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Mama Deb
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Essay: Towards a theory of House Elves

Towards a Theory of House Elves



1. Introduction
House-elves are one of the Harry Potter book's most controversial subjects. Are they, as Hermione and Dobby contend, poor, brainwashed slaves, cruelly used by the wealthy and powerful Purebloods? Are they simply fulfilling a biological destiny as Ron and Hagrid say? Why do Winky and the Hogwarts elves act towards the idea of freedom so differently from Dobby? This essay will attempt to present a theory about House-elves, their magic and their place in the Wizarding world.

2. House-elves
During the course of the first five novels, we meet three individual house-elves and one group. Only one is, I believe, typical for house-elves.

The first one we meet is Dobby. He is presented as a slave to the Malfoys. He wears a filthy pillow case as "the sign of [his] enslavement," he punishes himself, much to Harry's distress, and he truly hates both his condition and his family. After all, they are "evil, Dark wizards."

We have, at this point, no reason to think Dobby is unusual - slavery is bad, he's treated poorly and we know all about the Malfoys even if we've only seen Draco at this point. Why should we doubt him?

Except - he's tried to make Harry's summer more miserable by holding back his mail. I say "tried" because Harry has no expectations of friendship and is not more than mildly disappointed. He later performs magic to get Harry expelled - more on this later - then prevents him from going on the Hogwarts Express and finally causes him to fall off his broom. He does this entirely of his own will and in defiance of his family's desires. Yes, he punishes himself, but he does it anyway. Note that he leaves Malfoy Manor without permission.

He also longs for freedom. The idea is real for him - he wants clothing and to work for pay.

One further thing to consider - Hagrid, our expert for all magical creatures, calls him a "weirdo." Given that Hagrid named a three-headed dog "Fluffy" and bred Blast-Ended Skrewts, this is something to think about.

The next elf we meet is Winky. I believe she is the closest thing to a "normal" elf we have met, with the Hogwarts elves next. When we first meet her at the Quidditch World Cup, she is wearing a tidy tea-towel toga, and while she's unhappy at being so high up, she's not in any form of rebellion.

On the other hand, as we are later to learn, she has her own ideas and is able to persuade Crouch, Sr. to adopt them - she gets him to bring his son to the QWC. Nor is he surprised when she does so. She also runs in fear later, and while she ostensibly gets punished for this (as opposed to letting Barty go free), this is also a sign of a free will.

She is in despair when she is told she will get clothes, and even prostrates herself in front of Crouch. Note that she never punishes herself at this time. She doesn't get much of a chance, but Dobby would have run to the nearest tree.

The next time we see her, she is in the Hogwarts kitchens, wearing clothing - filthy clothing. She is ashamed of herself, she is still loyal to the Crouches and she is drinking heavily. What she is not doing, besides not getting paid, is working. And none of the other elves, in their tidy togas, seem to be bothered that she doesn't. That she's drunk, yes, but once they hide her away, they ignore her.

In OotP, we meet the Black elf, Kreacher. Kreacher is, apparently, insane. He does not work, he does not obey Sirius, he wears a filthy clout, and he steals. He also does not punish himself. However, he does not believe he's doing anything wrong. And, yes, Sirius does mistreat him, and that's wrong. But would Kreacher have trusted kindness from the family outcast?

Kreacher is considered to have become insane because he spent ten years in Grimmauld Place alone except for assorted vermin, photographs and portraits. This is not unreasonable. They also claim that he is waiting to join his ancestors on the wall.

The one time he obeys an "order" from Sirius, it's to leave the house. It is stressed that house-elves can't leave their family houses unless ordered. Kreacher, of course, runs to the remaining Black family member, Narcissa Malfoy, as Bellatrix is in Azkaban and Andromeda was struck out of the family when she married a Muggleborn wizard. Of course, Sirius was also burnt off, but that does seem more of a symbolic thing than anything real. He certainly wasn't disinherited. (Nor was his property confiscated, so it's not likely that the Malfoys will lose their fortune, either.)

The final example we have are the Hogwarts elves, which we've only met as a group. There are over a hundred of them to take care of the castle, do the routine cleaning and to feed all those hungry adolescents. To all appearances, they love it. They certainly resent all of Hermione's talk of freedom, to the point that they kick the Trio out of the kitchens. After which, they do not punish themselves that we can see.

