified as beasts, which meant they could be left alone and humans wouldn’t be brutally ripped apart by them. Another problematic species was the werewolf, since they were as dangerous as the creatures mentioned above when they were transformed, but were normal human beings whenever the moon wasn’t full. It still hasn’t been decided what should be done with them.

While wizards decided over the fate of the aforementioned creatures, two species took matters into their own hands. Merpeople and centaurs were classified as beings by the wizards in charge, since they had a rich culture and a history that went back several millennia. However, they respectfully declined and preferred to be called beasts instead. They considered humans and their laws barbaric, and would be much happier if they were allowed to manage their own affairs. Wizards have agreed with this, and although there is a Centaur Office at the Ministry, no centaur has actually ever visited a wizard in search of help.

So, while most creatures were easily classified as either beast or being, some issues were still left unresolved. What struck me most while I was reading the introduction of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find them, was that the three definitions were all so very much based on human appearance and human values. The first attempt was based on human appearance, the second time on human language, and the third time they had to understand their need to be in control and to make laws. Also, remember the bit where a being was described for the first time? A creature ‘worthy of legal rights’. What does that mean, worthy? That beasts aren’t worthy? That beings are better than beasts? This is where things started to feel a bit weird for me.

All beings are equal…?

And this is where things are starting to get political. Beings all have the same rights, don’t they? Let’s find out. I will consider the three most important beings in the Harry Potter universe: humans, goblins, and house elves (other species are, for instance, vampires and hags, but these details are beyond the scope of my lecture). All are supposed to be involved in wizarding law, but this clearly isn’t the case. Do you remember the Fountain of Magical Brethren located in the Atrium of the Ministry of Magic? It is supposed to depict the harmony between all magical beings, wizards, centaurs, goblins, and house elves.

                While the intelligence of goblins has never been doubted, their integrity has. Goblins are best known for two things: the wizarding bank, and metalworking. Almost all humans have an account at the goblin bank Gringotts. However, there is a special Goblin Liaison Office at the Ministry, which implies that Gringotts is regulated by wizards to avoid too strong a dependency on goblins. Secondly, goblin-made objects are famed for their quality and longevity. For instance, the sword of Godric Gryffindor was made of goblin steel, and it has been a very important item in the war against Voldemort. However, in the books it has become clear that goblins do not consider humans the owners of their items, but merely allow them to borrow it from them (and if they are not allowed, humans hardly ever care and keep it anyway). Humans, on the other hand, think they can buy goblin-made items, and then include it in their will. This causes friction between both species, as they cannot agree on the rightful owner of these items. The relationship between goblins has never really been perfect, but on the whole they have managed to have a friendly commercial relationship. Still, wizards are always advised not to trust a goblin.

                House elves are a different story entirely. They are regarded as slaves by most wizards, and have never been even close to being equal to them. Only as late as 1996 a set of regulations on house elf welfare was introduced by the Ministry of Magic, which made sure house elves were treated properly. This is striking, since house elves had been serving the wizarding community for ages. House elves are forced to do their owner’s bidding (notice how they are considered property!), and if not, they have to punish themselves severely. This practice had been going on for such a long time, that most house elves’ worst fear was to be free of a master, because to serve one was their only goal in life. Furthermore, most wizards are so used to treating house elves as their inferiors, that they would never consider being kind to them. I think it is safe to argue that house elves have never been considered in the governance of the wizarding world – they might have been present, but only to take notes, or to bring food.

And then…

In conclusion, while goblins and house elves are beings, they do not have the same rights as wizards. They are not fully included in the wizarding society because they are either mistrusted or considered lowly beings. Humans consider themselves superior over other beings, and they do not make a secret out of this. The same can be said about the way they treat werewolves (Remus Lupin, anyone?) or these other creatures that I’ve mentioned before: centaurs. Humans keep regarding them as inferior, as can be seen in the mid-1990s classification of the Ministry of Magic, where they are supposed to have ‘near-human intelligence’, which is an insult they do not take lightly. Likewise, the centaurs consider themselves superior over us. Can it therefore not be said that each creature considers themselves the best of all?

I am not sure whether wizards are truly conscious of their discrimination towards these other species. Mostly, I believe, it is simply the result of being so accustomed to set rules and traditions that it has become part of their culture and their identity. Let’s return to the Fountain of Magical Brethren, which depicts several beings looking up in awe at a wizard and a witch. When Harry looked closely during his first visit to the Ministry, the humans were clearly fake and too pretty, while the goblin and the centaur would never look at wizards that way – only the house elf did, and they still do. This fountain, then, seems to be a metaphor for what I have tried to make clear in this article: although there seems to be harmony between all beings, and although wizards seem to want to treat others as equals, this is only superficial. Apparently, it doesn’t matter whether creatures are defined as beasts or beings. The only thing that matters is that they are human beings.

Food for thought

  • Would you be able to come up with a better definition to make a distinction beings and beasts?
  • Do you think this way of classifying certain things also happens in our world? If so, how?
  • In the books, Harry is friends with house elves and on friendly terms with Griphook the goblin. What does that say about him? And in which way do you think one’s upbringing influences the way in which they see magical creatures?
  • Newt Scamander wants to protect beasts, something others find quite odd. What does this say about him?
  • “If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.” How does Sirius Black’s comment relate to the issue of classification?

2 comments

  1. Sounds like a very nice lecture! When and where did you give it? And can you please notify your followers when a new lecture is coming up?

    Like

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