|Muggles' Guide to Harry Potter - Magic|
|Type||Magical Creature (sentient)|
|Features||Small; large green eyes; large ears; intelligent|
|First Appearance||Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets|
House-elves are small creatures with big eyes, long noses, and bat-like ears, and are usually very poorly clothed. They can often be found at large houses and mansions. They are supposed to be very loyal to the head of their family. An owner or master can 'free' a house elf by giving him or her clothes.
House-elves are essentially slaves – they will serve one family for a long part of their life, and they feel that this is right and proper, that this is what they were created to do. At Hogwarts there are hundreds of house-elves, preparing the food for the feasts, cleaning, and doing other chores. House-elves are bound to listen to members of the family they belong to, but can choose to disobey anyone else. In extraordinary circumstances, they can even disobey their masters, but afterwards they will punish themselves quite harshly for it. Three house-elves play a significant role in the books: Dobby, Winky, and Kreacher; a fourth one, Hokey, is mentioned (in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, where she serves Hepzibah Smith), but does not play a particularly significant role.
Quite obviously, most house-elves are content with their status, and believe that their situation, caring for their owners in return for shelter and, presumably, food, is right and proper. In fact, house-elves are considered chattel in the Wizarding world, and presumably could be sold; while we never see this, we do note that at Sirius' death, Kreacher is apparently included as being part of the house and property which Harry inherits. Kreacher has no say in this, he very strongly resists becoming the slave of one he considers a Mudblood, but he must, all the same, obey Harry's orders. We cannot know whether there is a magical component to Kreacher's transference of allegiance, but Professor Dumbledore sees it as proof that ownership of Sirius' house has passed to Harry. This suggests, first, that magic is involved, rather than simply tradition; and second, that Kreacher is considered a part of the house, and thus property rather than an individual.
House-elves can be freed; giving a house-elf clothes frees it from its situation, which is why they are so ill-clothed. They must wear whatever castoffs they can scavenge, which results in many of them wearing things like discarded, damaged pillowcases and rags twisted into rude loincloths. Most house-elves, however, do not want to be freed, and resist the suggestion most strongly. One exception is Dobby, who was the house-elf of the Malfoy family; he was so ill-treated there that he rebelled and eventually left their employ when Harry managed to engineer his receiving socks from his master, Lucius Malfoy. As a free house-elf, Dobby was unable to find work for a year or so, eventually joining the kitchen staff at Hogwarts; it seems that most wizards don't want house-elves that they have to pay for, even if it is only a Galleon per month.
When Winky is dismissed in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Dobby manages to get her employed at Hogwarts as well; however, she doesn't want to work, she simply sits, mourning the loss of her position and drinking herself to oblivion, for almost a year. She has not directly appeared in any of the books since then, though Dobby does mention her again in the next book.
Hermione tries to start up an organization to combat this apparent slavery, the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare (S.P.E.W.), but quite apart from the unfortunate acronym, she meets a substantial amount of resistance, not only from wizards and witches who like having house-elves around to serve them, but from the house-elves themselves who prefer security to freedom. Hermione's attempts to emancipate the Hogwarts house elves, by hiding clothing under garbage in the Gryffindor common room where elves will pick it up, is seen as insulting by the elves; they understand dismissal as a sign of completely failing their master or family. Hermione's effort would be ineffective, even if the elves did not react by shunning Gryffindor tower, leaving Dobby the job of cleaning Gryffindor by himself. It is only an elf's master who can free him by giving him clothes, which means Albus Dumbledore, or possibly one of the staff, but the students are not in a position of authority over the elves.
Hermione may have been misled in her efforts by Harry's recounting of how Dobby gained his freedom. It was Harry's sock, originally, but Harry had given it to Lucius Malfoy, and it was Lucius who had inadvertently given it to Dobby. Harry understood, as Hermione apparently does not, that if Harry had given the sock to Dobby directly, it would not have freed him. Interestingly, Harry himself falls into this same mistake in the fifth book: seeing that Hermione has a gift for Kreacher, he cautions her about giving Kreacher clothes, forgetting that only Sirius, Kreacher's master, could free him.
