Magic and Elves – Part 3: Magic and Omission

by Dana Mahr

Yesterday, in part two of “Magic and Elves,” I discussed the magical powers and intelligence that are demonstrated but not attributed to house-elves by Rowling or the characters of the Harry Potter series. In part three, I will explore the terms of slavery enacted on the elves and the relationships they have with their masters and families. That is, if the extent of house-elf intelligence and magical powers can be vastly underrepresented, perhaps their attachment to their masters can be misunderstood as well. It seems that the popularly accepted theory on the subject is that house-elves are magically bound to obey their masters.

‘What’s up with her?’ said Ron, looking curiously after Winky. ‘Why can’t she run properly?’

‘Bet she didn’t ask permission to hide,’ said Harry. He was thinking of Dobby: Every time he had tried to do something the Malfoys wouldn’t like, the house-elf had been forced to start beating himself up.” (GoF 124)

We learn later that it wasn’t a curse magically binding her to the will of her master that was holding Winky back; she was lugging the weight of a fully grown man who was actively working against her in order to free himself from her powerful grasp. And we can see in Dobby’s defiance of the Malfoys in warning Harry about the dangers of the Chamber of Secrets that house-elves can leave their master’s homes without permission, suggesting there’s no magic trapping them inside. If he had been confined to only locations the Malfoys permitted, then Dobby would not have been able to steal all of Harry’s mail over a period of several weeks, spy on him from a hedge, sneak away to warn Harry in his room, enchant a Bludger at Hogwarts, or sneak away again to warn Harry in the hospital wing.

Kreacher, too, sneaks away and visits Malfoy Manor to see Sirius Black’s cousins, Narcissa Malfoy and Bellatrix Lestrange. Though he mutters and claims to always “serve the noble house of Black” (OotP 109), it is the Malfoy and Lestrange houses that benefit from Kreacher’s ultimate betrayal of Sirius by selling him out to the Death Eaters in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

Or to look at it another way, if Dobby punishes himself because the Malfoys force him, wouldn’t he stop once he was no longer under their control? Or is the lingering trauma inflicted by them manifesting itself in an unhealthy need to self-harm as a coping mechanism?

‘Can’t house-elves speak their minds about their masters, then?’ Harry asked.

‘Oh no, sir, no,’ said Dobby, looking suddenly serious. ‘’Tis part of the house-elf’s enslavement, sir. We keeps their secrets and our silence, sir. We upholds the family’s honor, and we never speaks ill of them – though Professor Dumbledore told Dobby he does not insist upon this. Professor Dumbledore said we is free to – to -’

Dobby looked suddenly nervous and beckoned Harry closer. Harry bent forward. Dobby whispered, ‘He said we is free to call him a – a barmy old codger if we likes, sir!’

Dobby gave a frightened sort of giggle.

[…]

‘Dobby – Dobby could,’ he said doubtfully. He squared his small shoulders. ‘Dobby could tell Harry Potter that his older masters were – were – bad Dark wizards!’

Dobby stood for a moment, quivering all over, horror-struck by his own daring – then he rushed over to the nearest table and began banging his head on it very hard, squealing, ‘Bad Dobby! Bad Dobby!’” (GoF 380-381)

Counter to this disturbing and quizzical scene, in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Kreacher admits to being able to say “what he likes about his master” (HBP 420). This poses a question of whether the limitations inflicted on house-elves are magically or socially enforced. On the one hand, Kreacher insults Sirius and Harry for being “blood traitors” while they were his masters, yet he is not required or inclined to punish himself or hold his tongue. On the other hand, when Kreacher was initially endowed to Harry after Sirius’s death, the elf was forced, almost to the point of choking, to quiet his wails of resistance after Harry told him to shut up. What happened here? Was Kreacher magically forced to obey Harry even though a spell was not cast to make him do so? Or is Kreacher, like so many other house-elves, excessively dramatic in his performances but understands that Harry is his master and therefore has reluctantly accepted his part? After all, Kreacher’s behavior toward Harry and his friends adopts a much more nurturing tone after he is shown kindness from Harry. This implies that the relationship between wizard and house-elf is beyond a contractual ancient magic binding them together.

If house-elf enslavement is not magically enforced, then the notion that receipt of clothing equals certain freedom – or banishment from home and livelihood depending on perspective – becomes ambiguous. Again, take Dobby for instance. Lucius Malfoy unknowingly tosses aside Harry’s sock. That was it. That was enough to release Dobby from his bondage. But what’s interesting about this is that it wasn’t Malfoy’s sock; it was Harry’s, so it wasn’t really Malfoy’s to give away. And because he didn’t know Dobby was going to catch the sock when he tossed it to the side, the reader can safely infer that he did not perform any sort of charm to magically free Dobby. Yet it still worked.

So three books later, Hermione starts leaving knitted hats all over the Gryffindor common room in the hopes of repeating that event: freeing the elves by having them pick up a piece of clothing even if it is without their knowledge. And because of that, all of the other Hogwarts house-elves stop cleaning the common room. Poor Dobby has to clean the whole mess all by himself every night; none of the other elves want to risk accidental freedom.

Dobby the house-elf was standing beside the table on which Hermione had left her half a dozen knitted hats. His large, pointed ears were now sticking out from beneath what looked like all the hats that Hermione had ever knitted; he was wearing one on top of the other, so that his head seemed elongated by two or three feet, and on the very topmost bobble sat Hedwig, hooting serenely and obviously cured.

