The North Tower #13: The House Elves’ Enslavement (1)

by Maline

First, a couple of things about my last article. I wasn’t clear for example when I said that, “Priam is a good king, who’s “big sin” is that he has a son who’s a bit too good looking for his own good and who steals a neighboring king’s (Menelaus) wife (Helen). His heir Hector is not an evil person either, but a great warrior who defends his city when attacked by the angry husband.” “Attractive son” and “heir” are not referring to the same person here. The heir is Hector and the attractive son is Paris. Paris stole Menelaus wife Helen, Hector had to face the consequences. 🙂 Sorry about that, it was just so clear in my head that I failed to see the ambiguity in the sentence structure.

I also want to say something about what I write and why, since I’ve got a whole bunch of owls on the subject. I write the NT a) because I like it, b) because I want to share my ideas with other people and c) because I think that there’s a spot to be filled in the literary analyzing and critically thinking department at the Ministry of HP theorizing. I can’t please everybody, so those of you who think that my “educational” articles are crap, why don’t you just skip them? I really like doing that kind of piece once in a while and apparently, a lot of people really appreciate it. The NT is supposed to be based on literary analysis after all, and I don’t see the harm in giving anybody pointers in how to think critically. I know that we right now live in an age that promotes faith and sees skepticism as a bad thing (at least in some countries…), but that, in my opinion, shows an even greater need for people to be able to think critically, to be able to think for themselves. Every once in a while, I get an owl supporting a theory that I don’t believe in, but that does it using solid argumentation. I love those owls, and I really respect the people who wrote them, even if I don’t agree with them. Okay, enough about that.

I want to start today’s article by thanking my boyfriend Jordan, who gave me the idea in the first place. Many people have written to me over the past months, asking me to write a piece on the house elves and what they might represent, so today I will. Since this piece will deal with religious questions, I want to start by making clear that I’m not looking to offend anyone and that I’m not Satan’s little helper either. Okay, here we go.

The structure of the house elf storyline in Books 1-5 is as follows: In CoS, we meet Dobby for the first time and get an introduction to the concept of being a house elf and how they are treated by evil masters (the Malfoys). In GoF we see a different treatment of the house elves at Hogwarts, the different attitudes of many different people towards the elves and how Dobby and Winky – two freed elves – deal with their freedom in different ways. OotP presents a new perspective with the character Kreacher and develops the questions from GoF.

A house elf is thus a creature in the servitude of humans. They are very much like humans in the way that they are intelligent, capable of planning great schemes (Dobby in order to get Harry away from Hogwarts in CoS and Kreacher in order to get rid of Sirius in OotP), have feelings (e.g., Winky in GoF) and moral values (Winky is “properly ashamed of being free,” GoF) and they are capable of a certain kind of magic. They serve the same family throughout generations and (generally) worship their masters and take great pride in being perfect slaves who “uphold the family honour” (CoS).

Their enslavement consists in that they normally can’t disobey a direct order from their master and if they do or say anything he or she wouldn’t like, they have to punish themselves heavily. The symbol of their enslavement is that they wear a pillowcase as their only piece of clothing, and the only way to freedom is to be presented with proper clothes by their master.

I see a clear parallel between house elves and fervently religious people. They both worship their masters and never question or criticize them. They are proud to keep their master’s secrets and uphold the family honour. If they do or say something that goes against their master’s will, (i.e., if they sin against him) they have to punish themselves (i.e., doing penance). They take a great dislike to anyone who speaks ill of their master (Winky, GoF) in the same way as religious fanatics tend to dislike anyone who criticizes their god. They are intolerant towards house elves that have “sinned,” even when remorseful (Winky) and those who do not share the exact same views as themselves (Dobby) in the same way as some religious circles treat sinners (e.g., a girl who gets pregnant out of wedlock) and people with slightly different beliefs (e.g., the relationship between Catholics and Protestants in some places). Piety means orthodoxy which in turn brings honour to the family served. This is similar in many different religions, where you dishonour your family (and your congregation) when you sin against your god or break the rules of your church.

House elves are made in the image of humans, i.e., their masters, in the same way as humans are said to have been made in the image of God, i.e., their master. House elves and humans look alike, except for some physical exaggerations like big ears, eyes and noses (in the same way as God is said to be much more beautiful than we humans). Morally, they’re similar too; there being both “good”( Dobby) and “bad” (Kreacher) elves. And, most importantly, they’re able to do magic. As far as I know, this is the only non-wizard breed able to do magic in the HP series (okay, the goblins have something going on in Gringotts but they hire wizards to do their curse breaking for them, so they can’t be that powerful). The big difference is that a house elf is not allowed to have a wand (which indicates that they’d be able to use one).

