The Servant Problem:
Farewell, rewards and fairies,
Good housewives now may say,
For now foul sluts in dairies
Do fare as well as they.
And though they sweep their hearths no less
Than maids were wont to do,
Yet who of late for cleanliness
Finds sixpence in her shoe?
— Richard Corbett, 1628
It is obvious to almost every reader of Harry Potter that with her House Elves JK Rowling is deliberately tapping into an extensive wealth of traditional mundane folklore. A source to which she has admitted. However, unlike her adoption of such other traditional magical creatures as the phoenix, the unicorn and the dragon, in the House Elves she has made some sweeping departures from the folkloric models.
As can scarcely be mentioned too often, the Potterverse is not our own all-too-mundane world. But the analogs are so many, and in some cases so exact, that some degree of application between the two is simply too difficult to resist. In almost every way the world of JK Rowling’s wizards is as parallel to our own as that of Mary Norton’s Borrowers.
The wizarding world seems particularly parallel to the world that peeks through folktales dating back to a pre-Industrial England around the time of the Parliamentary wars. Fittingly enough, this was the last period that Potterverse wizards lived more or less openly, as wizards, out among Muggles.
Moreover, the House Elves themselves are almost instantly recognizable as being based upon the class, or tribe, of Fairies once known throughout Britain as Hobs. Those small, usually friendly, domestic spirits which perform tasks for humans and have taken up residence in human habitations.
Hobs have historically been called by various local names such as hobmen, hobgoblins, fenoderee, phouka, bwbachod, bwca, bodach, and most widely, in more modern times as brownies. Some of these entities have also been known by individual names although as often as not these have been names that were assigned to them by the humans with whom they allegedly shared their homes. One variant of brownie once believed to be found in Yorkshire and Lancashire was even known as the Dobby. (Not to be confused with a Dobie, another variant of North-country brownie which, although willing, is too stupid to be trusted with anything that matters deeply.)
My primary source in these matters is noted folklorist, Katherine M. Briggs, chiefly from her work; An Encyclopedia of Fairies [in Great Britain; A Dictionary of Fairies] c. 1976. Ms Briggs is the author of a number of other books on folklore, an excellent retelling of the traditional Northern tale of Kate Crackernuts, and the original novel, ‘Hobberdy Dick’, relating the story of an Oxfordshire hob, set in the early 1650s.
There is a good deal of continuing confusion in our own world over the nature of Fairies, which makes folklore, in some regards, a very inexact source of information. But one apparent “fact” that does work its way through the fog is that most “fairies” are not limited to the physical plane, and are at least to some degree regarded as spirits. Traditionally, the adoption of a particular human household or farm as their chosen “place” by any of them is openly stated as being a ‘haunting’. And, being ‘spirits’, their sub-tenancy may last for generations. Indeed, it usually lasts until someone goes to the effort of exorcising or ‘laying’ them. Typically by offering them clothing. Which they do not have to accept.
There is also considerable lingering confusion as to why a Hob should be driven away specifically by a gift of clothing. That this is almost always the case is generally agreed upon; but the reasoning behind it remains unclear. The ‘fact’ has been variously explained as that the acquisition of proper clothing makes a hob too vain to do menial work any longer. Or, conversely, that the hob quits his “job” in anger over the poor quality of the clothing offered. Or even by the theory that hobs are Fairies who have been exiled from their halls and sent to work among humans until such time as the humans should consider them to have earned a reward. In any event, the clothing is always new clothing, deliberately given to the hob. It is not human clothing appropriated by the hob. The only real conclusion to be drawn from all this is that humans do not really understand what motivates hobs.
Through several centuries of intermittent interaction with hobs, a number of generalities in dealing with them have been noted in folklore. First; that hobs dislike to be watched at their work, generally only venturing from their hiding places at night and performing their tasks while the rest of the household is asleep. For that matter, hobs are very rarely seen by anyone apart from beasts and very young children, although they are occasionally overheard by adults.
Second; that hobs like things to be done in accordance with tradition. Given that the origins of the whole concept of hobs is probably lost in a bog of sundry nature religions dating from the Neolithic era, if not earlier, this is probably not to be wondered at.
Third; that they do not like to be openly offered payment; but that what they are given should be of the best quality that is available. Usually the best bread — and cream — if it is to be had, set aside in a place where they might find it for themselves.
Fourth: they will not endure insults or mistreatment. They will either leave or they will retaliate, and given a choice between the two, they are much more likely to retaliate. And they can be very nasty about it, too. To the point of often driving away the humans who have offended them. To the hob, that house is his.
Fifth; a hob will work most eagerly in a household where the humans do their part willingly and effectively. The lazy or slovenly members of the household are likely to find that the hob has repaid them by creating additional disorder for them to deal with, even when it has not already subjected them to corporal punishment, generally by way of pinching them black & blue. Conversely, hobs have also been known to reward the diligent, and to attempt to smooth their way.
Which leads us to another common observation; once a hob has adopted a property, he tends to sit in judgement upon the human owners or tenants of that property, and if they do not meet the hob’s standards he will take it upon himself to punish them for their laxness. Furthermore, an offended hob can turn quite vicious, making the lives of the humans in ‘his’ house miserable.
In some of the folklore of our own world the hobs that have slipped over this particular border are said to have become boggarts. The behavior of a boggart (in folklore, although obviously not according to Rowling) is indistinguishable from that of a poltergeist. Interestingly, where a brownie is said to have almost no nose, to the point of there being almost nothing but two little nostrils in the middle of a face, a boggart has a very long sharp nose. But given that neither one is commonly seen by the humans whose house he haunts, this is probably even more of a fable than the rest.
Some hobs, most specifically brownies, are attributed as being playful, mischievous and fond of practical jokes.
And many hobs have been reported as being shapeshifters when they wish to be.
In our world that is.
Doesn’t sound much like being the case in Rowling’s, does it?
There is, obviously, no Potterverse precedent of a House Elf turning into a boggart if subjected to insult or mistreatment. Although you could perhaps make a reasonable argument that that is what did in fact happen in Dobby’s case, or Kreachur’s.
The most significant difference between the traditional hob of our world’s folklore and that of Rowling’s, however, is that her hobs are not even remotely immortal.
