The North Tower #14: House Elves (2)

by Maline

Hi, everybody! Whew! I was expecting quite a lot of owls following my last article as the subject was somewhat controversial, but not this many! Thanks all of you for your support and comments. What really surprised me, though was the fact that I didn’t get any hate mail (at least not a lot), but so much the better! Okay, so before we start with today’s article I’d like to say a couple of things.

I was really unhappy to find that, despite my trying to be diplomatic, some people were offended by what I wrote last week. This is sadly always the case: it’s always the wrong people who feel bad. Maybe I wasn’t clear enough, so I’ll be more explicit. (If you get too tired of the part to follow, just scroll down to “Okay, let’s get on with the article!!!”).

I do not have anything against people who believe in God (any god), as long as those people respect other people’s belief systems. I think faith is a terrific thing, as long as it’s not mixed with intolerance and hatred. The term “religious fanatics” referred to people who believe in a god AND who lack tolerance towards others. If you’re in that group (meaning that you think that everybody who doesn’t think the same way you do is 1) wrong and 2) inferior to you), sure, go right ahead and feel offended. If you’re not in that group (which I can tell none of you who wrote me are… okay, maybe a couple…), don’t take it badly! I’m not against you; I’m not bitter towards religious people (don’t misinterpret this term; it just signifies “people who believe in some kind of god.” It’s not a negative term!) and I don’t mean any harm. “Fervently religious people” is (to me) a softer term than “religious fanatics,” but it still implies a degree of intolerance. If you’re not an intolerant person, I’m not talking about you.

What I do think (and please read this carefully, because I’m not trashing anyone here) is that when a person believes in a god, she enters into his (most gods are considered to be male, but if you believe in a female god, just substitute all “he” with “she,” okay?) servitude, in the sense that she will change her behavior and way of thinking to what that god says is right. In that sense, that person will be very much like a typical house elf, i.e., Winky or the Hogwarts house elves (HHE). I would thus like to modify what I said last week and claim that ALL religious people can be compared to house elves (which does not imply that all religious people react like the HHE regarding how they treat Winky. You have tolerant and intolerant house elves just as you have tolerant and intolerant people.).

I do not see this “enslavement” as something negative. Winky and the HHE are HAPPY serving the humans and they don’t want anything else. Winky even seems to have a very close relationship to Mr. Crouch and Crouch, Jr.; she takes care of them and loves them. She’s almost a substitute mother for Crouch, Jr., caring for him at all times and looking out for his happiness (e.g., she argues with Mr. Crouch so that Barty could see the Quidditch World Cup in GoF). Likewise, the HHE are proud to do their best for their masters and help them in any way they can (e.g., the Welcoming Feast for the Triwizard Tournament and when Harry, Ron and Hermione visit the kitchens). I personally see nothing degrading or shameful in their situation. They’re not weird or stupid for not wanting to be freed (just like people who are happy with their faith); to themselves they are not slaves – they have the best job in the world! (GoF). The negative side of their situation only appears when Hermione judges their situation to be a negative one (more on that later on).

I can see how people feel bad about being compared to slaves, because the word has very negative connotations. You could change the word to “servant” or “assistant” or something else that’s more politically correct, but I personally don’t like that. As Dumbledore says, “Fear of the name only increases the fear of the thing itself,” and I completely agree. Therefore, I don’t feel uncomfortable using the word “slave” in this context, stating clearly that, here and now, in my articles, it only means “being in the servitude and mental submission of another.” Note again that “mental submission” does not equal “being retarded or unable to think for yourself;” it means that you have a certain frame of thought, just like everybody else.

Further, I think that each and every person must figure out who and what they are. If you are religious, you should be conscious of the fact that you are a slave to your god, and then it’s up to you to decide whether to you that’s a good or a bad thing. I found it pretty amusing that so many of you seem to perceive me as an atheist. I’m not an atheist at all. I believe in my god and try to be a good slave. I’m just aware of the fact that religion does not equal truth, and that other people’s faith (or lack thereof) is just as “right” as mine, and of equal value. That’s what religious freedom is all about. I might not agree with you, but I respect your faith as long as you respect mine. In addition, I’m not being condescending about people who’ve found God when in a sensitive and suggestible state of mind. I’m not saying that these people cannot think for themselves. I’m merely pointing out the fact that very few people start believing without being conditioned in some way, and that every religious person should be conscious of the fact that she probably would not have believed in her god had she not had that experience (and the same goes for non-believers; an atheist could just as well have been a Catholic altar servant had he been born in a different family).

