Muggles' Guide to Harry Potter/Magic/House Elf
Overview[edit | edit source]
House-elves are small creatures with big eyes and bat-like ears, and are usually very poorly clothed. They can often be found at large houses and mansions. They are supposed to be very loyal to the head of their family. An owner or master can 'free' a house elf by giving him or her clothes.
Extended Description[edit | edit source]
Beginner warning: Details follow which you may not wish to read at your current level.
House-elves are essentially slaves – they will serve one family for a long part of their life, and they feel that this is right and proper, that this is what they were created to do. At Hogwarts there are hundreds of house-elves, preparing the food for the feasts, cleaning, and doing other chores. House-elves are bound to listen to members of the family they belong to, but can choose to disobey anyone else. In extraordinary circumstances, they can even disobey their masters, but afterwards they will punish themselves quite harshly for it. Three house-elves play a significant role in the books: Dobby, Winky, and Kreacher; a fourth one, Hokey, is mentioned (in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, where she serves Hepzibah Smith), but does not play a particularly significant role.
Analysis[edit | edit source]
Quite obviously, most house-elves are content with their status, and believe that their situation, caring for their owners in return for shelter and, presumably, food, is right and proper. In fact, house-elves are considered chattel in the Wizarding world, and presumably could be sold; while we never see this, we do note that at Sirius' death, Kreacher is apparently included as being part of the house and property which Harry inherits. Kreacher has no say in this, he very strongly resists becoming the slave of one he considers a Mudblood, but he must, all the same, obey Harry's orders. We cannot know whether there is a magical component to Kreacher's transference of allegiance, but Professor Dumbledore sees it as proof that ownership of Sirius' house has passed to Harry. This suggests, first, that magic is involved, rather than simply tradition; and second, that Kreacher is considered a part of the house, and thus property rather than an individual.
House-elves can be freed; giving a house-elf clothes frees it from its situation, which is why they are so ill-clothed. They must wear whatever castoffs they can scavenge, which results in many of them wearing things like discarded, damaged pillowcases and rags twisted into rude loincloths. Most house-elves, however, do not want to be freed, and resist the suggestion most strongly. One exception is Dobby, who was the house-elf of the Malfoy family; he was so ill-treated there that he rebelled and eventually left their employ when Harry managed to engineer his receiving a sock from his master, Lucius Malfoy. As a free house-elf, Dobby was unable to find work for a year or so, eventually joining the kitchen staff at Hogwarts; it seems that most wizards don't want house-elves that they have to pay for, even if it is only a Galleon per month.
When Winky is dismissed in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Dobby manages to get her employed at Hogwarts as well; however, she doesn't want to work, she simply sits, mourning the loss of her position and drinking herself to oblivion, for almost a year. She has not directly appeared in any of the books since then, though Dobby does mention her again in the next book.
Hermione tries to start up an organization to combat this apparent slavery, the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare (S.P.E.W.), but quite apart from the unfortunate acronym, she meets a substantial amount of resistance, not only from wizards and witches who like having house-elves around to serve them, but from the house-elves themselves who prefer security to freedom. Hermione's attempts to emancipate the Hogwarts house elves, by hiding clothing under garbage in the Gryffindor common room where elves will pick it up, is seen as insulting by the elves; they understand dismissal as a sign of completely failing their master or family. Hermione's effort would be ineffective, even if the elves did not react by shunning Gryffindor tower, leaving Dobby the job of cleaning Gryffindor by himself. It is only an elf's master who can free him by giving him clothes, which means Albus Dumbledore, or possibly one of the staff, but the students are not in a position of authority over the elves.
Hermione may have been misled in her efforts by Harry's recounting of how Dobby gained his freedom. It was Harry's sock, originally, but Harry had given it to Lucius Malfoy, and it was Lucius who had inadvertently given it to Dobby. Harry understood, as Hermione apparently does not, that if Harry had given the sock to Dobby directly, it would not have freed him. Interestingly, Harry himself falls into this same mistake in the fifth book: seeing that Hermione has a gift for Kreacher, he cautions her about giving Kreacher clothes, forgetting that only Sirius, Kreacher's master, could free him.