They also refuse to clean Gryffindor Tower after Hermione starts leaving her gifts around, leaving it to the already-free Dobby. They do seem to accept Dobby as one of them, even if he shamefully accepts wages and even time off. They also accept that they will get no work out of Winky.

So, house-elves, Dobby excepted, regard getting clothes as a calamity. On the one hand, it is exactly analogous to a servant being turned out without references - a clothed house-elf has not only lost employment but also has a reduced chance of getting new employment, even if they don't want "paying." On the other hand, having gained employment, one would think that Winky would work, no matter how disgraced. This is, I think, important.

Less important but cute is how the elves' mental state is reflected in how they treat what they wear - depressed or unhappy elves are filthy, content ones are tidy. Kreacher, reflecting also Sirius's mental state, is so depressed that he doesn't care about his surroundings.

And Dobby is weird.

3. Wizarding world's views
There are two disparate views of house-elves in the wizarding world - Hermione's and everyone else's.

The rest of the wizarding world has a very simple view of house-elves. They are servants, and likely status symbols, given that Ron laments that his family can't afford one. Not that we have any idea how a family obtains them. They live but to serve, and they do so because they are house-elves and that's what they do. Goblins manage money, Centaurs watch the skies and Elves clean up after wealthy wizards.

Hermione, of course, believes that house-elves are enslaved against their wills, hate their lives and want to be given clothing. If not, they are brainwashed. She came to this conclusion, oddly enough, when she saw how hysterical Winky became upon being sacked. It doesn't help that Dobby is taking her little elf-mines, convincing her that she's right.

Two things are interesting here. One is that out of the hundred elves at Hogwarts, none of them wanted these gifts, even though they know Dumbledore will keep them on. The other is that no one doubts that Hermione, a mere student at Hogwarts, can give clothing. Remember that Harry had to engineer it so Lucius Malfoy gave Dobby his freedom sock. It can't be just anyone who does this, so how come Hermione can?

4. Digression - underage magic
At this point, it's necessary to discuss the detection of underage magic and the implications for underage wizards and witches and for house-elves.

We know underage witches and wizards are not permitted to perform magic outside of Hogwarts and the Hogwarts Express (and possibly Hogsmeade, although that's never made clear.) They get a notice at the end of the school year.

We encounter the effects of that ban along with our first glimpse of house-elves in Chamber of Secrets. Dobby comes to No. 4 Privet Drive with the express intention of preventing Harry from going back to Hogwarts, and to that end, he performs magic to disrupt the Dursleys' dinner party. Harry immediately receives an owl warning him that the next time he performs magic when he's not supposed to, he will be expelled from Hogwarts.

Since it wasn't Harry who performed that magic, this is confusing. It would also be confusing as to why he didn't protest, but this is Harry, who accepts that bad things happen to him. This is why Dobby's stoppage of Harry's mail also did not work - Harry at this point has no expectations about other people. He's sad they haven't written but not discouraged.

Anyway, the only conclusion one could get from that owl is that the Ministry of Magic can detect that magic is being done, but cannot detect who is doing it. Wands cannot be a factor because no wands were used.

This has serious implications for Hogwarts students. If the Ministry can only detect that magic has been performed, this law can only affect children in nonWizarding households. Draco Malfoy can do wandwork to his heart's content in the heart of the manor, while the Weasley twins can do the same hiding in their room (Mrs. Weasley would hardly permit it done in front of her.) Hermione and Harry, on the other hand, are forced to live magicless until September.

While understandable - children can be careless, so best to just forbid the practice - it would also be monstrously unfair.

However, things change in Order of the Phoenix. Here, Mundungus Fletcher Apparates right in front of the Dursleys' house - so close they hear the pop over the television. And no owl comes to warn Harry. It's entirely possible, this being Mundungus, that he has done so in the past as well, if not so close or at times when no one was home to hear it.

If it were only that, it could be solved easily enough - Harry is too young to Apparate and it occurred outside the Dursley house - although, as Harry is the only wizard on record as living in Little Whinging, that still should have been problematical.

Later on that day, though, Harry has to defend himself and Dudley against the Dementors, using very sophisticated magic. He does so at a distance from the house. And he is immediately owled with a message that he will be expelled and his wand - the brother wand to Voldemort's, although the Ministry probably doesn't know that - will be destroyed. Dumbledore sorts that out, but the problem remains - they know it was Harry and not some other witch or wizard wandering through the suburbs who did that magic.

