We knew that Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them would be about finding Newt Scamander’s missing magical creatures while anti-wizard sentiments build in 1920s New York, but as we inch closer the premiere date it has become clear the movie is setting up a much more serious story.
After dropping several hints for fans in trailers and movie posters, J.K. Rowling has confirmed the series will include the infamous dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald, played (controversially) by Johnny Depp. That means the Fantastic Beasts movies (now five of them) could finally give us the story behind one of the most famous historical events in the Harry Potter universe.
So just who is this Grindelwald guy, and what can we expect? We’ll likely be exploring that over the course of five films, but here’s what we know about the mysterious character ahead of Fantastic Beasts.
“The Second Most Dangerous Dark Wizard of All Time”
For years the sole mention of Grindelwald came early in the Harry Potter series. Harry first saw the name on an Albus Dumbledore Chocolate Frog card he obtained on his first trip to Hogwarts. The name was in a note about Dumbledore’s many achievements (though being on a Chocolate Frog card should have been among them. Bill Weasley joked it was the only accolade he cared about being revoked when the Ministry of Magic tried to discredit his claims that Voldemort had returned.)
Harry, having grown up with Muggles, would have no idea who Grindelwald was, so it was essentially a throwaway line he shrugged off.
Considered by many the greatest wizard of modern times, Dumbledore is particularly famous for his defeat of the Dark wizard Grindelwald in 1945, for the discovery of the twelve uses of dragon’s blood, and his work on alchemy with his partner, Nicolas Flamel. Professor Dumbledore enjoys chamber music and ten-pin bowling.
It came up again later in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone while the Harry, Ron, and Hermione researched Nicolas Flamel. Grindelwald was mentioned, but otherwise disregarded. For many years, that’s all fans knew about the dark wizard who arrived on the scene before Voldemort and was overthrown in 1945, the same year World War II ended.
(At one point Rowling said that Grindelwald died as a result of the duel, but that was later canceled out. Instead, Voldemort visited him in his prison cell at Nurmengard in Deathly Hallows—the prison Grindelwald built for his enemies that would later house himself. Voldemort killed Grindelwald after he refused to tell him the location of the Elder Wand.)
It wasn’t until Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows that we circled back to Grindelwald, and in a big way. He was heavily featured in Rita Skeeter’s hastily written biography, The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore. In one chapter, she dropped a bombshell on the wizarding world by revealing that Dumbledore and Grindelwald had been friends. While Skeeter’s writing is usually best taken with a very large grain of salt, much of her chapter on Grindelwald is accurate because she obtained the information from Grindelwald’s great-aunt and magical historian Bathilda Bagshot with some assistance from Veritaserum, the most powerful truth potion in existence. Notably, Bagshot was also longtime neighbor of the Dumbledore family in Godric's Hollow.
Skeeter saved details about Dumbledore and Grindelwald’s famous duel for another chapter, but his humble, dark beginning is chronicled in the chapter, “The Greater Good.” She calls Grindelwald the darkest wizard in existence, second only to Voldemort. That could potentially be due to the fact that Grindelwald never took his “reign of terror” to Great Britain, whereas Voldemort focused almost exclusively on it (when he wasn’t trying to kill Harry or hunting down the Elder Wand, that is).
Fans estimate, based on the ages of Dumbledore and Grindelwald when they first met, that Grindelwald was born around 1883. (Dumbledore was born in 1881.) He attended Durmstrang Institute, which already had a dark reputation at the time, but was expelled at age 16 after “Durmstrang felt it could no longer turn a blind eye” to experiments that Grindelwald performed and “near-fatal attacks upon fellow students.” As a boy and young man, Grindelwald had golden hair and was “merry-faced.” After seeing him through Voldemort’s eyes (as the dark lord searched for clues to the Elder Wand in the wandmaker Gregorovitch’s mind) he reminded Harry of Fred and George Weasley.
Godric’s Hollow, the Hallows, and the Greater Good
At a young age, Grindelwald was already searching for the Deathly Hallows: the Elder Wand, the Resurrection Stone, and the Cloak of Invisibility. Here’s a refresher, via the wizarding fairy tale, “The Tale of the Three Brothers.”