For that matter, for a couple of years it seemed that if the Black family’s tradition of mounting the stuffed heads of outworn House Elves on the wall only began with Sirius Black’s Aunt Elladora, then unless that particular household served as the repository of all the House Elf heads of the whole extended Black family, then modern House Elves would seem to be painfully short-lived, for there ware already several heads on that wall.
This impression was demonstrated to be inaccurate, or at least incomplete when, in HBP we were informed that the late (and elderly) Madam Hepzibah Smith’s devoted House Elf, Hokey, had been with her since she was a girl.
The release of the sketch of a section of the House of Black’s family Tapestry for the Book Aid charity auction in February, 2006 finally clarified the matter to at least some degree. It turns out that “Aunt Elladora” was, in fact, several-times-great Aunt Elladora, sister of Phineas Nigellus, Sirius’s great-great grandfather, and some four generations upstream of Sirius Black himself. Presumably the House Elves’ heads mounted on the wall of #12, have collected there over the course of about 150 years.
It also interjects a certain degree of context to the display, removing it from the realm of callous cruelty to servants, and rendering it into a piece of morbid Victorian sentiment, on the order of having one’s dear little lap dog or favorite kitty stuffed after its demise and displayed in a glass case in the parlor.
This lack of immortality calls for a major paradigm shift when one attempts to draw comparisons between Rowling’s pitiful House Elves and folklore’s independent — and highly eccentric — hobs. But some broad similarities are likely to still be applicable, since Rowling who allegedly was at one time a Girl Guide, has admitted that the hobs (or more specifically, brownies) were indeed, her original model.
For one thing, given that Harry and his classmates lived in Hogwarts castle for over three full school years before they discovered that the cooking and cleaning were even done by House Elves suggests that, like hobs, House Elves are not to be seen if they do not choose to be seen. (This is confirmed by Hagrid’s statement that not being seen is the mark of a good House Elf.) This is not so likely to be a case of true invisibility as it is likely to be due to some form of unnoticability, or a reverse form of the glamour which is so frequently attributed as one of the gifts of non-human magical races. (Note: this does not refer to their habit of “popping” in and out of places. Such “reports” are probably due to the “thunderclap” of displaced air resulting from the Elves’ version of Apparating and Disapparating.)
If House Elves are mortal, however, then they cannot very well be truly solitary, as traditional hobs are said to be; for then there would be no new generation of House Elves, and we have direct canon evidence that assures us that House Elves have mothers and children. Although they may not precisely have families. Or not two-parent families, anyway.
In the days before Seclusion, I think that like the hobs of our own folklore, most House Elves were bound, or had bound themselves, to Muggle properties, and conducted themselves much as the hobs in folklore are reported to have done. Since they did not choose to show themselves, the Muggles did not ever realize that there was more than one Elf on the property even if, in fact, their household was being shared by a she-Elf with an Elf child, or even a small nuclear family of Elves.
And, if given any choice in the matter, House Elves would have quite deliberately chosen Muggle over magical households to settle into, since in that case it was the Elf who had the upper hand and controlled his or her circumstances. And, given what we’ve been shown of the general volatility of Elf behavior, when in control of the situation, some Elves would have been as mischievous as any hob, and as spiteful. Perhaps not quite on the same level as Peeves, but damned close.
But, at that, the additional work done by even a disruptive Elf, in an era when every additional pair of hands was regarded as a blessing, it would have been a rare family which would have been willing to drive the Elf away, however capricious his behavior.
Lament, lament, old Abbeys,
The Fairies lost command!
They did but change Priests’ babies,
But some have changed your land.
And all your children, sprung from thence,
Are now grown Puritans,
Who live as Changelings ever since
For love of your demains.
At morning and at evening both
You merry were and glad,
So little care of sleep or sloth
These pretty ladies had;
When Tom came home from labour,
Or Cis to milking rose,
Then merrily went their tabor,
And nimbly went their toes.
Which brings us to that pesky question of how and why House Elves are “bound” to their households. For this binding appears to be quite real.
The next obvious question is why the acceptance of proper clothing as opposed to dressing oneself in general household linens should break that binding.
A third question, more rarely asked, is; what are the consequences to the Elf of a broken binding? For I think there is more to it than we’ve been shown or told. And I’m not sure JK Rowling knows the answer either. Her sources certainly can’t seem to agree on the matter.
Well, okay; Theories ’R’ Us:
In the first place, unlike human witches and wizards, House Elves are members of a authentically magical species.
We keep forgetting that despite the fact that human wizards appear to be the dominant magical Beings in the wizarding world, magical conductivity is an aberration in humans. Only a very small, statistically insignificant percentage of humans are capable of conducting magical energies. Only human wizards require wands to properly focus those energies, and (acto my own theories which are neither fully supported — nor contradicted outright — in canon), only human wizards require wands to protect themselves from taking harm from the direct conduction of these energies as they manifest either as “wild” magic or in their less domesticated form, popularly known as the Dark Arts. Furthermore, to all appearances, only human wizards apparently *can* be harmed by conducting such energies.
The physical and psychic requirements of a truly magical species may well entail conditions or propitiations to the natural order which simply do not apply to humans. Particularly given the consideration that most magical species are usually in some sense nature spirits.
Conversely the presumed appearance of the whole situation may be a human overlay, or projection upon behavior which is entirely due to other cultural dynamics that have developed from underlying Elfin instincts, which are grossly misunderstood by humans.
We have already been made aware that there are representatives of several “nature-bound” magical races in the Potterverse which in folklore are dependent upon proximity to various natural features such as rivers or lakes. It is not beyond reason to provisionally suppose that House Elves may also require a form of connection to some feature of the material plane to ensure their well-being. Or that that at the very least they firmly believe that such a connection is necessary for their well-being. The requirement may well be cultural, or even instinctive, rather than literal.
Following this particular line of inquiry: since according to tradition the hob felt compelled to serve a whole property, rather than specifically one structure on a property, we may also need to postulate that the Elves almost certainly came before the Houses, and that they in fact are something along the lines of being a form of Earth sprite, attaching themselves to territories which they claimed for their own family unit, in perpetuity, at some point beyond the reach of memory, probably before the invasions of men.