[…]

‘Winky is still drinking lots, sir,’ he said sadly, his enormous round green eyes, large as tennis balls, downcast. ‘She still does not care for clothes, Harry Potter. Nor do the other house-elves. None of them will clean Gryffindor Tower anymore, not with the hats and socks hidden everywhere, they finds them insulting, sir. Dobby does it all himself, sir, but Dobby does not mind, sir, for he always hopes to meet Harry Potter and tonight, sir, he has got his wish!’ Dobby sank into a deep bow again.” (OotP 384-385)

Again, the boundaries framing the enslavement of house-elves begin to blur in this situation. If the house-elves are cleaning a mess left behind by students, then the found hats that Hermione’s been hiding would hardly be considered gifts. Also, Hermione is not their employer or master, nulling her attempts to free the house-elves through a gift of clothes anyway. Yet that possibility of it working, of a house-elf unknowingly picking up a knitted hat and in doing so is somehow severed from the life they know, lingers. And still, the fact that Hermione resorts to hiding the hats and socks suggests that she knows the house-elves don’t want to be freed but is ironically attempting to force them into it.

One might think that house-elves are not permitted to touch any clothing items even if it is for the purpose of cleaning. But this assessment is challenged in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Kreacher launders clothes for himself, Harry, Ron, and Hermione. It follows then that house-elves are not magically required to accept freedom for touching clothes. After all, are we really to believe that the unmagical Hogwarts caretaker, Argus Filch, is doing laundry for the entire castle daily? I don’t think so.

Nothing in the room, however, was more dramatically different than the house-elf who now came hurrying toward Harry, dressed in a snowy white towel, his ear hair as clean and fluffy as cotton wool, Regulus’s locket bouncing on his thin chest.

‘Shoes off, if you please, Master Harry, and hands washed before dinner,’ croaked Kreacher, seizing the Invisibility Cloak and slouching off to hang it on a hook on the wall, beside a number of old-fashioned robes that had been freshly laundered.” (DH 225)

Polar to Dobby, Winky’s removal from caring for Barty Crouch and his home was completely detrimental to her well-being. Though housed and employed with benefits and friends at Hogwarts, the loss of her position and companion consumed her. The shame and remorse readers see in Winky is presumed to show the likely response that most house-elves would have in that situation. Over and over again, throughout the series, the reader is told from various compassionate characters such as Fred, George, Ron, Hagrid, and Nearly Headless Nick that house-elves “like” being enslaved.

‘It’d be doin’ ‘em an unkindness, Hermione,’ [Hagrid] said gravely, threading a massive bone needle with thick yellow yarn. ‘It’s in their nature ter look after humans, that’s what they like, see? Yeh’d be makin’ ‘em unhappy ter take away their work, an’ insultin’ ‘em if yeh tried ter pay ‘em.’

‘But Harry set Dobby free, and he was over the moon about it!’ said Hermione. ‘And we heard he’s asking for wages now!’

‘Yeah, well, yeh get weirdos in every breed. I’m not sayin’ there isn’t the odd elf who’d take freedom, but yeh’ll never persuade most of ‘em ter do it – no, nothin’ doin’, Hermione.’” (GoF 265)

There isn’t much to counter this claim other than Hermione’s ethnocentric morality and Dobby’s lone wolf endeavors. Other than knowing that house-elves are born into their station after many generations of serving the same family, the reader learns very little about house-elf society outside of wizards. We don’t know enough about their cultural background to be able to discern whether or not they really would be happier with personal freedom. How did they come to be enslaved? Do they get married, have personal relationships? Do they form deep and lasting bonds with their parents? I think this is a critical element in understanding the mentality of “wanting” to be enslaved. If the house-elves had a strong community support system within themselves, then maybe they would be more open to the idea of personal freedom. But if their only family and community exist within the home they serve, then the likelihood of wanting to leave its security is thin.

Winky’s eyelids drooped and suddenly, without warning, she slid off her stool into the hearth, snoring loudly. The empty bottle of butterbeer rolled away across the stone-flagged floor. Half a dozen house-elves came hurrying forward, looking disgusted. One of them picked up the bottle; the others covered Winky with a large checked tablecloth and tucked the ends in neatly, hiding her from view.

‘We is sorry you had to see that, sirs and miss!’ squeaked a nearby elf, shaking his head and looking very ashamed. ‘We is hoping you will not judge us all by Winky, sirs and miss!’” (GoF 538)

Community, apparently, is not on the agenda for house-elves or their advocates. Though Hermione is the only person notably outraged by the status of house-elves, she does not attempt to include their representation in her Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare. This is inherently still silencing the group and dominating over them by continuing to make decisions for them. Hermione’s well-intended yet short-sighted response is appropriate when considering the narrative voice as a whole. Through Rowling’s diction of first referring to the house-elves as “it” or “creature” before establishing concrete personalities for them, she immediately distances the reader from the characters, enacting the same space we feel in the class division and in Hermione’s patronizing club.

This space is reinforced when we consider how Harry tricked Malfoy into freeing Dobby, but once done, Harry did not attempt to help or even give thought to what Dobby would do after leaving the Malfoys. He left Dobby to fend for himself, a tough task as it turns out since no one but Dumbledore is willing to pay for house-elf labor. Still, Harry does not try to help Hermione with her SPEW campaign, just furthering the idea that he doesn’t actually care about what happens to Dobby – he just likes being a hero.

Only when Dobby dies after saving the trio in Deathly Hallows does Harry finally embody the civility that Dobby always attributed to him. By not using magic in order to bury Dobby “properly,” Harry limits himself in the same way house-elves have always been denied the full use of their powers. In doing so, Rowling again demonstrates the literal and metaphorical space between magic and non-magic, wizard and house-elf, master and slave. In this poetic role reversal, we now see the unlimited potential for power that Harry has being sidelined as a reflection of house-elf enslavement, their magical oppression, and a direct manifestation of power utilized as not being a measure of the power within.