Why House-Elves Are Not a Metaphor for Transatlantic Slavery
House-elves in the Harry Potter books are often treated as a metaphor for transatlantic slavery, and it’s easy to see why. House-elves are the invisible backbone of the wizarding community, forced to do work against their bidding and passed along in wealthy families as property. However, this metaphor, if taken too far, can be troubling and problematic. The majority of the house-elves in the Harry Potter series don’t want to be free. They love to work and find the idea of wages insulting. African slaves were commonly described in this way, but the house-elves seem to be a true embodiment of this stereotype.
In order to understand why J.K. Rowling would choose to portray her house-elves like this, it is important to look at history and mythology. House-elves are clearly inspired by the English and Scottish legend of brownies, sprite-like creatures that help out with cooking and cleaning in the households they are connected to. In these myths, people are warned that they should never offer their brownies clothes because, if they do, the brownie will leave, never to be seen again. The reason why the brownie finds clothes so offensive changes from story to story, but one version claims that brownies are insulted by (or perhaps forbidden from) receiving any compensation for their work.
This myth, clearly, is where Rowling got her idea to create brownie-like creatures who love work and service and who are set free by gifts of clothes (which they generally find distressing and insulting). With this as her starting point, she pushed further: What if not all brownies were happy with working for no compensation? What if it depends on the family they serve? How might wizards manipulate and exploit these creatures?
Once she had pushed the brownie myth this far, however, why didn’t Rowling change it completely to make house-elves unwilling and miserable slaves? I think it’s because she wanted to use her magical creatures to explore conflicting cultural values and the way those values can challenge our relationships with people who are different than us. In her description of the sword of Gryffindor on WizardingWorld.com, Rowling says, “I am interested in what happens when cultural beliefs collide…. [Harry and Griphook’s disagreement over the sword] is a clash of values without a solution, because each side has a different concept of what is right.” Goblins represent a different set of values on material ownership, whereas creatures like centaurs show different values on living in the present versus the future and whether or not to interfere with fate. House-elves, therefore, in their love of work and resistance to compensation, are not brainwashed but rather are demonstrating a different set of cultural values than humans. They work not to obtain material goods but for the personal satisfaction of helping the people whom they consider to be their family. Even Dobby, who seems to be the exception to this rule, refuses extra wages and says, “He isn’t wanting too much, miss, he likes work better” (GoF 379), an idea which both Harry and Hermione find difficult to understand.
That is not to say that house-elves are not slaves. They certainly are since they have no control over whom they work for, no way of leaving, and no recourse for injustices or violence used against them. Hermione is right to be raising awareness of their poor treatment and to be fighting for their freedom. Rowling, however, uses Hermione to point out the dangers of attempting to be an activist for a group of people whose culture and beliefs you don’t understand. Hermione is trying to be helpful, but all she’s doing is imposing her own beliefs on the house-elves, and they respond by turning away from her in disgust.
There are a lot of parallels between house-elves and the history of American and European slavery, but I think to view house-elves as a simple metaphor for that history is to miss much of the nuance involved in the house-elf tale and to play into problematic stereotypes of slaves. Rowling took the myth of brownies and decided to push its boundaries and experiment with its implications. Through that, she created a creature that is distinct and separate from humans and – as such – has its own values and beliefs that are sometimes difficult for us to understand and appreciate. However, what Hermione learns throughout the series is that the only way she can fight for house-elves’ rights is by understanding and respecting their unique culture.
All that being said, it is still valid to critique Rowling for creating a magical creature that reinforces the stereotype of slaves as willing workers. The fact that so many people assume that house-elves are meant to be a literal representation of American and European slavery means that the representation of that stereotype in house-elves hits too close to home for many. I think that the nuanced message that Rowling is trying to send with the house-elves is interesting and valuable, but for some people, it might not be worth the cost.