Consider; there is absolutely no indication that Elves, although they are at least marginally social Beings, have ever had a tradition of gathering into communal groups such as villages or cities among their own kind. Instead, they seem to have adopted a practice of spreading themselves out over the countryside, with a solitary Elf, or a nuclear family of Elves staking out a claim on a large enough freehold property to support them, and thereafter they seem to have dedicated their lives and energies to the tending of their own tract of land.
I postulate that in the earliest days, one of the offspring would inherit the tenancy from the parent, or parents, and any additional offspring, once grown, would have left to stake a claim upon some other, vacant property. One supposes that most often they would try to lay claim to property which had lost its Elf, due to a lack of heirs of the previous freeholder. For that matter, it seems unlikely that there are very many additional offspring. We have certainly never heard any House Elf mention the existence of siblings to this point. Although on that issue our sampling to date is too small to base a lot of reliance upon.
In fact, once examined, the basic social patterns of house Elves do not conform to those of humans at all. Left to themselves, they clearly have no more formed the basic strategy of grouping together for mutual protection than Giants have. (Right there we ought to register a strong hint that they are not simply funny-looking little humans who cannot talk straight.)
Unlike with Giants, it has been demonstrated that House Elves are able to adapt to living in reasonably large colonies and functioning together in a state of mutual cooperation. But I believe that the practice of doing so has been a comparitively recent development which has been imposed upon them since the formation of a Secluded wizarding world and their subsequent titular enslavement.
Quite possibly this traditional “solitary” behavior is a side effect of their being inherently magical. Their entire reasoning processes follow different patterns from those of humans, who in general cannot simply Apparate away from any threat, and undoubtedly the Elves have developed an entirely different cultural range of symbols and associations which bear little resemblance to ours.
That they “bound” themselves to their ancestral territories suggests that either their existence required that they reinvent themselves as a part of their territories; namely that they had very early formulated a cultural conviction that this is the case, based upon some instinctive imperative; or that there really is some accrued benefit to the Elf in his relationship to his property that can be attained by doing so.
Although based upon our necessarily external view of the matter, it would appear that to survive without any “base” or form of domicile would be sure to be an exercise in uncertainty, or at least discomfort; before the advent of humans upon their properties, Elves do not seem to have ever built themselves structures in which to house themselves; living rather along the lines of those aboriginal peoples who, having settled in areas with ample resources and mild climate simply failed to develop those solutions which would have been necessary to survive in more meager or harsher environments (Elves are magical after all). Such cultures have until recently been regarded as exceptionally “primitive”, whereas, in fact, their needs simply were already amply provided for. No human claims to have ever come across a prehistoric Elf-built structure of any kind. (The rumored “Underhill” halls of the Sidhe are a different culture, of a different species altogether, assuming that in the Potterverse they even exist.)
Although Elves dedicated themselves entirely to the welfare of their territories, and tended them without pause, they appear to have carefully added nothing to these territories that did not occur there naturally. In the course of identifying themselves with (or to) their domains, they seem to have clothed themselves only in such materials which their territories provided. Bark, leaves, cobwebs and the like; natural materials, naturally occurring, possibly in some attempt to symbolically become an inherent “part” of their “place”. Although this line of reasoning is still all a matter of conjecture.
And then humans came and built themselves houses. Right in the Elves’ various “freeholds”.
At first glance, it seems a bit of a reach to assume that all House Elf lines of descent first became attached to their original households when a family of Muggles came and built a house on the property that an Elf had already claimed for his or her own, and that of his descendants. But, perhaps they did. Such an extrapolation does certainly fit what we have observed.
If this is the case, then the Elves seem to have quickly decided that living in houses was greatly to be preferred to living in a hollow tree or a burrow, and took up their residences there almost from the houses’ beginnings. Traditionally their sleeping/hiding places within the houses were generally in garrets, attics and various odd corners where their presence would not be easily detected.
House Elves do not seem to think like humans and their priorities don’t match up to human priorities particularly well, but folklore seems pretty much in agreement that traditionally the Elf serves the House (or, rather, the property) rather than the family that merely lives in the house. And while there are some reports of hobs who have taken a particular human in affection or who have stowed away in the family’s baggage when a family they like has been forced to remove, such reported incidents are rare. It is quite possible that the original Elf on a property was convinced that the Muggles had built the house for him. So, as a part of his demesne, of course he and his line have dedicated themselves to tending it.
That the Muggles who built the house used it to serve their own comfort might well have been interpreted by the Elf as a taking of their rightful payment and share from the property as well. As co-tenants they were entitled to maintain themselves in as much comfort as they could devise since they were also servants to the land that the Elf claimed. They thus may have been perceived by the Elf to be serving the land, themselves, and, incidentally, serving the Elf who permitted them to do so, at his discretion.
If this is correct, I am inclined to believe that it was almost universally Muggles who built the houses which were ultimately adopted by what were soon to be designated as House Elves. A wizarding family might have have had the ability to determine ahead of time whether the property upon which they were contemplating building their house was already occupied by a magical Being, and, given hobs’ tendency to engage in pranks or to apply pressure to ensure that things in “their” Houses be done their way, would, upon finding an Elf in situ, have either gone elsewhere, or seen to it that the Elf was removed from the property before the building was started.
Which brings us to another point:
We have been given exceedingly little real indication in canon that to “own” an Elf is necessarily a long-established mark of distinction among wizards. In fact, given what we have seen of the House Elves, and their general behavior to date, there is every indication that any wizard who wants a quiet and orderly life, would probably be much better off being served by other human wizards, and having nothing to do with the creatures.
What we have been told is that House Elves tend to come with big old manors and castles, and that the families who own these properties will be old, and generally rich. This is not quite the same thing as claiming that a House Elf is a universally desirable possession. To have inherited an Elf might be regarded as no more enviable than to have attracted a family Ghoul.
We have also been told that there is a House Elf Relocation Office in the Ministry, and that the enslavement of House Elves has gone on “for centuries”.
Before going further, I would like to suggest that the iteration of that “peculiar institution” which persists in the wizarding world does not predate the Seclusion of the wizarding world from the rest of human society, but was one of the developments to have come out of it. That, in fact, it is a comparatively recent development of the last 300 years.
