Fantasy literature

From fearing fantastic beasts, we have learnt to love them

We are more likely to see our job as preserving endangered species rather than fighting monsters.

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.

Hercules slaying the Hydra.
Hercules slaying the Hydra.

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.

Buckbeak the hippogriff.
Buckbeak the hippogriff.

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.

A featurette on ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’.

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.

Marta Cobb, Teaching Fellow in Medieval Studies, University of Leeds.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

It’s the new year and it’s already time to plan your next holiday

Here are some great destinations for you to consider.

Vacation planning can get serious and strategic. Some people swear by the save and splurge approach that allows for one mini getaway and one dream holiday in a year. Others use the solo to family tactic and distribute their budget across solo trips, couple getaways and family holidays. Regardless of what strategy you implement to plan your trip, the holiday list is a handy tool for eager travellers. After having extensively studied the 2018 holiday list, here’s what we recommend:

March: 10 days of literature, art and culture in Toronto

For those you have pledged to read more or have more artistic experiences in 2018, Toronto offers the Biblio-Mat, the world’s first randomising vending machine for old books. You can find the Biblio-Mat, paper artefacts, rare books and more at The Monkey’s Paw, an antiquarian bookseller. If you can tear yourself away from this eclectic bookstore, head over to The Public Library in Toronto for the Merril Collection of over 72000 items of science fiction, fantasy magic realism and graphic novels. With your bag full of books, grab a coffee at Room 2046 – a café cum store cum studio that celebrates all things whimsical and creative. Next, experience art while cycling across the 80km Pan Am Path. Built for walking, running, cycling and wheeling, the Pan Am Path is a recreational pathway that offers a green, scenic and river views along with art projects sprinkled throughout the route. You can opt for a guided tour of the path or wander aimlessly for serendipitous discoveries.

Nothing beats camping to ruminate over all those new ideas collected over the past few days. Make way to Killarney Provincial Park for 2-3 days for some quiet time amongst lakes and hills. You can grab a canoe, go hiking or get back to nature, but don’t forget to bring a tent.

If you use the long-weekend of 2nd March to extend your trip, you get to experience the Toronto Light Festival as a dazzling bonus.

June: 10 days of culinary treats, happy feet and a million laughs in Chicago

Famous for creating the deep-dish pizza and improv comedy, Chicago promises to banish that mid-year lull. Get tickets for The Second City’s Legendary Laughs at The UP-Comedy Club - the company that gave us the legendary Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert and Key & Peele. All that laughter can sure work up an appetite, one that can be satiated with Lou Malnati’s classic deep-dish pizza. For dessert, head over to the Ferrara Original Bakery for mouth-watering treats.

Chicago in June is pleasant and warm enough to explore the outdoors and what better way to soak in the sunshine, than by having a picnic at the Maggie Daley Park. Picnic groves, wall climbing, mini golf, roller blading – the park offers a plethora of activities for individuals as well as families.

If you use the long weekend of 15th June, you can extend your trip to go for Country LakeShake – Chicago’s country music festival featuring Blake Shelton and Dierks Bentley.

August: 7 days in London for Europe’s biggest street festival

Since 1964, the Notting Hill Carnival has been celebrating London’s Caribbean communities with dancing, masquerade and music ranging from reggae to salsa. Watch London burst into colours and sparkle at the Notting Hill Carnival. Home to Sherlock Holmes and Charles Dickens Museum, London is best experienced by wandering through its tiny streets. Chance encounters with bookstores such as Foyles and Housemans, soaking in historic sights while enjoying breakfast at Arthur’s Café or Blackbird Bakery, rummaging the stalls at Broadway market or Camden Market – you can do so much in London while doing nothing at all.

The Museum of Brand, Packaging and Advertising can send you reminiscing about those old ads, while the Clowns Gallery Museum can give you an insight in clown-culture. If you’d rather not roam aimlessly, book a street-art tour run by Alternative London or a Jack the Ripper Tour.

October: 10 days of an out-of-body experience in Vegas

About 16 km south of the intersection of Las Vegas Boulevard and St. Rose Parkway in Henderson, lies a visual spectacle. Seven Magic Mountains, an art installation by Ugo Rondinone, stands far away from the wild vibe that people expect in Las Vegas and instead offers a sense of wonder. Imagine seven pillars of huge, neon boulders, stacked up against one another stretched towards the sky. There’s a lot more where that came from, in Las Vegas. Captivating colour at the permanent James Turrell exhibit in Louis Vuitton, outdoor adventures at the Bootleg Canyon and vintage shopping at Patina Décor offer experiences that are not usually associated with Vegas. For that quintessential Vegas show, go for Shannon McBeath: Absinthe for some circus-style entertainment. If you put the holiday list to use, you can make it for the risefestival – think thousands of lanterns floating in the sky, right above you.

It’s time to get on with the vacation planning for the new year. So, pin up the holiday list, look up deals on hotels and flights and start booking. Save money by taking advantage of the British Airways Holiday Sale. With up to 25% off on flight, the offer is available to book until 31st January 2018 for travel up to 31st December in economy and premium economy and up to 31st August for business class. For great fares to great destinations, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of British Airways and not by the Scroll editorial team.