SENIOR LECTURER OF ENGLISH GAIL ORGELFINGER
As did so many others, I read J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books first for pure pleasure; it wasn’t until The Prisoner of Azkaban that my medievalist antennae began to tingle. My “aha” moment came when Harry’s patronus—a white stag—appeared across the lake to save him and Sirius Black from the Dementors. The white stag is a ubiquitous and multi-layered symbol in the Middle Ages. So that connection prompted my own research quest into whether the many animal allusions in Harry Potter’s world might resonate with what I knew about their appearance in medieval literature.
Having written Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them under the pseudonym of Newt Scamander, Rowling signaled both her interest in and knowledge of the rich tradition of medieval animal symbolism. Fantastic Beasts is essentially a bestiary. In the Middle Ages, a bestiary was an illustrated manuscript that described both real and imaginary animals, with interpretations of them according to points of Christian doctrine. Early bestiaries had around 40-50 chapters, each typically beginning with a Biblical quotation, continuing with a précis of the creature’s natural history—some of it truly fantastic—and ending with an allegorical interpretation.