"I am much, much more than a man...."
-- Lord Voldemort (GF1)
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What is magical ability? The wizards in HP take the answer to this question for granted, but, being Muggles, we don’t. What wizards do say, however, gives us a few clues.
Most wizards speak of magical ability as an inherent talent that appears in humans in various degrees. We find this out for the first time when Hagrid informs Harry that he is a wizard:
“I’m a what?” gasped Harry.
“A wizard, o’ course,” said Hagrid, sitting back down on the sofa, which groaned and sank even lower, “an’ a thumpin’ good’un, I’d say, once yeh’ve been trained up a bit. With a mum and dad like yours, what else would yeh be?….”
Which gives us two more clues to the puzzle, that magical ability is genetically linked, and that the talent can be cultivated to focus the power of the wizard.
This is supported by Ron’s explanation of the terms “Mudblood” and “Squib” in CS. Ron, spouting slugs and indignation, explains Malfoy’s insult to Hermione:
“It’s about the most insulting thing he could think of…. Mudblood’s a really foul name for someone who is Muggle-born—you know, non-magic parents. There are some wizards—like Malfoy’s family—who think they’re better than everyone else because they’re what people call pure-blood…. I mean, the rest of us know it doesn’t make any difference at all. Look at Neville Longbottom—he’s pure-blood and he can hardly stand a cauldron the right way up.”
“And they haven’t invented a spell our Hermione can’ do,” said Hagrid….
“It’s a disgusting thing to call someone,” said Ron, wiping his sweaty brow with a shaking hand. “Dirty blood, see. Common blood. It’s ridiculous. Most wizards these days are half-blood anyway. If we hadn’t married Muggles we’d’ve died out.”
And similarly, Ron explains what makes Argus Filch a Squib:
“Well—it’s not funny really—but as it’s Filch,” he said. “A Squib is someone who was born into a wizarding family but hasn’t got any magic powers. Kind of the opposite of Muggle-born wizards, but Squibs are quite unusual. If Filch’s trying to learn magic from a Kwikspell course, I reckon he must be a Squib. It would explain a lot. Like why he hates students so much.” Ron gave a satisfied smile. “He’s bitter.”
This would suggest that the wizarding talent gene is recessive (or linked to more than one gene, or some other explanation), if apparently magic-less people produce a wizard and wizards rarely produce anything but more wizards. According to Ron, Squibs and near-Squibs use such things as Kwikspell courses in the attempt to make up for what powers they lack, probably not with much results. Which suggests again that training is meant to focus and polish magical people’s powers, not bring them into being where they did not exist before. On the other end of the scale, sometimes great respect is afforded a wizard merely for having a high degree of magical power, as Sirius explains:
“He was tipped for the next Minister of Magic,” said Sirius. “He’s a great wizard, Barty Crouch [Sr.], powerfully magical—and power-hungry. Oh never a Voldemort supporter,” he said, reading the look on Harry’s face. “No, Barty Crouch was always very outspoken against the Dark Side….”
In fact, wizards often place so much more emphasis on the existing power than the training that many of them consider Muggles a separate species altogether: “We are all familiar with the extremists who campaign for the classification of Muggles as ‘beasts’,” writes Newt Scamander (FB xiii).
On the other hand, compare Hermione, hugging Harry before his showdown with Voldemort in (PS16):
“Harry—you’re a great wizard, you know.”
“I’m not as good as you,” said Harry, very embarrassed, as she let go of him.
“Me!” said Hermione. “Books! And cleverness! There are more important things—friendship and bravery and—oh Harry—be careful!”
According to Hermione, the most important thing about being a great wizard is not the training or even the power but the sort of person one is in the first place. Which brings me to the next issue.
Lewis the last word on the subject, but because I find the argument useful to stimulate my own thoughts on magical ability. I do, however, highly recommend the essay in its own right; it can be found as the Introduction to Lewis, the scholars of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were attempting to teach themselves power via magic; as that failed, they turned to technology, and the connotation of technology has taken over the meaning of our word science. Astrologers, on whose heels followed the Calvinists, were determinists who denied the power that the scientist/scholar/magicians were seeking.