The tendency of a modern Elf to cling to his “place” even in the face of appalling abuse raises the question of whether there is indeed more to their binding than such a recent development as formal enslavement would account for. Because this is clearly not simply a species-wide tendency to develop Stockholm Syndrome. It appears to be a universal trait of virtually all House Elves, Dobby alone appearing to be free of it.
This was *never* so broadly the case of any human group which has ever suffered enslavement. These Elves have not been conquered, captured, enslaved by wizards and sold for profit. What is clearly going on is that the wizards are opportunistically exploiting a deeply ingrained element of Elfin character. No more than that acquiring a cat to hunt mice is enslaving the cat.
We need to keep in mind that when House Elves haunted Muggle properties, an Elf and his or her descendants would cling to the same property for centuries and except for rare instances could only be forced to leave it by exorcism, typically in the form of a presentation of human-style clothing, and convincing the Elf to take it. Consequently we are dealing with a piece of thoroughly non-human symbolism, here. One with the weight of millennia of instinct and tradition behind it, and one not easily derailed or amenable to being convinced that it is based upon erroneous convictions.
It is also obvious that our own widespread Muggle-folklore interpretation of clothing as a reward to the Elf is very far from the truth. Certainly Barty Crouch Sr was very well aware that to present Winky with clothing was no reward. And if Elves were indeed bound to the properties before there were houses, then we may be messing about with some very heavy symbolism indeed. And probably with all the tact, empathy, and long-range success as a herd of bullocks in a china shop, too.
Particularly if the interpretation of Elves as being at least in part “spirits” is at all close to the truth. Everything in House Elf behavior to date suggests that the average Elf is absolutely convinced that he requires a binding to some specific place of his own on the physical plane in order to continue to exist. Or, in other words, that to “liberate” an Elf is to effectively kill the Elf, unless he can find a new place to which to attach himself.
(It must be repeated that even if this is not true, the Elves’ culture strongly suggests that they may firmly believe it to be true.)
In which case, Dobby, by the time we first met him, had clearly reached the point of being what has to be interpreted as suicidal. It really does not require any great stretch of the imagination in order to accept this interpretation. I honestly think that by the Year of the Basilisk, Dobby would have rather died than to have gone on working for wizards such as the Malfoys until the end of his natural life. But he had, up to that point, been unable to annoy them to the point of releasing him, instead of simply punishing him, or, rather, of ordering him to punish himself.
And yet, at that, for Dobby to seize upon a carelessly thrown human sock (which didn’t even belong to Malfoy) as an excuse to free himself, rather than to have been formally offered clothing that was intended for him (as Crouch clearly did with Winky) sounds like an attempt to set a dangerous precedent which was entirely outside the rules. One which may explain why he is still attempting to punish himself when he speaks ill of his former masters. (And renders Hermione’s Elf hats into an even more futile exercise than ever. She has no authority to free any of them.)
Once freed, Dobby also seems to have become determined to never be in so utterly powerless a situation ever again. Hence his demand to be paid for his work. It is clear from what he has to say of the matter in GoF, that he has almost no grasp of the usual (human-centric) point of being given payment for labor, (i.e., that the more payment you can manage to negotiate for the least amount of actual work you do, the more successful you are) but he has groked the fact that his being given payment allows him to be the one in control of his contract. Which is a rather frightening developmental leap for an Elf to take. It is against everything anyone in the wizarding world has ever observed of Elfin behavior.
It has been suggested on some lists and forums that Dobby was not originally the Malfoy’s elf, but had been assigned to the family by the House Elf Relocation Office. It’s a rather sweet idea, but it does not really fit what Dobby has to say for himself, and it is certainly not necessary to anything shown us in the apparent story arc of the series. Dobby clearly went through VoldWar I in the household of Voldemort supporters who, moreover, “treated us like vermin”.* If that statement alone is not enough to convince us, from his comments in general he seems to be under the impression that Voldemort was actually “in power” by the end of the previous conflict, which clearly was never truly the case — although it might certainly have appeared so to the Elves of such a household. Particularly from their vantage point behind the lines, trapped in the “enemy camp”.
(*The evidence is mounting up that to own an Elf may be a mark of distinction, but is not the unalloyed boon to a wizarding family that many younger fans assume it must be.)
My current hypothesis regarding the significance of clothing; which may very well change — radically — if I come across some reasonably convincing competing interpretation elsewhere, is that we need to take a closer look at just what House Elves do clothe themselves in, in the absence of “proper” garments. Folklore’s hobs, when one managed to catch a glimpse of them, traditionally were clothed in either rags (i.e., random pieces of fabric, or clothing that was no longer “clothing” in any human estimation, having descended to the state of being regarded as cleaning supplies) or such natural materials as cobwebs. Or they simply went naked. In the Potterverse, Elves seem to wear conventional household linens. Dobby wore a grubby pillow slip. The Hogwarts Elves wear tidy tea towels. Both of these examples of standard “household linens”, as cited above. (It is not possible to determine what the rag that Kreachur uses for his loincloth’s original purpose was.) It is possible that by adorning themselves as if they are literally “parts of the House”, i.e., furnishings, rather than as autonomous entities with an existence beyond the confines of the House, they are fulfilling some symbolic purpose, or complying with some magical law of similarity underscoring an Elf’s identification with his physical environment. Hold that thought.
It is very clear in canon that there are multiple forms of geasa imposed upon House Elves. Otherwise they would be able simply to refuse to accept whatever clothing may be offered them (as is apparantly the case for folkloric hobs). The major geas regarding clothing, in particular, appears to be of far longer standing than their close association with wizards, and wizarding households, and I do not have any really compelling suggestions as to its specific origins, or how the Elves actually interpret the matter. But it really does seem to be possible that the form of this geas as it operates in the ww today is something that has been overlaid upon the traditional form, wherein the Elf did have a choice in the matter.
However, modern House Elves’ wizarding Masters clearly exert a level of control over them which was certainly never the case when House Elves typically haunted Muggle properties, and laid down the law to the humans of the household. These latter forms of control have clearly been imposed upon the Elves far more recently.
And the House Elves permitted it.
It stands to reason that there must have been some truly compelling, perceived need in order for the Elves to agree to allow this.
