Revisiting J.K. Rowling's 2001 'Fantastic Beasts' Book

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Newton Artemis Fido Scamander is ready for his close-up. The magizoologist otherwise known as Newt is the central figure of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, J.K. Rowling’s prequel of sorts to Harry Potter opening on Friday.

While many Muggles might not recognize the name of the character played by Eddie Redmayne, Potterphiles are well acquainted with Mr. Scamander and his history in the Potterverse, which traces back to the very first novel, 1997’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (released as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in America the following year). Scamander is briefly mentioned as the author of the seminal textbook Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, required reading for the Hogwarts-bound Harry Potter.

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The author and his book became more than a footnote in 2001, when Rowling, under the pseudonym of Newt Scamander, released a real book titled Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. The slim, red-covered volume weighed in at 64 pages, with proceeds from its sale (the paperback originally cost $3.99 or, as the cover noted, “14 sickles, 3 knuts”) benefiting the British charity Comic Relief for children in developing countries.

Paired with another Potter-based volume, Quidditch Through the Ages, the books represented Rowling’s first expansion of her character’s universe, something she’d explore later with her Pottermore website. Complete with claw marks, Fantastic Beasts purported to be a reproduction of the actual copy owned by Harry (and shared with Ron), featuring their scrawled notes and doodles (in a nod to Remus Lupin, Harry remarks that not all werewolves are bad), along with a foreword by Albus Dumbledore. (He writes that he’d like to “reassure Muggle purchasers that the amusing creatures described hereafter are fictional and cannot hurt you.”)

Fantastic Beasts was stocked with 85 entries on magical creatures, from Acromantula to Yeti, many of which populated the Potter books and others borrowed from folklore and myth. Did you know the Loch Ness Monster is really a kelpie, a “British and Irish water demon [that] can take various shapes?” It was like a junior version of the legendary Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual. Of the dozen key creatures in the new film — Billywig, Bowtruckle, Demiguise, Erumpent, Graphorn, Mooncalf, Murtlap, Niffler, Nundu, Occamy, Swooping Evil, and Thunderbird — only the latter two were not included in the original book.

“The big leaping off point was the book, which became our encyclopedia, and we evolved them from there,” explains effects supervisor Christian Manz in the film’s production notes. “The main challenge was to create animals that you believe could live in the animal kingdom of the wizarding world.”

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The book also fleshes out the story of Newt Scamander and the history of Magizoology (the study of magical creatures), offering many details that have been incorporated into the film. We discover Scamander was born in 1897 to a mother “who was an enthusiastic breeder of fancy Hippogriffs.” In his introduction, Scamander informs us that he was commissioned to write his compendium in 1918 by Augustus Worme of Obscurus Books. Scamander spent his holidays “traveling the globe in search of new magical species.” The first printing was done in 1927 (the film is set in 1926 and Redmayne’s Scamander notes that his bestiary is a work in progress); there have been, as the author’s note reminds us, 51 subsequent editions.

The Fantastic Beasts book also establishes some ground rules for the film. Both book and movie are conservation-minded, stressing the importance of saving even savage monsters “to ensure that future generations of witches and wizards enjoy their strange beauty and powers as we have been privileged to.” The volume also states that wizards are responsible for preventing Muggles from encountering such beasts. Should a Muggle meet a magical creature, there are several steps wizards can take, from a simple Memory Charm to wipe away the memory of a bystander to escalating a major incident to the Office of Misinformation, which will seek “a plausible non-magical explanation for an event. The unstinting efforts of this office in persuading Muggles that all photographic evidence of the Loch Ness kelpie is fake have gone some way to salvaging a situation that at one time looked exceedingly dangerous.” (We are really holding out for a Nessie sighting in a future film.)

Finally, the book includes some potential spoilers for the Fantastic Beast movie franchise, which will play out over at least five films. We learn that Scamander is happily retired at the time of the Harry Potter books, living in “Dorset with his wife Porpentina and their pet Kneazles: Hoppy, Milly, and Mauler.” By the conclusion of the film, however, the romance between Newt and Porpentina (played on screen by Katherine Waterston) is barely starting to bloom. There are also some hints about where the film franchise could go, with several pages devoted to kelpies, werewolves, and dragons, as well as to the dangers of breeding magical creatures. And there’s a passage about what happens when “Muggle-Repealing Charms” fail and the fantastic beasties escape the safe zones they live in. Sounds like perfect fodder for a sequel.

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