Thursday, May 12, 2011

Harry Potter: Squibs

In reading the Harry Potter novels, I have found myself very interested in squibs. A squib is a non-magical person born to magical parents.

The Harry Potter novels divide people into two groups: magical and non-magical. Magical people are witches and wizards. Non-magical people are called muggles. Every person is born either magical or non-magical, meaning that magical ability or the lack thereof is innate. If a person is born a muggle, there is nothing that he or she can do to procure magical ability.

Muggle parents sometimes produce magical children. Unfortunately, magical parents sometimes produce non-magical children, but this appears to be rather rare. Nonetheless, it does happen. A non-magical person born to magical parents is called a squib.

Magical people -- witches and wizards -- tend to look down on squibs. But they shouldn't, because being a squib is not a matter of choice.

It is interesting, though, the way J. K. Rowling introduces squibs -- she does so in a way that actually invites us, the readers, to look down on them. The first squib we meet is Argus Filch, the castle caretaker at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Filch is not a sympathetic character. He hates Hogwarts students and is always trying to catch them breaking school rules so that they can be punished. Filch would like very much to bring back the severe punishments of older days, such as whipping students, chaining them up, and hanging them by the feet or the hands. The fact that Filch is a squib is discovered when Harry Potter finds that Filch has been consulting a book of remedial spellwork in a futile attempt to master basic magic. This discovery seems to explain Filch's hatred of Hogwarts students -- he is jealous of their ability to do magic. Nonetheless, it almost seems that being a squib is a punishment for Filch's nasty character.

But then, we meet another squib, Arabella Figg, a much nicer person. Arabella lives inconspicuously in the same neighborhood as the Dursleys. Petunia and Vernon Dursley, Harry's aunt and uncle, are very reluctantly raising Harry. Harry's own mother and father, Lily and James Potter, were killed by the evil Lord Voldemort when Harry was one year old. Lily Potter was Petunia Dursley's sister. The Dursleys are muggles with a very anti-magical bias, and Harry's parents were a witch and a wizard. The neighbor Arabella Figg takes on the task of watching over Harry as he grows up in his aunt and uncle's muggle home, not knowing about his magical background. Arabella has been commissioned with this task by Albus Dumbledore, Headmaster of Hogwarts, and she fulfills her role admirably. She does what she can to watch over Harry surreptitiously and make sure he is safe.

Arabella Figg even courageously serves as a witness in Harry's defense when he is accused of using magic illegally as an underage wizard at age fifteen and threatened with expulsion from Hogwarts. Harry must appear before the Ministry of Magic for his trial. His defense is that he was using magic in the face of life-threatening danger -- to protect himself and his cousin, Dudley, from two attacking dementors. The Ministry of Magic, however, does not want to believe it possible that dementors could be operating outside their control and appearing in a muggle town. Arabella Figg, having witnessed the dementors' attack, is brave enough to give testimony on Harry's behalf in court despite the risk of incurring the displeasure of the Ministry of Magic.

So we now have a very sympathetic squib, Arabella Figg, to contrast with the highly unsympathetic squib, Argus Filch. Both were born to magical parents, but they themselves lack magical ability. Argus Filch uses his knowledge of the magical world to become bitter and jealous over what he cannot have. Arabella Figg uses her knowledge of the magical world to serve as a bridge between the two worlds, magical and non-magical, and to be helpful. She seems to take a stance of "I will concentrate on what I can do, not on what I can't -- and there is much that I can do."

It is also worth mentioning that Argus Filch is terribly ashamed of being a squib and tries to hide this fact. Arabella Figg, on the other hand, freely acknowledges that she is a squib. For Arabella, being a squib is a simple fact about how she was born, not something to feel ashamed or or to hide.

Now--who might be the squibs of our world? I think that Martha Beck, author of Steering By Starlight, and her husband provide a good example: they are very high-achieving intellectuals, and they have a son, Adam, with mental retardation. In fact, I think that something like squib-hood happens when high-achieving people give birth to an average child or a child with a mental or physical handicap.

I would also say that a kind of squib-hood happens when society values certain kinds of intelligence above others, so that those who excel in the valued intelligences are held in esteem while those who do not are frowned upon. I am referring here to Howard Gardner's idea of multiple intelligences. These intelligences include the two that are most valued in one of the first social environments that children enter--our schools:

  • Linguistic intelligence
  • Logical-mathematical intelligence

But people who are not strong in those two intelligences may excel in one or more of the other intelligences:

  • Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence--dancers and athletes
  • Existential intelligence--those who connect closely with life's larger meaning
  • Interpersonal intelligence--those who excel in relating to others
  • Intrapersonal intelligence--those who excel in self-understanding
  • Musical intelligence
  • Naturalistic intelligence--those who relate closely to nature
  • Spatial intelligence--those who excel in the visual arts

So we might ask ourselves how we view and treat the squibs of our world.

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