One of the most common complaints about Crimes of Grindelwald is the inclusion of Professor McGonagall, but everyone’s concerns about changing when she was born may be for nothing.
I have to admit, when I first walked out of the theater I complained about McGonagall’s presence in the film. I felt her introduction was pure fan service and was a pointless contradiction of canon, which everyone thought put her birth year at 1935. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
After diving into some lesser known writings from J.K. Rowling, I believe McGonagall being a professor at Hogwarts during the events of Crimes of Grindelwald — in the late 1920’s — is canon. The only debate is whether or not this new information is a retcon. I believe that the evidence will show that the events of Crimes of Grindelwald align with the previously known canon.
Why fans thought McGonagall was born in 1935
I, along with most of the community, have been under the assumption that McGonagall was born in 1935. This birth year was calculated by using two quotes. The first quote is from Order of the Phoenix.
“How long have you been teaching at Hogwarts?’ Professor Umbridge asked.
‘Thirty-nine years this December,’ said Professor McGonagall brusquely, snapping her bag shut.” – OotP, Chapter 15
This scene takes place in 1995 so fans have (pretty fairly) assumed that McGonagall started her teaching career in 1956.
In 2016, Pottermore published a short ebook with stories by J.K. Rowling titled Short Stories from Hogwarts of Heroism, Hardship and Dangerous Hobbies (Abbreviated as SSfH). An excerpt from this eBook provides us with the final piece of information needed to calculate McGonagall’s birth year.
“Finally, after two years at the Ministry, she was offered a prestigious promotion, yet found herself turning it down. She sent an owl to Hogwarts, asking whether she might be considered for a teaching post. The owl returned within hours, offering her a job in the Transfiguration department, under Head of Department, Albus Dumbledore”
From these quotes, it would be fair to say that McGonagall was born in 1935, enrolled at Hogwarts in 1947, graduated in 1954, worked at the Ministry for two years, and then returned to Hogwarts as a teacher in 1956.
By only looking at these two quotes, this is a viable timeline. However, we have more information to consider. I believe that there is significant evidence that points to McGonagall being born much earlier than 1935.
Why McGonagall is older than we thought
There are several reasons to believe that McGonagall was born much earlier than the 1930’s. For starters, witches and wizards are known to have a much longer life expectancy than muggles. This can be seen by the age of several characters such as Albus Dumbledore, Aberforth Dumbledore, Bathilda Bagshot, Ron’s Aunt Muriel, Elphias Doge…. This list goes on and on.
A 60 year old witch would not be considered “old” when you have characters like Aberforth running around at age 110. In the Harry Potter series, both Hermione and Madam Pomfrey seem to consider Professor McGonagall as old and frail — potentially making her well over 100.
“It’ll be his giant blood,’ said Hermione shakily. ‘It’s very hard to Stun a giant, they’re like trolls, really tough … but poor Professor McGonagall … four Stunners straight in the chest and she’s not exactly young, is she?”
– Hermione, OotP, Chapter 31
“She was transferred to St Mungo’s this morning. Four Stunning Spells straight to the chest at her age? It’s a wonder they didn’t kill her.”
– Madam Pomfrey, OotP, Chapter 32
If Professor McGonagall was truly born in 1935, she would have been 60 years old at the time of these events. 60 is practically middle aged for a witch.
In Short Stories from Hogwarts of Heroism, Hardship and Dangerous Hobbies, we learn that Professor McGonagall’s former boss at the Ministry proposed to her shortly after the first defeat of Voldemort in 1981. If Professor McGonagall was born in 1935, this would make her 46 years old at the time.
“Shortly after Voldemort’s first defeat, Elphinstone, now white-haired, proposed again during a summertime stroll around the lake in the Hogwarts grounds. This time Minerva accepted. Elphinstone, now retired, was beside himself with joy, and purchased a small cottage in Hogsmeade for the pair of them, whence Minerva could travel easily to work every day.”- SSfH
Elphinstone is described as both white-haired and retired in this excerpt. We do not know how much older Elphinstone is than McGonagall. It is possible, though I believe it is unlikely, that he is significantly older than her. Unless her old boss and husband to be was 20+ years older than her, it seems unlikely that McGonagall was born in 1935.
What’s more, McGonagall seems to have been close with Albus Dumbledore before he confronted Grindelwald in 1945.
“Albus Dumbledore offered both comfort and wisdom, and told Minerva some of his own family history, previously unknown to her. The confidences exchanged that night between two intensely private and reserved characters were to form the basis of a lasting mutual esteem and friendship. Minerva McGonagall was one of only a handful of people who knew, or suspected, how dreadful a moment it was for Albus Dumbledore when, in 1945, he made the decision to confront and defeat the Dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald.”- SSfH
This can be read in two different ways. Either Professor McGonagall was told the history between Dumbledore and Grindelwald before 1945 or he had confided the information to her after his legendary duel. I believe this excerpt heavily implies that McGonagall was friends with Dumbledore before 1945, but it is not conclusive proof.
If you need conclusive proof, consider this quote which strongly suggests McGonagall was friends with Dumbledore before 1945.
“Minerva McGonagall did not teach the young Tom Riddle, but she was privy to Dumbledore’s fears and suspicions about him.”- SSfH
There are two ways to explain why McGonagall “did not teach” Tom Riddle. Either she was too young (born in 1935) or she had taken a leave of absence from Hogwarts. To me, the quote reads like she was privy to Dumbledore’s fears while he was teaching Tom. This would mean that McGonagall must be older than the fans have originally thought.
We already know from HBP that Dumbledore chose not to give his fellow faculty members any information about Tom Riddle’s behavior at the orphanage. He decided to give Tom a chance to redeem himself.