House-elves have a tendency to over-simplify the language. They refer to themselves in the third person ("Dobby is most sorry, sir...") and use full names ("Dobby cannot let Harry Potter lose his Wheezy!"), both of which would seem to imply an uncertainty about the use of language – the intricacies of "I" versus "you", and the appropriate use of names and nicknames, seems to be beyond them. This would imply a lower level of verbal intelligence than humans have. Additionally, Dobby's efforts to prevent Harry from returning to Hogwarts, or to get him to return to Privet Drive once he is there, seem quite poorly thought out, almost child-like, again suggesting a less sophisticated level of intelligence. From this, one can see why a house-elf would be afraid to be freed; the world is a scary place for one so surrounded by people smarter than himself.
Questions[edit | edit source]
Study questions are meant to be left for each student to answer; please don't answer them here.
- How do house-elves do laundry?
- We see that house-elves are nominally male (e.g. Dobby) and female (e.g. WInky), so can assume some sort of reproduction. Given that house-elves normally live one to a household, how do they manage to marry (assuming marriage – this is a child's book after all) and raise families?
Greater Picture[edit | edit source]
Intermediate warning: Details follow which you may not wish to read at your current level.
The intellect of house elves is probably best described as "child-like". This is telegraphed to us by their use of language; specifically, the confusion of "I" and "you", and the misuse of full names and nicknames, is characteristic of the very young. In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, we also see that Dobby's attempts to prevent Harry's return to Hogwarts, and to send him home once he is back at school, are quite childish. The same is true of Kreacher's loyalty. When we first see him, Kreacher is plainly rebelling, in a sullen and childish manner, against the orders of a Master he feels is unworthy. Circumstance has made it necessary for him to accept Sirius' orders; nothing will make him like it, and he will resist every way he can. Kreacher behaves the same way when Harry becomes his Master in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. In the same book, we see a direct contrast between Kreacher's barely-below-the-surface rebellion, and Dobby's enthusiastic loyalty, when the two of them are assigned the same task by Harry.
It is because of this perceived child-like intelligence that we are able to accept Kreacher's sudden change of loyalty when Harry enlists his aid to retrieve Mundungus Fletcher and the locket Kreacher had been instructed to destroy. The very young are able to form very sudden and deep alliances for what seem quite trivial reasons, and Kreacher's response to Harry actually caring about the same things Kreacher cares about would be characteristic of this. Ron's caution that Harry was "over the top" when he gave Regulus' locket to Kreacher was not accurate; although it did result in Kreacher falling apart emotionally, it was necessary so that he could reassemble, centered around Harry, rather than around Sirius' mother.
The status and situation of house elves is complicated. Applying human values to "help" non-humans is not as straightforward as some, including Hermione, believe at first. Hermione's campaign with S.P.E.W. is laudable and correct, elves are slaves and should be given the rights, privileges and respect humans enjoy. However, she finds difficulty in understanding the values and desires of most elves. Initially she wishes to free all elves and have them paid wages for their work. The elves, with few exceptions, consider this an insult to their honor. Elves appear to have been bred or enchanted to view their servitude as a noble vocation rather than enslavement. This breeding and enchantment is obviously the selfish work of wizards in the far past who desired the luxury of dedicated servants who cost nothing. Such a tradition, as Hermione finds out, is difficult to reform and requires some patience. Eventually the elves, including Kreacher, achieve some enlightenment, and the victory banquet at the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is shared by elves, humans and others as friends and (at least temporarily) equals.
