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04 June 2006 @ 09:24 am
Is Hermione completely wrong about house elves?  
One of the biggest splits between wizarding and Muggle attitudes may be Hermione's views on house elves; it probably says a great deal about her family background as we do not see anybody else of Muggle birth being quite so upset about them, even people like Angelina, Dean and Lavender who might be expected to have views on slavery.

One possibility is that Hermione is out on a limb because she is mistaken about the situation. She has only encountered what one might call "domesticated " house elves; the ones who are delighted to serve their masters, even to the point of suicide. What springs to my mind is a situation like the relationship between domesticated cats and wildcats.

JKR's choice of name is itself significant: a dobby is a type of hobgoblin, on the whole mischievous rather than malicious, but many of the type are malicious enough to manifest themselves as poltergeists rather than helpers. Katharine Briggs' article on Brownies suggests that, at least according to some traditions, they help out of choice and free will, and to offer wages to them is to insult and offend them by suggesting that they are hired servants rather than free spirits. Hobgoblins are described as being friendly and prepared to be helpful, but bad enemies if they are offended. Personally I find this description a danger signal; Briggs differentiats hobgoblins from Trooping Fairies, but the Celtic tradition is to see all such beings as dangerous and prone to steal children.

This would give two possibilities:

1. House elves are free spirits whose pride is hurt if payment is offered (this is indeed suggested in the books)

2. House elves belong to the same dangerous category as goblins and need to be kept under control.

The former is better suported by canon, but the second should not be ignored. It is possible that one of the consequences of the Goblin Wars was to bring these creatures into some kind of subjection, or at least some way of controlling their malice was arrived at, so that employing them about the house a) was safe and b) kept them occupied and therefore with no leisure to cause trouble.
Current Mood: thoughtfulthoughtful
gunderpants on June 4th, 2006 08:46 am (UTC)
This is a fascinating theory and you used some really interesting mythological etymology to explain your case. I know nothing about mythology or matters like this, so hearing about 'dobbies' was pretty interesting.

Would, then, the work of the house elves in the books as they are be a case of willingly seeking to serve a master, or would it be that the wizards themselves are reliant on/exploiting the goodness of these and in effect created a less-privileged group in society from beings willing to serve?
Sollerssollersuk on June 4th, 2006 10:37 am (UTC)
I suspect that a major source that JKR has used is Katharine Briggs' "Dictionary of Fairies", which has very useful information on dobbies and the like.

I'm not sure myself whether the wizards are exploiting them for their own benefit (as a wizarding equivalent of labour saving machines) or whether part of the set-up is to keep them under control. There is no suggestion in the books of a common situation that Briggs describes - of the being feeling offended or insulted or just plain mischievous and trashing the house. In one story the family couldn't even get out of the situation by moving house, because the being came with them.

We know there is a lot of misinformation about wizard/magical creature relations, and I seriously doubt that the wizards have the power to enforce servitude. Their magical powers are great enough to do things without wands that apparently wizards need wands for - an example is Dobby causing the pudding to levitate. Thinking aloud, I suspect that the wizards encourage them to work in their houses, without being able to compel it, as much as anything to keep house elves under their eyes.
(no subject) - gunderpants on June 4th, 2006 10:42 am (UTC) (Expand)
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Gehayigehayi on June 4th, 2006 09:15 am (UTC)
I'm puzzled--why would Lavender care about slavery? The only things she's ever mentioned in the books are Divination, Ron, and her dead rabbit. She's always impressed me as a bit of a ditz, actually.

I could see why Dean and Angelina might care, being black. But there's no physical description of Lavender in any of the books, so that can't apply. (The question came up recently over at deleterius. We checked. No one could find a single description of Lavender--not in six books.)
Anne-Elisa: froggieetrangere on June 4th, 2006 09:19 am (UTC)
I'm puzzled about why anyone Black living in the UK would care about slavery as well. They're not very likely to have had slave ancestors. Not in Europe.
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tetsubinatutetsubinatu on June 4th, 2006 11:06 am (UTC)
Grimm Fairy Tales
I always thought that the whole 'don't give them clothes' thing came from 'The Elves and the Shoemaker', which was a story I read as a child. If I had thought further about it I would have assumed that this was part of some general mythology about helpful elves, but that particular story itself is one of the Grimm Fairy Tales and pretty widely known, I think.