There also seems to be a good deal of ignorance among wizards as to just what geasa are actually imposed upon House Elves, and that what may simply appear to be a geas, isn’t. As we saw in OotP, most House Elves’ general reluctance to leave their Houses was assumed to be an actual component of their binding, which Harry was able to say with confidence (although possibly not with accuracy) is not actually the case.
Upon no more than our current information, this seems far more likely to indicate merely some racial/cultural tendency to agoraphobia, unless the family has actually superimposed this “House-bound” limitation upon their Elf. Some families may well have done so.
Witness those rings and roundelays
Of theirs, which yet remain,
Were footed in Queen Mary’s days
On many a grassy plain;
But since of late, Elizabeth,
And later, James came in,
They never danced on any heath
As when the time hath been.
By which we note the Fairies
Were of the old Profession.
Their songs were "Ave Mary’s",
Their dances were Procession.
But now, alas, they all are dead;
Or gone beyond the seas;
Or farther for Religion fled;
Or else they take their ease.
It should be obvious to everyone by now that at the point that the temper of the mundane world started to become implacably opposed to all traces of the supernatural, that of all magical Beings, it would have been the House Elves who were suddenly the most at risk. Giants had not lived within range of human settlements for centuries before Seclusion. Neither had Goblins. Nature sprites such as veela, usually live well away from the towns.
But House Elves actually lived, not merely among Muggle neighbors, as did human witches and wizards, but actually in their very Houses. And the Muggles who owned those Houses were now desperate to attract no attention to themselves from the elders of the Church. There would have been an unprecedented wave of offerings of clothing.
What were such dispossessed House Elves to do other than to throw themselves upon the mercy of wizards?
Particularly if they do believe that their continued existence depended upon their being able to attach themselves to a new household in the material world. (And no, for the third time, we do not know whether this is the case, but the behavior of House Elves throughout the series certainly suggests that they may very well believe this to be the case.)
Only, wizards, unlike Muggles, had been actively avoiding having to deal directly with Elves and their nonsense since before the beginning of recorded history. There are limits to Charity, and to voluntarily offer a perpetual place in their own homes to a species of mischievous little monkeys who are accustomed to laying down the law to their house’s legal owners without demanding some level of concession was rather beyond that limit.
However; House Elves are a magical species with a long history, and they are clearly Beings and not beasts, and wizards were at serious risk themselves. If either group was to survive it might well be more likely by mutual effort, and it would undoubtedly take the effort of all magical peoples to establish and maintain the secret world which would ultimately protect them.
And if they did manage to establish that Ultima Thule, that Secluded world; it was going to overturn the way nearly everything had always been done in the way of a division of labor.
If wizards lived in retreat, away from the eyes of Muggles, then Muggles would also to a large extent be away from the eyes of wizards. There’d be very few Muggle-borns discovered, educated, and sponsored into the wizarding culture by the heads of Great Houses to be kept on afterwards as retainers who were under obligation to their patron. i.e., the traditional source of new servants will have dried up.
For that matter; apart from that handful of magical holders of property who could manage to facilitate a “property swap” and set up a new identity in a region where they were not known to be wizards, wizarding landowners were being forced to put their holdings’ administration in Muggle hands and to cut themselves off from their own tenants’ services.
The magical retainers of such landowners were also being turned off country estates and forced to scatter themselves across the countryside in order to find other places to live and other forms of employment by which to support themselves as the estates were abandoned by their owners, and the owners retreated into townhouses in the secluded wizarding enclaves of London or other cities or a household in Hogsmeade village or one of the partially-wizarding villages dotted accros the countryside. It would have been during these early years of establishing formal Seclusion that the wizarding world’s current cultural paradigm that the proper occupation of magical persons is Magic would have been adopted. Prior to that point many, perhaps even most, had been engaged in the same sort of rural/agricultural lifestyle that occupied their Muggle neighbors, and only practiced magic on the side. This more casual arrangement was no longer regarded as an effective deployment of wizarding manpower.
Manpower that was probably a tenth of what it is today.
The isolationist faction, whose fortunes had typically been made in commerce were also being cut off from their own direct involvement in the most basic step of their operations, that of the acquisition of any Muggle-produced staple goods that their more sophisticated magical products required — unless they were a member of the hypothetical new Ministry-sponsored Consortium. The Consortium which was adding at least one additional layer of complexity to any business.
No, in such a time of the upheaval of everything that had ever gone before, the sudden availability of the House Elves’ purely domestic labor was not altogether unwelcome.
A tell-tale in their company
They never could endure!
And whoso kept not secretly
Their mirth, was punished, sure;
It was a just and Christian deed
To pinch such black and blue.
Oh how the commonwealth doth want
Such Justices as you!
But not without concessions. Wizards were far too well aware of the kind of disruption that a House Elf could cause if he took a mind to. As well as the kind of merry dance the Elves had been leading the Muggles whose homes they had shared for centuries. And they were not going to put up with that kind of thing.
And Elves simply don’t think like humans, making it a frustrating and highly unsatisfactory business to try to work with them. (There has yet been no equivalent of a wizarding Dr Jane Goodall, making a study of House Elves.)
The Elves had no choice but to agree to submit to additional geas which would prevent them from working against their new Masters, or of chattering about their Masters’ secrets. And given what the Elves believed was at stake they were glad to do it.
This was the real reason for the formation of the Ministry of Magic’s House Elf Relocation Office. Since the Elves often could not be persuaded to voluntarily abandon their ties to their original households, the date of the Act of Wizarding Seclusion could not really be applied to them. In fact, if Potterverse folklore went parallel to ours, although most known Elves were “freed” over the course of the 17th and 18th centuries, a few were probably not exorcised until the early 19th century. A few, (very few) may even still be haunting Muggle properties to this day. Although this last seems unlikely, for their lines would almost certainly have died out by now. Their potential mates would have long ago disappeared within the boundaries of the wizarding world.
Elves, as they were freed, were assigned by this Office to those wizarding families who agreed to accept them, and a certain preference was undoubtedly made for families whose Houses were of an age, type, and remote location such as was compatible with those properties with which the Elves were familiar. There would not have been as many of these still available as all that. Many wizards had been forced to give up their own ancestral properties in order to remove themselves from the proximity of too many Muggles, and to take new residences either in the secluded wizarding districts of towns, or in new holdings in regions where they were not known or suspected of being wizards. While most of these secluded residences were in the oldest part of those towns which had wizarding districts, House Elves were generally not accustomed to town living, and preference was given to those families which had managed to retain a country residence.
