When re-reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, I couldn’t help but wonder exactly what kind of snake Voldemort’s companion, Nagini, was supposed to be. Like the deadly swamp adder in the Sherlock Holmes story ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band’, Nagini’s characteristics – she is ‘diamond-patterned’, venomous, and as demonstrated in the opening chapter of Deathly Hallows, big enough to swallow a human – cannot be properly matched to any real species of snake. Nor is she a match for any magical serpent mentioned in the Harry Potter mythology, like the Basilisk or the Runespoor. The CGI Nagini in the films is modelled on a reticulated python, but real reticulated pythons are not venomous. My best guess until this week was that Nagini was a European adder (Vipera berus), magically enlarged by Voldemort: this particular snake has a zigzag pattern which looks vaguely diamond-ish in at least some individuals; it can be found in Albania (where Voldemort presumably first encountered Nagini); and it is also the only venomous snake in Britain, so could potentially have been what JK Rowling was picturing in her mind.
However, the most recent trailer for Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald has confirmed a different theory: that Nagini used to be a human, played by South Korean actress Claudia Kim. As explained by Rowling, the character is a Maledictus, a woman who carries a blood curse which dooms her to eventually transform into an animal permanently.
There have been many people on social media who have not been happy with this revelation. Some Harry Potter fans consider it another example of Rowling messing with her own canon again, pulling another significant ‘fact’ about the wizarding world out of thin air, like when she outed Dumbledore as gay. Even louder, however, have been the declarations that casting an Asian woman as Nagini is racist, the argument being that there are relatively few minority characters in Rowling’s canon, and this particular example ends up becoming a “slave” to the main villain (who happens to be a white male) and is eventually decapitated by one of the heroes.
Regarding the first criticism, I am well aware that there are plenty of flaws in Rowling’s writing and world-building. And some of the new facts she dishes out about her canon can feel a little random and jarring. It even happens in the books themselves sometimes; was there ever any hint of Metamorphmagi before Order of the Phoenix? But then, Rowling has every right to continue building on the world she created, or use what notes she has kept in reserve, not least because the books are told from the limited point of view of a teenager who knows nothing about magic until he is eleven and never sets foot outside Britain through the course of the series. A new element of the wizarding world is not a problem if it’s something Harry would not necessarily have learned about, only if it violates what Rowling has already laid down.
And maybe this is indeed what Rowling intended all along. I don’t see how it openly contradicts canon. Assuming that Claudia Kim’s character really is the Nagini we know and not an ancestor with the same name, she has been a snake for several decades by the time she meets Voldemort. We don’t know the details of the Maledictus curse and how much humanity she can retain in her mind once transformed, though she must at least remember her name for Voldemort to know it. And even if Voldemort does know what she is, why would he bring it up in front of Harry or anyone else? While Nagini’s origin was never a gap that was essential to fill, it was still a gap, and I’m personally pleased that it’s being filled in The Crimes of Grindelwald, in a way that we still have little information about until we see the film. With no other explanation for Nagini’s existence having been given, the Maledictus concept is at least satisfactory at first glance, and potentially fascinating; it could even add an element of tragedy to the character.
(As a side note, I’ve seen some tweets making reference to Voldemort and Wormtail “milking” Nagini, apparently under the impression that this means something more unpleasant than it actually does. “Milking” a snake means extracting the venom, via the fangs. One would hope that not even a Maledictus in snake form produces milk in the familiar sense of the word.)
So what about the allegations of racism? Rowling pointed out on Twitter that an Asian origin for Nagini is not inappropriate; the word ‘nagini’ is the female version of Naga, the name for an Asian snake deity. However, she also referred to the Naga as creatures from Indonesian mythology, leading many people to point out that a) the word comes from Sanskrit, which is Indian, and b) Claudia Kim is Korean – so yes, Rowling could have handled that better. But we don’t know what the character’s ethnic background is actually being presented as in the film, and different cultures do influence one another; surely the name Nagini can be used by people outside its country of origin, especially considering what an appropriate name it is in-universe for somebody cursed to become a snake. Describing Nagini as becoming Voldemort’s “slave” is an oversimplification, and again, we don’t know what’s going on inside her head. Also, we don’t know about the decisions which resulted in Kim getting the part. Could it be that she was considered the most talented person for it?
The more I write of this article, the more it feels like people are making a mountain out of a molehill. In this age of heightened sensitivity, people are ready to complain about anything. If Nagini were being played by a white actress, someone might point out the Asian origins of the name and still accuse the filmmakers of being racist.
To sum up, the film hasn’t come out yet, and I feel we should calm down and wait to find out more about Nagini’s exact role in it before we draw any conclusions. Personally, I’m looking forward to seeing Claudia Kim’s performance and discovering more about the Harry Potter series’ most prominent ophidian.