Here's a link to the tale:

Oh and I envisage the name 'Lavender' as a sweet old British lady with white hair, BTW - someone out of Agatha Christie or Dorothey Sayers.


Sollerssollersuk on June 4th, 2006 11:54 am (UTC)
Re: Grimm Fairy Tales
Yes, the whole idea is widespread in Europe, but Briggs' book is full of home-grown English examples. Sometimes they go off in a huff if given clothes; sometimes they go off in a huff if given clothes of poor quality. The total, absolute no-no was to offer them food; food could be left around for them, but never offered to them directly.
Re: Grimm Fairy Tales - tetsubinatu on June 4th, 2006 12:04 pm (UTC) (Expand)
author_by_night: Sirius_Regulus  by wildmusing f. artdungauthor_by_night on June 4th, 2006 11:12 am (UTC)
Generally, I think they really just... don't know to not want a better life. Blame a curse, blame genes, blame anything.

Though the hobglobin theory is interesting. That could be partly it, but I just think if Dobby wanted his freedom... there you go.

As for Hermione being wrong - she's not, IMO, but the way she's going about it, insulting them and such, is.
Sollerssollersuk on June 4th, 2006 11:58 am (UTC)
Are you sure you're not projecting in the same way that Hermione does? She is assuming that what is said about house-elves is the same type of rationalisation that was used for slavery, but English folk traditions suggest that it may be the wizard's view that is valid; that if they didn't like doing it they wouldn't stay around. And it is emphasised that Dobby is completely untypical. One suggestion quoted in Briggs' book is that "he was of too free a spirit to accept the bondage of human clothes or wages". One thing that does come over again and again when it comes to Other People is that they do not have the same priorities as humans.
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Re: Here via Hogwarts Today - auctasinistra on June 5th, 2006 07:26 pm (UTC) (Expand)
heartless guttersnipeparsimonia on June 4th, 2006 11:24 am (UTC)
I don't know if I would entirely base Rowling's mythology on the works/ideas of other people...it's possible she used it for ideas, but I wouldn't call them "free spirits". Afterall House Elfs are magically bound to the families they serve.

It's in their culture to think it's good to serve a family and that payment would be an insult, but they are still literally enslaved by magic. And I'm willing to bet that they believe that because it's a belief that humans have helped instill in them, the better to exploit them.
Sollerssollersuk on June 4th, 2006 12:03 pm (UTC)
I would be reluctant to do so, but having recently read my way through Briggs' book, and having lost track after the twentieth close correspondence, I am strongly of the opinion that it was one of her major sources. The extent to which she draws on existing traditions should not be underestimated; her reading is wide enough for her to use the name of an obscure Celtic goddess for one character. Generally in British folk tradition, related creatures are very touchy and easily offended, and if they take offence they make life very unpleasant for the household, usually by poltergeist activity. Keep them happy and they will work non-stop for no direct, tangible reward, and the one thing that is guaranteed to upset them is any form of payment
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a Job's muffler: Mr. Peanuthedda62 on June 4th, 2006 12:29 pm (UTC)
Even with the canon evidence we do have about house elves (and I think your background deductions are reasonable) I think it's interesting from the writing perspective that JKR chose to introduce them via an atypical example. Dobby is meant to be seen as a positive example, Harry's friend (if a bit wholesale in his efforts at assistance), but it's clear that the other house elves regard him as cracked. And it's his behavior that spurs Hermione's campaign, as much as the abuse she observes and the conclusions she draws from a human perspective.

Is there some parallel here to introducing werewolves via Lupin and giants via Hagrid, so that we sympathize first and then discover the more negative aspects later? Or perhaps this is just me hoping that SPEW wasn't a dead end and that we're going to see some house elf followup in book seven.
Sollerssollersuk on June 4th, 2006 12:37 pm (UTC)
You may well be right - we start off thinking "why are they being so nasty about werewolves? This is prejudice and stereotyping gone mad" - and then we learn the true horror of at least some (OK, at least one) werewolf.

