Title: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2001)
Author: “Newt Scamander”/J.K. Rowling
Read: 10th September 2017
Genre: fantasy; children’s
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
“As featured in the first year set texts reading list in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is an extensive introduction to the magical beasts that exist in the magical, non-Muggle world. Some of the animals featured in the A-Z you will have already met in the existing Harry Potter books: for example Hippogriff, Flobberworm, Kappa – others you certainly won’t: read on to find out exactly what a Chizpurfle is, or why one should always beware of the sinister Lethifold . . . As Albus Dumbledore says in his introduction, this set text book by Newt Scamander has given the perfect grounding to many a Hogwarts student. It will be helpful to all Muggles out there too . . . On reading the book you will also find that Harry, Ron and (in one instance) Hermione – couldn’t resist graffitiing the book, and adding their own hand-written opinions.” (Synopsis from publisher)
I think it’s important to remember how Fantastic Beasts started out – as a short companion to the vastly popular Harry Potter series, released as a novella to raise money for Comic Relief. Just as World Book Day books must be acknowledged as released for this purpose, I think it’s important to note how Fantastic Beasts started life, since it has evolved into a huge film (the start of another franchise, potentially) and has its own screenplay which was released as a book last year. This is not that.
If you’re expecting the film, or even just a plot, then this is not the volume for you. Instead, Fantastic Beasts very much reads like the textbook by Newt Scamander which students are assigned as required reading in their first year of study at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. It is presented in an A-to-Z format, listing the many weird and wonderful creatures of the wizarding world, with funny marginalia via Harry and Ron’s scribblings in the edges of the text, providing comments which, for example, poke fun at Hagrid’s penchant for the aforementioned “fantastic beasts”.
“Ministry of Magic (M.O.M) Classification: xxxxx
Known wizard killer / impossible to train or domesticate / or anything Hagrid likes“
Unexpectedly, there is an author’s introduction of sorts in which “Newt Scamander” really unpacks the idea of a ‘beast’, and critically engages with the legal, social, and political implications of designating something a ‘beast’ as opposed to a ‘being’, particularly in the case of werewolves, centaurs, and goblins. This in particular really aids in drawing out threads which were introduced in Prisoner of Azkaban, Goblet of Fire, and Order of the Phoenix, but could never be completely explored within the course of those stories – here J.K. Rowling perfectly illustrates the depth and complexity of the world she has created by bringing to light discussions of this sort.
“We now ask ourselves: which of these creatures is a ‘being’ – that is to say, a creature worthy of legal rights and a voice in the governance of the magical world – and which is a ‘beast’?”
It’s difficult to review this book as a book in its own rights since it’s far from a novel in its form or ambitions. It doesn’t intend to present a linear story and it doesn’t have any sense of character particularly, or of setting. I will say that the experience of reading Fantastic Beasts is like being allowed to read Rowling’s preliminary world-building notes that she would later keep at hand whilst writing the seven books of the Harry Potter series. That, alone, is a fascinating look into the amount, and depth, of planning which fantasy authors must do as a matter of course before even beginning to write the true ‘meat’ of their story idea.
“I would like to take this opportunity to reassure Muggle purchasers that the amusing creatures described hereafter are fictional and cannot hurt you. To wizards, I say merely: Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus.”
Overall, however, I think this book is just fine. It’s an easy enough read and is a slim enough volume that it’s easily digested in one small sitting. Nowadays, it doesn’t add much more insight than you can already pick up from the existing wealth of material online about the Harry Potter Wizarding World (not least, via J.K. Rowling-endorsed Pottermore) which is the only reason I didn’t enjoy this book. Had I read it back when it was released, I probably would have found it much more novel and therefore much more fun.
“Imperfect understanding is often more dangerous than ignorance.”