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Harry Potter: "On The Nature of House Elves" (spoilers below cut)

OK, this started as a lark based on some discussion on a list I'm on. It grew way out of control.

(Briefly, some folks were saying they didn't think Kreacher's sudden conversion to being a loyal house elf to Potter was very convincing. I started to write this up to explain why I thought it fit, then got into it and went over the top.)

When Freedom Is Slavery, A Response to Hermoine Granger And S.P.E.W.

By Jacob Eastman*

Much has been written recently of the events of the Return of Tom Riddle (better known to readers as "You Know Who" or "Lord Voldemort"). What has perhaps proven most interesting was the behavior of the magical creatures with whom we share wizarding society. Most wizards and witches, of course, rarely consider the detante with the Centaurs and the Wizarding World. Fewer still voluntarily contemplate the previous uneasy truce between Wizards and Dementors. Even the apparently cooperative (if impersonal) relationship between wizards and goblins rarely enters the daily consciousness of the average witch or wizard beyond the occasional trip to Gringots.

But one magical species is intimately familiar to all of us: the house elf. Yet until the recent events, few of us thought much about the nature and motivation of house elves at all. Either one was wealthy enough or from an old enough family to have an house elf, in which case one took them for granted, or one wasn't, in which case one thought of them with envy when going about the daily business of tending house or weeding the garden.

The recent power of the house elves in the final battle of Hogwarts, however, has increased popular awareness of these magical creatures and prompted more than a few to wonder for the first time about these extraordinarily powerful creatures that share our homes and -- apparently -- cannot do enough for us. Why do they do it? Why do they seem to relish the role of servants, even when confronted by conditions of abuse that would prompt most human servants to Give Notice? Or do we deceive ourselves, as we did with dementors? Are we nurturing potential vipers in our midsts who will one day rise in rebellion and slaughter us in our beds after serving us our bed-time toddies with happy smiles?

Hermoine Granger has recently written strong opinion pieces in The Daily Prophet and The Quibler arguing that wizarding society ought to "free the house elves" as a reward for their "brave efforts" that "turned the tide of battle" against Riddle and his Death Eaters. She also warns that the experience of the free elf, Dobby, and the loyalty to Harry Potter shown by the house elf Kreacher, are both a "wake up call" and a warning that the wizard "exploitation" of house elves should not and cannot continue without grave consequences for the wizarding world. "What better way to show that magic IS NOT might," writes Miss Granger, "than to set house elves, and ourselves, free?"

With all due respect to Miss Granger (whose bravery and skill with magic cannot be doubted), and the idealists that have joined her campaign with S.P.E.W., this is the natural and unfortunate result of Ignorant Youth coupled with idealism. House elves are not little people; to treat them as we would treat people is therefore to do them a tremendous disservice. Rather, the proper way to respect house elves is to salute and honor their noble service and provide them with the reward they most desire -- the love and respect of the family they serve.

This is not to say, as certain abusive families have in the past, that house elves are simple, stupid, or little better than animals. As the actions of Dobby and Kreacher should make plain, house elves are fully capable of feeling loyalty, bravery, love, resentment and the whole gamut of human emotions with the same intensity and passion as humans. House elves are clearly capable of independent thought and action. But we should no more expect them to react as little humans any more than we expect centaurs or goblins to react as humans. House elves are independent beings worthy of respect, but they are also magic creatures bound by magic rules.

To suggest therefore (as Miss Granger does) that we should treat these rules as of no nevermind, force house elves into an unhappy and undirected state of "Freedom," and consider ourselves to have done them (or us) a service is ludicrous. Anyone who has observed a house elf "given clothes" by its family understands that a house elf does not consider this a state of freedom but of banishment. While a house elf may ultimately decide that it has a higher duty or that its family is unworthy of it (as happened with the free elf Dobby), these are as rare an event as a centaur or goblin wanting to marry a human. While policy should allow for such events, we should not compel them. It is no wiser to "free" all the house elves than it would be to force centaurs and humans to interbreed against their will.


