There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that Lord Voldemort, the chief antagonist to Harry Potter in the books and films, ranks among one of the best villains of all time. He keeps good company, generally sharing lists that have the likes of Darth Vader and the Joker on them. But while he is a great antagonist, he’s not per se the best character among the Potterverse’ villains. There is another and while he’s not as menacing as Lord Voldemort (yet), I do think Gellert Grindelwald may, in fact, be a better character than Tom Riddle ever was.
Spoilers for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince & Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows novels and potential spoilers for Fantastic Beasts.
If you’ve only ever watched the Harry Potter films, you’ve likely been wondering who the heck Grindelwald is since Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them came out. His presence was felt throughout the movie and it was revealed that the dark wizard had infiltrated MACUSA, steering events into certain directions from the highest level of American government. From there, he’ll be the focal point of the sequel, The Crimes of Grindelwald, which is due to hit theatres this November and recently unveiled a dark trailer at San Diego Comic Con. But if all you have to go by are the movies and didn’t look into anything, having this mystery character billed in the title of the sequel may seem random or mysterious.
As a technicality, Grindelwald did appear in The Deathly Hallows Part 1 as an old man, but information was the character was severely lacking in that film, much like how Tom Riddle’s backstory was largely erased in The Half-Blood Prince film. Grindelwald made his first debut with a name drop in The Philosopher’s Stone novel, where information about his 1945 duel with Dumbledore was featured on Harry’s Chocolate Frog. But the lion’s share of his origin comes from the seventh and final book, where Dumbledore’s backstory is explored.
For context, Tom Riddle’s origin was explored in depth in book six. The quick version was that his mother gave his father a love potion and the couple had a child. Due to the fact that he was conceived out of false love, Tom Riddle was kind of off to begin with. With the effects of the love potion gone, his father Thomas Riddle abandoned his family and Merope Riddle (nee Gaunt) died in childbirth. Tom was quickly put into an orphanage in London but started developing magically potency at an early age, which led the parselmouth to be cautiously accepted into Hogwarts in 1938.
From there, Tom began his obsession with the dark arts. He opened the Chamber of Secrets and started a small gang of confidants, who would end up being the first Death Eaters. See, from the get-go Riddle was a child of darkness and his mission in life, as both Riddle and Voldemort’s mission was learning more about the dark arts in order to prolong his life, a practice he started once he was 16. He even wanted to take a teaching position at Hogwarts to influence young minds to his cause and to learn more about the secrets of the Castle and where to find items that belonged to the founders. Naturally, h was denied (he was too young) and he travelled a bit. Upon return, he rejected jobs at the ministry and ended up working as a purchasing agent at Borgin and Burkes, that shady establishment in Knockturn Alley which he used to obtain some items that used to belong to the founders of Hogwarts, items he would later use to put his Horcruxes. He eventually found his Muggle father and killed him along with his grandparents. We only saw the tail end of this scene in The Goblet of Fire film, where he murders the groundskeeper in the opening. Menacing? Yes, especially in the books where all the extra information fleshes the villain out. But while he’s a top-notch villain, he’s a bit on the “I’m really evil, I’m going to take over the world and live forever!” side. This is why I’m very excited for these upcoming Fantastic Beasts films and Grindelwald’s story is much more interesting to me.
Before Voldemort, Grindelwald was considered to be the most dangerous and powerful dark wizard the world had ever seen. He was a student at Drumstang, the same school Viktor Krum attended during the events of The Goblet of Fire. He was known for being absolutely brilliant but at the same time, brutal and twisted. He was eventually expelled from the Dark Arts heavy school for experimenting on the students, but not before carving his adopted mark into the school walls. That mark is, of course, the mark of the Deathly Hallows. It was his dream to have all three of the mythical items. Viktor Krum sees this mark at Bill and Fleur’s wedding and becomes enraged, as he went to the same school and knew of the horrors Grindelwald did as both a student and as a radicalized adult.
After his expulsion, he went to Godric’s Hollow to live with his great-aunt, Bathilda Bagshot, in search of the Invisibility Cloak. It was there he met and befriended Albus Dumbledore. Despite his twisted nature for experimenting magic on students, Grindelwald actually got along well with Albus, who like him was talented and ambitious. The two became fascinated with Hallows lore. and began researching possible locations for where they could be hiding. The main object of desire was, naturally, the Elder Wand. The other two Hallows became second on the priority list. Gellert and Albus would use the Elder Wand to strike down the Statue of Secrecy, which forced the Wizarding Community to hide from the Muggle World. The pair wanted to use the powers of Death and rule over the world as powerful yet respectful Gods essentially. Said Dumbledore to Harry:
Grindelwald. You cannot imagine how his ideas caught me, Harry, inflamed me. Muggles forced into subservience. We wizards triumphant. Grindelwald and I, the glorious young leaders of the revolution.
Part of the interest in Grindelwald is how he was able to warp Albus’ mind. They were friends and cared deeply about each other, possibly even on a romantic level. But all that wasn’t too last as Grindelwald wanted to leave Godric’s Hollow. Dumbledore naturally agreed, but his brother Aberforth was furious upon learning of his brother’s mission and more so, that leaving would mean abandoning their sick sister Arianna. Grindelwald then used the torture curse on Aberforth and what resulted was a three-way duel, a dead sister and a dark wizard on the run. From there, Grindelwald would continue the mission he had planned with Albus and actually obtained the Elder Wand, created an army and began to subjugate and terrorize Europe for decades. Eerily, his motivations and methods are familiar to current day conflicts of racism, xenophobia and persecution.
It’s his target attacks, his belief that he’s doing the right thing and his early established relationship with Dumbledore that make him more interesting than an inherently evil child who wanted to live forever in darkness. Grindelwald doesn’t want to rule the world in darkness-despite his fascination with the dark arts. He just wants magical folk to live without fear of persecution from the Muggles, who he sees as inferior to Wizards anyway due to their lack of magical abilities. Of course, we all know how Muggles react to magic now: witch burnings. So maybe hiding isn’t such a bad idea. But Grindelwald is idealistic, he sees a bright future in the darkness. Above his prison, the Nurmengard, the words “For the greater good” are carved. The mantra comes from Dumbledore himself and Grindelwald continues to use it, highlighting that everything he does, he believes to be for the betterment of the Wizarding World. I for one can’t wait to see how the films tackle this mentality in the films to come.
Are you excited for Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Grindelwald? Are you a fan of the character from the books or was his introduction in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them? Let us know and while you’re at it, check out our first entry in the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die series and our thoughts on the future of the Star Wars canon.