Two more things and then I’ll move on. 🙂

1) About widow burnings in India: It was made illegal quite some time ago, but before that it was practiced and according to some, it’s still practiced in some places. This doesn’t mean that Indians in general practice or agree with this! (So you Indians who don’t burn widows, don’t be offended by this.) A parallel would be, “in the USA it’s illegal to shoot people, but some people still do.” The other example was, “Killing your daughter if she sleeps with somebody before she’s married.” Again, this might be illegal in the country in question, but practiced nevertheless. In Sweden we had a very big legal case a couple of years ago where a man (from Iran or Iraq, I don’t remember which) argued “religious freedom” (I’m not saying that the Koran agrees with this, but this man thought it did) in order not to be punished for having killed his daughter (who was no longer a virgin), and I’ve read about similar cases in Saudi Arabia.

2) About my interpretation of the Adam and Eve story: I got great examples for what I’ve been trying to say about literary interpretation on that one. 🙂 I gave you MY interpretation and defend it as follows:

  1. “Adam and Eve didn’t become God’s servants when thrown out of Eden” – Well, no in the sense that they kind of already were (“The Lord God took the man and settled him in the garden of Eden, to cultivate and to care for it,” Gen. 2:15); yes because almost every time that God speaks to man in the Bible it’s to give him orders or forbid him to do something. Plus, he is called “Lord”…
  2. “Adam and Eve weren’t given clothes, they made them themselves” – Well, no, they “sewed fig leaves together to make loincloths for themselves” (Gen. 3:6) but it’s God who gives them real clothes (“For the man and his wife the Lord made leather garments, with which he clothed them,” Gen. 3:21), like how Winky wore a pillowcase and Mr. Crouch gave her real clothes when dismissing her. (By the way, the Adam and Eve story was compared with Winky’s fall, not Dobby or Kreacher’s; sorry if it wasn’t clear.)
  3. “There was no second forbidden fruit; Adam and Eve were allowed to eat from every tree except the one who gave knowledge about good and evil”. – Yes, UNTIL they ate from the tree of knowledge, THEN the tree of life (immortality) BECAME the forbidden fruit (“See! The man has become like one of us (“us” meaning “God;” isn’t it interesting how he’s referred to in the plural form?), knowing what is good and what is bad! Therefore, he must not be allowed to put out his hand to take fruit from the tree of life also, and thus eat it and live forever,” Gen. 3:22).

These are my arguments. You don’t have to agree.

Okay, let’s get on with the article!!!

The House Elves’ Enslavement – Different ways of looking at it

Different people react very differently to the elves’ situation. The Hogwarts house elves (HHE) think that they have the greatest job in the world (according to Fred and George in GoF); they’re happy with and proud of their situation. Winky is happy serving the Crouches but unhappy being a free elf. (Note that she’s still wearing her real clothes at Hogwarts and not the Hogwarts pillowcase. She’s thus not a “true” HHE; she’s serving wizards, but she’s still free.) Dobby is unhappy being the slave of the Malfoys and happy serving the wizard kind while still being free (at Hogwarts). Kreacher is unhappy being Sirius’ slave but happy being the slave of the other Blacks (e.g., Mrs. Black), and his ambition is to one day have his head cut off, stuffed and hung on a wall. Except for Dobby, the house elves seem very happy about being slaves because they consider their status a privilege, without any kind of negative aspects.

The wizards express different views. Ron, Fred and George take the elves enslavement for granted and think that’s the way it should be. The elves are HAPPY; they don’t want freedom, so why should the wizards give it to them? Since they have grown up in the system, it’s logical that they should think this way, but what’s interesting is that Harry seems to be more on their side than on Hermione’s. As long as the elves are happy and being well treated, why change things? Hermione represents the other side of the coin: elf slavery is wrong and the elves are wrong not to want freedom; thus you have to force the elves to change their minds.

Hermione is the great abolitionist. (You can, of course, read the elf storyline in a whole different way, making the parallel between elf slavery and African-American slavery in the USA before the civil war instead of making the parallel house elves-religious people. There are always different angles that you can use to analyze any one text.) In her struggle to “save” the elves, she doesn’t stop to think about what they themselves want. She’s being intolerant, presuming that freedom is the best thing for everybody. She considers her opinion to be more important and more “right” than that of the elves themselves. She “knows better.” This opens up a very interesting debate: should every person be allowed to decide what’s best for themselves or should somebody else be allowed the authority to make their decisions for them? What is more important, independence or happiness?