Since the Elves were now actually bound to the Family, rather than just the House, however, one might assume that it did not take long for both the Elves and the wizards to realize that an Elf could be constrained to accompany their Masters to any new residence. And in some cases, such as with the Blacks, this does appear to have happened (keeping in mind the possibility that the Black House is in fact older than the town around it, but it’s address, with its simple London street number argues against that).
But in general, this does not seem to be the case. Rather, it seems likely that, once relocated, the Elves merely transferred their attachment to their new holdings and should the family which owns those holdings die out, the new owner of the House will essentially inherit that family of Elfin retainers along with it. In the final recconing, House Elves belong to the house. They are not the personal property of the house’s current owners. Not even that of the head of the family, although they can be transferred along with the rest of the family property by the terms of their prior master’s will. There is no reason in canon for us to assume that House Elves may be sold. They may only be freed.
That neither Dobby nor Winky seem to have resorted to the services of the Relocation Office after their dismissal may indicate that this office now only serves the interests of Elves whose human Masters’ families have died out in the case of their being no collateral heirs, or Will on record.
Or, it is possible that Dobby and Winky simply did not know about this resource. Winky would probably have gladly accepted being assigned to another family if one would have agreed to take her. Dobby’s insistence upon being paid, however, would have assured that he would rapidly have been shown the door.
The fact is that when Seclusion was established, probably not all wizarding households of the proper type would agree to take on an Elf, or family of Elves. Elves probably did not have the best of reputations for being easy to live with, and the exact status value of owning an Elf, even today is debatable. Nor, I suspect were there all that many households which were considered suitable.
Let’s take a reality check here: from what we have seen of the ones we’ve met, working with a House Elf is almost certainly an exercise in frustration. If you had magic at your disposal already, how eager would you be to take an Elf on? For this reason, rather a lot of Elves seem to have been ultimately assigned to institutions, rather than private families, where their descendants serve to this day, Hogwarts and St Mungo’s Hospital being two of these. The building maintenance workers at the Ministry may also be House Elves, although the head of the Maintenance Department probably is not.
Which brings us to another issue which demands a reality check. Just how many House Elves are we talking about here?
Most readers’ attempts to analyze the information actually given us in the books are severely hampered by the distortions inherent in living in a modern society. We simply cannot conceive a world in which the dominant race/species of magical people in Great Britain and Ireland number at most about 3,500 – 5,000 people. For convenience I will say 4,000.
And if Rowling is to be believed, that is a generous estimate of the current population of human wizards and witches. Furthermore, the dominance of that 4,000 probably is almost certainly based upon numbers, rather than inherent power.
Those 4,000 human wizards and witches are assumed to outnumber the populations, either individually or in combination, of all the other populations of the other races/species of magical Beings in Britain. It is not a case of the humans having better weaponry; although the human legislators in the Ministry of Magic seem to believe that it might be. Non-human magical peoples are forbidden by law to use wands, for example.
But non-human magical beings do not need to use wands. Only magical humans require wands in order to reliably control their magic. Human beings are not an inherently magical species, they need their crutch.
What we have been told is that Hogwarts, with its staff of about 100 House Elves is the largest single employer of House Elves in Great Britain. St Mungo’s Hospital almost certainly has a sizable staff of House Elves as well. (All that bedding to wash and meals to be prepared, plus all the floors to scrub and bedsteads to polish.) There will probably be another group maintaining the offices of the Ministry of Magic itself, and perhaps some other Ministry properties, if any. The rest are probably scattered out as Elves attached to private households.
And not all that many private households, either. As with all societies, the working classes (laboring and Artisan) of the wizarding world substantially outnumber the affluent. Nor does one get the impression that the middle classes of the wizarding world (rank & file Ministry wonks and others employed in larger wizarding businesses, up to the level of middle-management) typically are the holders of the sort of big, old, wealthy properties that the Weasley twins identify as the typical holders of House Elves.
And when the *whole human society* numbers, at a generous estimate, around 4,000 individuals (not families) just how many of those families are really likely to be viable candidates for House Elf ownership?
We are probably talking about 300-500 Elves maximum. Probably far fewer.
Not that keeping them enslaved is any more excusable. Slavery is still wrong.
But as with terms like “war” and “army” I am beginning to suspect that the House Elves’ actual experience of slavery inside the wizarding world does not at all conform to what a 21st century Real World Muggle’s understanding of the term slavery entails.
For one thing, the “Old Plantation” model is right out. Within the Old Plantation model you have a large estate, dedicated to producing one major cash crop, populated by dozens of slaves of some easily identifiable (usually darker-skinned) physical type, overseen by a few hired (usually paler-skinned) overseers to force them to fulfill their quotas, and all owned by one (pale) family. This is simply not how it works in Britain in the Potterverse. The wizarding world is not an agrarian society. The wizards vastly outnumber the Elves, and there is no need for overseers to force the Elves to work. The House Elves like to work. It is also beginning to look very much as though the majority of the house Elves in the Potterverse are assigned to institutions where they are treated quite decently, and perform their duties with their dignity intact.
For that matter, the Old Plantation model is not the way formal slavery has ever really been implemented inside Britain, either. Certainly not the nation of “England” itself. Or not since the time of the Saxons and the Danes, if even then. And that is also a relevant consideration.
We need to remember that at the time that formal wizarding Seclusion was established, slavery was still legal in the British Isles. The fan theorists who look to America, or to other European colonial societies for their model of slavery in the wizarding world are off-base. They should be looking to slavery as it was practiced in England. And for that matter should probably concentrate specifically on England, rather than the whole of present-day Great Britain.
And by the end of the 17th century England did not function on a slave-holding economy. Oh, yes, English fortunes were being made by slavers — in the colonies, but inside England itself, slavery served no real economic function. It was an archaic tradition which had simply not yet been legally abolished.