And given what we have been told about goblins, and the general level of antagonism between wizards and magical creatures - whitewashed, but in a way that Harry sees through - I am fully expecting the proverbial to hit the fan, including trouble on a major scale with house elves, goblins and centaurs, with the smashing of the fountain being deeply symbolic. If house elves did turn on humans, the ones on the firing line would be the wealthy and old families (which of course are not synonymous) and major institutions. Hogwarts might be OK, but not necessarily so now Dumbledore has gone, though McGonagall is very much on his wavelength; I suspect that the tea towel togas are acceptable on the basis that they are issued, technically on loan.
snorkackcatchersnorkackcatcher on June 4th, 2006 12:51 pm (UTC)
I'm not sure either work 100%, given that JKR usually puts 'spin' on her mythological sources -- the idea within the context of the Potterverse presumably being that the 'real legends' (as it were!) are corrupted versions or misunderstandings of the 'actual creatures' known to wizards. So few of them are entirely what we'd expect from the legends (look at the treatment of fairies or gnomes or Veela, for example). She even said at one point regarding the legend that house-elves would leave if given clothes that she thought it would be amusing if she made it so that they considered it an insult, so she was definitely adapting rather than taking neat.

Regarding house-elves, there definitely does seem to be magic in place that binds them to a family even when they hate what they're doing -- look at the way Kreacher behaves for example. When Sirius or Harry gave him a direct order he had to carry it out, and couldn't reveal what he'd been told not to as he was 'bound by the enchantments of his kind'. Of course, most of them are delighted to do what they're asked, as Hagrid says. That doesn't mean that Hermione is wrong, just that her approach is flawed.
Sollerssollersuk on June 4th, 2006 01:10 pm (UTC)
See above on Kreacher.

What instances of spin were you thinking of? Apart from boggarts I can't think of any major ones; normally JKR plays very straight indeed, including the language used for spells. The fairies correspond closely to one English tradition. The gnomes are fairly standard too, with a slight spin in the direction of tacky garden ornaments, and the Veela are very, very close indeed to the Polish Wila - particularly the detail of the hair. Indeed, I have found the way she sticks close to tradition so striking that when there is an apparent divergence my immediate reaction is to wonder "Exactly what is she getting at here?"
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kerylrkerylr on June 4th, 2006 01:14 pm (UTC)
I've often puzzeled about how it is the other muggle born children don't see anything wrong with House Elves. But, then I rememeber, a good house elf is never seen. Perhaps the main reason Hermione is the only one offended by House Elf slavery is because she's the one who really sees it. (Do we ever see Dean, Angelina, or Lavendar interact with the House-Elves?) Granted this does not explain why Harry, muggle raised, isn't more upset about House-Elf rights, but it does go a way towards explaining the indifference we see.

Back in the US, during the age of slavery many people were willing to say the slaves were happy. That they couldn't take care of themselves. That it was a beneficial arrangement. But almost all of that rested on the fact that very few people owned slaves, and saw what slavery was really like. My guess is very few people in the Wizarding world have House Elves as well.

Families like the Weasleys can be indifferent on House Elf rights because they don't have any. They have an idea what it's like, but they don't know. Plus, Molly volunterily does everything a house-elf would, so how bad can it be? (Or so the thinking may go.)

Humans have an amazing ability to ignore that which is uncomfortable to them. (Oh, that camp down the road that the trains keep dumping people in, always smells like death, and keeps showering us with ash. Nope, no clue as to what goes on there.) Because Hermione is one of the more aware characters in the HP world, (especially of the kids) she does not ignore what is uncomfortable. So she feels she must act. Her actions may be right or wrong, but she cannot let what she sees as injustice just go on by her.
Sollerssollersuk on June 4th, 2006 01:58 pm (UTC)
Up to a certain extent, I take your point; but the key difference is that when wizards say "buty they aren't human" it is perfectly true- they are not human. When I was a child there were very few stories that scared me more than stories about fairies and other such creatures - the Welsh stories, that is. The fact that they were euphemistically called the Fair (or Nice) People was a give-away. Some of them, for example bwbachod, could be really evil to people they disapproved of, usually for having the wrong religion. They all had to be approached with care because they did not have the human moral code and they did not have the same priorities.

