We are just two years or less from reaching the end of the Harry Potter series and many essential questions have been answered, either by the books themselves, by J.K. Rowling, or by cunning readers who have racked their brains to work out even the finest details of the universe she has created.
But there is an ongoing debate that rather annoys me and I thought I could add something to settle the discussion. Ever since Mr. Bartemius Crouch Senior was described by Sirius Black as “powerfully magical” in Goblet of Fire (GF27), people have speculated whether some wizards are born intrinsically more powerful than others (Stan Shunpike being often used as an example of less impressive magical ability). I do not think this is the case because these books are about choice and effort rather than inherent gifts or predestination (CS18). Moreover, JKR herself carved her niche in contemporary literature through hard work above all. This argument is not mere assertion; it can and indeed must be substantiated by consistent pieces of evidence from canon if it is to be regarded as more than just a philosophical, rather ethereal argument.
I believe much of the discussion about inherent magical ability comes from modern theories about IQ and other forms of measuring intelligence in the Muggle world (which by no means is a good parallel to the Potterverse). The debate often centers on whether people are born with inherent skills that give them an intellectual advantage over, or disadvantage with respect to others. Perhaps this is true to a certain extent, but whether this intellectual head start will cause this person to be successful in studies or work is arguable. Even scholars in psychology and theory of cognition agree that hard work and a stimulating environment are much more decisive on a person’s ultimate role in society. IQ and other measurements indicate a statistical advantage that a gifted person has to achieve high intellectual goals, but nothing more than that. It is an oversimplification in that we are not perfectly able to measure intelligence (Einstein only learned to speak at the age of six).
In the wizarding world, Rowling seems to be even stricter on innate abilities. She says one is “magical or not.” When Crouch Sr. is described by Sirius Black as a powerfully magical man, Black is referring to an ambitious wizard who speaks more than two hundred languages and clearly has worked like fury his whole life not only to reach his position in the Ministry of Magic but to acquire a command of magic above the average. At nine years old Crouch was probably just as powerful, or not, as the young Rubeus Hagrid (I chose him because they were probably contemporary to each other) and his other nine-year-old peers.
JKR’s description of the boy Voldemort is even more telling: Dumbledore states that his powers were incredibly “well-developed” at age eleven (HBP13); he does not say that his powers were immense or beyond the usual. As a loner with a lot of time to experiment on fellow orphans, Tom Riddle, Jr. was bound to achieve such a degree of control over his own abilities, but this by no means implies that his abilities were greater than anyone else’s.
The most accomplished wizards in the Potterverse are often described as elderly or hard-working. Voldemort began his reign of terror by the age of 40, but he had spent the previous twenty years working harder than anyone to become powerful. Horace Slughorn was already a teacher at Hogwarts in the late Thirties (and perhaps before), and he is described as an extremely able wizard who evaded Voldemort for one year (HBP4). Dumbledore is 150 years old and has spent most of his life studying. These wizards are powerful because they refined their abilities and amassed an extensive knowledge of magic, and because they had a lot of time to do it.
Clearly, time is not enough, as Cornelius Fudge and Madam Marchbanks are also elderly and their powers are never praised. This is quite similar to Muggle world, where age is no indicator of wisdom. Actually, wisdom is a better word than intelligence to draw a parallel with magical power. Just as the former can be described as a high level of intimacy with the ways of people and the functioning of the world, the latter describes the level of intimacy with magic a wizard has reached. This is clearly true when we compare two teenage witches with distinct learning techniques: Hermione Granger and young Lily Evans.
Hermione is brilliant in a way quite unlike Lily’s: she memorises a lot, gives undivided attention to instructions and likes to read. Lily, conversely, liked to experiment independently and had a vivacious mind, as Slughorn so fondly stated (HBP4). She and young Snape performed much better than Hermione at Potions, so I think JKR is making a point of working creatively here. Does anyone have any doubts as to who is more powerful: young Lily or Hermione? Or for that matter, who was more powerful, James (who used Levicorpus) or Snape (who invented Levicorpus)? Successful creativity is a marker of a high level of intimacy with magic.
Stan Shunpike could be just as powerful, if he were so inclined, as Dumbledore (well, it would take some time, naturally). But not everyone has as their primary goal climbing the ladder of knowledge. As George and Fred said, there are a lot of Ministry employees who cannot cast a Shield Charm, and that does not stop them being functional, professionally accomplished officers (HBP6). Just as ignoring the principles of quantum physics or Shakespeare’s sonnet number 18 does not stop anyone from working in the Muggle world. If I were to predict, from the trio, who would become more powerful, I would say in this order: Hermione, Harry and Ron, from what we see of their interest in learning—which by no means reflects upon their performance in specific tasks such as duelling.
A wonderful world JKR has indeed created, where hard work and creativity are more important than ancestry and innate skill.