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Essays

The Curious Incident of the Flobberworm in the Night-Time


by Professor Koniphorus Swamp[1]

A famous Muggle consulting detective (suspected by some of us to have actually been a wizard) once directed the attention of his decidedly Muggle friend to the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.  When the friend observed that the dog did nothing in the night-time, the detective remarked that that was the curious incident.[2]

Magic in humans, according to the world of Harry Potter, is well-defined and easily recognizable. Witches and wizards can do things that non-magical humans can not, things that defy the laws of the Muggle physical world, things that seem “supernatural.” Magic in humans and other sentient beings is demonstrated through actions that can not be explained by Muggle scientific theory, actions such as making broomsticks fly and people invisible, photographs move and paintings speak, cars stretch and houses squeeze

As many of the excellent HP Lexicon essays on magic point out (for example, see the section on Magic and Magical Theory for essays such as A Magical Worldview), there appears to be a magical force in the world of Harry Potter that beings such as house-elves, goblins, and some humans have the power, ability, and determination to use. This exertion of magical power is often conscious, sometimes subconscious, but must be a result of some thought, emotion, or action on the part of the magical being.

Fawkes © 2001 Edgar TornéIn comparison to magic in these sentient beings, magic in animals appears to be somewhat different in the HP world. According to the authoritative treatise on the subject of Magizoology, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them by Mr. Newt Scamander, the Ministry of Magic has over the years struggled to develop a clear distinction between the three classes of magical creatures, Beings, Spirits, and Beasts, the last including mostly animals as well as a few beings who have chosen to align themselves with this class (also see the Lexicon pages on Magical Beings and Named Beasts). But the Ministry does not seem to have worked as hard to define the line between “magical” and “non-magical,” particularly for the Beasts.

Most of the animals in the Beast category seem to be innately magical, and can perform tasks that non-magical animals can not. The dragon, unicorn, and phoenix are all good examples. For example, all individuals of the phoenix species are magical. Each phoenix bursts into flame as it dies and is reborn from its own ashes, characteristics not typically within the capabilities of your average pigeon. Every part of a phoenix seems to be imbued with magic; their tears can heal and even their tail feathers can become the magical core of a wand. They apparently do not need to “think” or “feel” magical to perform magicthey just are magical.

But some species that are magical have not been included in the Magical Beast category. At least, they have not made it into the pages of Mr. Scamander’s book. The excluded animals appear to include species that might only partially be magical. In other words these animals, like humans, appear to be made up of the equivalent of both Muggle and magic individuals.

Cats and most owl species seem to fall in this category, and this might be the reason they are not discussed in the Scamander book. It is possible that only some owls have the ability to track down anyone wherever they may be, and thus make excellent magic postal carriers. Ordinary, non-magical owls would just blink at you if you asked them to deliver a letter to Sirius Black.

Conversely, some species that are included don’t seem to be all that magical. Take for example the Flobberworm. It does not become invisible, breath fire, recognize enemies, deliver mail. The highlight of its day is a breakfast of lettuce and it flourishes best when left completely alone (PA16). It produces copious amounts of mucus (flobber) and these secretions are sometimes used to thicken potions (FB), but that feat alone should not be enough to alarm Muggles and hence require magical classification for this allegedly fantastic beast. Then why is it classified as magical?

Flobberworms and Horklumps are the only species classified as X (“Boring”) in the Ministry of Magic (MOM) classification system, according to Mr. Scamander. The Horklump, although boring, does have the potential to be a pest as it can spread rapidly throughout a garden (FB).  Their strange appearance, unusually rapid reproduction rate, and predilection to overrun a well-tended lawn would attract the attention of most Muggles, and therefore it seems reasonable that this species deserves consideration by MOM. However, the same cannot be said for the Flobberworm, which lives an unassuming and inconspicuous life in damp places such as ditches. The Flobberworm’s greatest claim to fame is that it does, well, nothing. Nothing at all.

In the case of the Flobberworm, the fact that it does nothing either in the night-time or the day-time but is classified as a magical creature is a very curious incident indeed. Just as the lack of action by the dog was an important clue to the detective, so it may be that the inclusion of the Flobberworm in the realm of fantastic beasts could be a clue to its significance in the magical world.

Although I have no evidence as to the thinking of the MOM when this species was classified as magical, I do have a theory as to why this species is included in a consideration of Magizoology, so please consider the rest of this essay to be speculation. The Flobberworm may be important not only for its own modest abilities and characteristics, but also for its place in the “Magecosystem,” which is the ecological interaction of all magical and non-magical organisms living within a certain environment.

