Ask any Potterhead – or even someone who isn’t a Potterhead – who the most dangerous dark wizard of all time is and they’re likely to say “Voldemort.” He is the Big Bad of the series, a snake-faced killing machine with no scruples and no remorse, but an entire army of evil wizards behind him. The now-adult Harry Potter probably still has nightmares about He Who Shall Not Be Named to this day.

But before there was Voldemort, before there were Dark Wizards and the showdown with Harry Potter, there was Gellert Grindelwald. Die-hard Potter fans know exactly who he is, but for more casual audiences, memories of him may be murky: He was in the movies for a hot minute and played by that kid from the Mortal Instruments movie, right? Something to do with Albus Dumbledore and the Deathly Hallows or something…? With a mythology as deep and vast as the one J.K. Rowling created, it’s understandable if a few characters fall through the cracks of one’s memory.

Grindelwald is the focus of the upcoming Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald and long-time nemesis to Albus Dumbledore, and with good reason. He may not be the most famous Dark Wizard of all time, but until Voldemort, he was the most feared and most depraved. The ruthless fanaticism in Voldemort found its seeds in Gellert Grindelwald, and without him, the history of the wizarding world would likely have turned out very differently. Before you step into the theater to watch Fantastic Beasts, read on to brush up on Gellert Grindelwald’s history and just how he fits into the story.

Time At Durmstrang Institute And Expulsion

A young Gellert Grindelwald, played by Jamie Campbell Bower

A young Gellert Grindelwald

Much of Gellert Grindelwald’s dark past remains shrouded in mystery, but what is known about him is that he was born in or around 1883 and was educated at Durmstrang Institute in the far northern reaches of Europe. As a young wizard, he showed enormous promise, a prodigious talent that rivaled that of future friend Albus Dumbledore. Contrary to the awkward loner template we so stereotypically see of future supervillains, the young Grindelwald had a winning and attractive personality, described as having a “merry, wild” disposition that made him popular among students. That winning personality, however, couldn’t overcome his darker tendencies forever. He was deeply fascinated with lore and history, particularly magical artifacts, and he soon grew obsessed with the Deathly Hallows, three magical objects of infinite power rumored to have been created by Death and bequeathed to the Peverell family: the Elder Wand, the Resurrection Stone, and the Cloak of Invisibility.

Grindelwald’s obsession took a dark turn, and it was revealed that he had been conducting dangerous and twisted experiments, even on fellow students. Eventually, the school could no longer turn a blind eye to the deeply disturbing nature of his explorations and moved to expel him at the age of 16. It’s important to underscore that these weren’t just the capricious whims of an arrogant youth; Durmstrang was widely known to be the most morally gray of the wizarding schools, notably lenient when it came to practicing and teaching the Dark Arts. For Grindelwald’s experiments to be beyond the pale of even Durmstrang meant that whatever he was doing, it was horrific.

Friendship With Dumbledore And End Of Friendship

Grindelwald’s charm even worked to lure a young Albus Dumbledore the summer after Grindelwald’s expulsion. The former Durmstrang student traveled to Godric’s Hollow in England in a search for the Cloak of Invisibility. It was there that he met Albus Dumbledore and the two teenagers struck up a fast friendship, both being immensely talented prodigies and full of energy and shared ideals. Much like Professor X and Magneto, they had a deep bond of brotherhood and shaped one another in those formative years before growing apart. Dumbledore later recounted in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows that even he, the wizard of renown and respect in his later years, had fallen under Grindelwald’s spell and might have gone down an equally dark path had events not unfolded as they had:

“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. Oh, I had a few scruples. I assuaged my conscience with empty words. It would all be for the greater good, and any harm done would be repaid a hundredfold in benefits for wizards. Did I know, in my heart of hearts, what Gellert Grindelwald was? I think I did, but I closed my eyes.”

The fundamental difference between Dumbledore and Grindelwald was their motivation for finding the Deathly Hallows and using them to gain power. As a young boy, Dumbledore had been unable to stop a gang of Muggle boys from tormenting his sister, Ariana. The result was that she suffered a breakdown and became dangerously unstable, both emotionally and magically. Dumbledore’s father was sent to Azkaban for tracking down the Muggles and taking his revenge, and Albus’ mother was killed when Ariana’s powers went awry. For Dumbledore, he wanted the artifacts in order to protect his loved ones and wizards from the cruelties of Muggles.

One of the only photos of a young Albus Dumbledore and Gellert Grindelwald together

One of the only photos of a young Albus Dumbledore and Gellert Grindelwald together

For Grindelwald, however, his motivations were anchored in malevolence. Not content to merely protect the wizarding world from Muggles, he wanted to subjugate Muggles, rule over them, and use their bodies to create an army of inferi – undead zombies enslaved to his will – in order to help keep the Muggle population under his thumb. Even then, Dumbledore convinced himself that it was all ultimately for the greater good.

Those fissures snaked through the friendship of Gellert and Albus, and it was a tragedy that caused the final break. When Albus’ older brother, Aberforth, caught wind of Albus and Gellert’s plan to leave Godric’s Hollow, he confronted the pair. The confrontation turned deadly, with Gellert boiling over with rage and using the forbidden Cruciatus Curse on Aberforth. Albus jumped to defend his brother, and it exploded into a three-way wizarding duel. Ariana, their gentle, broken sister, was caught in the crossfire and killed. Gellert Grindelwald was rightfully blamed for Ariana’s death and fled the country, friendship with Dumbledore destroyed and now an internationally wanted criminal in the wizarding world.

Hunt For Deathly Hallows And Impersonating Percival Graves

The next few decades in Grindelwald’s history are murky as he evaded capture and traveled the world in search of the Deathly Hallows. During that time, one definitive bit of Grindelwald’s history that is known is that he tracked down the Elder Wand as being in the possession of wandmaker Mykew Gregorovitch. He stunned Gregorivitch and took the wand from him, becoming its new owner. He then started to amass an army of followers, sowing fear all over Europe with a number of attacks ending in the slaughter of wizards and Muggles alike. Eventually, the chaos spilled over to the Muggle world, and with his actions attracting unwanted attention, an international wizardhunt began.

Gellert Grindelwald in disguise as Percival Graves

Gellert Grindelwald in disguise as Percival Graves

By this time, Grindelwald had successfully infiltrated MACUSA (Magical Congress of the United States of America), posing as Percival Graves, right-hand man to President Seraphina Piquery. While there, he came into contact with Credence Barebone, a young Obscurial of astonishing power. His intention was to turn the trusting Credence into a weapon to take down Albus Dumbledore, his former friend and the only wizard powerful enough to threaten him. If you watched Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, you know the story: Graves is eventually revealed to be Gellert Grindelwald by Newt Scamander and is taken into magical custody by MACUSA – for a while.

The Crimes of Grindelwald is set to tell the story of what happened after Grindelwald escaped custody. Moved to action, Dumbledore finally tracked his former best friend down and confronted him in a wizard’s duel that defied the ages. It later came to be regarded as the greatest wizarding duel in history, with none its equal since – not even the duel between Voldemort and Harry Potter.

As for how the duel ended? Potter fans already know the answer, but you’ll have to catch the movie in theaters this weekend to find out what happens.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald Is in theaters this Friday, November 16th. You can buy your tickets here.

(Header image courtesy of Warner Bros.)


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