Magic and Elves – Part 1: Establishing the Hierarchy

by Dana Mahr

For many of us who have read the Harry Potter book series, the wizarding world that J.K. Rowling created is a second home, offering magic, adventure, and comfort. We find peace in the coming-of-age lessons of navigating dueling forces in search of a stable identity. Harry’s bravery, benevolence, and defiantly kind nature, Hermione’s wit and loyalty, and Ron’s perseverance bring a certain relatability to the reader, connecting us to the story and its characters. Immersing ourselves in the world of Harry Potter means also attempting to understand the wizarding society: their fashions, economy, and social structure.

As in any well-conceived society, the social hierarchy is complex, overlapping, and often empirical. Because of this and the intricacies surrounding house-elf enslavement in particular within the wizarding social hierarchy, I’m going to pose a series of questions and then offer my response as an invitation to open this dialogue into a broader discussion. I also want to go ahead and give a little disclaimer here that I am not attempting to draw any parallels between the wizarding world of Harry Potter and that of our actual society. To compare fictional elf enslavement to that of the very real and horrific experiences of human slavery would be an injustice to those people and their experiences. I also want to respect Rowling’s work for what it is and not presume to take any aspects out of context.

With that said, let’s begin by taking a look at the society that functions within the Harry Potter texts. How can I claim there’s a hierarchy of class structure? Some people may say there isn’t one, that Rowling doesn’t include this information because it doesn’t further the plot. True, it may not directly move the action of the story, but Rowling does include references to a social ranking all throughout each of the books, and it serves to depict the culture and economy of that world.

So I’ve created a list of my own interpretation, ranking the wizarding society as determined by the general population status quo that seems to be quietly accepted.

Humans (& Non-Wizard Part-Humans)
1. Wizards & Witches
a. Pure-bloods
b. Half-bloods, Blood Traitors, Mudbloods
c. Ghosts
d. Squibs
e. Vampires & Werewolves
2. Muggles

Magical Creatures
1. Functional & Cooperative
a. Veelas & Goblins
b. Dementors
c. Owls
d. House-elves
2. Functional & Uncooperative
a. Centaurs
b. Dragons
c. Hippogriffs
d. Giants
e. Trolls
f. Boggarts
3. Nonfunctional
a. Poltergeists
b. Ghouls
c. Gnomes
d. Blast-Ended Skrewts

Though most people within the magical community may not prescribe to this classist way of thinking, there are still enough who do – enough to build an army for Voldemort and still have more wizards left over who agree with the social divisions but don’t necessarily want to get their hands dirty by joining You-Know-Who (or like some, they were before his time). We see them in the Black family, the Borgins, the Umbridges, the Gaunts, Grindelwald, and so forth. It’s also glaring at us in the ever-present derogatory slurs like “Mudblood,” a witch or wizard born of non-magical descent, or “dirty Squib,” a cruel term referring to a person born in a magical family but who does not possess the craft. In both cases, the imagery of being unclean and thus akin to uncivilized is exhausted throughout all seven books.

‘It’s about the most insulting thing he could think of,’ gasped Ron, coming back up. ‘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… 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.'” (CoS 115-116)

Still, social ranking seems to depend on an inward identity of power and amiability as well as a social contribution. Wizards, however subconsciously, probably see themselves as superior because of their self-awareness and limitless potential for power and social expansion. The most extreme example of this is seen in Voldemort himself when confronting the Muggle caretaker of Riddle Manor.

‘But I am not a man, Muggle,’ said the cold voice, barely audible now over the crackling of the flames. ‘I am much, much more than a man.'” (GoF 15)

We can also take Arthur Weasley’s unintended patronizing of Muggle technology as the other end of the spectrum of wizard-ingrained ideas of superiority. Muggles, who are cursed to a life without magic, do not share the same potential for power and historically are documented as being violent and savage, making them neither useful nor respectable to some wizards and inciting the International Statute of Secrecy, wherein it is illegal to discuss or perform magic in front of Muggles.

Ghosts do not have the same status as living wizards since they cannot actually perform magic. But they can still be present, possess wisdom, and can, therefore, be employed, as we see in Professor Binns. Their knowledge and presence as a reminder of wizards’ own mortality grant them a disassociated kind of respect that still allows room for the acknowledgment of life and material.

