The latest instalment in the Harry Potter franchise, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, sees wizard Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) entering New York in 1926, smuggling a briefcase full of exotic animals through customs. A “magizoologist”, he studies and, where necessary, rescues these fantastic creatures. When some of his specimens escape into a city brimming over with tensions between the magical and non-magical communities, Newt must find them before they come to harm at the hands of those who perceive them as a threat.
Stories involving fantastic beasts are some of the oldest narratives we possess, but the threat posed by the beast is usually perceived as being genuine. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, written in Mesopotamia 4,000 years ago, the eponymous hero and his friend Enkidu must fight the Bull of Heaven, who has been unleashed upon the city of Uruk by the goddess Ishtar. Heroes of Greek and Roman mythology also confront monsters: Theseus fights the minotaur, who resembles a man with the head of bull; Bellerophon confronts the fire-breathing chimera, which possesses the head of lion, the hindquarters of a snake or dragon, and the body of a goat; Hercules defeats the seven-headed hydra, just one of the many beasts he encounters during his 12 labours.
At times, the fantastic beast in question must be captured rather than killed, but the hero’s task is usually to overcome it rather than protect and preserve it. Confronting a monster provides a way for a hero to prove his strength and courage.
In many cases, especially in the narratives of the Middle Ages, the beast itself can be seen as a symbol of evil. In the story of Beowulf, for example, Grendel is described as a descendant of Cain, the first murderer. Entering the hall of Heorot while the king and his retainers are sleeping, Grendel kills 30 men before escaping back to his lair, beginning a reign of terror that lasts for 12 years. The hero Beowulf must defeat both Grendel and his mother to protect not just the hall and its inmates, but the communal bonds that the hall represents.
Similarly, when St George fights the dragon, he is not only rescuing a princess, but also confronting a symbol of the devil.
In Harry Potter’s world, creatures such as Buckbeak the hippogriff may initially seem like monsters, but once we learn more about them, they usually seem less fearsome. Even dragons, although dangerous, are not evil.
So why has our perception of beasts changed? One answer may be that, in the 21st century, we are more likely to see Newt’s job as preserving endangered species rather than fighting monsters. These rare and wonderful creatures represent not a source of evil but the rich and imperilled diversity of life in our world. Heroes can therefore be those who seek to understand and assist fantastic beasts, rather than destroy them.
This transformation may also be the result of our changing perception of evil. In these increasingly secular times, the devil, once a malevolent force seeking the downfall of humanity, is often seen as nothing more than a metaphor, a symbol of our own darker impulses. If evil exists, it is in the harm that humanity inflicts upon itself and the world.
The world of Harry Potter and Newt Scamander contains not just dragons, phoenixes and hippogriffs, but also beings that are not so different from humans, such as house elves, merpeople and centaurs. When we enter this world, we explore the boundary between human and beast, asking ourselves where true monstrosity lies. We learn, along with Harry and Newt, that often the most monstrous acts are performed by other humans.
Yet it would be false to think that somehow the modern world is simply more humane in its treatment of monsters. There are still plenty of contemporary narratives that treat nonhuman antagonists as monstrous, especially when these creatures emerge not from our own world but from outer space. We often fear what we do not understand, but some stories place more value upon learning to understand that which we fear.
This is not a modern trend. Older narratives can sometimes offer a more nuanced view of the relationship between beasts and humans as well. Grendel may be malevolent, but his mother only attacks the denizens of Heorot to avenge the death of her son. Although she is weaker than Grendel, Beowulf finds it more difficult to defeat her in her watery lair, suggesting perhaps that we should view her cause with some sympathy.
Or there’s the short tale of Bisclavret, composed in the 12th century by Marie de France. Like Rowling’s tales, this story argues that sometimes beasts need to be understood, rather than feared. Reminiscent of Professor Lupin, one of Harry Potter’s teachers at Hogwarts, Bisclavret hides a secret: three days out of every week he hunts in the forest in the form of a wolf.
Concerned by his frequent absences, his wife finally learns the truth, but once she’s discovered his secret she no longer loves him. Taking a lover, she conspires to leave him trapped permanently in wolf form. Alone in the woods, Bisclavret is eventually found by the king, who, impressed by his gentle behaviour, keeps him as a pet. For a while the wolf lives peacefully with the king and his court. But when the king visits Bisclavret’s former wife, the wolf attacks her, tearing off her nose. Rather than blaming his beloved pet, the king has her tortured until she reveals the full story of her husband’s disappearance.
The ending sees Bisclavret restored to his human form and the king’s favour while his wife is banished. She and her descendants are condemned to live without noses. Her punishment stems not from her sexual infidelity (several of Marie de France’s tales are sympathetic towards women who seek love outside of marriage) but for her failure to see her husband’s nobility in spite of his affliction. In the end, it is revealed that she, rather than her former husband, is the “beast”.
As in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, we cannot judge by appearances. The true monsters tend to lie within.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.