It feels strange to be returning to this book – I remember buying it when I was fourteen years old, when the book was first released alongside Quidditch Through The Ages in support of Comic Relief. Still, while Quidditch appears to have faded, Fantastic Beasts has finally stepped into the limelight, with the film released over Christmas time and a further four in the pipeline. Having long since fallen out of print, Newt Scamander’s text book is being re-released with quite the fan-fare, with Eddie Redmayne providing the narration for the audio edition. I have to admit, it does seem surprising to me that this novelty book which seemed at the time to be released on a whim to make up for the long wait between Books 3 and 4 should have turned out to have such an afterlife – I wonder if JK Rowling thinks so too. Still, Eddie Redmayne does have a rather lovely voice and all things Potterish are to be cherished and so I settled down with my headphones to listen and once more learn about Fantastic Beasts.
Fantastic Beasts is first named in the list of set books which Harry will require for his Hogwarts studies, along with Transfiguration Grade 1 and Bathilda Bagshot’s A History of Magic and in its original format, Fantastic Beasts was a simple companion piece to Harry Potter’s adventures. While Quidditch Through The Ages was a library book, and thus had protected status, the former was released to the public for Comic Relief with the understanding that it was a replica of the copy which Harry owned himself and was thus covered with annotations from him and his friends. Since the poverty-stricken Ron’s copy had fallen apart, the two of them shared the book, with Ron declaring his allegiance to the Chudley Cannons on one page and Harry adding a note that he only wanted the names of decent teams on his property, thank you. With Scamander listing all the known fantastic beasts alphabetically, all three of the principle characters graffitied the entries when they had a relevant observation. When the author observed that there were ‘unconfirmed’ reports that an ‘Acromanctuala’ colony had been spotted in Scotland, Harry noted that these reports were confirmed by himself and Ron, given that the pair of them had nearly been eaten by Aragog and his family during The Chamber of Secrets. No doubt in an attempt to flesh the franchise out as something separate from Harry Potter, this dialogue appears to have been dropped, with the focus shifting more to Newt Scamander himself.
Indeed, this re-release does feel like a slight ret-conning of the canon. The book comes with a new foreword from Newt Scamander himself, making reference to the American adventure witnessed during the recent film and with the explanation that until recently, he had had to suppress the existence of several American fantastic beasts on the orders of the American magical government. So there are six new beasts in this edition. Tone-wise, the book does seem to have changed. Known only by a comical name, Newt Scamander in 2001 seemed to be a rather ponderous character, describing these amazing magical creatures in the most formal and long-winded manner possible. When he prefaced a chapter as being a ‘brief’ introduction to Magiczoology, Ron Weasley wrote next to it ‘you liar’. I envisaged him as being a similar figure to Elphias Doge, possibly elderly and dithery, but now he has to be the hero and so he needs to be shown in a new light. Having Redmayne himself voice the book, to put his own version of Newt on it, well, it feels like an inspired move.
As mentioned above, Redmayne’s voice is perfect for audio, quietly explaining the context around the history of the beast and beings divisions and then gently working his way down the list of fantastic beasts. With a special effect in place for the footnotes, the original flow of the book is preserved. Redmayne retains a respectful solemnity around even the more ridiculous episodes, reminding me again of what made the character in the film so charming – his sincere care for the creatures he strives to protect. In the background of the recording are sound effects for the various creatures, with the snappings of claws, hooting of birds and snarls of the toothier beasts. Scattered amongst the record of the beasts are the new additions, with references to the animals who inspired the names of the houses of Ilvermorny, the American Hogwarts equivalent. More than anything, it was nice to revisit the original creation, with inventions such as the Lethifold having the classic Rowling flair.
Another facet to the re-release though is that it is intended to tantalise. In the new foreword, Scamander makes reference to the highly inaccurate biography of his life which was authored by Rita Skeeter, noting several of the grander inaccuracies surrounding his work during the fight against Gellert Grindelwald. While those of us who watched the film are aware that he makes an appearance, this does give a hint about the likely direction of the future film installments, as does the author description at the end of the book which names his wife and the Kneazles with whom he lives, giving a spoiler about the eventual destination of his budding romance in the last film.
To be frank, Fantastic Beasts is still only a companion piece rather than a standalone. No longer simply a background artefact to Harry Potter’s education, it is now a vehicle for Newt Scamander to have adventures – he has to do the fieldwork if he is ever going to write the book. We are assured that Scamander’s work raised magiczoology to a respected field but we will have to watch the next four films to see how he did so. Still, this refashioning and a very sweet performance by Redmayne does manage to elevate the material from dry textbook disrespected by teenage students to a handbook for future adventures. True fans are sure to enjoy.
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Published by Pottermore from J.K. Rowling on March 14th 2017
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