The Crimes of Grindelwald, and its ending, will be discussed. I’m assuming anyone reading this will have seen the film, so spoilers ahead.
So throughout all the books and films in J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World, the idea of Voldemort being this huge villain, almost universally hated, except by his followers and the most famous, dangerous and powerful wizard of their time, and perhaps all time. In fact, pretty much the only other wizard he is ever compared to, who is ever given any kind of development, is Gellert Grindelwald. In the original books and even moreso in the Harry Potter films, we only ever really learn about Grindelwald second hand, from characters who knew him in his prime, or from those who have learned about him and all of the things he did to make him such a renowned dark wizard. However, it was only with the newest addition to the film saga that Rowling’s audience were finally able to learn in depth about Grindelwald, who he was, some of what he did, and just why he was able to grow a following in spite of being such a well known criminal, which, in my opinion could actually make him a more effective villain than Voldemort himself.
To those of us who grew up practically raised by Rowling’s books and the film adaptations, Voldemort is practically synonymous with a following and a culture based on fear, racism, violence and a dangerous and practically universally ‘evil’ group of followers. Whilst this is by now a rather traditional approach, it is also quite effective. The reader (or, in the film’s case, the audience) knows that they are supposed to stand against Voldemort, and it can even prove difficult to see how characters might join up in his cause without themselves being evil, dangerous, and having their own hateful outlook on the world, magical and otherwise.
Take the Malfoy family, for example. At the beginning of the series, it seems incredibly clear cut they are an evil family, perhaps beyond hope for redemption and loyal to their Dark Lord to the end. Ultimately, though, this is far from true. Whilst the family, Lucius especially, might have initially believed in all that Voldemort stood for, and perhaps still do believe in some of these things after the conclusion of the series, as the years go on and things only become more dangerous for everyone involved, and as Voldemort loses favour for their family, they all ultimately choose to abandon that life. This, in my opinion, would never have happened without Draco. From the very start, it seems like Draco is destined to grow up to become a villain, in the very least someone who will never stop belittling people who he sees as below him, and the perfect poster child for a Death Eater to be. But throughout ‘Half-Blood Prince’, it becomes increasingly apparent that this is not the life that Draco wants for himself, or one that he would have fully committed himself to without the pressure and danger he faces with Voldemort so close to home. Trying to legitimately fight for this evil cause, and to commit crimes and seriously hurt and kill people actually takes an incredible toll on both his physical and mental state. He becomes dishevelled, frantic, pale and frankly just desperate to escape from this kind of life, but with little hope. Whilst it was always apparent that he only truly ever wanted to please his father and live up to his family’s expectations, this fuels him on a journey that he was never prepared to take. One that he can never finish. Even his father eventually comes around to the realisation that this isn’t the life for his family and especially his son. Though it wasn’t in Draco’s nature to be generally kind to others, it was just as alien to him to be evil. It isn’t hard to imagine that, perhaps, other followers that Voldemort had may have started off in similar ways, forced into the life because of their environment with few to no other options, who perhaps eventually lost themselves and who they might have otherwise been after being a part of something so dark for so long.
So whilst Voldemort clearly appealed to the ideology of wizard purity and a very specific subset of people who he so desperately aspired to be a part of, what about Grindelwald allowed him to develop his own cult following and grow to be similarly powerful and dangerous?
In the new film, it’s almost immediately apparent that Grindelwald really is THE Wizard to whom Voldemort is compared. Grindelwald never hesitates to kill, to act in dark ways, to do anything to fight for his cause, to manipulate events to suit himself and his cause. Though perhaps the film goes a little overboard in showing us Grindelwald directly and indirectly killing, it never really goes in detail as to all of the things he must have already done to be considered so dangerous and well known. All the audience really knows is that… he is. And practically worldwide. Still, his group only grows as the film progresses. Even characters that have proven themselves to be both good and kind, like Queenie Goldstein, are more than willing to join his cause. But that’s the thing, Grindelwald’s fight is not the same as Voldemort’s. On paper, yes, they both believe that they are superior to muggles. But Voldemort’s elitism is not a quality found in Grindelwald, at least, not in the same way.