Not mentioned above is the apparent fact that House Elf magic is not of the same type as human magic. In particular, we are told numerous times that Hogwarts is protected against Apparition, that you cannot Apparate into or out of Hogwarts, or even within Hogwarts except when the spells are locally and temporarily lifted in the Great Hall for Apparition class. Yet, Dobby is clearly able to Disapparate from Harry's grip in the Hospital Wing; we see that in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. This shows that House Elf Disapparition is different from "wand-bearer" Disapparition in two respects: first, it can be done in places where the human spell is blocked, and second, it can be used to get away from someone who is holding the caster, something that evidently is not so easily accomplished by humans.
This ability of House Elves to Apparate where humans cannot plays a fairly important role later in the series as well. Kreacher, taken to the cave of the locket, is able to return to the Black house and tell Regulus what had happened, despite Voldemort having surrounded the location with various protective and preventative spells, and despite Kreacher's then being dragged underwater by Inferi. It is Kreacher's information that leads Harry to a Horcrux.
Whether other House Elf magic is significantly different from human magic is uncertain. We know that House Elves do not carry wands, and so there is certainly a difference in the way magic is produced; however, apparently House-Elf magic can be stopped by human magic, as Mundungus Fletcher is able to loot Grimmauld Place despite Kreacher's efforts to stop him.
10 Things About House-Elves The Harry Potter Movies Leave Out
From Hippogriffs to Hungarian Horntails, J.K. Rowling's Wizarding World is abundant with magical creatures and beings. Throughout this pantheon of monsters and beasts is a wide array of consciousness. One of the more sentient creatures are the small race of servants known as House-Elves. This class is bound to serve the Wizarding World for life in their homes and institutions.
RELATED: 10 Things From Harry Potter That Kids These Days Won't Understand
Everyone is a fan of Dobby, and the later films shone a bit more light on other Elves such as Kreacher. The books hold far more insight into their history, abilities, and culture than the movies ever could, though. Delve deep into House-Elf lore with this list below!
10 House Elves Have An Affinity For Wine Making
This fact might be even too obscure for some book fans, but House-Elves seemed to have been accomplished winemakers in the Wizarding World. Throughout both the books and the films, the only creatures to be referred to as elves are House-Elves. There are no Lord of the Rings-style human elves or cookie-making Keeblers anywhere to be found in Rowling's story.
So, when Severus Snape's mentions he owns a bottle of Elf-Made Wine in The Half-Blood Prince, it is safe to assume that it was House-Elf-made. In the novel, Snape, Narcissa Malfoy, and Bellatrix Lestrange share a glass of the wine when discussing the Unbreakable Vow. It makes sense that House-Elves would have an interest in wine, especially considering Winky's dependence in The Goblet of Fire.
9 Payment For Their Service Is Out Of The Question
When looking deeper, House-Elves are essentially slaves. Not only that, but there is an aspect to their characterization that leaves a bit of a bad taste in the mouths of many readers. In The Goblet of Fire, Hermione attempts to pay some House-Elves for their service. The creatures took this gesture as an insult, refusing to clean the dormitories in protest.
Throughout the books, Rowling states that almost all House-Elves like to be unpaid indentured servants. The ramifications of this fact are pretty unsettling. But within the world, it is clear that a majority of these creatures crave to be ordered around, and remain unpaid slaves; cheery stuff for a kids book, to say the least.
8 House Elves Worked All Over Hogwarts
The Goblet of Fire is the best source for information about House-Elves in the Wizarding World. It has the most appearances of the creatures and revealed never-before-seen aspects of their culture. In this book, the trio learns that House-Elves staff the entirety of Hogwarts.
RELATED: Harry Potter: 12 Facts About The Hogwarts Castle The Movies Leave Out
These servants are the ones who cook the feasts, clean the dormitories, carry the student's luggage, and whatever manual labor needs to be done at the school. The trio was surprised to hear this, but it also sheds light that House-Elves are incredibly talented at going unnoticed. These creatures were the backbone of all the logistics of Hogwarts School, and all without nearly anyone noticing.