Coming back to the fountain, Harry is aware that the attitude of centaurs and goblins to humans is not that portrayed, and that both of these are extremely dangerous to humans. He believes this not to be true of house elves, and feels uncomfortable about Hermione's actions partly because he thinks she's behaving in an embarrassing way and partly because he suspects she is right. However, it is distinctly possible that she isn't and that JKR has been using S.P.E.W. to lead us up the garden path by making absolutely certain that we equate the treatment of house elves with the treatment of slaves. I am quite prepared for her to be using this as the build-up to a quite shocking climax. The thing is, it's unnecessary. There is no real reason to introduce house elves at Hogwarts at all; there is no family for them to be associated with. It is only the presence of this large body of house elves that gives Hermione any locus standi for protesting; Lucius Malfoy's behaviour towards Dobby could otherwise be seen as simply another example of Lucius' behaviour. The setting up of the situation needs to be either to say something about Hermione (which could be done in a different manner) or to lull us into having inappropriate ideas about one set of magical creatures.
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(no subject) - sollersuk on June 5th, 2006 05:40 am (UTC) (Expand)
BlackSquirrel: Don't Understand Phallogocentrismblacksquirrel on June 4th, 2006 03:05 pm (UTC)
See, here’s the thing. I apologize if this sounds offensive, but those ancient myths were just that – myths. Stories about non-humans metaphorically reflect on humans. Rowling isn’t only writing about a hermetically sealed magical world, but she’s also reflecting upon real historical and contemporary issues – Nazi Germany and the EU are prominent examples.

Throughout SciFi and fantasy writing it is common for authors to use aliens or fantasy creatures to represent human populations they consider “other.” Sure, within the narrative those creatures literally aren’t human, but they very often stand in for really existing human types. Tolkin is an excellent example of this wherein the various tribes of The Lord of the Rings map fairly transparently onto (his view of) Mediaeval Europe.

Very often this happens less clearly or less consciously than in Tolkin wherein “the monster,” whatever that may be, takes on the characteristics of whatever the author finds most monstrous – which very often has to do with the characteristics of a human enemy. Thus for Americans during the Cold War “the horror” was often represented in terms that suggested fears about communism like uniformity and sweeping contamination – see, for example, Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Even ancient myths reflect the world of the people who passed them on – they are not somehow “pure” or untainted by human experiences and biases. Many were directly used as teaching tools for the young meant to provide practical lessons about the real world and instill community values. I’m suggesting that the brownies or the elves or the fairies or whatnot act the way they do in stories not simply because that’s just how they are – full stop – but because that’s how the people telling those stories needed them to be to teach something about how to treat strangers, why we don’t associate with certain people, why men’s work is more valuable than women’s work etc, etc, etc.

Beyond being a children’s author interested in folklore JK Rowling is an activist who lives in modern multi-cultural Britain. She certainly knows about colonialism, slavery, and racism, probably more directly than she knows about fairies or brownies.

Arguing that the house elves deserve or need to be enslaved because they are potentially dangerous to people is just odd to me. People are also very (potentially) dangerous to people and the most dangerous “creatures” in Harry Potter arguably are wizards themselves. African-Americans were very (potentially) dangerous to slaveholders and regulations during American slavery as well as later Jim Crow laws as well as modern paranoia about inner cities were all aimed at controlling a “dangerous” population. Whether or not they actually were dangerous in the way that all people have the ability to be violent toward an out group or only became so because of the horrible crimes perpetrated by slavery and systematic racism (i.e. they did attempt several armed rebellions), many attempted to make African-Americans seem like dangerous “beasts” who needed to be controlled and contained by “civilized” white men. Kerylr did a nice job above of outlining several other parallels between house elf slavery and the enslavement of Africans.

