November 18, 2016
The Mythological History Behind J.K. Rowling's 'Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them'

If you have been reading J.K. Rowling's books long enough, you will have noticed that she is extremely adept when it comes to using real historical references in her books and movies, and the new film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is no different.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is introduced in the Harry Potter series as a textbook that is required reading at Hogwarts and J.K. Rowling published the textbook in 2001 in order to raise funds for the charity Comic Relief. Fans everywhere will know that it was announced in 2013 that this book would be made into a movie, with J.K. Rowling making her debut as a screenwriter. November 18 is the official release date for the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them film in most countries around the world, and it seems fantastically appropriate to take a look at some of the history behind J.K. Rowling's book and new movie.

Stephen Asma, who teaches Philosophy at Columbia College Chicago, has authored a book called On Monsters, and in it he discusses how a textbook like Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them would not be at all out of place in the ancient world. He notes that Aristotle was "writing about fantastic beasts in the Hellenic period" in books such as Historia Animālium or The History of Animals.

In the Fantastic Beasts book and film, Newt Scamander has beasts which terrify everybody, but this probably wouldn't have been the case in Greek and Roman times. These were cultures that were intensely curious about supernatural creatures and the myths surrounding them weren't really associated with fear. But from the Medieval period moving forward into Christianity, supernatural creatures became a symbol of unease, and in some cases terror, Asma asserts.
"Whenever you see monsters described in the medieval period and into the 1600s, you'll often see them said to be the descendants of Cain, and a good example of this is in Beowulf.(The Old English poem features a villain named Grendel who is referred to as the kin of Cain). So this makes monsters in the Christian tradition pretty much all evil."
Stephen finds it refreshing that Rowling has reverted to the more Greek and Roman worldview when it comes to embracing these mythical creatures.
"What I like about Rowling is she's going back to this other notion of monsters. That they're just creatures like us trying to get through life, and we can befriend them and they can help us and we can help them."
Another historical reference book that would certainly fit the bill when it comes to describing fantastic creatures is Conrad Gesner's Historiae Animalium. Published in four volumes between 1551 and 1558 in Zurich, Gesner's deep desire to classify a long list of animals finally came to fruition with this encyclopedia. Conrad not only listed European fauna in his collection, but he also listed animals that were being newly classified in places like the East Indies. But it wasn't just real animals that made it into Gesner's encylopedia. Fantastic beasts like unicorns and hydra were also included.

Hercules chopping off nine heads of the Hydra, influenced 'Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them'
Hercules cutting off the nine heads of the Hydra, Circa 1750. This is one of the creatures that influenced 'Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.' [Image by Hulton Archive/Getty Images]

When you look at animals in the film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, you will notice similarities between J.K. Rowling's creatures and those from antiquity. For instance, an Occamy is a two-legged winged creature that is very protective when it comes to her eggs. This could also be a description of a Griffin, a mythological Greek creature.

In Fantastic Beasts, Scamander wants people to understand that the beasts he holds inside his case aren't there to cause trouble or hurt anybody. Stephen Asma says that this is yet another example of Rowling describing how beasts have been looked at for a very long time in mythological culture.

"Oftentimes when you see monsters, you'll notice they're exaggerations of real predators in the local environment or cultural fears like xenophobia. Some creature seems evil until you realize they have a backstory that's filled with pain and possibly abuse and misunderstanding or loneliness, and once you grasp that, it makes sense."
Now that you know some of the reference points and ideas behind Rowling's book, be sure to pay close attention when you watch the film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them as you're sure to notice more, which only adds to the excitement of the movie.

[Featured Image by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images]