A superb example of this dilemma is Aldous Huxley’s book Brave New World. I really recommend it to those of you who haven’t read it. It’s generally seen as a dystopia (the opposite of a “utopia,” which means a perfect world (and a book that’s a utopia is thus a description of a perfect world or system)), but I think that view merits discussion. Personally, I don’t agree. I think Huxley’s universe is a utopist one. (This is really a book where your social conditioning plays a huge part. It’s extremely hard to see things from a different perspective than your own.) Well, if you get the chance, read it.

Okay, so back to the house elves. If we continue with the religion parallel, Hermione’s an atheist who is happy being an atheist and wants to make everybody else believe the way she does. She doesn’t respect the house elves’ belief system. You could also say that Hermione represents a believer of Religion X who tries to save the poor house elves from their enslavement under a false god. Nobody is truly an atheist; everybody believes in some form of divinity, whether that be the Christian God, the forces of Nature, Logic, Love, or something else. Faith is always the same. That’s my point of view (my boyfriend, a former Catholic and now a proud atheist strongly disagrees with me. :-)). Hermione’s thus the missionary of Religion X, trying to “save” the house elves.

The problem is that the house elves don’t want to be saved because they believe their “religion” to be the “true” one. To me, this is very important, and I’ve discussed it with many different people with different beliefs. No matter how strongly you feel that you’re right, no matter how strongly you feel your god’s presence, no matter how many other people share your beliefs, you should always keep in mind that you might not be right. And why is that? Because so many other people feel equally strongly about their beliefs, and who is to say that your feelings are more “right” or more valid than theirs? What makes you superior to another human to the extent that you can say that that person’s feelings and beliefs are simply “wrong”? Maybe you’re wrong. Or maybe both of you are right. Maybe there’s a god for every belief system; maybe they all exist. Maybe none of them exist. We don’t know, nor will we probably ever know.

The thing is that it doesn’t really matter who is “right” because faith doesn’t need an objective truth to exist. Faith is an emotional thing; it’s there to help us, to comfort us and to answer what we can’t answer ourselves. Whether you believe in God, the Easter Bunny, Logic or Buffy the Vampire Slayer doesn’t matter as long as it works for you. This is my definition of religious tolerance. If any of you feel like I’m attacking your faith with this, sit down and think for a while about the following: if you believe that a god created you, that god would also have given you the ability to reason and to ask questions. How then could that ability be dangerous to your faith? If your faith is strong, thinking about it in a critical way shouldn’t hurt. Reason is not the enemy of faith, and faith isn’t the enemy of reason. Or, as the Holy Augustinus put it: “I think, therefore God exists” (“Cogito, ergo Deus est”). Find your own way.

I don’t know what JKR’s point of view is on this, but tolerance is one of the big themes in her books. If we take a look at Dumbledore again (and JKR has said that she often speaks through Dumbledore, not saying of course that she agrees with everything she has him say), he looks at the elf question in a different way than both Hermione and the Weasley group. He keeps house elves at Hogwarts in the traditional way (i.e., as slaves), but he also offers Dobby to work there as a free elf. He feels sorry for Kreacher and thinks that he should be treated with kindness and respect (OotP), but he doesn’t suggest that he’d be better off as a free elf. He claims that wizardkind has abused its fellow magical creatures for too long, and that it’ll have bad consequences. (Sirius’ death for example) It’s a pretty straightforward “you’ll reap what you sow” moral. Dumbledore seems to want to make up for former abuse of the elves (the elves are what they were made by wizards, OotP) by making them happy. He lets them decide what sort of situation they want to live in (even if I think Dumbledore, too, would prefer all creatures to be equal, free and happy about being so). He doesn’t try to free them; he just respects their wishes and treats them well. I think he’s the very symbol of tolerance, accepting that people are different (not only regarding house elves) in the HP series.

Wow, this article turned out quite different from what I’d planned. I guess I’m influenced by the Christmas spirit. 🙂 Maybe I should have kept my views on religion to myself and just concentrated on things in the Harry Potter books, but I wanted to share them with you because I think that if everybody just learnt to accept that people are different and believe in different things, the world would be a little better. Trust in yourselves and don’t be afraid of beliefs that contradict your own. Try to understand, but know that you don’t have to agree. Find your own path. Voilà, that’s my message for Christmas, and I promise that my next article will be hard coreHarry Potter analysis. 🙂

A very merry Christmas to you all (and to those who celebrate other things, a very happy celebration). See you in the new year, I’m taking three weeks off to eat candy and work on my much delayed 40-page sociolinguistics research project.

Take care

PS: I know that I said I’d display my views on morality in this article, but I think you’ll be able to figure that out by yourselves having read this. I’m basically a relativist who believes in the Golden Rule.