However, in addition, House Elves, as Kerylr implied, do “women’s work” which makes their devotion to punishing masters who take them for granted also map onto battered women’s syndrome. Like wives before the feminist movement, as we see from Dobby’s search for employment, house elves have very few economic options other than enforced servitude and have internalized a cultural mantra that good girls/elves love their masters, and should want nothing more from life than darning socks and performing caretaking. The fact that many house elves say they enjoy their lot in life doesn’t necessarily mean there isn’t a violently coercive and oppressive social hierarchy in place which Hermione recognizes and works to overturn with the only tools she has.
Sollerssollersuk on June 4th, 2006 03:30 pm (UTC)
JKR operates very closely within the rules of the game when it comes to mythology, and that is the only thing that is relevant: it doesn't matter whether mythology is true or not if her supernatural beings behave in the way described in folklore. In any case that is a very sweeping statement to make about mythology. When I was working on Human Skeletal Remains in Archaeology, one of my jobs was to check out mythological references because most of the oldest ones tied in extremely well with new stuff from archaeology; for example, the account of the introduction of domestic swine in the Mabinogion has an astonishingly close fit with the introduction as shown by archaeology. The spread of cereal cultivation and viticulture in the Eastern Mediterranean correspond very closely to the Greek Myths.

There are a number of opinions around as to the extent to which comparisons with Nazi Germany can be drawn. The closer one looks at the analogy, the more it breaks down, and a number of people view the attitude of wizards to Muggles as being more analogous to attitudes to individuals with various types of disability than having any relation to either Nazi or Spanish antisemitism. Some wizards may have similar attitudes on "limpieza de sangre", but Aryan children do not spontaneously pop up in Jewish families, nor do families with centuries of pure Aryan descent sporadically have Jewish children.

JKR shows herself to be very knowledgeable about traditions of the British Isles and works within these confines. It so happens that much of the work done by house elves could be construed as women's work, although traditionally bread baking was men's work, and folktales concerning brownies and the like show them helping with men's work as much as they do with women's work. I therefore do not think viewing this purely from a feminist pov is necessarily relevant.

It may be that I have not made myself sufficiently clear. I have taken as a starting point the idea that house elves are oppressed and without choices and in a position analogous to human slavery, and then raised the possibility that this interpretation, attractive though it may be, is in fact a red herring and the facts may be totally different, and that JKR is deliberately tempting us to impose our own views.
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snape_in_lurve on June 4th, 2006 04:21 pm (UTC)
I liked your article, It reminds me of my anglo-celtic mother's stories about the wee folk and to always 'ware the wee ones!

Here's a childhood poem called "The Fairies" written by William Allingham which explains it nicely, imo

Up the airy mountain,
Down the rushy glen,
We daren't go a-hunting
for fear of little men.
Wee folk, good folk,
Trooping all together;
Green jacket red cap,
And white owl's feather!

Down along the rocky shoe
Some make their home,
They live on crispy pancakes
Of yellow tide-foam;
Some in the reeds
Of the black mountain lake,
With frogs for their watch-dogs
All night awake.

High on the hill-top
the old King sits;
He is now so old and grey
He's nigh lost his wits.
With a bridge of white mist
Columbkill he crosses,
On his stately journeys
From Slieveleague to Rosses;
Or going up with music
On cold starry nights,
To sup with the Queen
Of the gay Northern Lights.

They stole little Bridget
For seven years long;
When she came down again
Her friends were all gone.
They took her lightly back.
Between the night and morrow,
They thought that she was fast asleep
But she was dead with sorrow.
They have kept her ever since
Deep within the lake,
On a bed of flag-leaves,
Watching till she wake.

By the craggy hillside,
Through the mosses bare,
They have planted thorn trees
For pleasure here and there.
Is any man so daring,
As dig them up in spite,
He shall find their sharpest thorns,
In his bed at night.

Up the airy mountain,
Down the rushy glen,
We daren't go a-hunting
For fear of little men;
Wee folk, good folk,
Trooping all together;
Green jacket, red cap,
And white owls' feather!
Sollerssollersuk on June 4th, 2006 04:26 pm (UTC)
jodel_from_aoljodel_from_aol on June 4th, 2006 05:58 pm (UTC)
I have a (very long) essay over on Red Hen about The Servant Problem.

The biggest piece of spin that Rowling has put on the Brownies (which she admits was her source) is that they are in no manner immortal. The traditional ones were. And they appear to have been solitary. A Brownine "haunted" a property until the owners banished him with an offer of clothing. This could go on for generations, and is often said to have done so.