Squibs are often neglected in the community. They are not invited to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and many of them end up joining the Muggles where they can actually contribute to society. As we see in Hogwarts caretaker Argus Filch, a Squib can still participate in the wizarding world and might even enroll in remedial magic courses in the hopes of tapping into their subdued power. Again, however, in doing so, the idea of not possessing magic is akin to being powerless, lesser-than, other, unclean, disabled, or even sick and in need of a remedy.

Vampires are only briefly included in the series; the reader gets a glimpse of this character trope at a party in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince where a vampire was a guest. He was, as much as we can tell, respected among the other ghosts and wizards. However, as briefly mentioned tropes in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, vampires are only referred to as things to be caught, persecuted, or killed. This conflicting attitude toward vampires actually seems to be consistent with how most community outsiders are addressed: They’re excluded mainly from the public eye. Open discussion may demonize these characters, but once we finally meet one, the narrative shifts toward a more tolerant stance.

Werewolves, too, are treated this way. Despite the fact that they can be witches and wizards and can be active participants in wizarding society most of the time, the threat of danger they pose to the general public keeps them from attaining jobs, as evidenced by Professor Remus Lupin at the end of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Many, like Lupin, were attacked and afflicted as children, having then to grow and adapt with a burdensome condition in a world that loathes them. Some of them live in a pack together in the Forbidden Forest, implying that they would have little to no contact with the outside world or other humanoids. Others still, like Fenrir Greyback, are actively malicious and work to secure the werewolf’s permanent dissolution from the rest of the wizarding community.

For nonhumans, identity and power again seem to be the deciding factor in how they are respected within the magical world. Veelas are powerful and beautiful, and they know this. They have a high sense of self-worth and command the same respect from wizards and witches. But it has to be acknowledged that they are not human, as we find out at the Quidditch World Cup when the angered Veelas’ faces “were elongating into sharp, cruel-beaked bird heads, and long, scaly wings were bursting from their shoulders” (GoF 111).

Goblins, too, have a high sense of value though they have very minimal magical capabilities. They wear tailored suits and are redeemed for their masterful metalwork and wit. And because they own and run the only wizarding bank mentioned in the series, Gringotts, even pure-blood wizards have to show them respect if they want their money kept safe. Still, the goblins have had to wage wars over their status in the magical community, yet wizards continue to deny them the right to possess a wand, thus ensuring their continued limited status.

‘Goblins don’t need protection. Haven’t you been listening to what Professor Binns has been telling us about goblin rebellions? […] Well, they’re quite capable of dealing with wizards,’ said Hermione, taking another sip of butterbeer. ‘They’re very clever. They’re not like house-elves, who never stick up for themselves.'” (GoF 449)

Dementors have a slightly higher ranking because they are somewhat more useful to wizards. They guard the Azkaban prison and even act as Dolores Umbridge’s personal bodyguards while she attempts to humiliate and segregate Muggle-born witches and wizards from pure-bloods. Outside of their cooperation to pose as guards, Dementors command a level of respect just for the sheer fright of them. They are extremely dangerous and require a lot of skill to be warded off. For this reason, they cannot be subdued and abused the same way house-elves can.

Now, we could argue that house-elves have a greater sense of self-worth than owls do and thus deserve a higher place on the totem pole. I mean, they speak and have humanoid features, and that has to count for something, right? Yet, the mistreatment of an owl would be far less acceptable to the wizarding community than that of a house-elf. We see Harry’s snowy owl, Hedwig, demand comfort, quality food, and recreation. Harry advocates for her, arguing with his dismissive uncle, to allow Hedwig freedoms that he wouldn’t have even asked for himself. She nips at Harry when she has been denied access outside of her cage. She holds a grudge and avoids Harry for half the school year after the particularly dangerous crash landing into the Whomping Willow in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Harry doesn’t scold her for her absence, and no one thinks twice about it. The owls may not be able to talk, but they can speak up for themselves despite their inherited servitude to the wizards. House-elves, on the other hand, do not speak up for themselves, nor do they feel entitled to. For that, they fit squarely at the bottom of society –  just above the magical creatures that the wizarding world hasn’t found a use for yet.