Anna Mik is a PhD student at the University of Warsaw’s Faculty of “Artes Liberales”, completing her thesis on the representation of mythical creatures in literature for children and young adults–especially on the ethical conundrums they present for young minds to think about. Here, she talks about Dobby, the house-elf famously freed by Harry Potter (with advice and encouragement from his friend Hermione Granger). Could it be that Dobby is a Spartacus of the Wizarding World?
This paper is an extract from a paper she delivered at “Our Mythical History: Children’s and Young Adults’ Culture in Response to the Heritage of Ancient Greece and Rome,” a Conference held at the Faculty of “Artes Liberales,” May 22-26, 2019.)
“Freedom or death” – those three words are famously inscribed in popular culture and associated with the historical figure of Spartacus. This seemingly simple and concise combination of words defining the basic privilege of every creature and the final moment of its existence, reflects the tragedy of struggle for eleutheria (liberty), a goal beyond which there is nothing but death.
Gaining freedom almost always comes with the ultimate price. In antiquity, with its own variations and differences, slaves were treated as objects and their masters’ property. Although the vision of ancient slavery seems distant, until recently this phenomenon was very close to our times, both in Europe and in the United States (of course, in different than ancient forms). People of African descent were treated as objects or animals as well, and had to fight for their rights which still are not respected in some parts of the world. The echoes of its presence can still be heard today, including, maybe surprisingly, the literature for our youngest readers.
Take the Harry Potter novels, for example. To some extent J. K. Rowling explores slavery through her presentation of creatures placed very low in the wizarding hierarchy. House-elves inhabiting the world of Harry Potter have one function assigned to them: to serve wizards without payment or any kind of appreciation. They wear the worst kind of rag they can find and do not own any property. The major schoolbook History of Hogwarts does not even mention the existence of the house-elves, even though: “Elf enslavement goes back in centuries”, Rowling, 2000: 198); They are evidently excluded from the main discourse, as their presence is not appropriately acknowledged, in wizarding education nor in their political affairs.
How to liberate an elf
Nevertheless, there is a way to liberate the house-elf: by giving them a piece of clothing. Usually they consider this act the worst tragedy—emphasizing the fear that can come with freedom. But in the second book of the series, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1998) Harry develops a significant connection to one of the house-elves. He is named Dobby, and is the only of his kind that dreams of eleutheria and despises his wizard master (the snobbish Lucius Malfoy). After defeating Lord Voldemort once more, Harry gives the elf a sock and finally Dobby is free!. From now on the creature openly admires the boy, and even though he is now freed of any obligations towards wizards, he promises to stand by Potter’s side at all costs.
Elves’ connection to enslavement and clothing brings us back to the fairy-tale tradition, where those creatures served humans, in exchange for clothing or food. Such depictions are common in many folk-tales (also in Poland) but probably the most popular one would be the version by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm: The Elves and the Shoemaker (first trans. to English by Margaret Hunt in 1884 as: The Elves). In this tale the elves make shoes for a Shoemaker at night, to a point when (depending on the version) the man frees them by giving the creatures a piece of clothing. The Shoemaker does that to pay his debt, which might make us wonder–does Harry do the same thing?
Is it possible that Harry frees Dobby out of guilt for the pain that wizard society caused the house-elves? We do not read about such a motive in the book, nonetheless, it might have been one of the options. Or maybe – which is most likely – he only did it out of pure sympathy towards Dobby, combinded with a need of revange on Malfoy house. Either way, one more question remains – why only Dobby was freed, why not other elves, who also suffer from slavery and wizards’ oppression?
Hierarchy and relationships among magical species
Dobby’s humble attitude towards the wizard reflects the hierarchy and relationships between magical species – elf-servants and wizard-masters. Even though house-elves have a great magical power, they cannot use it without their owner’s permission (Rowling, 1998: 27). The system of supremacy is also supported by the notion that only wealthy families with long wizardry tradition have house-elves, as a form of luxury and legitimacy of authority (Rowling, 1998: 28). This fact also reflects the well-known historical concept of enslavement, a privilege of the rich and mighty.
The only advocate among wizards and witches that stands for the elves and wants to include them in the social discourse is Hermione Granger. Mocked by her friends, despised by elves for destroying the status quo, she is convinced that changing their work conditions will serve all members of the wizarding community. She is the first one who actually acknowledges their subservient position and openly defines their status as slavery (Rowling, 2000: 112). While others think that house elves like to be “bossed around” and are “not supposed to have fun”, Hermione believes in the potential of elfish revolution.
At the end of the series Dobby dies while rescuing his hero, Harry Potter. On the stone of an improvised grave, the wizard carves the words: Here lies Dobby, a Free Elf. (Rowling, 2007: 389). A consolation for this sad moment could have been the words of Spartacus from Stanley Kubrick’s production: “When a free man dies, he loses the pleasure of life. A slave loses his pain. Death is the only freedom a slave knows. That’s why he’s not afraid of it. That’s why we’ll win.” Dobby might be the next embodiment of Spartacus’ spirit, eleutheria in pure form, a creature, who, in order to achieve such state, had to die.
The long way ahead …
There are some parts in Rowling’s Potter-writting where the allusions to the real-life slavery are very clear and obvious. However, what is a little bit worrying, is that Rowling does not push this issue further: we do not know if the revolution of house-elves ever takes place, whether there are any more creatures inspired by Dobby’s thought, or whether there are some other wizards or witches besides Hermione that actually recognise the problem of elf-slavery. It might be possible that Rowling believes in her readers more than in her characters, and that the house-elves will influence young minds – to be aware of social patterns threatening the freedom of less privileged creatures – not only humans.
Probably there is a long way ahead for the other house-elves to gain freedom and sustain democratic order in the wizarding world. Yet, it is not far from impossible. As Michel Foucault reminds us:
“Liberty is a practice… The liberty of men is never assured by the institutions of law that are intended to guarantee them. This is why almost all of these laws and institutions are quite capable of being turned around. Not because they are ambiguous, but simply because ‘liberty’ is what must be exercised… […] The guarantee of freedom is freedom.” (Rainbow 1984: 245)