This article contains Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald spoilers.
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald gave a very human backstory to a creature long assumed to simply be a fantastic beast–Voldemort’s loyal snake Nagini. In the new movie, we meet Nagini as a twentysomething maledictus and Credence Barebone’s only friend as they’re trapped working in a magical circus in Paris circa 1927. In Fantastic Beasts 2, Claudia Kim portrays the character as empathetic and perceptive, as she tries to protect Credence at all costs and attempts to dissuade him standing by Grindelwald’s side. Yet by the very fact of her name, we know that in addition to the tragic fate of a maledictus, some contorted story awaits her to justify her eventual fervent loyalty to Lord Voldemort.
When it was announced that Crimes of Grindelwald would give Nagini a backstory, there was criticism that one of the few women of color would go on to be a literal possession of a white man, a criticism J.K. Rowling brushed off. Others, like Mashable writer Proma Khosla, were frustrated that Nagini would be played by a Korean woman rather than South Asian, given that Nagini’s name is Sanskrit. This trajectory feels like it robs Nagini of her agency even further since it is driven by a desire to connect Fantastic Beasts to the original series, rather than by an organic exploration of Nagini’s character.
After seeing the Fantastic Beasts 2, where Nagini is largely relegated to the background, I’m troubled by the options this character has moving forward. How and why would the woman we met in The Crimes of Gindelwald one day serve Voldemort, the character that symbolizes ultimate evil in the world of Harry Potter, and serves as an analogue to Nazism?
As the circus ringleader tells his audience in Fantastic Beasts 2, a maledictus is a witch born under a blood curse who can change between human and animal form. While they have some degree of control over their transformations that’s not always the case, and they are doomed to one day become permanently trapped in animal form. That alone is tragic enough, but the fact that she’s named Nagini foretells a darker story. We know that one day she will become loyal to Voldemort, perhaps his most loyal and longstanding companion, the only creature he might be said to care about.
Nagini is many things in the original book and movie series: a pet, a weapon, a horcrux, and a murderer. She is most of these in ardent service to one man, Voldemort, who even possess her, like when she attacks Arthur Weasley. She kills many witches and wizards throughout the time that we’ve known her, often brutally. Her fervent loyalty to Voldemort goes well beyond that of any Death-Eater, and she shows an eagerness to eat them when they step out of line. Some fans even questioned whether she is the one responsible for her strategy and skills, positing that Voldemort making her a horcrux imbued her with his intelligence, further degrading her agency and intelligence.
Nagini’s life in Fantastic Beasts 2 is only alluded to, but it’s not an easy one. She’s in a race against time, facing down a lifetime as a snake after what appeared to be a human life of abuse at the hands of a circus leader. It is not known what exactly it means to be born under a blood curse, but it certainly sounds traumatic. At the end of Fantastic Beasts 2, we saw Nagini’s one and only friend choose to go with an evil man who believed in extremist ideals similar to Voldemort. Nagini was offered a chance to join the side of darkness and lash out against the world that has hurt her, yet she not only stayed strong, she tried to convince Credence to stay with her. Her final scene outside Hogwarts suggests that she joins Newt and Dumbledore in their fight against Grindelwald.
If Nagini’s response to the catalyst of losing her only friend after a grifter life of exploitation and loneliness was empathy and a call to do the right thing, what more abuse will these movies need to throw at Nagini to transform her into someone who will willingly follow Voldemort to a life of fundamentalism and violence?
Perhaps the key word is willingly, and Nagini will either lose her human memories or come under Voldemort’s magic. From what we’ve seen, Nagini retains her memories and personality in snake form, at least enough to carry out her and Credence’s escape from the circus, so that narrative isn’t as strong. Voldemort bewitching her certainly isn’t out of the question, but that kind of intense loyalty seems impossible to transfix, much like true love. We need to see more from Nagini in upcoming movies for any of this to make sense, but whatever way they go, it will require an awful lot of narrative back-bending just to make this square peg fit a round hole.
Reframing Nagini as human completely changes how we read her scenes in the Potterverse. Where we once cheered when Neville Longbottom beheaded the evil snake with Gryffindor’s sword during the Battle of Hogwarts, now he’s murdering a woman who, at minimum, was once good and kind, and has since been trapped in snake form. Harry seeing through her eyes could be a cry for help if she is in some way possessed or cursed, but if she’s a human woman with complete knowledge of her actions, it adds a chilling level of malice to a snake that was once essentially seen as a sentient extension of Voldemort.
Adding to the troubling nature of this story progression is the fact that, according to Pottermore, the concept of the maledictus was introduced specifically for Fantastic Beasts 2. Prior to that, if one had heard the description of this character, they would have assumed she was an animagus, a less tragic way for witches and wizards to transform into animals, as they can continue to transform back and forth at will, as Sirius Black and Minerva McGonagall did. Remus Lupin had his own tragedy as he worked through his werewolf curse, but was eventually able to control it and find happiness, and even Peter Pettigrew was allowed to die as a human. Nagini deserves better.