It was his investigation into Ignotus Peverell, the youngest Peverell brother (believed to be the inspiration for the Beedle the Bard tale) who was considered the first person to own the Cloak of Invisibility. Ignotus was buried in Godric’s Hollow, so that’s where Grindelwald headed as he “traveled abroad for some months.” With an introduction from Bathilda Bagshot, Grindelwald met a 17-year-old Dumbledore fresh out of Hogwarts. Dumbledore was widely regarded as one of the finest students Hogwarts had ever seen, but the death of his mother in 1899 forced him—not without some frustration and bitterness—to come home and care for his younger siblings, Aberforth and Ariana, instead of pursuing his talents and ambitions.
In Grindelwald the lonely Dumbledore found an equal, and they bonded over their intellect and fervor for the Deathly Hallows. They both yearned for the Elder Wand and the Resurrection Stone. Grindelwald wanted to raise an army of Inferi (animated corpses) while Dumbledore wanted to see his parents again. Despite being in the same town as Ignotus Peverell’s grave, they didn’t give too much thought to the Cloak of Invisibility, which was a centuries-old family heirloom of the Potter’s, except perhaps to hide Dumbledore’s younger sister Ariana, who was magically unstable after being attacked by Muggles as a child.
What happened next is explored in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows through Skeeter’s book, memories of a bitter Aberforth, Dumbledore himself, and retrospectively by Rowling. Dumbledore and Grindelwald became friends and discussed their plans for a new world order that would see wizards and witches ruling peacefully over Muggles, one where Ariana wouldn’t have to live in hiding. (Dumbledore briefly held some anti-Muggle sentiments.) At one point, Dumbledore became enamored with and fell in love with Grindelwald, a fact that the latter was probably aware of and exploited for his own benefit.
And at the end of the summer as Aberforth prepared to return to Hogwarts, he confronted the other two about their plans to move the delicate Ariana around with them while they tried to enact their wizarding revolution. Grindelwald got angry, cast the Cruciatus Curse on Aberforth, and the argument escalated into a three-way duel, resulting in one of them accidentally killing Ariana.
Grindelwald left Godric’s Hollow soon after using a Portkey that Bagshot had arranged—he had a record, after all—and stayed far away from the U.K. for so long he didn’t even return after rising to power.
So what was Grindelwald doing for 20 years before his rise to power on the cusp of World War II?
Ezra Miller, who’s playing a mysterious character named Credence in Fantastic Beasts and a self-professed “diehard fan of Harry Potter,” hinted at the maybe not-so-coincidental nature of the movie taking place when it does.
“Now think about it with me,” he said. “Fantastic Beasts takes place in 1926, which is around when Grindelwald was beginning his attacks across Europe. Which might be connected—might not be connected—but might be connected to Grindelwald’s rise to power.”
That gives Grindelwald about a 19-year ascension to power before his and Dumbledore’s famous duel in 1945. And, conveniently, J.K. Rowling just confirmed the Fantastic Beasts series follows a 19-year timeline.
However, given the timeline we already know and our knowledge that Grindelwald was in Godric’s Hollow in 1899, that leaves a bigger question: What was Grindelwald doing for the 27 years between his falling out with Dumbledore and his attacks in Europe?
Until it’s revealed by Pottermore or Fantastic Beasts, it’s hard to say because there’s so little we know about him. Rowling could retcon Dumbledore’s birth year and move the whole timeline up, but that seems unlikely. At one point she said Dumbledore was 150, but it was later revealed Dumbledore was born in 1881—putting him at 115 or 116 when he died in 1997.
Some time after Grindelwald left Great Britain, he discovered that the famous wandmaker Mykew Gregorovitch had obtained the Elder Wand and attempted to duplicate its powers. Gregorovitch also stupidly spread rumors that he owned the wand, leading Grindelwald to steal it from his shop and stun the wandmaker before leaving.
He was likely still fairly young when this occurred because Harry recognized the thief in an old photo in Bathilda Bagshot’s home.
During his rise to power (whether it happened before or after 1926 remains unclear), Grindelwald raised an army of followers and eventually became secure enough in his power to build Nurmengard, his own personal prison for his enemies. He bastardized the Deathly Hallows symbol—a mirror to how the Nazis transformed the manji symbol (卍) into a swastika—and adopted it as his own, even carving it into the walls of Durmstrang before he was expelled. He tortured Muggles and he committed murders of wizards, witches, and Muggles alike; the only notable victim that we know of is one of Viktor Krum’s grandfathers, although the actual number is probably much higher, if it’s able to be quantified.
