Stephen Fry has been a part of the Wizarding World for many years. For those who listened to the Harry Potter audiobooks in the UK, you would recognise his voice anywhere. Now he’s back in the magical world with an upcoming BBC One special, entitled Fantastic Beasts: A Natural History, which is coming Sunday 27th Feb for UK on BBC One and iPlayer – and 1st April for HBO Max. Here he explores everything from magical creatures to the curious animals we find in the Muggle world. With this new documentary, it was a great opportunity to ask Stephen a few questions…
I have it on the highest authority there is, in either the Muggle or Wizarding World, that I am and always be a Hufflepuff. And I’m proud to be a Hufflepuff, I may say.
I was in a state of constant amazement as I read (both to myself and then read out loud) these evolving stories as more and more creatures appeared. Aragog the spider terrified me, even on the page. But I did like Buckbeak enormously and like a lot of people, I have a fantasy of just getting on the back of some enormous flying beast and sort of clutching their fur, their down or whatever it might be and flying away. I think that’s the thing that most thrilled me, no question. Fluffy, not so much!
I was surprised by the obvious fact that our ancestors, thousands of years ago, would’ve happened on dinosaur fossils. I somehow had it in my head that dinosaur fossils were only discovered in the 1900s. But of course, our ancestors all round the world would’ve seen these things and wondered what they were. They had no way of knowing, if they saw a skull of some huge frightening beast, that that beast was extinct for millions of years! As far as they knew, it was around the next mountain or buried in a cave. And that suddenly made sense as to why there are dragon myths all over the world. At the exhibition there’s a marvellous dinosaur skeleton cast there of ‘Dracorex Hogwartsia’ which means ‘the dragon king of Hogwarts’ because it looks so like a dragon. It has little spurs on its jaw, and even though it’s a skeleton, there’s still a fierce look in its eye. So that was a great surprise and very interesting.
I must say the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry in Utah is a pretty astonishing place. It’s the densest concentration of Jurassic fossils anywhere in the world. What’s so extraordinary, is that they’re all meat-eating dinosaurs. And usually, meat-eating animals, dinosaurs included, don’t gather together in communities. It’s animals that are afraid of being eaten that are in flocks and herds to protect themselves with numbers. People speculate what brought them there? But the woman who ran the place was brilliant and she told me a thing that still freaks me out...
The dinosaurs of the first Triassic period, say the gap between those early dinosaurs and T-Rex, is a longer gap than the gap between the T-Rex and the iPhone – think about that! It’s crazy. That just makes you shiver inside. One can think all kind of things around animals, but time? Time I can never get my head around.
The loss of any species is a kind of crime against nature and time. Extinction is built into the world as we have it. There’s no question about that. We were talking about dinosaurs – they went extinct, and it wasn’t our fault. So why should we worry about whales, pandas, white rhinos and Yangtze River dolphins going extinct on our watch? And clearly because of pollution in the water or in other cases because of hunting – we know it’s our fault now. And somehow a new twist has happened in the history of evolution.
That we, these naked hairless apes that are, unlike any other type of ape and any other type of animal, have a consciousness that is aware and gives names to all of nature. We have this gift to be curious and it’s a vital gift. It means we know what’s happening. So, we can change our behaviour and be a guardian of creation. It’s an arrogant thing to be, perhaps. But it’s the duty we owe to the way we’ve evolved. I think it’s so important that we use that knowledge to do what we can. So that’s my hope!
Well, this is such an interesting question, isn’t it? How does one invent a fantastic beast? It is impossible to do so without recalls to Mother Nature. I don’t think we humans, or we Muggles, need blame ourselves for our lack of imagination conjuring animals because Nature’s had 100s of millions of years to practise. Whereas we’ve only had a pin prick of time. Try and picture an animal that is in no way at all inspired by nature. It is impossible. Our brains are part of nature so we can’t think outside nature. Otherwise, you just come up with a robot which is a different thing. But the limits of the imagination give you more freedom. If you give yourself a small area to work, you can create a heck of a garden, but if you have a whole desert to work in, it’s a mess. It’s the same with the imagination. Give yourself rules and you’ll find that anything is possible.
The great Stan Lee was one of the most influential figures in the world of comics and he said luck. I thought it was a brilliant answer. It’s not really a magical gift, luck. But can you imagine being lucky? I think it would be fantastic. I think I like the stopping of time. Hermione was in charge of the Time-Turner and could stop time. I think that would be so exciting and interesting to go around the world with everybody frozen – I could just wreak havoc! That’s the naughty side of me. The side that would pull people’s trousers down and run away and then start time again and giggle… I mean that’s pathetic, isn’t it? Come on Stephen, come up with a more grownup answer. On the subject of time, going back in time to correct errors one has made, that’s a very strong impulse. Sometimes I wish I could have that moment back again and correct what I did. So that’s probably the one I would go for.
My Boggart would be an enormous moth. I know moths are beautiful, but for some reason I’ve always been terrified of them. I think because when I was young, all I did was read through the night because I found it difficult to get to sleep. I was in the countryside, and it would be very hot at the top of the house where my bed was, so I would open the window to make it cooler. But if you open the window and you’ve got the light on to read, moths come in. They’d get in my hair, and I just freaked out… they were big and leathery somehow. So, a huge moth I’m afraid would just completely make me turn to jelly.
I think we all need a friend and lot of us yearn for a friend who can be a guide. Dumbledore is quite remote, but that’s the point, he has authority. We all want a mentor. Even when you’re as old as I am you think it would be nice to have a mentor. Someone you could say ‘what should I do now?’ and ‘give me advice’. Someone you could trust because we live in a world where there aren’t many people we can look up to and trust… David Attenborough’s about the only one. It’s a sad state for the world to be in. So, we need a Dumbledore, we need figures like that.
We live in our time where technology has impinged on our lives more than ever. Certainly, 100 years ago, cars were starting to take off and that sort of thing. But computing and mobile technology and all the other technologies are building in a great swell around us like a tsunami. Now technology is so much a part of us. I think that means we miss things that are purely from nature. In a digital world, you yearn for the analogue. And when I was young, we didn’t think of myths, dragons and fantasy nearly as much as we did when computing became big. That’s when things like Lord of the Rings and, of course, Harry Potter really made their mark on the world. At exactly the time that Silicon Valley was exploding. I don’t think that’s a coincidence, I think that’s a reaction. Of course, we love our shiny gadgets, but we want to return to a world too where not everything is explained by mathematics and programming and coding – but another kind of magic. That’s my theory.