Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

by Newt Scamander

Published by Raincoast Books

42 pages, 2001

Buy it online

Quidditch Through the Ages

by Kennilworthy Whisp

Published by Raincoast Books

56 pages, 2001


Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

by J.K. Rowling





Spellbinding Textbooks

Reviewed by Linda L. Richards


When I was a kid, people -- especially those without a great deal of knowledge about art -- were fond of saying things about Picasso. Not nice things. Looking at sharp blue lines on a blue background; nudes without noses or portraits of one-eyed people, they would say things like, "That Picasso! He could sign his name on a piece of canvas and charge a million bucks." And though these would-be critics might have been correct, they were correct for all the wrong reasons. Picasso's "scribbles" were the culmination of the work of a prolific lifetime. More to the point, perhaps, Picasso had a great deal of humor regarding the collectability of his work. Sure: scrawling his name on a piece of canvas as a lark would have been just the sort of thing he'd do: only he'd do it in invisible ink. Stories regarding this humor abound. Like the time he went to the beach and made sculptures in the sand, just above the tide line, then sat back on his haunches in bewildered amusement while the hangers-on he invariably attracted scurried about the beach in almost blind panic trying to think how to preserve the temporary "masterpieces" Picasso had abandoned to the elements.

These days, J.K. Rowling and Picasso have something in common. Rowling can write anything -- anything -- and people of all ages will rush to their local booksellers' and cough up their hard-won cash. Fortunately, Rowling doesn't indulge in invisible ink and, in fact, always seems very concerned that her young readers get good value for their literary investment.

Case in point: Rowling's latest publications are a brace of teeny books -- pamphlets, practically -- designed to look like textbooks from the school Harry Potter attends -- Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry -- and attributed to fictional characters from Harry's world. Quidditch Through the Ages, by Kennilworthy Whisp, is the definitive guide to the "poetry and power" of the magical game of Quidditch, a game scored similarly to soccer or polo, but played on flying broomsticks following a flying "snitch" instead of a ball.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is by Newt Scamander, who was renowned for his knowledge of "Magiczoology." Now retired, "he lives in Dorset with his wife Porpentina and their pet Kneazles: Hoppy, Milly and Mauler." If you need to look up the "Kneazle" species in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, you'll discover that the Kneazle has been designated XXX by the Ministry of Magic, which means that a "Competent wizard should cope." And since Scamander obviously is, there are no problems there. Read further and you discover that a Kneazle is:

A small cat-like creature with flecked, speckled or spotted fur, outsize ears and a tail like a lion's, the Kneazle is intelligent, independent and occasionally aggressive, though if it takes a liking to a witch or wizard, it makes an excellent pet. The Kneazle has an uncanny ability to detect unsavoury or suspicious characters and can be relied upon to guide its owners safely home if they are lost. Kneazles have up to eight kittens in a litter and can interbreed with cats. Licenses are required for ownership as (like Crups and Fwoopers) Kneazles are sufficiently unusual in appearance to attract Muggle interest.

And a lot more. Everything, in fact, from Acromatula (with a XXXXX designation "a monstrous eight-eyed spider capable of human speech) to Yeti (with XXXX designation, "the yeti devours anything that strays into its path, though it fears fire and may be repulsed by skilled wizards.) In all, 75 species are described in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, as well as a gentle dissertation on the proper classification of magical species as well as how and why they are best hidden from Muggles.

Of course, both books were written by J.K. Rowling and they serve to illustrate quite graphically why her Harry Potter series of books has been so successful: Rowling understands the world she has created perfectly. In reading these two small volumes, it's obvious that the books she seems to write so effortlessly are backed by much research and understanding. That is, she can describe her creations to readers so vividly because she knows exactly what they look like and how they function.

Records show that witches and wizards in Europe were using flying broomsticks as early as AD 962. A German illuminated manuscript of the period shows three warlocks dismounting from their brooms with looks of exquisite discomfort on their faces. Guthrie Lochrin, a Scottish wizard writing in 1107, spoke of the "splinter-filled buttocks and bulging piles" he suffered after a short broom ride from Montrose to Arbroath.

Passages like this, from Quidditch Through the Ages, demonstrate Rowling's deep passion for the world she has created. You simply don't toss off elegant little vignettes complete with uncomfortable buttocks without having given your topic a great deal of thought. You and I might think about the wonderful feeling of soaring over fields and cities, the broom an extension of our own bodies: like wings. Rowling thinks about the actual effect that sitting on a broom -- carefully enough that you avoid falling off -- might have on a human body -- even a magical one. And those details make it sing: bring it to life.

All but a very, very small portion of the proceeds from both books are earmarked for Comic Relief, a well-known British organization that my copy of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them tells me has raised "380 million dollars since 1985," though whose dollars -- Canadian, American, Hong Kong, Australian -- it doesn't say. It's a lot of money, no matter how you exchange it.

The fact that both books are a fund-raising effort is a bonus. However, both works will fit nicely into an existing Harry library. When I'm next reading Rowling, if I come across an Ashwinder or a Puffskein I'll know where to look to find out what Harry is up against. | March 2001


Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several Books.