Now let’s make the following parallel: Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil and thereby acceded to some of God’s power. He punished them, and they were degraded from his friends to servants who would do his bidding. The house elves have access to some of the wizards’ power. Dumbledore says that house elves are “what they were made by wizards” (i.e., slaves, OotP). We don’t know how the enslaving of the elves came about, but it might have something to do with the learning of how to do magic… just a thought. Another thing: what is the one thing that separates elves and wizards? That’s right, clothes. The absence of clothes is the sign of the house elves’ enslavement (CoS). Clothes mean freedom, which puts an elf equal to a human. It’s the other forbidden fruit, the one that Adam and Eve never got to because they were kicked out of Eden, the only thing separating them from their God (immortality in their case). You can also interpret the clothes in another way; note the parallel: Adam and Eve were “freed” in the sense that they no longer had to live with their master and could go and do what they wanted, but that was an unwanted freedom, a punishment, just like they case with Winky and Mr. Crouch. AND, both the human couple and Winky were given clothes at that very time (Adam and Eve were naked until thrown out of Eden, except for some leaves after having eaten the forbidden fruit). Clothes/freedom is thus a double-edged sword, which can mean something great (Dobby) or something horrible (Winky), and it’s very interesting to take a closer look at these differences in attitude.

Dobby, Winky and Kreacher

Three elves that are at the same time very different and very alike (again, like humans). If we again make the parallel to religion, Winky is the most orthodox, feeling terrible shame when freed and staying loyal to her master even after he kicks her out. Caring for her master is her reason to live, “right” and “wrong” are what her master considers it to be (e.g., it being right to break out his son from Azkaban even though he was guilty), etc. In short: if Crouch tells her to jump, she’ll ask “how high” and then add another foot.

Dobby and Kreacher are very much alike. They were both slaves to masters they did not love or respect and suffered equally under them (as Dumbledore says in OotP). They are in a way each other’s mirror images, the same but opposites. They both act against their masters to ruin their plans (Dobby, CoS; Kreacher, OotP). They’re both “bad elves” in the sense that they disobey their masters, and they’re both “good elves” in the sense that they try to work against what they believe to be wrong. This is VERY important and goes closely together with religion: you think in a certain way because that’s how you’ve been raised to think and/or taught to think. You are not born a Catholic/Protestant/Hindu/Muslim/-Insert religion here; you are raised one. It’s like with languages: any child born could have any language as his mother tongue, depending on where he or she is raised. A child born to Chinese parents does not have a native ability that makes it easier to learn Chinese than, for example, French. (just think of all adopted children and linguists have made studies on this) Same with religion.

A vast majority of religious people are religious because they’ve been raised that way. The number of people “finding God” on their own is MINISCULE (I’m not counting people that have been “saved” by missionaries when starving, non-educated, in jail, depressed, alcoholics or under other physical or emotional stress, since these people are in the same vulnerable situation as children and therefore highly suggestible). Same with morals, and Kreacher is a good example of this. To him it’s WRONG to associate with Muggles for example. His feelings and sense of morality are just as real as Dobby’s or Harry’s, just different. For Kreacher, being killed and stuffed and hung on a wall is an honour, to help bring down the anti-Voldemort side is a virtue. His morals are different because he’s been raised that way (think of the religions/cultures where it’s an honourable thing for a widow to let herself be burnt alive next to her dead husband (India) or where it’s your duty to kill your daughter if she sleeps with somebody before she’s married (several middle eastern countries)). Dumbledore sees and understands this; Harry doesn’t. Most of us readers don’t either. We see Dobby as “the good guy” and Kreacher as the “horribly bad evil guy who got Sirius whom we all loved killed.” Wrong. Kreacher is only evil and Dobby’s only good by the anti-Voldemort side’s standards, to the other side, Kreacher’s a good guy and Dobby’s the big traitor.

Here, we’re approaching a question that has kept philosophers and ideologists busy for millennia: is there an objective truth regarding morals? Are there things that are universally good or bad? Different people have reached different conclusions. What is your opinion? (And remember that you too have been conditioned by your environment!)

I’ll give you my point of view next week when I’ll continue the parallel between house elves and religious people. Just think about all this till then. See you!