I am told that a Muggle who studied non-magical creatures once discovered something very close to magic. If you placed an object by an egg of some muggle bird, even something ridiculous like a ball or a mirror, the newborn chick will mistake the object for its mother. It will regard the object with the same affection, follow it about as if it were its mother, and try to imitate it in all things as its instincts demand. Muggles call this phenomenon "imprinting."

House elves experience a similar phenomenon. The origins of house elves are lost in the mists of time. Indeed, it is a matter of considerable debate whether house elves are even natural creatures, or if they were made by wizards. But whatever their origins, one thing is clear. It has become intrinsic to the nature of a house elf to serve human beings generally and the interests of its family specifically, above all else.** It fundamentally identifies with the family and sees itself as a valued member of same. It wants to serve the family, especially the head of household, in the same way a loving and devoted child wishes to help aged parents, or like a child seeking to do well in school for the honor of the family and the smile of approval from mother and father at break. Being given clothes is no more "freedom" than it would be "freedom" for an angry parent to cast out a child for disgracing the family name.

Certainly a house elf, being an intelligent creature, fully possessed of the powers of reason and the full range of emotions, can ultimately turn against an abusive family or follow a higher duty. As Miss Granger reports, the free elf Dobby turned against his former master and bore considerable enmity to the Malfoys (and by extension, Riddle) as well as deep affection for Harry Potter. But again, Miss Granger is wrong to generalize from this one case that all house elves secretly hate their "condition of vile servitude" and that therefore "right thinking wizards and witches will regard this despicable bondage as on par with holding a servant via the Imperious curse." While a human may not fully understand the emotions of the house elf, they are as much a part of its nature as the ability to apparate when its master calls.

The experience of Winky, who was banished cruelly by her master Barty Crouch to conceal the presence and escape of his son, the Death Eater Barty Crouch Jr., was far more typical.*** All of Winky's actions were motivated by love and devotion to her family. She approached Crouch (sr.) on behalf of Crouch Jr. as a member of the family would. She urged compassion and mercy, going so far as to risk her own safety and position, due to her love and loyalty to Crouch Jr. and the Crouch family generally. Even when Barty Jr. stood revealed as a murdering villain,
Winky still sought to protect him. Only when Barty Jr. boasted that he had cursed and murdered his own father did Winky condemn him as "bad."

This "imprinting" also explains the sudden conversion of Kreacher from an enemy of Harry Potter to devoted, loyal house elf. Kreacher, an intelligent but highly traumatized elf, was driven by deep internal conflicts. His past training and imprinting at the hands of the Black clan prompted him to think of himself as a noble and valued member of the family (there is no evidence whatsoever that the Black family abused Kreacher; to the contrary, Regulus' anger at Riddle for torturing Kreacher and abandoning him to a cruel death suggests the opposite.) When he was tortured by Riddle and subsequently rescued by Regulus, this affection and loyalty to the Black clan was reenforced. When the Black clan was apparently driven to extinction, the traumatized elf continued his service as best he could. The Black family home became a shrine to the memories of the beloved Blacks (not the outcast Sirius, the hatred of whom Kreacher would have absorbed from the remaining Black clan), and the possessions he tended in the Black name became beloved relics and keepsakes -- particularly the locket that had been a Horcrux, the proof to Kreacher of Regulus' love and a symbol of Kreacher's honored place in the Black family.

Imagine then, after 12 years of isolation and fixation of his lost "family," how the return of Sirius Black would affect Kreacher. For his part, Kreacher would think of Sirius as a traitor and disgrace to the beloved House of Black. Worse, Sirius never missed an opportunity(according to interviews conducted with surviving members of the Order of the Phoenix and Miss Granger's own writings) to insult, belittle or abuse the Black family worshiped in memory by Kreacher. After Regulus (whom Sirius never missed an opportunity to mock) had demonstrated his love for Kreacher by wreaking terrible revenge on Riddle at the cost of his own life, and after 12 years of what Kreacher would consider a sacred trust of maintaining the Black residence in memory of his beloved family, it should not surprise us that he quickly came to loath Sirius and his abusive ways. That Sirius would further defile the shrine Kreacher constructed to his beloved family (especially the savior Regulus) by inviting in other enemies of House Black who shared Sirius' attitudes would only have reenforced this hostility bordering on hatred.