Many magical beasts seem to be affected by, and even rely on, the presence of certain other magical animals and plants. For example, Chizpurfles are parasites living in the fur or feathers of other magical beasts; Dugbogs eat Mandrakes; Horklumps are a favorite food of garden gnomes, who in turn are a favorite food of Jarveys (FB). Although the ecology of some magical species is fairly well-known, for many others far more is not known.

Buckbeak © 2001 F.W. ArbacetteHippogriffs may fall into this latter category. Since they can be tamed, much of what is known about them appears to have come from studying domesticated individuals. Their habits in the wild may be much less well-known.

According to Mr. Scamander, Hippogriffs burrow for insects, but will also eat birds and small mammals. Harry and Hermione observed this burrowing behaviour in Buckbeak, and assumed that the Hippogriff was rooting for worms (PA21). This observation may in fact be right on target.

Hippogriffs are the size of horses, and most insects or other invertebrates would not make much of a meal for these large creatures. Indeed, it would be hard for the animal’s large eagle-like beak to grab most small insects, and it would be much more effective on larger prey items. However, the Flobberworm would be ideal for the Hippogriff, as it is a slow-moving, thick worm that reaches a length of ten inches (FB). Thus, the Flobberworm would be much too big a food item for a typical bird or small mammal, but would be eminently suitable morsel for the Hippogriff.

If indeed Flobberworms are an important component of the diet of wild Hippogriffs, then classifying them as magical makes sense. Hippogriffs are one of the species requiring special concealment measures. Owners of domesticated Hippogriffs are legally required to hide them from Muggle eyes with a Disillusionment Charm, but Prof. Scamander does not specify how wild Hippogriffs are kept hidden from Muggles.

It is likely that the wild beasts have preserves established for them, in which they can be protected by enchantments from Muggle observation. These preserves should have all the necessary environmental resources needed to keep Hippogriffs happy, since it would be all too easy for them to fly to greener pastures if something is lacking. It is quite likely that a flourishing Flobberworm population would be one of the features most attractive to these animals. If this is the case, then it makes sense for the magical community to keep tabs on this lowly and superficially uninteresting worm.

The magic community has been far ahead of the Muggle world in understanding the need to preserve biodiversity by protecting species from extinction. As early as the mid-1300s, preserves were established for the Snidget, which was rapidly becoming endangered from hunting and its use in Quidditch (QA). This was a remarkably advanced stance for humans to take over six hundred years ago. Perhaps even more remarkable, the magic community has shown interest in the activities of Muggles by encouraging non-magical humans to protect species as well, for example by continuing the fiction that Diricawls, otherwise known as dodos, are extinct (FB).

The magic community apparently understood early on that it was not just large and impressive animals that require protection. A species may seem unimportant but that lack of importance might be only because we do not understand its place in the ecosystem. If it were to go extinct through failure to protect it adequately, its loss may have far greater consequences than we can predict based on our incomplete understanding of its interactions with other species.

The Flobberworm could be just such an animal. Who would care if Flobberworms disappeared? Possibly no one but biologists such as I. But what if their loss harms other animals that depend on it, animals perhaps such as Hippogriffs? The MOM classification of this worm as magical therefore appears to show great foresight and understanding, as preservation of beasts such as the Hippogriff can not be accomplished in a vacuum. Long-term survival of wild Hippogriffs requires a healthy Magecosystem that harbors a wide array of animal and plant species, species that at first do not seem to be special or interesting on their own merits, species very possibly such as the Flobberworm.

If indeed this is the reason for inclusion of Flobberworms within the realm of fantastic beasts, then the magic community has shown insight into the inter-relatedness of life forms and the need to protect all species, even the “boring” ones, and not just those that are fascinating. The Muggle world would do well to follow that example.


[1] Ed. note: What follows is an “autobiographical” note provided by the author: “Professor Koniphorous Swamp is a vegemagus, an extremely rare type of magical person who can at will turn into a plant. As a result of this unusual ability, Prof. Swamp has devoted her career to the investigation of the biology of magic, Transfiguration in particular. She theorizes that there may be many undiscovered vegemagi, particularly among witches with botanical names such as Lavender, Lily, Myrtle, Narcissa, Olive, Pansy, and Poppy.”

[2] See the Sherlock Holmes short story “Silver Blaze,” by  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1893.

© 2006 Professor Koniphorus Swamp
edited by Paula Hall
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