Magic and Elves – Part 2: The Hidden Potential
by Dana Mahr
Yesterday, in part one, I established the basic social hierarchy represented in the Harry Potter series. Today, I am going to take a closer look at house-elves to try to understand how they are being assessed in the wizarding world and how this assessment is false.
Besides owls, house-elves are the only other species with an inherited servitude. But unlike owls, house-elves are not treated with respect or affection as a companion. There seems to be a culture surrounding the behavior shown to them – a collective indifference that feels inconsistent with the rest of wizarding society. But more on that later.
First, let’s talk about first impressions and the physical appearance of house-elves. They’re not cute, rounded, and soft like owls or other beloved creatures. They’re lanky and frail with bat-like ears and ill-fitting loincloths, tea cozies, and pillowcases with armholes ripped through them. Nothing about their appearance would elicit immediate adoration. Their saving grace, keeping them from being all but hideous to the eye, is their large, tennis ball-shaped eyes. But so what? Goblins aren’t exactly cute or pleasing either, yet they wear tailored suits. They’re short with long ears, long noses, beady eyes, and sharp teeth. They have the privilege of dressing themselves – fashionably, I might add – because they demand it.
The little creature on the bed had large, bat-like ears and bulging green eyes the size of tennis balls…. The creature slipped off the bed and bowed so low that the end of its long, thin nose touched the carpet. Harry noticed that it was wearing what looked like an old pillowcase, with rips for arm- and leg-holes…
‘Harry Potter!’ said the creature in a high-pitched voice Harry was sure would carry down the stairs. ‘So long has Dobby wanted to meet you, sir… Such an honor it is.…’[…]
He wanted to ask, ‘What are you?’ but thought it would sound too rude, so instead he said, ‘Who are you?’
‘Dobby, sir. Just Dobby. Dobby the house-elf,’ said the creature.” (CoS 12-13)
House-elves are made to wear what seems like found rags wrapped around their bodies to spare themselves the indignity of being completely naked. Not only is this type of clothing completely defenseless against the elements of wind, rain, snow, or dirt but it also inhibits a certain amount of psychological abuse. If the house-elves are not clothed by their masters, then it can be perceived that they are not valued.
This suggestion of being worthless is evident in a number of ways throughout the series. We see it in how Dobby is consistently punished, yet the Malfoy family goes to great lengths to protect their Dark magical objects from being found by the Ministry of Magic. We see it in the choice diction referring to these characters as “it,” “creature,” and then the literal homonym “Kreacher.”
The justification for the complete disregard for their well-being is that house-elves like it that way; they’re unintelligent and unwanting. But all of the house-elves that Rowling delves into are rounded with full character arches, each eliciting cunning behavior in all kinds of ways.
For instance, though referring to himself in the third person makes him sound insane and his meager appearance adds to the impression of being simple, Dobby’s diction of “grievously,” “dregs,” “vermin,” and “beacon” do not. Let’s not forget how, in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Dobby assisted Harry in holding his breath underwater for an hour in the second task. Dobby cleverly knew what the task was, thanks to his nosiness, and he also found and retrieved the Gillyweed for Harry. That’s quite surprising for someone who’s characterized as diffident.
‘Harry Potter will do the task!’ squeaked the elf. ‘Dobby knew Harry had not found the right book, so Dobby did it for him.’
‘What?’ said Harry. ‘But you don’t know what the second task is -’
‘Dobby knows, sir! Harry Potter has to go into the lake and find his Wheezy […] and take his Wheezy back from the merpeople! […] You has to eat this, sir!’ squeaked the elf, and he put his hand in the pocket of his shorts and drew out a ball of what looked like slimy, grayish-green rat tails. ‘Right before you go into the lake, sir – gillyweed! … It will make Harry Potter breathe underwater, sir!’” (GoF 490-491)
Or what about another prominent house-elf featured in Goblet of Fire? Winky manages to convince her master, Barty Crouch, the head of Magical Law Enforcement, to allow his murderous traitor of a son to attend the Quidditch World Cup. At this time, Crouch, Jr., had supposedly died in Azkaban after being convicted for his part as a Death Eater and for participating in the torture of the Longbottoms. However, he was secretly released after Winky and Mrs. Crouch convinced Barty to do so. Once the terminal Mrs. Crouch had taken her son’s place in Azkaban, it was up to Winky alone to appeal to Crouch, Sr.
This is no light task. Crouch’s character is as rigid as his name sounds. He is calculated and devoted to his role of upholding wizard law. Yet somehow with her meager capabilities, Winky manages to convince Crouch to go against his better judgment as a law enforcement agent and as a father who knows his son in order to allow Crouch, Jr., to attend the very public World Cup.
