Finding the Holy Dark in Fantastic Beasts
“It is the ill-luck of the cultivated man,” wrote Dostoevsky, “to live in St. Petersberg, the most theoretical and intentional city in the entire globe.” Writing in the only truly modern city in all of nineteenth century Russia, and a booming center of the arts and sciences (this was the home of Mendeleev, after all), Dostoevsky could sense that a new age was dawning. And it made him apprehensive. He feared that people in the modern era would suffer from an overabundance of thinking, and from a veneration of reason, planning and technical knowledge. He foresaw that, eventually, all that deliberate thinking would take its toll, and people would be left with a hole where the wilder side of their nature once lived. John Staudenmaier, a professor at the University of Detroit Mercy, more recently argued the same thing. The modernist worship of “progress,” he says, has led us to overvalue the regimented thinking that helps us get there, and has robbed us of an appreciation for our own mystery. The close of the middle-ages, with its faith in the unknown – with its shuddering love of dragons and giants and Fantastic Beasts of all sorts – brought with it an end to the widespread appreciation of what Staudenmaier calls “the Holy Dark”: the untamed, the unreasonable and the mysterious. Living under the mask of reason, we modernists forget the deeply irrational wellsprings of the psyche that nourish all human life.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them helps us get back in touch with that wildness. It brings us face to face with creatures who are more driven by passion than reason, who are sometimes beautiful, sometimes terrifying, sometimes mischievous but always beyond the narrow intentionality of human thought, and, precisely for that reason, are beloved to the socially awkward Newt Scamander, the movie’s protagonist. It takes a magizoologist to remind us how wonderful these creatures are – and how absolutely relatable they are to us.
Fantastic Beasts is replete with references to our inner worlds. Early on, the movie establishes what soon becomes a recurring motif: that things are more than what they seem. The plot begins with a mix up, when two identical, nondescript leather suitcases switch hands. Newt Scamander finds himself holding a case full of craft pastries, while Jacob Kowalski, a baker and a no-mag (the American term for muggle), takes home a suitcase full of magical creatures. Newt’s case is a colorful example of mystery and surprise lying beneath a bland exterior: it proves to house Newt’s entire menagerie, with each animal hosted in a separate habitat. The theme of revelation is repeated in a series of unmaskings: of the real terror stalking the city, of the true nature of Credence Barebone, of the actual identity of Percival Graves. The internal is always more important than the external, which inevitably misrepresents it. It is the great talent of Queenie, a witch who is also a legilimens, to be able to cross over this divide. With her power to see directly into one’s deepest thoughts, Queenie manages to bypass externalities and communicate with Newt’s inner self about his relationship with Leta Lestrange – an intimate exchange that leaves Newt feeling somewhat trespassed upon. We are reminded that boundaries have a purpose, and that the inner world is a tumultuous affair, not always willingly acknowledged and sometimes best left below the surface.
It can also be very, very dangerous. Within Newt’s case lives an Obscurious: a spirit composed of the repressed magic of an underage wizard. The Obscurious is a reminder of the rage of the oppressed, and that the beast within can have bloody passions. Much of the movie centers around locating an Obscurious who is wreaking havoc on the city, leading several prominent citizens to horrible deaths. The message is clear: mankind’s internal world is beautiful, but as with all Fantastic Beasts, it also contains a murderous potential. Newt, however, is an animal tamer; he is convinced that human rage can be mastered with compassion, the same compassion that he extends to all the other creatures he loves. In a final showdown with the, now found, Obscurious, Newt and the Law compete to reign in the raging wizarding child. Tragically, it is ultimately the Law that neutralizes the threat by killing the Obscurious. It is predictable that the public has little tolerance for violent beasts. We are reminded that the threat of force is always present to curtail our most dangerous impulses.
Despite the death of the Obscurious, the movie succeeds in drawing us back to the richness of our selves, to the beauty and grace and admirable fearsomeness that dwells wild beneath our skin. Don’t let the mild manners of Newt Scamander fool you; he knows full well about the chaos that exists in all Fantastic Beasts. Humans not excepted.