Rowling's House Elves are mortal, and they have families or they would have died out.

In my examination of the issue I postulate that the Elves came before the Houses. And that they were only enslaved to wizarding properties as a result of the passing of the wizarding act of international seclusion in 1692. Prior to that date, wizards had actively avoided having anything to do with House Elves, because they could see the kind of merry dance the Elves were giving their Muggle neighbors. (After all, if you had magic, would an elf really be that much of an advantage?)

With the Reformation, and the growing Muggle opposition to anything that smacked of the supernatural Houese Elves were being exorcised at a tremendous rate, and what were the elves to do but to throw themselves upon the mercy of wizards. Who agreed to take them on, at a price.
lilacsigillilacsigil on June 5th, 2006 01:25 am (UTC)
I always saw House Elves as exactly that - spirits bound to a particular House, or family. Wizarding families would be lucky to have a House Elf, and should treat the elf with respect according to the elf's rules: no giving clothes, no saying thank you, no direct offers of food. I suspect the rich families having house elves is actually because the elf or elves go to the eldest son along with the family residence and the money - the Weasleys might be descended from younger sons and daughters on both sides.

Somewhere along the line, certain families, like the Malfoys, have twisted this into something that resembles slavery. Kreacher and Winky seemed very happy to serve their families until they were treated badly. Winky was horrified at being cut loose, even though Mr Crouch had forced her to do things she didn't want to do.

I think my position is that the problem isn't that House Elves are bound to a family - the problem is the family not treating them with respect. It is not an analogy to human slavery - the house elves are not human in any sense. I would like to see some of the regular pureblood families - some of the Hufflepuffs for example - and how their elves are treated.
elisa0984 on June 5th, 2006 08:50 pm (UTC)
I think comparing them to the Goblins and bringing up the Goblin Wars indicates pretty large assumptions that the goblins are in fact constantly in the wrong and the wizards must take steps to control them. What we know about the goblins themselves comes to us only from a few wizards and let's face it no matter what way you look at it Rowling has created a fairly prejudiced society. Wizards who might be seen as the most accepting of Muggles still consider them to be very strange and almost beyond comprehension. There is always an attitude of superiority. Anything that is different whether it be Muggle, werewolf, or house elf is looked down upon by a "normal" wizard.

Coming back to house elves, why do you think there is an undomesticated variety? House elves are permantently attached to a family unless the family frees it which we are lead to understand happens quite rarely. From the information we gather from Ron, house elves are useful something that would be substantially undermined by dozens being turned away. And it is a possiblility the system would suffer if there were wild elves that could sneak in and disrupt the ranks.
Sollerssollersuk on June 6th, 2006 05:29 am (UTC)
As to the goblins, the chief feeling I get is that the wizards assume an attitude of superiority but are in fact afraid of them and are cautious in all their dealings with them. All the scenes in the bank bear this out. Returning to the fountain, this is one of the points where Harry disbelieves the image it projects: it is only the house elves that he feels react in the way shown by the fountain.

As to non-domesticated house elves, logically at tone time (before humans had permanent houses) there would have to have been a being that was not commensal with humans. And though it is not necessarily so for Brownies as such, some stories do involve beings choosing to come to a house and settling there, to some extent trading services for shelter. There's a symbiotic aspect that I am going to have to think about
philipm31 on June 11th, 2006 08:13 am (UTC)
While she is my favorite character, Hermione seems to badly misread the situations involving magical creatures like the House Elves and the centaurs. Hermione's inability to grasp that projecting her own ideas about how these creatures should think is possibly one of the only things that she has not been right about in this series. In both cases, the elves and centaurs are shown as fiercely independent creatures and their way of thinking is not generally represented by Dobby and the centaur teacher (I forgetigs name). Hermione has a good heart but she is wrong to project her own ideas and ways of thinking into these two cultures, which a common mistake people make upon becoming involved with other new cultures. It's not wrong necessarily to want to do this initially, but to continue to do so after extensive interaction, or immersion, with other cultures is wrong-and possibly even arrogant (not pubic surprising attitude for a know-it-all like Hermione to have).