7 Dobby's Yearning For Freedom Was An Oddity
The first House-Elf ever to grace the pages of a Harry Potter book was Dobby. This little guy was a servant to the Malfoy household prior to the ending of Chamber of Secrets. During the book, though, he went behind his masters' backs and assisted in protecting Harry Potter during his second year (much to Harry's dismay). Dobby yearned for freedom more than anything, and in return for his assistance and kindness, Harry coerced Lucius Malfoy to free Dobby.
Dobby's obsession with freedom seems understandable to readers, but to other House-Elves, he's in the minority. As previously mentioned, House-Elves apparently crave submission. Dobby is the only one who wants freedom and payment, and because of this, he is ostracized by his fellow elves.
Most of the Wizarding World acts relatively content in regards to the enslavement of House-Elves. Nearly everyone thinks that they inherently enjoy their lack of freedom and servitude and never give it a second thought. One individual stood apart and began advocating for their betterment the moment she learned about their treatment: Hermione Granger.
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One of the most beloved storylines in the books was Hermione's founding of S.P.E.W. (The Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare). After learning of the enslavement of House-Elves, Hermione founded the group, which consisted of herself, Harry, Ron, and Neville (the last three rather unwillingly). She would advocate for their freedom, payment, and would covertly hide articles of clothing to force freedom upon elves. Sadly, this arc was cut from the final film, but it remains a fan-favorite.
5 House Elves Fought In The Battle Of Hogwarts
As previously mentioned, House-Elves held the entire operational housekeeping and culinary system of Hogwarts in place. Once again, these elves are incredibly impressive. Although Hermione was upset over their treatment by the school, the elves themselves (nice rhyme) loved the school. It was their home, and Dumbledore treated them kindly.
In The Deathly Hallows, the House-Elves' home was threatened by the Battle of Hogwarts. Determined to do their part and led by Kreacher, the House Elves assisted in the battle against the Death Eaters. Armed with pots, pans, knives, and other kitchen utensils, these servants defended their home the best they could. Certainly, after that display, they deserved some compensation.
4 Kreacher Was Tortured By Voldemort
Kreacher is a fascinating and underrated character in the Harry Potter series. Kreacher is the exact opposite of Dobby, in that he is incredibly abrasive, bigoted, and rude. This is understandable considering his past and assigned family. Kreacher was the house-elf of the Black family, first serving Sirus' mother Walburga, who Kreacher remained devoted to after her death.
RELATED: Harry Potter: 10 Facts About The Death Eaters That The Movies Leave Out
When he served his master and Walburga's son, Regulus, Kreacher was volunteered to assist Voldemort in hiding one of his Horcruxes. The locket, which was hidden in the oceanside cave, needed to be placed in the bowl filled with the torture potion. Voldemort forced Kreacher to consume the concoction and left him to die in the cave. Luckily, Kreacher apparated away, but it remained one of the many dark moments in his life that is never mentioned in the films.
3 Hermione Strengethed Elf Protection Laws As An Adult
As stated before, Hermione was a significant advocate for House-Elves throughout her fourth year at Hogwarts. Although few people believed in S.P.E.W., Hermione never let go of her passion for advocacy. After the Battle of Hogwarts and into adulthood, Hermione began a career at the Ministry of Magic. Specifically, Hermione worked within the Department for the Regulation of Magical Creatures.
This was when her work with S.P.E.W. really began to flourish. With the backing of her government (and not having to focus on saving the world), Hermione started to implement laws which supported the lives and dignity of House-Elves. Previously, the rules were somewhat lax, allowing masters to mistreat their servants without punishment. Through her work, Hermione turned public conception of the creatures around in a way never seen before.
2 House Elves Hold Powerful Magic
Although House-Elves are regulated to a servant class, that does not mean that they are without power. House-Elves are full of magical abilities which occasionally dwarf those of witches and wizards. Throughout Harry Potter, House-Elves show their talent for telekinesis and apparating. Their powers are so strong that they can throw full-grown adults with their telekinesis, as well as apparate places witches and wizards are not allowed to.