And yet, at the same time, the magical rule under which Kreacher lived would compel him to serve Sirius. Worse, at some level, Kreacher would desire Sirus' affection as the last surviving member of House Black. Not only was even a meager crumb of such affection unforthcoming from Sirius, but Sirius made it clear in every word and deed that to serve Sirius was to repudiate Regulus and all the rest of House Black and its (to Kreacher) glorious past. Small wonder that Kreacher sought shelter in madness and, given the first opportunity, fled from the intolerable emotional pressures to the nearest "true" family member of House Black to continue his service to the memory of Regulus and gain the affection and approval that Kreacher so desperately craved as a function of his "imprinting."

This psychology also explains, however, Kreacher's sudden conversion from enemy of Harry Potter to devoted servant and loyal house elf. It is not, as suggested by Miss Granger, because Potter suddenly showed him kindness. Granger herself writes of her repeated own efforts to treat Kreacher with kindness, none of which (according to the other members of the OotP interviewed for this article) produced any visible change in Kreacher's attitudes or behaviors.

Rather, it is when Potter showed proper respect to Regulus that Kreacher's attitude changes. This is not merely kindness, as Granger would have us believe. Rather, Potter praises Regulus as a hero, and promises Kreacher that they will finish Regulus' work and restore to Kreacher his cherished keepsake from his beloved dead master. Even this might not have been enough to so radically alter Kreacher's behavior and attitudes if Kreacher were not driven by his magical nature to serve Potter and seek his affection and approval.

But, by happy accident for Potter (and the rest of us), Potter resolved Kreacher's internal conflict between his previous master and the object of his worship (Regulus) and his imprinted desire to serve his master. Kreacher, it should be recalled, had no intrinsic affection or allegiance to Riddle. He only followed Riddle's cause because the Black's did. So when Potter aligned his own interests with those of Regulus and the other "beloved" Blacks, and began to treat Kreacher as a worthy master should, Kreacher responded enthusiastically.

We therefore see in Kreacher and his conversion not the justification of Granger and SPEW, but the utter repudiation of SPEW and its philosophy. Kreacher did not betray Sirius merely because Sirius was cruel and serve Potter because Potter was kind. When one considers Kreacher's loyalty to family Black (particularly Regulus), combined with the innate desire in all house elves to serve their masters and their families, Kreacher's actions are utterly understandable.


While Granger is completely right that house elves deserve respect and should not be treated cruelly, she is completely wrong in her understanding of what that means. Granger looks at a house elf and projects on it a vision of herself. But a house elf is not a human. It is as cruel and demeaning for Miss Granger (however well meaning) to seek to remake a house elf in her own image and wish on it the "freedom" Miss Granger would want in its place as it is cruel and demeaning for a family to abuse a house elf and keep it in a condition of slavery. We show proper respect for house elves by making them part of our household, not by banishing them in the name of "Freedom."

*Ministry of Magic, Department of Magical Creatures and Diplomacy, Order of Merlin, etc. The Author would like to thank the surviving members of the Order of the Phoenix and Dumbledore's Army, and the house elf Kreacher, for agreeing to be interviewed for this article. The author also thanks Mistress Dorigen of the Grey Gate for the convening of the Symposium at which a preliminary version of this paper was presented, as well as the spirited discussion on this topic provded by herself, and other scholars too numerous to mention (for fear of offending someone through forgetfulness).

**Or substitute, such as an institution. The house elves of Hogwarts, for example, show the same loyalty to the Headmaster as a typical house elf shows to a Pater Familias.

***Miss Granger rarely touches on the subject of Winky, except to refer to her as an example of a house elf "so unfortunately degraded by her years of servitude" that she lacks something called "Class Consciousness." The Author is gratefully to the Ministry of Magic and the recent Declassification Decree which made accessible the records of the interrogation of Barty Crouch, Jr.

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