We first heard of Grindelwald as a throwaway fact on Albus Dumbledore’s chocolate frog card in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, a dark wizard that Dumbledore had, in fact, defeated years and years before. In Deathly Hallows, however, Grindelwald became an important piece of the puzzle of Voldemort’s defeat.
As promised in my Fantastic Beasts review, I’m taking a more in-depth look at this hitherto unremarkable villain. What do we already know about Gellert Grindelwald, based on information J.K. Rowling has already given us? In Deathly Hallows, we are treated to several long excerpts from Rita Skeeter’s book The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore. The following two paragraphs are the summary she gives of Grindelwald’s infamy and origins as context for her exposé of his relationship with Dumbledore:
The name of Grindelwald is justly famous: In a list of the Most Dangerous Dark Wizards of all time, he would miss out on the top spot only because You-Know-Who arrived, a generation later, to steal his crown. As Grindelwald never extended his campaign of terror to Britain, however, the details of his rise to power are not widely known here.
Educated at Durmstrang, a school famous even then for its unfortunate tolerance of the Dark Arts, Grindelwald showed himself quite as precociously brilliant as Dumbledore. Rather than channel his abilities into the attainment of awards and prizes, however, Gellert Grindelwald devoted himself to other pursuits. At sixteen years old, even Durmstrang felt it could no longer turn a blind eye to the twisted experiments of Gellert Grindelwald, and he was expelled.
And that is the most factual and unbiased part of the excerpt.
Skeeter also includes a letter that Albus wrote to Gellert during his stay in Godric’s Hollow.
Your point about Wizard dominance being FOR THE MUGGLES’ OWN GOOD – this, I think, is the crucial point. Yes, we have been given power and yes, that power gives us the right to rule, but it also gives us responsibilities over the ruled. We must stress this point, it will be the foundation stone upon which we build. Where we are opposed, as we surely will be, this must be the basis of all our counterarguments. We seize control FOR THE GREATER GOOD. And from this it follows that where we meet resistance, we must use only the force that is necessary and no more. (This was your mistake at Durmstrang! But I do not complain, because if you had not been expelled, we would never have met.)
We learn from Hermione that the slogan “For the Greater Good” was written over the entrance to Grindelwald’s fortress Nurmengard.
So what facts do we have about Grindelwald? He believed that Muggles were inferior to Wizards and that Wizards, by having magic, had the right to rule the world. He was open to using the Dark Arts to achieve that vision. Albus, during the summer that Gellert spent in Godric’s Hollow, was trying to temper the more objectionable parts of Gellert’s vision, as in the letter he points out that Wizards needed to be responsible about how they conquered and ruled. But the point that young Albus agrees with is that the Muggles need Wizard subjugation. He is very intelligent, intelligent enough that when he arrives in England that Albus regards him as an equal.
We also know from Deathly Hallows that Grindelwald was involved in the death of Albus’ sister, Ariana Dumbledore. As a small child, Ariana was attacked by Muggles. Her father was sent to Azkaban for retaliating on the attackers. As a result of her own personal shame and her family’s fear of exposure, Ariana’s magical abilities turned inward and became volatile–sometimes exploding dangerously. Aberforth Dumbledore in his confession to Harry, Ron, and Hermione doesn’t give a lot of detail about what her deranged powers were capable of, but the obscurial we see in Fantastic Beasts can give us some idea. Magic from young wizards who haven’t had any formal training is chaotic to begin with. But Ariana’s physical and mental health definitely suffered due to her trauma and confinement.
As you can imagine, Albus himself as well as his family didn’t have a high opinion of Muggles. Grindelwald’s proposed revolution sounded like the solution to their problems. Albus and Gellert saw themselves as saviors. But then Ariana was tragically killed during a fight that broke out between Aberforth, Albus, and Gellert.
This makes me want some backstory for Grindelwald to explain where he got his idea to conquer the Muggles, and I get the feeling we’ll be getting some as the Fantastic Beasts saga progresses. I wonder how Dumbledore came to his more enlightened view of Muggles in later years. But what we learn from Grindelwald’s early relationship with Dumbledore that while he is smart, he is also an advocate of using extreme measures to get his way. He also believes that what he is doing is the best thing for society.
After leaving England, Grindelwald gained a fantatical following in continental Europe and began a war on European Wizards. What was his objective? It isn’t hard to guess.