RELATED: Harry Potter: The 11 Most Powerful (And 10 Weakest) Magical Creatures, Officially Ranked
The only catch is the fact that, like most magical creatures, House-Elves cannot legally own or use a wand. This limits their full potential in regards to their magical skills. It would make sense that, to keep House-Elves subjugated, wizards would remove their right to wield a wand. It is just one more reason to question the whole system of labor in the magical world.
The biggest case of House-Elf erasure in the Harry Potter films was the glossing over of Winky the House Elf. Winky was the servant of the Crouch family in The Goblet of Fire. In the book, Winky is accused of conjuring the Dark Mark after the raid at the Quidditch World Cup. As punishment, she is dismissed from her service, goes into a deep depression, and succumbs to alcoholism. Sad stuff, huh?
Winky is eventually hired on along with Dobby at Hogwarts. Though she never entirely overcame her addiction, Winky did ultimately better herself through her new work and even assisted during the Battle of Hogwarts. She was an excellent expansion on the House-Elf mythology, and it was a shame to see her gone from the film adaption.
NEXT: 10 Characters From Harry Potter That The Movies Didn't Include
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Matt Berger is a writer, comedian, actor, Paddington enthusiast, and Corgi dad. He currently writes for Screen Rant, has written for Bloody Disgusting, hosts the Film School Sucked podcast, and co-hosts the Macabre podcast. Matt is an alumni of Portland State University with a degree in English and Film Studies.
House-elves are small humanoid creatures who inhabit large houses belonging to wealthy Wizarding families. They are “bound” to the family of the house, which means they do all manner of menial tasks for them until they die. House-elves are apparently very happy with this arrangement and consider it a matter of pride that they serve faithfully and do not betray their families.
A house-elf is a short creature with large bat-like ears and enormous eyes. It is difficult for an inexperienced human to tell the difference between male and female house-elves, although the females generally have higher, squeakier voices (GF8). Neither male nor female house-elves wear clothing (and they would consider it shameful to do so); instead, they cover themselves in towels, tea cozies, or pillowcases. If their owner gives them an article of clothing, it breaks the “enslavement” and the house-elf is free. For most house-elves, this would be the ultimate insult and they would be shamed forever.
There are over a hundred house-elves at Hogwarts, the largest number in any dwelling in Britain (GF12). They lay the fires, do the laundry, light the lamps, and do countless other such tasks. The house-elves are also the chefs of the castle and they create wonderful meals in the huge kitchens.
The role or function of the house-elves is very important. They hear and see things, as Dobby said (GF26) and can use their powerful magic and this information for doing bad (Kreacher), neutral (Winky) or good (Dobby).
A house-elf named Dobby, who served the Malfoy family, took a more enlightened view than most. He desperately wanted to be free and eventually Harry Potter managed to trick Lucius Malfoy into giving Dobby an old sock. Dobby later went to work at Hogwarts, where he actually received payment for his labors (GF21).
Dobby has huge, green, tennis ball-sized eyes and a long thin nose like a pencil (CS1, CS2). He is quite short, like all house-elves, coming only up to Harry’s navel (GF21). He is devoted to Harry Potter and also to Ron Weasley, who he refers to as Harry’s “Wheezy.” Dobby is particularly fond of socks and used his earnings to buy yarn and knit them himself (GF23).
Note that as long as Dobby was the slave of the Malfoys, his attempts to help Harry failed: cf. the stolen Owl Post, the closed magic portal leading to Platform Nine-and-Three-Quarters, the enchanted Bludger (CS1, CS2, CS5, CS10). Dobby tried to protect Harry in the wrong way. But after Harry Potter managed to trick Lucius Malfoy into giving Dobby an old sock, Dobby was free and used his own powerful magic against Lucius Malfoy and knocked him down a flight of stairs (CS18). When he’s working at Hogwarts, his actions really helped Harry (cf. he gave Harry Gillyweed to breathe underwater (GF26), he explained how and where Harry could find the room of requirement (OP18) and warned the members of the DA when Umbridge discovered their secret (OP27).
