“Potterversity” Episode 18: “The Problem with House-Elves”
House-elf fans Emily and Katy talk with Dr. Christine Schott (Erskine College) about how the house-elves keep Harry Potter relevant to social issues today. Given the upheaval this new generation of readers sees in our world, Christine tells us, the Harry Potter stories give us a “training ground” for figuring out how to respond to those problems and complexities. The unsatisfying, unresolved issue of house-elf enslavement leads us to continue thinking about this wizarding world oppression in ways that help us consider persistent injustices in our world.
The house-elves can be related to all kinds of oppressed peoples, including those bound in chattel slavery, housewives (as Katy has argued), immigrant communities, and even artificial intelligence (as Emily has explored). Yet the house-elves’ ambivalent portrayal in the Harry Potter series as “happy slaves” makes us uneasy and requires us to examine them more closely. We talk about how the individual house-elves – Dobby, Winky, Kreacher, and Hokey – invite theoretical but also empathetic consideration from us. How do we understand Dobby’s sacrifice in the war against Voldemort? How should we feel about Harry hoping Kreacher will bring him a sandwich at the end of the Battle of Hogwarts?
Structural attempts at house-elf liberation in the wizarding world seem ineffective. What lessons can we gain about anti-racism and other social justice movements from such attempts as S.P.E.W.? Christine helps us see that there are insights to be gained about allyship and social change from how the characters struggle with the abolition of house-elf slavery. This is the value of a story that does not provide easy answers, she explains. We also talk about “cancel culture” and how to keep the study of literature relevant to both students and society at large.
Read Katy’s chapter on “The Real House-Elves of J.K. Rowling,” Emily’s essay analyzing “Dobby the Robot,” Christine’s essay on “The House Elf Problem,” and more scholarly perspectives on house-elves in Muggle Studies. Which approach do you find the most compelling?
In this episode’s special Owl Post segment, we discuss one listener’s question about how to understand Harry and Professor McGonagall’s troubling use of Unforgivable Curses. Should we…forgive them? What do you think?
What would you like to hear more about from our podcast? We’d love to hear from you! Please send us an email at PotterversityPodcast@gmail.com, and connect with us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.