Which means that the Ministry can detect underage magic. Which means that, unless their parents construct elaborate and undetectable shields, no underage witch or wizard can perform magic outside of school - not even Draco Malfoy. Which would be why the twins remark that they hope those letters are forgotten each year.

This leaves us with the first problem, then. If it's possible to detect who did what magic, how can Harry be punished for magic he didn't do? Perhaps Rowling made another mistake, but that's too easy.

I think it was actually Harry's magic, even though he didn't use it himself.

5. Theory of house-elves
This leads me to my theory. I think house-elves are symbiotic to wizards. That is, the "powerful magic of their own" that Dumbledore mentions, the one that allows them to also pop into Apparation-proof Hogwarts, is fueled by the magic of their families, and allows them to use it for the good of those families as well as to support their own abilities. In return, the house-elves are both servants and guardians of their families, keeping their families' secrets and their own silence.

In this light, let's look at the elves again, starting with Winky, who is the closest to normal I believe we get. She starts out, all neat and tidy, bound to the Crouches, who are a very powerful family, both magically and politically. Winky herself is the guardian of an important secret - Barty, Jr. She does this for thirteen years, until Barty fights off the Imperious curse and escapes at the Quidditch World Cup, which is when Mr. Crouch sacks her. It's not for running away, as Hermione believes.

When she is given clothing, she is disgraced and in despair, although she is still highly loyal to the Crouches. Her clothes become filthy and she herself takes refuge inside a bottle of Butterbeer. And, as mentioned above, she does not work and no one expects her to do so. She can't work. She has no source of magic beyond what ever she has intrinsic to her. She has no pride, no resources and nothing she can do about it. By being given clothes, she is lost.

Kreacher, on the other hand, has (or had) a family of sorts. Once upon a time, the Blacks were also very powerful both politically and magically. By the time of OotP, it's down to one direct heir and three collateral ones, plus one child who is the heir to another family. Two of those heirs have been burnt out of the family and two of them are or were in Azkaban or on the run. The three collateral heirs are all married into other families, too, although I'm not sure how much of a difference that makes. This family is torn apart and damaged and their power is gone, except what Narcissa wields as Madam Malfoy. This can be a great deal, but we don't know right now, as we've yet to even hear her speak.

However, it does seem that Kreacher's powers are limited. Look how he repaired those picture frames - Dobby was able to close off Platform 9 3/4. Kreacher is unable to fix cracked glass. We know once upon a time, Sirius was a talented wizard, and he was still an Animagus, but we don't know how much of his magic he lost in Azkaban. Winky had both Barty and Mr. Crouch. Kreacher barely had anything - and it's possible that part of Sirius's mistreatment was, unconsciously, withholding power from his elf.

More problematical are the Hogwarts elves, because who are they bound to? I think the answer to that lies in Hermione's elf-hats. The Hogwarts elves magically consider all the residents of Hogwarts to be their family. Because of that, Hermione can free them if they allow her to do so. And because of that, they have enormous power to draw upon, which is necessary given the amount they would need to keep after that school.

Finally, we get to Dobby. How can Dobby survive so well without a family? And how could he use Harry's magic, given that Harry is not Malfoy? Why does he, alone of the house-elves we have met, desire freedom so much, and why is he willing to accept payment?

The answer is that Hagrid was right. Dobby is a "weirdo", a mutant. He has the ability to use power from any witch or wizard, whether or not they're his family. So he could use Harry's power to entrap him and possibly get him expelled from school, and so he can be perfectly happy not being attached to any family.

In fact, he probably latched onto that very early on. He was still bound to the Malfoys, who required him to punish himself if he did wrong and with whom he was miserable (note the state of his pillowcase), but he could sense and use the power of who ever came to visit. So he knew that he could be free. For him, being bound was both cruel and galling. He got no benefit from it at all.

I do assume that most of the wizarding world is unaware of this relationship. I can't imagine they'd be comfortable with their servants leaching off their power, and knowing how paranoid they can be, elves could be in great danger if this were ever discovered. So the elves keep their own secret as well as their silence on this point - as does Dobby.

Dumbledore probably knows, though, and therefore knows that Winky is useless and Dobby is dangerous. This is probably why he's employed them and keeps Winky supplied with butterbeer.

6. Conclusion
If my theory is correct, then elves are not slaves, but are rather in a mutually beneficial situation, a symbiosis, with the wizarding world, with Dobby being the exception who, literally in this case, proves the rule. They act like slaves to preserve this secret in order to protect their lives and their source of magic. They would have no thanks for Hermione for her efforts.

