Though it is a charming bit of plot candy to throw out to eager Potterphiles, the mention of Professor McGonagall in the latest film “Fantastic Beats: The Crimes of Grindelwald” has caused a tidal wave of reaction all out of proportion to the size of the scene.
The question being asked – is it even possible for her to be in this scene? The wording of the screenplay, written by J.K. Rowling, is this:
“TRAVERS, THESEUS and four other AURORS enter, YOUNG MINERVA MCGONAGALL behind them”.
Shortly after that stage direction she is referred to again when Professor Dumbledore says to his students “Go with Professor McGonagall, please” (CG).
To put this brief scene in perspective, let’s look at what else JKR has written about McGonagall in Pottermore. “Minerva McGonagall was the first child, and only daughter, of a Scottish Presbyterian minister and a Hogwarts-educated witch. She grew up in the Highlands of Scotland in the early twentieth century…” (Pm). So far, so good. However, in Chapter 15 of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, McGonagall told Professor Umbridge that she had been teaching at Hogwarts, “Thirty-nine years this December” (OP15). It has been established that Order of the Phoenix took place in 1995 and in Pottermore JKR stated that McGonagall began working at Hogwarts after working for the Ministry for two years, immediately after graduation. Using that date places her graduation in 1954, her first year in school at age 11 in 1947 (she would turn twelve in October), and therefore her birth would have been in 1935. “Crimes of Grindelwald” is known to take place in 1927. It has often been said that JKR uses the excuse that she is not good at math to explain variances in dates but that is an eight-year difference and McGonagall had not even been born. This is simple arithmetic not complicated math. Knowing of Jo’s penchant for detail I find it hard to believe she made such an error.
So, what is the reason for her inexplicable appearance? Had the name Minerva not been used it would be easy to explain away the apparent inconsistency as a different McGonagall, however, the script does say “Young Minerva McGonagall”. Is this then an attempt to keep this McGonagall separate from the ‘old’ Minerva McGonagall found in the Harry Potter books as she is a different person? Perhaps. How common a name is McGonagall? Is it likely to have two professors with the same name teaching at the same school, albeit years apart? It would be more likely if they were related.
Minerva’s father was the Reverend Robert McGonagall and her mother Isobel Ross. Though the happy couple named their first child after Isobel’s talented witch grandmother, Minerva, she could not be the professor at Hogwarts as her name would not have been McGonagall, unless by some happy coincidence she had also married a McGonagall. If that had been the case, then Young Minerva’s grandmother could have been the Minerva mentioned in “Crimes of Grindelwald.” Unlikely, but possible.
A stronger possibility would be that a relative on her father’s side of the family was a witch or wizard, thus passing down the McGonagall name. Though her father was a muggle, a latent wizarding gene could probably still run in the family only to surface when combined with that of Isobel, whose parents, according to JKR in Pottermore, were “a witch and a wizard”, strong genes indeed. In fact, JKR goes on to relate, when two more children, Malcolm and Richard, Jr., were born to the pair, they too quickly showed wizard traits.
So, who else from the McGonagall clan would fit the “Crimes of Grindelwald” timeline? We have no way of knowing how old her father was or his birth order in his family. As Minerva was born in 1935, and was his first child, we can assume, by the custom of the times and the fact that he was an ordained Presbyterian minister that he married while in his late teens to early twenties. This would be allowing time to grow up, attend some sort of Theological school, meet Isobel, woo her and marry. They courted throughout the last part of her Hogwarts schooling, about which he knew nothing, and by the time she was 18 they eloped. If little time was wasted in bringing forth children and if she gave birth to Minerva in 1935, we can assume Isobel was born, (1935 – 18 years =) c. 1917. She would have been 10 at the time Crimes of Grindelwald took place. Robert would probably have been about the same age, give or take a year of two. So, if Robert was one of the younger children in his family, and big families were the norm in those times, it is possible that he had older siblings. Perhaps an unmarried sister, ten to twelve years older, named Minerva McGonagall, who could have been a witch and a professor at Hogwarts in 1927. While it is not likely that a McGonagall would name his daughter Minerva, the witch could have adopted the name for herself out of reverence to the Roman goddess of wisdom. However, if one of Robert’s older brothers married a witch named Minerva, she could be the person mentioned in the screenplay. A second Minerva in the family could also influence Isobel’s decision to name her daughter.
Unfortunately, there is no evidence to back up any of this speculation which leads us to a more probable explanation. I would not even suggest this possibility had not it already appeared in canon in Prisoner of Azkaban and later in Cursed Child. Time travel, or more specifically the use of a Time-Turner would explain why a young Professor Minerva McGonagall appeared in 1927 Hogwarts.