English commerce and society had already transitioned from feudalism into a wage-slave economy. Particularly in the towns. And even in the country, the English peasant was no longer bound to the land as in the days of serfdom. He was usually reluctant to pull up stakes and leave his native parish in the hopes of bettering himself elsewhere, because, if he failed, he would be in very desperate straits. All of the social services of the day were bound up in The Parish, and thus were not readily offered to persons who were not known to have been born within its boundaries. “Foreigners” need not apply. But he was not legally forbidden to do so. He was no longer tied to the estate belonging to his landlord. He was no longer a part of the human livestock which had come with the estate which the estate’s holder could dispose of as he pleased.
And yet there were still actual slaves in England. A few. Mostly in the form of little Negro page boys in gaudy livery, conspicuously positioned where their owners could parade them before their social or commercial rivals. They functioned as something between a luxury item and an exotic pet.
Or they were regular servants, by then typically of African descent, who had been acquired in the colonies by conventional purchase — because a servant had been needed at the time — and, being valued by their masters in human terms, had been brought back to England with them rather than resold. Their lot was much the same as that of other servants, except that they could not leave voluntarily and they received no regular wages, although they were usually able to earn money in the form of vails or through some particular craft, such as, for example, embroidery, or wood-carving or lace-making. And they were usually permitted to keep the income from it, too, or not, as their masters chose. Many of them saved up and bought their own freedom with it.
And to abuse one’s servants is something that a certain percentage of employers have managed to do in just about every society which has ever had servants. Which is to say, all of them.
Secure in the belief that the Elves could not readily oppose them, or betray them, quite a few their new Masters rapidly devolved into Tyrants. The new geasa did not really make it impossible for an Elf to work counter to their wizarding Masters’ interests, but few Elves were prepared to contemplate the consequences of being discovered doing so and of being presented with clothing — which they would now have to accept. And, although oppressed, or at the very least, exploited, the majority of Elves were not treated so badly as to become desperate.
But a certain percentage were, and continue to be. Of the four Elves that we have met by name in canon, one has worked quite actively, and successfully, to oppose his Masters’ goals, ultimately betraying his Master’s activities to his enemies, and another has actually managed to betray a hated Master to his death.
Which, in itself is a clear indication that the system really needs to be changed. It is just too ripe for abuse. Miss Granger, however wrong-headed she may be in her methods of trying to go about it, is correct enough about that. The problem is that neither the wizards nor the Elves are likely to see it that way. (Perhaps the potential danger of Elves like Dobby, and Kreachur, should be more widely publicized.)
An older, and more sophisticated Miss Granger might one day get more effective results out of proposing to Nationalize Elf Service.
Under such a system Elves would be classified outright as Ministry dependents, a valuable national resource, and assigned by a Ministry Department, or sponsored agency, either on an ongoing basis, as were their original assignments to wizarding families; or for a specific contracted term, according to temporary need. But their underlying “bond” would be held by the Ministry of Magic itself. The overseeing Ministry Department would monitor their treatment and summarily remove them from worksites where such a valuable Ministry resource is being abused. Even enslaved to the government — even so corrupt a government as the wizarding world has — might well be a better situation, and one in which abuses are easier to remedy, than the one some of them in private service were in at the end of the series.
And the Ministry might be very thankful to have this additional source of revenue opened to them. The fact that so many Elves, at Hogwarts and St Mungo’s, are already essentially under Ministry jurisdiction (and probably are among the best treated in the wizarding world) would no doubt ease this transition.
And if a sufficiently enlightened government were ever to be established it would be much easier to transition the Elves from a position as Ministry dependents into the ranks of an independent and paid workforce. After all, to eventually “Privatize” the Elves’ service would be hardly more radical than Nationalizing them in the first place. Their labor would already be understood to be “paid for” in the form of their contract with the Ministry. Privatization would simply cut out the middleman. It might take any number of generations under Nationalized service for them to begin to see it that way, but such a day would have a great deal higher chance of dawning eventually than it does now.
Elves, with their traditional insistence that things in “their” houses be done in the “proper manner” are highly resistant to change. But at that, they have shown themselves to be far more flexible than Giants. Their long, symbiotic relationship with humans is no doubt responsible for this.
Where forcing the Giants to live together in close proximity is gradually destroying them, the Hogwarts Elves have, with no appearance of effort, adapted from their historic pattern of living in single, nuclear family groups attached to individual human households, to living together in a large, “tribal” collective, in service to an institution. A collective which functions efficiently in a cooperative manner. From their historic origins of ruling their Muggle families, they have adapted to being ruled by their wizarding masters. It is not beyond the reach of possibility that they may one day adapt to functioning as individuals who rule themselves.
But it is not likely to take place in our lifetimes.
That House Elves in the wizarding world today are the descendants of freed Elves who agreed to be re-bound to wizards would go some way towards explaining why House Elves dress themselves in a manner that can be read as identifying themselves as if they literally constituted a part of the “fabric” of their Houses, and desperately cling to the “identity” of household “fixtures” as if their lives literally depended upon it. It is quite possible that to their way of reasoning, they do. Clearly the dispossessed Elf, Winky is behaving as though she is convinced that her duty is now to die, having lost her “place” in the world, although she lacks the courage to actually do the deed cleanly, and is engaged in drinking herself to death.
But, somehow, I doubt that it is all that simple.
Which suggests that we are still just not quite “getting it”.
The sticking point is that with our background in a world in which there are no sentient Beings apart from humans, we cannot get beyond “reading” the term “slavery” as racial slavery, that still being the form most familiar to the understanding of the English-speaking world.
But the House Elves are not a race. They are a species. Enslaving them is nearer to (and probably far less brutal than) the domestication of horses. And the fact that the Elves can understand and communicate (after a fashion) in a human language does not mean that House Elves necessarily share human instincts, that they recognize or respond to human symbolism or that they will adopt human imperatives any more than will house cats. And to merely lecture either species on the subject will probably have about the same effect as lecturing cats.
It is an intractable problem, and one which Miss Granger has not yet fathomed.
They are *another species*. By all observations, an extremely territorial species. In fact, there is every indication that they are an extremely possessive species. And one that determinedly resists change.