The Wizarding World has been hidden from Muggles for several centuries now, and the separation of the two groups is engrained in Wizarding culture. It’s not that Wizards see Muggles as stupid, they see them as dangerous. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, witchcraft and magic came to be viewed with suspicion by Muggles, and it was violently repressed and people suspected of practicing magic were humiliated publicly, tortured, and even murdered. American Wizards are paranoid of their world being exposed to the point where they have a clock monitoring the exposure threat level in the MACUSA lobby, as well as a memorial to the Salem Witch Trials, and they are forbidden to have any relations with No-Majs, a policy that even Newt Scamander views as “backwards”. And to drive the point home, there is a witch-hunting movement taking place on MACUSA’s front door in New York. The threat is very real for American Wizards. To Wizarding Society in general, Gellert Grindelwald is a terrorist out to destroy the fragile truce between Wizards and Muggles and overthrowing an internally stable Wizarding community. Voldemort a half century later just wanted to purge Wizarding society of Muggle influence–he didn’t want to change the status quo in his time.
Gellert Grindelwald is an anarchist.
Enter the Obscurial. It’s a phenomenon that the No-Majs in New York neighborhoods can’t explain or understand. It’s causing destruction and even death. MACUSA Auror Percival Graves is looking for the Obscurial, and he is trying to get information out of the foster son of the Second Salemers’ leader to see if a repressed child in their community is the source. “You will be honored among wizards,” Graves tells Credence Barebone in a dark alleyway. He hands Credence the sign of the Deathly Hallows, and while it means something else to the fans it is a sign which European Wizards associate with Grindelwald’s terrorism. Graves wants to use Credence to expose Wizardkind and, in the process, topple MACUSA and the International Statute of Secrecy. He comes across as someone who thinks such a drastic change in the social order is needed.
So consider this: Graves is actually Grindelwald. He knew Ariana Dumbledore and what had happened to her. He knows what happens when a person tries to hide their powers. And he is not above manipulating an abused, frightened boy in a similar situation into helping him, any more than he wanted the benefit of a partnership with brilliant, influential Albus Dumbledore to reach the same end.
Percival Graves stands for law and order. Percival Graves is willing to execute a foreign Magizoologist and a fellow Auror to keep MACUSA from finding out what the real threat is. But the chaos caused by Newt’s suitcase is working in his favor by putting both sides on the alert.
Moments before his big reveal, Graves makes the following speech criticizing the Statute of Secrecy:
“A law that has us scuttling like rats in the gutter. A law that demands that we conceal our true nature. A law that directs those under its dominion to cower in fear, lest we risk discovery. I ask you, Madam President, I ask all of you – who does this law protect? Us, or them? I refuse to bow down any longer.“
What he is saying here is that the law dividing Wizards from Muggles is doing more harm than good. It is not only endangering Muggles but keeping Wizards from their rightful dominance over them. But on a deeper level, he has a point: the work of so many Wizarding governments revolves around keeping Wizarding Society a secret, and they repress their own citizens—monitoring and registering them, controlling the economy and limiting job opportunities and education, if you take this extreme view—in the name of security. Newt and Tina were going to be executed for a crime they didn’t commit because of a creature that was attacking No-Majs that they couldn’t control.
One of my favorite things about Newt Scamander is that while Graves was trying to pin him as a criminal, Newt realized that Graves was not a person to be trusted.
Compared to Voldemort, Gellert Grindelwald is a lot less subtle about getting what he wants. Tom Riddle managed to finish school without getting caught for wrongdoing. Grindelwald didn’t even wait to push the limits of his more liberal educators at Durmstrang. Grindelwald’s extreme passion and use of chaos is a foil for Dumbledore’s use of cool intellect and persuasion. His expulsion from Durmstrang is also an interesting parallel to that of Newt Scamander.
So a throwaway nemesis on a chocolate frog card versus the author of a textbook…hmm. If J.K. Rowling wants the Fantastic Beasts franchise to revolve around Grindelwald’s story, there’s something important she’s trying to get across. This is what I have figured out about Grindelwald: he is an anarchist and a extremist who believes that he’s doing the right thing. But his reign of terror is a smaller symptom of a larger malaise in the Wizarding World that may or may not have implications about real life.