Comments

Interesting, however, I don't think I agree. I guess, to be correct, you need Rowling to tell you are correct by the end of Book Seven and I don't see that happening.

First of all as you pointed out in both cases of Harry getting the letter it happened either in the house or with his wand, so if the Ministry checked both and they just might, then Harry getting the letter is easy to explain. (Even easier if you call it a Flint.)

Second, I think both Winky and Kreacher's state are not so much a sign of their magic declining, but rather one of being depressed/alcoholic/insane.

Third and most importantly - I think one has to consider what else Rowling could have called the relationship between the elves and the wizards. I am sure there are a lot of words that don't denote ownership. That doesn' remind pretty much everyone of one of the greatest historic crimes ever committed. That doesn't denote the master's power over the slave's life and death. That doesn't reduce the slave to a piece of inhuman, inanimate property that can be moved around and sold and bought and punished and wasted at will.

To put it simply, I cannot believe that Rowling would give me "slavery" and then call it symbiosis. Something suggests mutual benefits, which simply isn't true - not when the elves use their magic only to benefit their masters. There are no benefits for the elves beyond the satisfaction of work itself. The wizards reap all the benefits. Also interesting to note is that Dobby is the first house-elf, we meet, and as such is unlikely to be mutation, in fact that he is the first suggests that his life with the Malfoys is much more typical of the normal house-elf's life than Winky's or the Hogwarts Elves (who are actually kind of powerful within their family).

Nod. It's just a theory. I think it fits the facts we've been given, but that doesn't mean we have all the facts, or that others won't fit as well.


First of all as you pointed out in both cases of Harry getting the letter it happened either in the house or with his wand, so if the Ministry checked both and they just might, then Harry getting the letter is easy to explain. (Even easier if you call it a Flint.)


In either case, though, it would still give an advantage to kids in wizarding households. And calling it a Flint is just Not Fun. :)

Second, I think both Winky and Kreacher's state are not so much a sign of their magic declining, but rather one of being depressed/alcoholic/insane.

Or it could be a combination of factors. *shrug*

Third and most importantly - I think one has to consider what else Rowling could have called the relationship between the elves and the wizards. I am sure there are a lot of words that don't denote ownership. That doesn' remind pretty much everyone of one of the greatest historic crimes ever committed. That doesn't denote the master's power over the slave's life and death. That doesn't reduce the slave to a piece of inhuman, inanimate property that can be moved around and sold and bought and punished and wasted at will.

Here you have me. One thing Rowling doesn't do is use words lightly. My big question, and it is a question - does anyone use the term "slavery" except Dobby and Hermione? Because if no one else does, well. Hermione has her own point of view, and Dobby, according to this theory, *is* a slave. He gets nothing by being bound to the Malfoys and he can't escape.

Also - I don't know about you, but if I hadn't felt desperately sorry for Dobby, I'd have *hated* him in CoS. He gets Harry in trouble, he causes him injury and he's annoying. Meanwhile, it's perfectly in character for Hermione to get taken up in a Cause.

The elves *do* benefit. Without power, they have nothing at all, or any source of shelter. And they exert influence in their families - as you said, look at Winky and the Hogwarts elves.

We need more samples.

So one question about this really intriguing premise! If the elves get their power from their "owners," and Dobby is a mutant because he can use his own power independently...why wouldn't anyone remark on that? I mean, wouldn't Dumbledore or Ron or someone question *how* Dobby was able to work openly against the Malfoys when Kreacher had to find loopholes to bring Sirius down? Or have the house elves cleverly convinced the wizards they can all do this to keep them from discovering the truth?

(Which would probably counteract the anti-slavery message, no_remorse has a point there!)

*IS* Dobby able to work openly? All the "I can't say" and self-punishment occurs when he even comes CLOSE to giving away his Master's secrets. Kreacher, on the other hand, couldn't do anything until he was accidentally ordered from the house--Sirius's "go away" being interpreted by Kreacher to mean to leave the premise.

I don't quite understand Dobby and the self-punishment, since no other elf seems to do it.

Winky drinks. Then again, we haven't seen much of the other elves to this point.

Because the house-elves have been keeping their source of power a secret. They're *good* at keeping secrets. If they don't know how the house-elves do it, they'll not notice that one of them is...well, they notice he's different, but not why.