What does this have to do with the Potter universe, and magical ability? I’m thinking about alchemy, which had its heyday of study during the period Philosopher’s Stone was meant to be a by-product of the whole alchemic process; that is, that the goal was not the Stone. That’s why it was called the Dumbledore turns Harry’s mind away from the reason Voldemortwanted to kill him in PS17; when he explains to Harry that one’s choices are more important than one’s abilities, at the end of CS18; when he lambasts Fudge at the end of GF36 about the relative unimportance of pedigree in the face of “what [a person] grows to be”, he is explaining that inward personal transformation is the highest use (if not the only real use) to which magical ability should be put—and never mind power-hungry maniacs, Muggle-borns, and the status-quo of magical culture.
I find it telling that the foil to the alchemic process is Dumbledore’s description of Tom Riddle’s philosophic transformation:
“Very few people know that Lord Voldemort was once called Tom Riddle. I taught him myself, fifty years ago, at Hogwarts. He disappeared after leaving the school…traveled far and wide…sank so deeply into the Dark Arts, consorted with the very worst of our kind, underwent so many dangerous, magical transformations, that when he resurfaced as Lord Voldemort, he was barely recognizable. Hardly anyone connected Lord Voldemort with the clever, handsome boy who was once Head Boy here.”
Thus magical ability is a complex component of a human being that is genetically derived, varying in intensity, and in need of training and focus like other talents. It commands respect, but according to the wisest heads ought to be the means to wise living, rather than the end.
The best place to get information on wands, of course, is from Mr. Ollivander, the premier British wandmaker. He explained to Harry on his first visit to Diagon Alley that his mother’swand was a “nice wand for charm work,” while his father’s had “a little more power and excellent for transfiguration.” He gave Hagrid the third-degree stare when Hagrid told him that he’s still got the pieces of his snapped wand, but doesn’t use them. Then he told Harry, “Every Ollivander wand has a core of a powerful magical substance, Mr. Potter. We use unicorn hairs, phoenix tail feathers, and the heartstrings of dragons. No two Ollivander wands are the same, just as no two unicorns, dragons, or phoenixes are the same. And of course, you will never get such good results with another wizard’s wand.” (PS5).
The wand also chooses the wizard; so clearly a wizard’s wand has some sort of magical affinity with the personality of its owner. James Potter, the Animagus, had a wand that was good for Transfiguration; Lily Potter’s wand (and presumably Lily) was best at Charms. Ollivander doesn’t tell Harry what his wand is best for…but he does tell him that it shares its magical substance with Lord Voldemort’s. Does this mean that features of Harry’s personality are like Tom Riddle’s? This is a question that haunted him in CS; and it never got fully answered, despite Dumbledore’s reassurances that Harry belongs in Gryffindor. Some people think this is a clue to Harry’s unrevealed relationship to Voldemort, but no one knows what the clue actually signifies.
Hermione told us in GF14 that it is magical law that only wizards can carry and use wands [in point of fact, however, Amos Diggory mentioned it first in GF9—ed.]; she wants to change it so that house-elves can use them too. However, is it clear that house-elves need a wand? Dobby sent Lucius Malfoy down a staircase with one finger, and can pull appearances and disappearances that are not hindered by the anti-Apparition barrier at Hogwarts. In CS, as they rescued Harry from the Dursleys, the twins explained that house-elves have great magical power, but can’t usually use it without their masters’ permission. If a house-elf were to use a wand, would it have greater results than that of a wizard? Or is it merely that the characteristics of house-elf/wizard magic differ laterally? After all, Winky’s claim for not using the wand is that she doesn’t know how.
There has been much speculation about Ron’s wand in CS. It got broken during his and Harry’s tumultuous arrival at Hogwarts by flying car, and throughout the book backfires on him, causing throbbing green boils, purple bubbles, whistles, slug burping, and other mishaps, before finally exploding when Lockhart tried to Obliviate them with it. So why did it do this, when Hagrid’s broken wand seems to work for him okay? Several answers have been suggested for this, among them being that Hagrid’s wand is actually his own whereas Ron’s is a hand-me-down in the first place; Hagrid’s had lots of time to practice and make a truce with his broken wand; it’s a Flint; it’s a natural anomaly; etc. Or, I wonder, is Ron’s wand just showing that like most Weasley things and people, it’s characterized by longsuffering about to explode?
