This has, of course, prompted new debate over whether her appearance in the Fantastic Beasts franchise is a retcon.
Several people have made some good arguments as to why McGonagall’s appearances in Crimes of Grindelwald (COG) and the upcoming Secrets of Dumbledore (SoD) isn’t a retcon. While it’s true that we can’t establish a precise canonical age for McGonagall, there are plenty of hints in the various texts that suggest a McG born (to be generous) sometime between 1920 and 1940 and not the 1880 to 1890 window suggested by the CoG timeline.
In JKR’s Short Stories from Hogwarts of Heroism, Hardship and Dangerous Hobbies, she writes that McGonagall “grew up in the Highlands of Scotland in the early twentieth century.”1 It used to say that in the Pottermore/Wizarding World article on McG (it remains on the corresponding Pottermore Wiki entry), but the phrase was apparently removed prior to the release of CoG, which suggests the Powers That Be knew it was incompatible with the CoG timeline, so they removed it where they could. (Retcon. *cough* Retcon.)
One can certainly argue that “the early twentieth century” doesn’t mean 1935 and later, but it inescapably precludes a birthdate that would allow McGonagall to be working at Hogwarts in 1910, as seen in the CoG flashback scene.
In 1991, when Harry first encounters her, McGonagall is described as having black hair.2 If, as the CoG timeline suggests, her birthdate was sometime between 1880 and 1890, it seems unlikely that her hair would still be black when she was over 100.
Dumbledore, canonically born in 1881, is described as having silver in his hair and beard.3 Possibly McGonagall’s hair in 1991 is actually partly grey, but Harry doesn’t mention it, despite the fact that silver is pretty obvious in very dark hair (as my hairdresser can tell you). Or she’s just genetically gifted compared with Dumbledore, at least when it comes to hair color.
This is, of course, the biggie—endlessly debated in HP forums.
In OotP, McGonagall claims to Umbridge to have been teaching at Hogwarts for thirty-nine years as of December 1995.4 The Pottermore/Wizarding World bio also states that she got a job at Hogwarts two years after leaving school,5 meaning that if she finished her schooling at Hogwarts in the first decade of the twentieth century (or earlier), as the CoG timeline would have it, the thirty-nine years figure makes no sense.
Those arguing against a retcon rightly say that it doesn’t mean she had a teaching position at first; however, in two scenes in CoG, she is clearly referred to as “Professor McGonagall.”6 Moreover, in Short Stories, the opening to the “Friendship with Albus Dumbledore” section reads:
“The school greeted Minerva McGonagall’s return with delight. Minerva threw herself into her work, proving herself a strict but inspirational teacher.”7
This suggests to me that her initial position was as a teacher. Is it possible she had a different, non-teaching job (for approximately forty-six years, as the CoG timeline would suggest)? Sure. But the wording of the above paragraph argues otherwise.
Of course, it’s possible her thirty-nine years of teaching weren’t consecutive. Maybe she taught for a time, left, then returned. If so, McGonagall’s response to Umbridge seems an odd turn of phrase, given the specificity of “thirty-nine years this December”. One might expect her rather to say something like, “thirty-nine years in total” or something similar, and she wouldn’t have included the reference to “this December.”
In Short Stories, JKR writes that McGonagall’s original love, Muggle Dougal McGregor, was murdered, along with his wife and children, “in a random anti-Muggle attack by Death Eaters” during Voldemort’s first rise to power.8
In HBP (which took place in 1996 to 1997), Cornelius Fudge tells the Muggle Prime Minister that Voldemort has “eluded capture for almost three decades.”9 Assuming this means Voldy’s rise to power took place beginning in the mid-1960s at the earliest, this means the murder of Dougal and family could have taken place as early as 1966.
Per the CoG timeline, Dougal would have had to be at least in his seventies at the time of his murder. The fact that his entire family was murdered in a “random” attack implies that they lived together, which would be a bit odd, though not impossible. Or they just happened to be together when the attack occurred, which is also possible, but statistically unlikely.
But I don’t think the attack on the McGregors happened in 1966. I think it happened closer to 1981, as Short Stories states that Dougal’s death “freed” Minerva to marry Elphinstone Urquart “shortly after Voldemort’s first defeat.”10
If we are to accept the CoG timeline as correct, that also means Minerva pined away for Dougal for more than seven decades, to the point where she didn’t feel she could marry someone else until Dougal was gone. That seems a bit farfetched. But again, possible.
If it was shortly after Voldy went down for the first time, Minerva likely married Elphinstone in 1981 or 1982. Pottermore/Wizarding World states he had been her friend “throughout all her early years at Hogwarts” and “proposed marriage in Madam Puddifoot’s teashop.”11
If Minerva began teaching at Hogwarts around 1910, as CoG would have it, that’s an awfully long courtship (even longer than the already-eyebrow-raising twenty-five years suggested by the text. Oy. The man was inhumanly patient.) Again, possible, but odd.
All in all, the timeline for McG suggested by Crimes of Grindelwald seems to me to require us to swallow a lot of unlikely things. Occam’s razor screams “retcon” to me.
The most likely explanation is that, when writing the original series, JKR didn’t have an exact age in mind for McGonagall (a minor character, after all), but she generally conceived her as an older woman.
Being notoriously loose with the math of her series, Rowling didn’t think much about the mathematical ramifications of all those hints that were written into the text or dropped during a 2000 interview when she was asked about McGonagall’s age and had to come up with an answer on the spot. A “sprightly seventy” probably sounded pretty good. And notably younger than the 150 she claimed for Dumbledore in the same interview. So, at that time, she clearly thought of McG as about half Dumbledore’s age (which was actually slightly lower, according to the original Pottermore entry.)
When the original films came along and Maggie Smith—who was sixty-six at the time of the first movie—was cast as McGonagall (whom Rowling claimed she’d always envisioned in the role), the idea of an older woman of around seventy became firmly fixed, and any notion of a fifty-something McGonagall, as suggested (but never confirmed) in the OotP text, combined with Pottermore info, flew out the window.
Eventually, McGonagall got even older in the minds of filmgoers and casual Potter fans.
Given Dumbledore’s canon age of well over 100, and the fact that Maggie Smith is roughly a contemporary of Dumbledore’s portrayers, Richard Harris and Michael Gambon (Harris was five years older than Smith, and Gambon five years younger), the idea that McGonagall and Dumbledore were much closer in age than the previous evidence might suggest was easy to swallow when it came time to create the Fantastic Beasts franchise.
Here’s how I picture the CoG script meetings going:
SOMEONE: What can we do to make the Hogwarts scenes more Hogwarty?
SOMEONE ELSE: One of the students in the DADA scene could be related to someone from the earlier films. I don’t know … maybe … a McLaggen?
SOMEONE ELSE ELSE: Yeah. Hey, I know! Let’s include McGonagall in the movie. That’d be cool, since she’s such a badass and fans love her, and she could be useful as a confidante for Dumbledore. You know … in case we need a scene when he needs to act all mysterious about something that we, the writers and the fans, know about him but the other characters don’t suspect but we need to foreshadow for the next film. And we might need an infodump sometime in the next film. McGonagall would be great for an infodump scene.
SOMEONE: Uh … won’t the fans notice that McGonagall shouldn’t be born yet?
SOMEONE ELSE: Yeah, but think of all the buzz we’ll get in the forums.
SOMEONE ELSE: Right. Now, who can we cast that will look good with Hot Dumbledore?
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