House-elves have a tendency to over-simplify the language. They refer to themselves in the third person ("Dobby is most sorry, sir...") and use full names ("Dobby cannot let Harry Potter lose his Wheezy!"), both of which would seem to imply an uncertainty about the use of language – the intricacies of "I" versus "you", and the appropriate use of names and nicknames, seems to be beyond them. This would imply a lower level of verbal intelligence than humans have. Additionally, Dobby's efforts to prevent Harry from returning to Hogwarts, or to get him to return to Privet Drive once he is there, seem quite poorly thought out, almost child-like, again suggesting a less sophisticated level of intelligence. From this, one can see why a house-elf would be afraid to be freed; the world is a scary place for one so surrounded by people smarter than himself.
The intellect of house elves is probably best described as "child-like". This is telegraphed to us by their use of language; specifically, the confusion of "I" and "you", and the misuse of full names and nicknames, is characteristic of the very young. In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, we also see that Dobby's attempts to prevent Harry's return to Hogwarts, and to send him home once he is back at school, are quite childish. The same is true of Kreacher's loyalty. When we first see him, Kreacher is plainly rebelling, in a sullen and childish manner, against the orders of a Master he feels is unworthy. Circumstance has made it necessary for him to accept Sirius' orders; nothing will make him like it, and he will resist every way he can. Kreacher behaves the same way when Harry becomes his Master in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. In the same book, we see a direct contrast between Kreacher's barely-below-the-surface rebellion, and Dobby's enthusiastic loyalty, when the two of them are assigned the same task by Harry.
It is because of this perceived child-like intelligence that we are able to accept Kreacher's sudden change of loyalty when Harry enlists his aid to retrieve Mundungus Fletcher and the locket Kreacher had been instructed to destroy. The very young are able to form very sudden and deep alliances for what seem quite trivial reasons, and Kreacher's response to Harry actually caring about the same things Kreacher cares about would be characteristic of this. Ron's caution that Harry was "over the top" when he gave Regulus' locket to Kreacher was not accurate; although it did result in Kreacher falling apart emotionally, it was necessary so that he could reassemble, centered around Harry, rather than around Sirius' mother.
The status and situation of house elves is complicated. Applying human values to "help" non-humans is not as straightforward as some, including Hermione, believe at first. Hermione's campaign with S.P.E.W. is laudable and correct, elves are slaves and should be given the rights, privileges and respect humans enjoy. However, she finds difficulty in understanding the values and desires of most elves. Initially she wishes to free all elves and have them paid wages for their work. The elves, with few exceptions, consider this an insult to their honor. Elves appear to have been bred or enchanted to view their servitude as a noble vocation rather than enslavement. This breeding and enchantment is obviously the selfish work of wizards in the far past who desired the luxury of dedicated servants who cost nothing. Such a tradition, as Hermione finds out, is difficult to reform and requires some patience. Eventually the elves, including Kreacher, achieve some enlightenment, and the victory banquet at the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is shared by elves, humans and others as friends and equals.
Not mentioned above is the apparent fact that House Elf magic is not of the same type as human magic. In particular, we are told numerous times that Hogwarts is protected against Apparition, that you cannot Apparate into or out of Hogwarts, or even within Hogwarts except when the spells are locally and temporarily lifted in the Great Hall for Apparition class. Yet, Dobby is clearly able to Disapparate from Harry's grip in the Hospital Wing; we see that in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. This shows that House Elf Disapparition is different from "wand-bearer" Disapparition in two respects: first, it can be done in places where the human spell is blocked, and second, it can be used to get away from someone who is holding the caster, something that evidently is not so easily accomplished by humans.
This ability of House Elves to Apparate where humans cannot plays a fairly important role later in the series as well. Kreacher, taken to the cave of the locket, is able to return to the Black house and tell Regulus what had happened, despite Voldemort having surrounded the location with various protective and preventative spells, and despite Kreacher's then being dragged underwater by Inferi. It is Kreacher's information that leads Harry to a Horcrux.
Whether other House Elf magic is significantly different from human magic is uncertain. We know that House Elves do not carry wands, and so there is certainly a difference in the way magic is produced; however, apparently House-Elf magic can be stopped by human magic, as Mundungus Fletcher is able to loot Grimmauld Place despite Kreacher's efforts to stop him.