Winky, a female house-elf who until recently worked for the Crouch family, has enormous brown eyes and a nose like a tomato (GF8, Winky’s mother and grandmother were also Crouch family house-elves (GF21, GF9). For years, Winky took care of Barty Crouch Jr., who was held in the Crouch residence under the Imperius Curse. Barty Crouch Sr. sacked her when she was found holding a wand at the Quidditch World Cup, which not only publicly associated him with Dark magic, but demonstrated that her guardianship of his son might be unreliable (GF8, GF9, GF35). She has come to work at Hogwarts, but she is in total disgrace and has taken to sitting on a stool by the fireplace and getting drunk on butterbeer. Her distress at the death of the last members of the Crouch family hasn’t helped (GF21, GF28, OP18, GF35).
Kreacher is an aged old house-elf whose ancestors have served the family of the Blacks for centuries. He is nasty and rude to the current inhabitants of the house, number twelve Grimmauld Place, and doesn’t do much actual upkeep. He is devoted to the mother of Sirius Black, who died in 1985 [Y5] but whose portrait still shrieks orders from the wall of the front hall of the house. Kreacher tried to stop the members of the Order of the Phoenix from throwing away the many dark magic items with which 12 Grimmauld Place was filled, even going so far as to rescue some of them, which might be very important later (OP4, OP6, OP9, OP23). When accidentally given leave by Sirius, Kreacher went to the home of a family relation, the Malfoys. There he gave much away about Sirius and the Order (OP22, OP24, OP32, OP37). He was inherited by Harry and now lives at Hogwarts (HBP3, HBP19). After Harry and Kreacher make amends through the gift of Regulus’ fake locket, Kreacher is inspired to help Harry Potter defeat Voldemort. He, with the help of Dobby, rallies the house elves to fight in the Battle of Hogwarts.
As the case of Kreacher shows, it’s very important for the wizards to know if their house-elf is really loyal to them or not, because these creatures see and hear things, and can collect information and eventually use it against their masters.
House-elves have a very powerful magic all their own, magic which requires none of the types of focusing tools (wands or words) that Wizard magic requires. Dobby used his magic to enchant a Bludger, to close the magic portal that leads to platform nine-and-three-quarters, to interfere with Owl Post and steal someone’s letters, and to knock Lucius Malfoy down a flight of stairs. He also can disappear at will, which would seem to be a form of Apparition, but a form which can be done within Hogwarts, where, as Hermione constantly reminds Harry and Ron, normal Wizarding Apparition is simply not possible. All of these are very powerful charms.
Unfortunately, as long as they’re enslaved, they aren’t likely to be using this magic for anything but their mundane work. Hermione Granger is working to bring enlightened thinking to the house-elves at Hogwarts, so far with very little success.
House-elves also exist in North America. In 1926 New York there was a House-elf shining wands with a “feathery contraption” in the headquarters of MACUSA. They also served as waiters and bartenders at the speakeasy called The Blind Pig. A house-elf was behind the bar when Newt Scamander, Tina Goldstein and Jacob Kowalski entered the nightclub. He spoke to Jacob Kowalski who states “I love house-elves. My uncle was a house-elf.” Queenie Goldstein approaches him and orders “six shots of gigglewater and a lobe blaster” which he shuffles off to prepare. In addition house-elves are serving drinks in the nightclub. One gave a drink to a giant ”whose hand dwarfs the mug he is handed”. Another brought Gnarlak a drink when he sat at a table with Newt Scamander and a third brought Gnarlak a document to sign, then scurried off with it. Another house-elf carried a crate of bottles and shouted the warning “MACUSA are coming!” before he disapparated (FWT).
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