Maybe it took until 1926 for parts of the wizarding world to notice something was wrong. It’s always possible that prior to 1926 he began to enact his plans unknown to the wizarding world. With World War I and a global epidemic happening at the beginning of the 20th century, he might have been able to commit crimes without bringing attention to himself. Even several decades after Fantastic Beasts, parts of the wizarding world were still indifferent to the deaths of nameless Muggles in the face of a wizarding dictator.
Grindewald clung to the idea that he was working “For the Greater Good.” Curiously enough, in Fantastic Beasts he might find a powerful and influential wizard susceptible enough to help make his new world order become a reality.
A dark aura looms over wizarding America—and maybe some of its own
By the time we meet Newt Scamander in 1926 New York, the North American wizarding world had been living in complete secrecy for 136 years because Rappaport’s Law, which was passed in 1790 separating the wizarding and No-Maj communities. That won’t be resolved in the first Fantastic Beasts movie; Rappaport’s Law wasn’t repealed until 1965.
So isn’t it curious that we see Percival Graves, a member of one of America’s most prominent and influential American wizarding families, with the Deathly Hallows symbol in his character posters. In one of the trailers, we hear him tell another wizard, “We’ve lived in the shadows for too long.”
“I ask all of you,” he continues, “who does this protect? Us, or them?”
Perhaps the trailers are trying to make us think something is up with Graves (as many of the Harry Potter books did with Severus Snape) until it’s revealed he’s the red herring for someone even more terrifying and dangerous, especially if Grindelwald will appear in Fantastic Beasts.
Graves is descended from Gondulphus Graves, one of the original wizards and witches who put their lives on the line and volunteered to train as Aurors. His family helped protect the wizarding world when it was most vulnerable, and the Graves family has remained influential in that time. Could he be tired of the constant vigilance and scrutiny required to keep the wizarding and No-Maj worlds separated from one another?
A crisis of faith or pressure from the Second Salemers, who are trying to expose and destroy wizards in America, could make a magical revolution enticing. Is that what makes him declare that he refuses “to bow down any longer”? Or is his necklace an indication he’s searching for the Deathly Hallows to help keep wizards safe?
Given the hostile, secretive, and anti-No-Maj mentality of America, it might be the perfect setting for Grindelwald to quietly wait for the right moment—or to start putting his plans into motion.
Will the series work toward another iconic battle?
Rowling wants to tell the story of Grindelwald’s rise, but with that comes another one that she’ll need to tell: his downfall.
Dumbledore knew what his former friend was capable of, but even when Grindelwald rose to power Dumbledore hesitated to do something about it for years. It appeared that Grindelwald feared Dumbledore, but Dumbledore also feared him, and even held off facing him because of it.
“They say he feared me, and perhaps he did, but less, I think, than I feared him... It was the truth I feared,” Dumbledore told Harry in Deathly Hallows. “You see, I never knew which of us, in that last, horrific fight, had actually cast the curse that killed my sister... I think he knew it, I think he knew what frightened me. I delayed meeting him until finally, it would have been too shameful to resist any longer. People were dying and he seemed unstoppable, and I had to do what I could."
Dumbledore and Grindelwald’s duel in 1945 is famous—and like Harry’s final battle with Voldemort more than 50 years later, it had witnesses. And we know it ended in Grindelwald’s defeat and Dumbledore becoming master of the Elder Wand.
According to Elphias Doge, “Those who witnessed it have written of the terror and the awe they felt as they watched these two extraordinary wizards do battle,” and Dumbledore’s victory is as significant of a mark in wizarding history as Voldemort’s downfall in 1981 and the International Statute of Secrecy being introduced.
We won’t truly know until we see the arc of the Fantastic Beasts series just how Newt, Graves, Grindelwald, and Dumbledore tie together—if they do at all. Will Newt even still be involved in the story by the time these two formidable wizards face one another, or is his case full of magical beasts an entryway into a much bigger, darker story than anyone ever thought they would get?
No matter the story Rowling and Warner Bros. decides to tell, it’s going to be a hell of a ride.