Some people have speculated, using interviews with JKR, about wands being used as a focus, or a lens, for the wizard’s power; and clearly they serve some function of the sort. Harrybelieves that his biggest disadvantage in his fight with Tom Riddle down in the Chamber of Secrets was that Riddle had taken his wand; in the fight in the Shrieking Shack, the fortunes similarly follow the people who can cast Expelliarmus fast enough. When Harry lost his wand in the Death Eaters’ riot after the Quidditch World Cup in GF9, he felt naked. Examples of people not using wands include Animagus Transfigurations (although it’s not explained how the original spell is worked), Quirrell’s deadly curse (I suspect, made using Voldemort’s power), and various things that Dumbledore does like conjuring sleeping bags for the student body in PA9. Wands don’t appear to be necessary for potion-making, Divination,Herbology, Astronomy, or other classes that don’t require charms of some sort. Finally, there is the Priori Incantatem scene in GF. If ever we needed evidence that wands are important to a wizard’s life, this is it.
What seems to make the subject of wands the most fascinating is that wands are, even more than the Hogwarts Houses, a sort of wizardly Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. This indicator speaks the most to the wand owner him/herself, rather than to everybody else who can look up whether you’re a Hufflepuff or a Gryffindor. Fleur Delacour has a veela-hair wand, made possible by her veela grandmother; Ron’s wand is a unicorn hair made of willow; we don’t know what Hermione’s wand is; Voldemort’s wand has a feather from Fawkes in it.wands both reveal and conceal the most essential things about a wizard; and no matter how many times we discuss it we never completely settle whether wands are a clue to a wizard’s destiny, personality, character, potential, or all of the above.
We learn about wands and magical ability most through Harry’s own learning experiences. So I’m including a section about Harry and his magical ability. From Hagrid’s introduction in (PS4), we learn (sort of) what a wizard is; how wizards happen (sort of); what kind of world they inhabit; and how they do things.
We also find out that whether he knows it or not, Harry is a talented wizard. From the beginning, he doubts the fact:
Hagrid looked at Harry with warmth and respect blazing in his eyes, but Harry, instead of feeling pleased and proud, felt quite sure there had been a horrible mistake. A wizard? Him? How could he possibly be? He’d spent his life being clouted by Dudley, and bullied by Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon; if he was really a wizard, why hadn’t they been turned into warty toads every time they’d tried to lock him in hiscupboard? If he’d once defeated the greatest sorcerer in the world, how come Dudley had always been able to kick him around like a football?
“Hagrid,” he said quietly, “I think you must have made a mistake. I don’t think I can be a wizard.”
To his surprise, Hagrid chuckled.
“Not a wizard,eh? Never made things happen when you was scared or angry?”
Apparently, wizard power manifests itself most during moments of urgent emotion, fear and anger being the most common types of urgency. The competitive excitement of a Quidditch game is another, and so while people respect Harry for being a good Quidditch player, Harry intuitively discredits that strength as being another one that he only has in reaction to circumstances. In fact, Harry doesn’t believe that his power has an internal locus of control; note that he attributes his success in learning Accio to his fear at confronting the dragon (GF20). He is surprised later in that book to discover that he can cast an accurate Banishing Charm on a cushion. He seems to forget, or never notice, that the Patronus Charm which he masters is difficult even for his teachers; that no-one, not even “powerfully magical” Barty Crouch Sr., can resist an Imperius Curse as successfully as he can; and even when he flings a gnome off his finger in CS3, he passes it off as accident that it goes fifty feet and impresses the Weasleys. Harry doesn’t notice this, but we do, and it’s the source of great debate.
So is Harry Super? Many don’t want him to be. They reason that since Lockhart’s books would be stupid and boring even if Lockhart had actually done the feats in them, that the HP books would end up being boring if Harry turned out to be someone who can crook his little finger and rule the world. But Dumbledore, being arguably super, is also arguably not boring, because he’s wise, odd, and delightfully irreverent. And even Dumbledore can’t solve moral conflicts with a wave of his wand, much to Harry’s dismay in PA. Three things seem clear: there’s something about Harry, and we don’t know what it is yet; these books are (arguably) more than anything about Harry’s coming of age; and being super doesn’t solve moral conflicts, as Dumbledore shows. So whether Harry is Talented, Super, a Sham, or a Regular Joe, the story arc is still about his personal transformation, just as the story of alchemy is about the Philosopher’s personal transformation, and Voldemort’s story is a story of (horrible) personal transformation. This is what makes us want read more about him, because so far he is like Shroedinger’s cat, and his fate is sealed in a box. It’s a testimony to JKR’s world that it stands up to scrutiny when we put aside the question of Harry’s fate to examine the wizards and witches and wands and magical novelties.