And Dumbledore, I believe, *does* know. Ron wouldn't because his family doesn't have one anyway.

On the other hand, it was weird that Dobby could just leave Malfoy Manor...

My big question, and it is a question - does anyone use the term "slavery" except Dobby and Hermione? Because if no one else does, well. Hermione has her own point of view, and Dobby, according to this theory, *is* a slave. He gets nothing by being bound to the Malfoys and he can't escape.

Dobby says it first in CoS. Hermione uses the word a lot in GoF. And then, which kind of concludes it, Dumbledore uses it in OotP. Considering how much Rowling uses both Hermione and Dumbledore for exposition, for telling, then her having both of them calling it slavery is kind of telling.

Without power, they have nothing at all, or any source of shelter.

Well, the question whether they would have magical power is debatable, Dobby's case suggests that they might not be without magical powers. But even without magic the elves seem capable of looking after themselves. They do work, they know how to work and that is an ability nobody can take away from them and that they can use it to take care of themselves.

To make a pretty bad analogy - for the elves to stay enslaved just to have shelter and stuff is similar to a prisoner staying in prison to have shelter and food and the barest of essentials.

Slavery historically meant something very different than most people nowadays take it to me. The slavery that occured in the Americas and to a lesser extent in Europe in the last 500 years is very different than the slavery that occurred in the Roman Empire or amoung the Greeks, or really in any other ancient civilization. Considering Rowling's fondness for historical background, I don't think it would be unnatural for her to use the definition of slavery that was used for most of human history.

That said, I honestly don't think Rowling has thought it through this far at all. I think the inconsistancies in the book are just inconsistancies that she didn't notice, rather than a larger plan regarding house elves. I wish she had thought it through as well as mamadeb did, though.

That's one of the downsides to communities like this, it's so easy to see where JK Rowling messed up or didn't think things through as well as you'd wish. Granted, there are millions of minds at work in the fan community, and she has only one, so I can't blame her, it just makes me sad sometimes.

It's the difference between a group mind and a single mind.

Also, she has to write the stuff. Since I don't, I get to play with it. And I like playing with these things. Which is why I write fanfic and these essays. It's fun.

It's called lit crit, too, and has been the mainstay of college English departments forever.

I'm not sure Rowling has given you (or me, or anyone else) "slavery". Just because some of her characters think so doesn't mean she does.

House-elves do not act like human slaves in any culture there has ever been, and people (not you--I'm thinking of the idjits who called me a Nazi on FAP when I advanced my theory) who scream that house elves are OMG slaves and Hermione is right remind me of the sort of people who would decide that if bees were sentient it would be necessary to free all the worker bees from the tyranny of the evil queen.

Just because a creature has human or near-human intelligence doesn't mean that it has human drives and aspirations. I think Dobby's nuts, mostly because all the other elves seem to think so, and they'd know.

My personal theory is that the house-elves are like brownies and other folkloric spirits who enjoy serving humans. A brownie will run away in disgust and anger if given clothing. It does appear that some people do abuse their power, but I don't see any evidence in the book so far that having a house-elf is Wrong and Oppressive, only that some people mistreat them.

Just because a creature has human or near-human intelligence doesn't mean that it has human drives and aspirations. I think Dobby's nuts, mostly because all the other elves seem to think so, and they'd know.

That's an interesting point. The Elves aren't human and that's something I think people forget.

This doesn't mean that they should be abused or taken advantage of only that since they aren't human we shouldn't assume that they would have the same desires as humans.

As for Dobby I think that his attitude stems from his mistreatment, I mean I wonder if how he'd act if he was with a kinder family.

Would he still want to get away or would he have reacted like Winky if he was freed?

My personal theory is that the house-elves are like brownies and other folkloric spirits who enjoy serving humans.

Yeah, but all these spirits can leave when they want to, when they are treated wrong. Rowling specifically wrote the house-elves differently and gave us Dobby first and let Mr. and Ms. Exposition tell us that, yes, dear reader, it's slavery.

remind me of the sort of people who would decide that if bees were sentient it would be necessary to free all the worker bees from the tyranny of the evil queen.

Only house-elves don't depend on the human race for reproduction purposes and that's what the queens is primarily doing - giving birth instead of telling the worker bees what to do, so the whole analogy is terribly flawed, not to mention insulting.

Just because some of her characters think so doesn't mean she does.

Then you obviously missed how Rowling's heart is completely with Hermione's crusade, although not with her methods.