Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Harry Potter: What Measure is a House Elf?

For all the fantastic creatures contained in Hagrid’s textbooks, there are actually very few non-human characters in Harry Potter. Humans (wizard or muggle) remain the main heroes and villains of the story, and many monsters that might inhabit other series remain at the periphery. The Inferi seem to stand in for zombies and vampires and other undead—but then we never see much of them. Lupin remains our lovable werewolf—but outside of book three, there isn’t much to be made of this. Mermaids remain at the bottom of the lake; dragons and hippogriffs seem to be constantly getting shipped to other parts of the world in order to avoid liquidation. 

So the most interesting additions to the Potterverse are the House-Elves—distant seconds are the Centaurs and the Goblins. The House-Elves create an ever-progressing revision in the series. In book two, we’re first introduced to Dobby, clever and good-natured, if bumbling; in book five, we’re introduced to Kreacher, a servant as befouled and bigoted as Dobby is sweet-hearted and loyal. They both serve important plot points in book seven where—despite having astounding magic—the Dark Lord seems to ignore them almost entirely.

In the fourth book, Hermione creates S.P.E.W., the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare. It serves as a sideplot for a few chapters, and then is relegated to (oh) say after the end of the novels, where we are informed that Hermione probably freed them. Or something.

In the second book, the House-Elves are revealed as domestic servants—but why? If Mrs. Weasley can wash dishes with a wand and airdry the laundry with a whirlwind—what need do wizards have of slavery in the magical world?

Most revealing for me is how the first book undergoes a quick retweaking: the food that seems to magically appear on the tables in Sorceror’s Stone is now the work of endlessly working house-elves in Chamber of Secrets. This has much the same effect as eating a meal and then being told that it’s made of roast puppies. (She does this again in book five with the Thestrals.) Rowling first gives us a glimpse into a world of complete abracadabra-automation and then revises it in order to reintroduce servants and hierarchies that (frankly) don’t make sense.

In the end, what House-Elves reveal is how difficult it is to create (or justify) hierarchies in a world where (most) things are very easy to make. We’re approaching a world like this, even now—and watch as we try to figure out who should be rich and who should be poor and who should be House-Elves.

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