A Rebuttal of Common Arguments Defending the Enslavement of House-Elves

by Kelly L. 

I’ve read several essays defending the enslavement of house-elves, and find them all to be ill-conceived at best (and disturbing at worst). The arguments most typically used are: (1) “But they like serving people,” and (2) “They’re not humans, you know.”

Overall, I find it highly disconcerting that so many of my peers actively argue for (or at least passively accept) slavery in any form, even within a fictional story. I don’t think there are any justifications for such a practice than can withstand the test of decency. Moreover, I cannot see how any author would embed the lesson that slavery is acceptable into a tale of the eternal struggle of good versus evil. Fortunately, none of the arguments that defend house-elf slavery hold water when examined closely.

I’ll address argument (2) first. Foremost, it is important to point out that this exact argument was used to justify the slavery of human beings for centuries. For example, because black people do not look like white people, they are clearly (in the minds of bigots) not equal. Indeed, some argued that those of African races were more closely related to the ape than those of European races; they were seen as barely more than animals, and thus it was acceptable to treat them as such. Since then, we all (I hope) have been enlightened to the point where we realize that no matter what race a person is, we are all human beings, and thus entitled to the same set of rights.

In the world JKR created, the same mentality should prevail, though some different labels must be applied. There are multitudes of individuals existing only in her world that exhibit the same intellectual, emotional, contemplative, decision-making, moral, and ethical capacity, if not biological makeup, as Homo sapiens. These individuals include (but are not necessarily limited to) centaurs, goblins, and yes, house-elves. While they are clearly not human, they certainly belong to the same class. I would like to label this class as “magical brethren” (a nod to the fountain in the Ministry of Magic, which recognized the fact that all these races belonged to a distinct class. However, it represented the old order of these races in society, and was, significantly, destroyed at the end of OOTP). While there are differences between wizards and house-elves, these distinctions do not translate to differences in worth. All magical brethren deserve the same set of rights just as (though there are differences between the races in our world) all human beings deserve the same rights.

Now I would like to move on to the more important, and far more contentious, argument (1): But they like serving people. Though I am not entirely convinced of this, I am willing for the sake of argument to grant the opposition that house-elves, by nature, absolutely adore serving wizard-kind and would hate to have this job taken away from them (a far cry from my parallel to the real world used to rebut argument (2) — this was never the case with humans). However, even if argument (1) is in fact true, it does absolutely nothing to support the systematic nature of the enslavement of house-elves, such as the strong magical bonds tying them to a particular family or duty. The bonds I am referring to are the powerful enchantments evidently set in place by wizards, which can only be lifted by wizards through the presentation of clothing. These enchantments undoubtedly transcend individual wizard/elf relationships, as slavery passes down from generation to generation. In other words, slavery isn’t negotiated on a case-by-case basis — magical bonds were put in place on the entirety of elf-kind in the past that are still effective today. They are at play at a societal level.

Nor can such bonds be voluntary as some have argued. Dobby, at least, wants freedom, and never would have consented to be a slave (even if he had, the fact that he cannot voluntarily leave the bond is a severe miscarriage of justice). Furthermore, the house-elves clearly have powerful magic of their own, but it is not enough to overcome these enchantments. They can certainly find loopholes, as illustrated by Dobby and Kreacher, but these holes are not big enough to provide the true exercise of free will. Dobby must still punish himself for leaving the Malfoy residence, and Kreacher must still obey a direct command from a hated master, no matter how loosely interpreted. Indeed, the choking fit Kreacher falls into upon Harry yelling “Shut up!” in Book 6 seems to surprise and anger him — he apparently had no control over his own voice at that point. I suspect that the same magic that keeps him enslaved physically forces him to comply with such direct orders, whether he wants to or not.

Even in such a despicable creature as Kreacher, I find the suspension of free will he suffers to be absolutely abhorrent. No matter how much house-elves enjoy serving people, I can’t imagine that they enjoy being utterly trapped in their situations and even their own bodies. The only solution is to remove the far-reaching enchantments that enslave the elves so unfairly and to eradicate the clothing-based hierarchy that traps elves in the lowest caste of society. For, if this were done, elves would still be able to serve wizards. In fact, they would be free to serve wizards on their own terms. As Dobby says, “Dobby is a free house-elf and he can obey anyone he likes….”

I know if I were a witch, I would far rather have a willing servant obey me than an unwilling slave. Wouldn’t you?