“Didn’t you tell them, sir, what he’d been like when you met him at the orphanage?’ asked Harry.
‘No, I did not. Though he had shown no hint of remorse, it was possible that he felt sorry for how he had behaved before and was resolved to turn over a fresh leaf. I chose to give him that chance.”
– HBP, Ch. 17
It makes perfect sense for Dumbledore to be confiding his fears about this young parselmouth to his friend Minerva McGonagall. Another possible explanation is that Dumbledore could have spoken to McGonagall about Tom Riddle after Tom had graduated Hogwarts. This conversation between McGonagall and Dumbledore could only have taken place while he was at school between the years of 1938 and 1945 because any later would have been pointless. Dumbledore’s fears and suspicions were already realized just a few short years after Tom’s graduation.
A quote from another Pottermore eBook Short Stories from Hogwarts of Power, Politics, and Pesky Poltergeists (SSfHP) about Horace Slughorn gives us information about when Lord Voldemort began becoming public knowledge.
“When, a few years after Riddle’s departure from the school, a Dark wizard of immense power called Lord Voldemort became active in the wizarding world, Slughorn did not immediately recognise him as his old pupil.” – SSfHP
If Voldemort was well known just “a few years” after his graduation in 1945, then Dumbledore would have no need to confide his fears about Tom Riddle to McGonagall. His fears would already have been realized.
The final piece of information that is necessary to determine the approximate year that McGonagall was born is this line that confirms McGonagall was a student of Dumbledore’s.
“Under the guidance of her inspirational Transfiguration teacher, Albus Dumbledore, she had managed to become an Animagus.” – SSfH
And one more interesting note from SSfH:
“Her attitude was undoubtedly hardened by the intrusion at Hogwarts of Dolores Jane Umbridge, a Ministry inspector and Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, with whom Minerva clashed more violently than with any other colleague in her long and varied career.”
Rowling’s work claims that McGonagall had a “long and varied career”. I don’t believe that if she was born in 1935 her career could be classified as “varied”. She would have worked at the Ministry for two years, taught Transfiguration for over four decades, and finally become Headmistress of Hogwarts.
I believe this statement aligns much better with the alternate timeline that places her birth in approximately 1889. In this timeline, it is unknown what she was doing while not teaching at Hogwarts. For a witch as skilled as McGonagall, we can be sure it was something impressive. Maybe J.K. Rowling has a good reason for omitting this from the biography. It is possible that she did not want to reveal McGonagall’s role in the future Fantastic Beasts movies while writing her biography for Pottermore.
All of this evidence points to McGonagall being born before 1935. The only question that remains is whether or not it is possible to construct a timeline of events that matches all of the information we have been given.
Building a unified timeline
The following gives an exact year that McGonagall could have been born that satisfies both book canon as well as the fact that McGonagall appears in Crimes of Grindelwald.
Any timeline that matches both the book canon and the events of Crimes of Grindelwald must agree with the following facts about McGonagall:
- Was taught by Albus Dumbledore – SSfH
- Worked at the Ministry for two years before Hogwarts – SSfH
- Taught Leta Lestrange (age 13), in 1910 – CoG (Scene 67)
- Taught in 1927 – CoG (Scene 64)
- Did not teach Tom Riddle (1938 – 1945) – SSfH
- Taught Lily and James Potter at Hogwarts – SSfH
- Had taught for 39 years in 1995 – OotP (ch. 15)
First, we have to determine when Dumbledore began teaching at Hogwarts. Dumbledore graduated in 1899. The earliest year that Dumbledore could have started teaching was 1901. We know this because Dumbledore was not planning to teach the year after he graduated. Dumbledore was planning to stay at home and watch his sister Ariana while his brother Aberforth was at Hogwarts that year.
“I’d have looked after her, I told him so, I didn’t care about school, I’d have stayed home and done it. He told me I had to finish my education and he’d take over from my mother.” – DH, Ch. 28
McGonagall is shown teaching at Hogwarts in 1910 which means that she graduated Hogwarts no later than 1908. We do not know how many years Dumbledore taught McGonagall. However, we can now construct a timeline that aligns with all of the information that we know.
- 1881 – Dumbledore is born
- 1889 – McGonagall is born
- 1897 – Newt Scamander and Leta Lestrange are born
- 1899 – Dumbledore graduates Hogwarts
- 1901 – McGonagall enrolls at Hogwarts and Dumbledore starts teaching Transfiguration
- 1908 – McGonagall graduates Hogwarts, Newt and Leta enroll at Hogwarts
- 1910 – McGonagall begins teaching at Hogwarts, Dumbledore switches to DADA
- 1927 – Dumbledore switches back to Transfiguration, McGonagall leaves Hogwarts
- 1938 – Tom Riddle enrolls at Hogwarts and is taught Transfiguration by Dumbledore
- 1945 – Tom Riddle graduates Hogwarts
- 1971 – Lily and James Potter enroll at Hogwarts
- 1973 – McGonagall resumes teaching Transfiguration
- 1995 – McGonagall tells Umbridge she has been teaching for 39 years (non-consecutively)
This timeline aligns perfectly with all canon material. It shows that McGonagall could very well have been teaching Transfiguration at the time of Crimes of Grindelwald. However, this is only one possible timeline. McGonagall’s birth year can be shifted by a few years without creating any contradictions.
The Harry Potter fandom, myself included, has been too quick to attack J.K. Rowling for this apparent contradiction to the canon. Before complaining about “changes to the canon” in Crimes of Grindelwald, we should improve our ability to research and analyze the canon that we have been given.
Does McGonagall’s 1889 birth date make sense to you?
We’d like to hear your thoughts in the comments below!
This article was updated December 6 with a line from Rowling about McGonagall having a “varied career.”