What’s All The Fuss About Nagini?

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.

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About Richard Southworth

Hi, my name's Richard. I created this blog to talk about my interests - and I have quite a few of those. I love zoology in general, herpetology in particular (especially snakes!), writing (have won National Novel Writing Month nine times so far), reading, astronomy, palaeontology, and travel. Thank you for coming to my blog, and I hope you find something that interests you here!
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8 Responses to What’s All The Fuss About Nagini?

  1. That’s exactly how I felt, but I don’t know anything about the Harry Potter world.

    Like

  2. smilingldsgirl says:

    It does seem like a lot of fuss over a minor point but JK Rowling has handled a lot of things poorly lately so that doesnt help. Also I hate how she keeps adding to canon. It’s like George Lucas and the special editions. Just stop

    Like

  3. Elle says:

    Very interesting post, I always thought Nagini was some sort of anaconda, probably because it was so big and I’m not very knowledge about snakes. Thankyou for clearing up the milking thing, I really had no idea what that was about!

    Now for the long lengthy bit, sorry.

    I haven’t seen the trailer for the new movie and this is the first I’ve heard about Nagini once being human, the circumstances surrounding her and the ‘fuss’ people are making. I can understand why people are making a fuss. Yes the character has more depth and the situation is more complex then an Asian/Korean woman in servitude/slavery to a powerful white male but the concept sets up and feeds a preconceived notion. That women of Asian origin are second place to men. That Asian/Indian culture is lesser then Western culture. This maybe an extreme view to take but it shouldn’t be dismissed as over sensitivity. Writers should write what they want, there will always be someone who calls them out over something, but their views should never be dismissed as over sensitive. The people who have called them out may have a very valid and personally reason. I can’t comment on why JK was called out over Nagini because I’m not Asian or Korean but I’ll give you an example of something personal to me.

    I was browsing through UTube and came across a short animation ‘son of princess luna’, set in equestria it tells the story of a gypsy mare who asks a blessing from the moon for her wedding. The moon gives the blessing in exchange for the mares first born. When the foal is born it is pure white, not dark like its parents, the gypsy mares husband accuses the mare of infidelity and kills her. He leaves the foal and moon takes the foal for her own. Now I know its just a story but it sets up and reinforces the preconceived notion that all gypsies are dark skinned and have dark skinned children, gypsy men are violent. This isn’t true and because these preconceived notions are prevalent and unchallenged it has caused alot of unnecessary injustice. Recently a group of gypsies were accused of stealing fair skinned children, the child looked like Madeline McCann, this happened because of this preconceived notion reinforced by media, tv, fiction. After paternity tests it was proved the child was a gypsy and did belong to her parents even though she was fair skinned. I know several Romany/gypsy family who are predominately fair haired and blue eyed. My aunt and uncle are both fair haired and blue eyed even though the rest of the family are all dark and there was not the smallest suspicion from my grandads that they were not his children.

    So yes, if someone feels strongly enough to make a fuss about Nagini then they should but they should never be dismissed as over sensitive, they could have a very good reason. And writers should continue to write what they want because if it highlights pre concieved notions and starts discussions about predjudisms then that can only be a good thing.

    Again sorry for the long post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Don’t apologise – I’m happy that you took the time to provide such a long response.

      I definitely agree with you that complaints such as this should not be automatically dismissed as over-sensitivity; when I was writing this post, I looked over many different opinions on social media to try and weigh things up. Some of the critics raised good points, like how Rowling appeared to over-generalise Asian ethnic groups in her tweet explaining the Naga mythology. Every case is different, and sometimes accusations of prejudice are fully justified, as in the real life example with the gypsy children that you mention. If anyone from an Asian background is offended by the Nagini issue, they have a right to feel that way.

      But I do believe that in this day and age, there are some people who are ready to assume the worst about anything and cry foul, often without a full understanding. Looking at Twitter, most of the people complaining about Nagini are not Asian themselves, and many of those from an Asian background who are expressing their opinion on the matter are not offended. This is one of those examples where there are multiple interpretations of what we have to go on so far, and it’s hard to find a right answer.

      The main point I was trying to make is that we still have very little information about how the character will be used in the film. Maybe it will be stereotypical, or maybe there will be a subversion of some kind. We just don’t know yet.

      I’m always cautious when addressing topics like this as the last thing I want is to offend anybody, so I’m sorry if I do so inadvertently.

      Like

      • Elle says:

        I didn’t think there was anything offensive about your blog post, it was very informative about the controversy as well as what is known so far about the character Nagini. I’m sorry if my comment came across as accusatory (is that the right word) I just get very passionate about issues like this which may involve stereotyping racial identities. If the character turns out to be a stereotypical I don’t think JK Rowling will have consciously wrote her that way. She’s probably tried to diversify her characters, which is a big thing at the moment, and just got it horribly wrong.

        I think sometimes when writers try to diversify their characters they draw attention to the fact that they have diverse characters in their story and that’s when it goes horribly wrong.

        Either way it’s made me more interested in seeing the film to judge for myself.

        Liked by 1 person

      • It may not be a spur-of-the-moment decision to diversify, as Rowling claims that this was what she had in mind for Nagini all along. It’s hard to take her seriously sometimes (like when she suggested Hermione might have been black all along in response to the Cursed Child casting), but given the origins of the name, she could be given the benefit of the doubt in this case. Still, I agree about this being an unfortunate miscalculation due to diversity or the lack of it drawing more attention these days; it’s true that there are relatively few non-whites in the books, but then, it is set in Britain.

        Like

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