In Pottermore we learn that Minerva, after graduating from Hogwarts, “had been offered a position at the Ministry of Magic (Department of Magical Law Enforcement).” Here she would remain for two years before applying for and being accepted for a teaching position at Hogwarts under Professor Dumbledore. The Magical Law Enforcement Department would be the ideal place for her to become familiar was the Time-Turner. As we later learn in Prisoner of Azkaban she did just that. As she later permitted a young student (Hermione Granger) to use the Time Turner for the purpose of taking additional classes she apparently saw no real danger in using the device. This fact indicates that she probably would not have been averse to using it herself, particularly when she was younger and less wise and knowledgeable in the ways of magic and the consequences of time travel.
Assuming her appearance in 1927 Hogwarts was due to the use of a Time Turner, it begs the question – why? What was the appeal of that moment in time. Did she simply want to get to know her future teacher and mentor, Albus Dumbledore, better? Did she want to meet Theseus Scamander in person? Did she have some scheme to change history by influencing one of her students? That is a question that may never be answered unless the brief appearance of Minerva McGonagall at Hogwarts, at the moment when Dumbledore is confronted by six Aurors and asked to take on Grindelwald, will take on a larger meaning in future books. Minor characters rising to influential prominence is certainly not unknown in JKR’s writing. Witness Neville Longbottom or Ginny Weasley who had small, seemingly insignificant parts when first introduced but in the end played a huge role in the saga.
Another interesting fact that could skewer our theories is that Fiona Glascott, the Irish actress who portrayed McGonagall in Crimes of Grindelwald, was 35 years old when the sequence was filmed. Why would a 35-year-old actress be chosen to portray a 19-20-year-old woman? If the casting was intentionally accurate for her age, then Professor McGonagall would have used the Time-Turner c1970 when she was 35. Following this reasoning, what was happening in the wizarding world in the early 1970s?
It was a tumultuous time. Voldemort was just beginning his first rise to power encouraging violence, torture and murder of muggles and muggle-born by his Death-Eater followers. Barty Crouch, Sr. the head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement (DMLE), fought the Death Eaters with an iron fist, often sending innocent people to Azkaban without a trial. It is not known when Barty became head of DMLE but he may have been in that position or at least a member of the Ministry when McGonagall was also working there. Perhaps, as she was a member of the original Order of the Phoenix, she was sent back in time by Barty, who would apparently use any means at his disposal to fight the Dark Lord. Could this include killing a baby Tom Riddle who had been born on 31 December 1926 and would only be a few months old at this time?
It seems this theory also hits a snag. In a recent Pottermore article JKR quoted Professor Saul Croaker, Department of Mysteries, as saying “the longest period that may be relived without the possibility of serious harm to the traveller or to time itself is around five hours.” It was discovered that time travellers who went over great distances never survived the journey. All experiments were abandoned in 1899 when Eloise Mintumble was trapped in 1402 for five days and upon being retrieved was found to have aged five centuries. She died in St. Mungo’s shortly after, several of her descendants were ‘unborn’, and there were serious time fluctuations on the Tuesday and Thursday following.
So, while it is still possible that McGonagall was at Hogwarts in 1927 for a few hours it is unlikely, unless she made the visit frequently, that Dumbledore would know who she was much less entrust the care of students to her. According to Professor Croaker such travel over long distances would have been harmful and not likely to have been attempted on a regular basis.
Which brings us back to Order of the Phoenix, Chapter 15, when McGonagall says she had been teaching at Hogwarts for thirty-nine years. Could she have meant thirty-nine years teaching Transfiguration rather than total teaching years. After all, it was her Transfiguration lessons that Umbridge was checking up on. If this was the case then she could very well have been at Hogwarts, probably as a new comer, in 1927. Therefore, she would have been born in c1907 which would allow for 17 years from birth to end of school and two years with DMLE before moving to Hogwarts. She would then have had one or more teaching positions until 1956 when she took over Transfiguration. Previously, Dumbledore had been Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher but was reassigned to Transfiguration in 1927 after angering Torquil Travers, the Head of Magical Law Enforcement. This suggests McGonagall had a different teaching position because two Transfiguration professors would not be necessary. There could be any number of reasons why she was in Dumbledore’s classroom on the day the Aurors arrived. Most likely, as she was following behind them, she was escorting the Aurors to Dumbledore’s class.
This is all speculation based on what we know of the characters involved. What JKR has in mind in presently unknown to us mere muggles. Hopefully, the questions will be answered as the Fantastic Beasts series unfolds.