The Elves are also not the wizards’ personal property, in the manner that human slaves belong to their masters. There is absolutely no indication in canon that a House Elf can actually be sold, or there would hardly be a Ministry office dedicated to their relocation. Nor, have we any present confirmation that he can even be legally “transferred” to another owner while the original owner lives. Elves can only be set free. The fact that Elves may form personal attachments to certain humans in their housholds is confusing the issue. Rather, the Elves belong to the property to which they have been deeded, and are effectively held in trust. They are a part of the estate. The Elf is part of the House.
The wizards only have the power to order them, as they have the power to order any other part of the estate. In the wizards’ perception, this means that the Elves are their slaves and that their family “owns” the Elves.
But what of the Elves’ perceptions? Dobby stated that he was bound to serve one house and one family forever. He also stated that an Elf must be set free in order to leave his family. This really does not sound significantly different from the traditional relationship of a House Elf to his former, long-lost Muggle property. It is just that the balance of power has shifted.
The injustice is that there are wizards who gratuitously abuse their Elves, simply because they can, not that the Elves are bound to a property. The Elves insist upon being bound to a property. Anything else is unnatural for Elves. And Elves resist change. Strenuously.
Traditionally, to the Elf, the property was his. His estate. His house. His family.
I think, perhaps, that to an Elf, they all still are.
In the olden days, they were all his, and he ruled them.
Now, the ruling of them has been taken out of his hands. But they are all still his. And he will hold them — regardless of the conditions in which he finds himself. This place is his place.
Which may indeed be the crux of the matter.
Elves did not ever group together in villages. They did not build cities. They did not form governments.
They scattered themselves across the landscape, each Elf and his mate and their children claiming their own small piece of territory to hold and to tend in perpetuity, for as long as their line should continue. And within that territory, they were the rulers. Their children living under their rule until they either were of an age to leave to establish their own small kingdom or until they themselves were old and turned the rule of the land over to their heir.
And now, the humans who they once ruled, have banished them from their lands, and these other humans have insisted that if they are to be permitted to tend these new lands, they must agree to let the humans rule them.
And these new lands are good lands, so they have agreed. Regardless of whether the humans are good humans.
The House Elves motivation is not simple servility. It is certainly not masochism. It is not even, precisely, Stockholm Syndrome. It begins to look to me as though what actually motivates House Elves is something that, in humans, would be most akin to a bizarrely twisted form of Patriotism.
Wizards may be spoken of as their Masters, but in practice, the wizards are their governments.
So, how does an overtly political reading stack up against the behavior of the more prominent Elves to whom we have been introduced?
Dobby, who found his native “government” intolerably oppressive, was determined to go over the wall, even if he was shot for it. He engaged in a year-long campaign of subversion to engineer an opportunity in which he could make his escape with the assistance of an outside agency, and he deliberately betrayed his “government’s” secrets to that agency in the process. (A closer examination of Dobby’s “freedom fighting” campaign may be found in the companion piece, ‘The Year of the Basilisk’.)
Kreachur, who was also born under an authoritarian regime (but apparently not an excessively oppressive one, we have no reason to suppose that the way Sirius treated Kreachur was the way the rest of the Blacks treated their Elf, and he sincerely mourns all of them) and he remained a staunch patriot to that “ancient regime”, later engaging in an underground resistance against an enemy army of occupation, ultimately bringing about the death of the “traitor” who had facilitated the enemies’ invasion. And then he finds that he is still trapped behind enemy lines and was even deported to an external holding point, under the eyes of guards, away from even his native “country”.
Winky, deported for failing to prevent a crime committed by somebody else will mourn the “old country”, which is gone forever, to the end of her days.
Poor little Hokey would have devotedly served her Mistress until the end of her life had she not been subjected to deliberate sabotage, and thrown to the wolves.
And the Hogwarts Elves, secure in their position of fair treatment and good government can imagine no better fate, and are determined to do nothing that will rock their comfortable boat.
And Miss Granger, although she has not yet realized it, is attempting to reinvent the wheel and found Amnesty International.
What Miss Granger does not yet understand is that the Elves, quite understandably, do not wish to be delivered from all “governments”; a few of them need to be protected from bad governments. And Dobby is not perceived by his fellows as a “free Elf”, he is literally “a man without a country”, and I am no longer convinced that Dobby even was actually free. He may in fact have been a runaway slave. And he is regarded with disapproval and a certain degree of suspicion on the part of his peers because of it.
For that matter, if there is a cultural perception that an Elf must be bound to some place in order to survive, it might not be too much to suspect that Dobby’s all but euphoric manner stems primarily from the conviction that he is cheating Death (he certainly has cheated Lucius Malfoy). And, being a “man without a country” — who likes it that way — may very well have put him at risk of attack, among his fellows in the Hogwarts kitchens. For if the above is at all close to being an accurate reading, his continued, unpunished, existence outside the bounds of all “decency” flies in the face of everything that Elfin wisdom, tradition and cultural experience dictates, and almost certainly will eventually be construed by the others as constituting a Very Bad Example and a threat to The Way Things Are, and The Way That They Must Be. He has determinedly cast himself into the role of the “Other”. Or worse, the role of that which is “against nature”.
And the odds are that an Elf’s insistence upon retaining citizenship in his own “country” will remain an active issue with anyone who ever has to deal with them. An issue which has to do with the nature of House Elves themselves, regardless of their position within the wizarding world. Whether now or at any time in the future.
What is needed is for the Elves to learn to grasp the fact that they might reasonably ask to be given the power to choose their own countries. Or to initiate the breaking of an existing binding so that they may go out and find a place in which to form a more congenial one. The inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness does not automatically translate into mere remuneration in the currency of the day.
The House Elves will inevitably continue to bind themselves to their places, for, to House Elves, this binding is not slavery. It is the reason for their existence; to hold and to tend their “blessed country”. It is the geas, intended to prevent them from opposing their wizarding Masters, or from betraying their Masters’ secrets, and which prevents them from being able to resist whatever treatment to which their “rulers” choose to subject them which constitutes their slavery. Without that geas, they could fight back. For they certainly are capable of fighting and, historically, as we have been shown, have definitely got the inclination. If you give them sufficient reason.
And from where I’m standing, that geas which constitutes the House Elves’ “enslavement” is nothing less than a magically binding equivalent of the same bloody “loyalty oath” which keeps regularly recurring in the rhetoric of the politics of paranoia.
By which the Wizarding World is ruled.