In doing so, Crouch risks Jr. getting away from his control; he risks the safety of everyone around his son, and he risks his own job and reputation at the Ministry – not to mention society as a whole. If anyone found out that Crouch helped Jr. escape from Azkaban and then brought him out in public, father and son both would have been sent to jail. This is out of character for Barty Crouch, who relies on logic and analytics to make rational decisions.
And as we all know, Crouch was right to be wary of his son’s potential for further danger. As soon as Jr. saw his opportunity at the World Cup, he released himself from Winky’s grasp, stole Harry’s wand, and conjured the Dark Mark in the sky, wreaking chaos among the attendees and then eventually escaping to join You-Know-Who. Winky manipulated Barty by appealing to his grief over the loss of his late wife.
‘She said my mother would have wanted it. She told my father that my mother had died to give me freedom. She had not saved me for a life of imprisonment. He agreed in the end.’ (GoF 686)
That sort of emotional manipulation exceeds far beyond the blunt intelligence attributed to house-elves.
Limited power is another perception that Rowling uses to again epitomize the repression of house-elves in the series. According to Pottermore (now Wizarding World – the page in question is currently unavailable), the only magic house-elves can perform is to Apparate, levitate, and disarm wizards, all without the use of wands. But we can see throughout the series that they are capable of so much more.
For instance, in keeping with Winky, she was somehow able to magically attach herself to Crouch, Jr., during the Death Eater march at the Quidditch World Cup. Binding is definitely not one of the three listed magical abilities attributed to house-elves. Yet Harry, Ron, and Hermione saw Winky in action, pulling Jr. away from the scene under his invisibility cloak.
And she disappeared into the trees on the other side of the path, panting and squeaking as she fought the force that was restraining her.” (GoF 124)
Then, as we find out later, Jr. admits there is more to the house-elf’s magic, saying, “She used her own brand of magic to bind me to her. She pulled me from the tent, pulled me into the forest, away from the Death Eaters. I tried to hold her back” (GoF 687).
We can see this diminishing of house-elf magical capabilities again when we consider all that Dobby did in his efforts to protect Harry. It wasn’t Apparating, levitating, or disarming that helped Dobby find Harry at the supposedly secret Muggle home of the Dursleys at the beginning of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. With only those three listed powers in his arsenal, how does Dobby intercept Harry’s mail during that second summer if owls are trained to only deliver to the addressee? Perhaps he disarmed the owls every time? How was he able to seal the portal to stop Harry from getting to Platform 9 3/4? How can he enchant a Quidditch Bludger that’s locked in a Hogwarts professor’s office to seek and attack only Harry? How can he enchant anything at all?
Or what about when Dobby forces Lucius Malfoy across the room and down a set of stairs after being freed from his enslavement in Harry’s final heroic act of Chamber of Secrets?
There was a loud bang, and Mr. Malfoy was thrown backward. He crashed down the stairs, three at a time, landing in a crumpled heap on the landing below. He got up, his face livid, and pulled out his wand, but Dobby raised a long, threatening finger.
‘You shall go now,’ he said fiercely, pointing down at Mr. Malfoy. ‘You shall not touch Harry Potter. You shall go now.’
Lucius Malfoy had no choice. With a last, incensed stare at the pair of them, he swung his cloak around and hurried out of sight.” (CoS 338)
Which of the three attributed spells did Dobby use here, and why did Malfoy have no choice but to leave? Is it simply because he’s at a children’s school and he’s suddenly aware that he’s threatening a child just down the hall from the headmaster’s office? Or is it because he is scared of the house-elf that he used to torture daily?
Later, in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the Black family house-elf, Kreacher, is expected by Regulus Black to be capable of destroying one of Voldemort’s Horcruxes, Slytherin’s locket, something no wizard can do without proper tools. Those tools, by the way, really just amount to basilisk venom – no big deal, just a creature that hasn’t been seen by another wizard except Harry or Voldemort in thousands of years and is also dead after the second book. Why would Regulus expect Kreacher to be able to destroy the locket when Regulus could not? Interestingly, though Kreacher is ultimately not able to destroy the locket, he is clever enough to know that it must be opened to be injured, an idea that had not occurred to Harry, Ron, or the brilliant Hermione.
‘Nothing Kreacher did made any mark upon it,’ moaned the elf. ‘Kreacher tried everything, everything he knew, but nothing, nothing would work…. So many powerful spells upon the casing, Kreacher was sure the way to destroy it was to get inside it, but it would not open […] Kreacher failed to obey orders, Kreacher could not destroy the locket!’” (DH 197)
And then we have Hepzibah Smith, through Tom Riddle’s memory in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, who orders her house-elf, Hokey, to use a variety of advanced enchantments to protect her priceless treasures. How could Hokey perform enchantments, let alone a variety of them strong enough to keep out prying wizard spells, if the only magic house-elves can perform is to Apparate, levitate, and disarm?