Grindelwald appeals to a much larger section of the wizarding community. For people like Queenie, who just want to have the right to live as they want, not have to hide, to be able to marry who they love, it makes sense to see them supporting or even completely joining the cause. Because of the things he talks about and the way that he does this, there is a massive diversity of ways that every part of it can be interpreted, and just as many ways that people could take up his cause without acting hatefully or committing crimes. In fact, in many ways, Grindelwald is right. It’s a muggle world they live in, and it isn’t always a safe place for one to live as a magical person, and yes, it’s a historical fact. The world will once more turn to ruin and war. And the stigma and secrecy of magic can clearly be so damaging. It’s also no wonder that Credence joined with Grindelwald. After his abusive upbringing with his adoptive mother, the long term suppression of his magic, and the way that Grindelwald himself groomed and manipulated him to ensure that the circumstances would be just right for him to willingly work at Grindelwald’s side. Though the full extent of Grindelwald’s motives and the truth behind his claims of Credence’s lineage have yet to be revealed, Credence, who has only ever wanted to belong and to know the truth about who he is, finally seems to have found at least a part of that. In fact I would go so far as to say that before long, if not already, Credence will likely see Grindelwald as a mentor if not even a familial figure.
Naturally though, Grindelwald would not have gotten as far as he has in his plots without a large degree of manipulation. What is, perhaps, the most surprising about this is that he really shouldn’t be able to use these kinds of skills around Queenie without being immediately detected. After all, her ability to read minds does not go unforgotten in this new film. If anything, it only becomes more apparent, and she can’t help but use her skills. Of all the characters thus far in the Fantastic Beasts series, Queenie is probably the most sweet, kind and innocent, and yet still the least likely to be duped. So, perhaps she wasn’t. More than anything else, Queenie just wants to belong, to be able to be herself, to be accepted and loved and to never be lonely again. And due to the extent of her innate powers of legilimency, these feelings, if anything, are more intense for her. Not only because of her own desire to marry Jacob, but because of the knowledge that she won’t be the only witch or wizard to have no other options because their world is, in a way, broken. Nothing about Queenie, about who she is, what she believes in and what she’s fighting for is any different now than it was in the first Fantastic Beasts film. Though, yes, there was certainly manipulation involved, this doesn’t mean that Grindelwald lied to her. Through him, she sees a happier potential future because in spite of his extremism, the cause is at its core, a noble one.
Grindelwald’s following, his entire ideology is based on the utilitarian principle, on the idea that they are all acting in the best interests of their collective future, that they are fundamentally in the right because they want to make the world a better place for themselves to live and for everyone. Voldemort seeks supremacy and purity based on functionally exterminating anyone who opposes him or anyone who doesn’t meet his standards of behaviour or breeding and the fear that comes as a part of that and of deconstructing the whole world order. But, at least on the surface, Grindelwald’s approach is instead about restructuring the order, and that, yes, whilst wizards ought to be in charge, breeding and blood purity is not even remotely a concern. If anything the perpetuation of his cause would deconstruct this system more completely than it already is in the series. Muggles would still have their place within society, although it remains to be seen what exactly this would mean in Grindelwald’s eyes. That’s the beauty of his appeal. Many of his followers are idealistic wizards and witches who want a world without the secrecy. With complete freedom for how they should live their lives, who want to protect the world and not destroy it. Though many of the remainder would take the world and the steps to create it with violence and no regards for anyone hurt in the process, unlike with Voldemort’s cause and his more willing followers, there is simply an incredibly wide appeal in Grindelwald’s motto ‘For the Greater Good’, for the utilitarian principle and for simply, in their eyes, fighting for a better world.
Now I’m not saying that Grindelwald is a better villain than Voldemort. Honestly, it’s too soon to say seeing as Rowling’s new saga is still functionally in its infancy. Anyone familiar with this wizarding universe will already know that both of these villains are ultimately doomed to lose. But the sheer variety in the interpretation of Grindelwald’s cause is interesting and believable enough that his rise to power and popularity is an easier plot to swallow than Voldemort’s return to power and even his initial rise. After all, if you could see the possibilities of a world where you belonged or didn’t have to hide or change who you were, where you could love who you loved openly and you didn’t have to be lonely, isn’t that a cause you would want to fight for too?