Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was a fantastic, satisfying ending to the book series we all know and love. There are so many elements to explore and examine in this work, and here I turn my attention to the house-elves. We were introduced to the creatures in the second book of the series and each book has had different roles for the elves to play. In book seven, we get glimpses of house-elves in all their glory. Paradoxically, much of their glory lies in their servitude and humility. This upside-down thinking does not originate in J.K. Rowling’s mind, brilliant though it is. For example, the theme of servanthood is widely explored in the Christian gospels. Now, as we are uncertain where JKR’s theological leanings lie, we cannot claim that she intentionally created house-elves with Biblical texts in mind. However, I’d like to point out how house-elves are an imaginative example of the kind of Christ-like servitude explored in the Christian gospels.
The first house-elf we see in DH is Kreacher. We all remember how rude and cruel Kreacher was in Order of the Phoenix, berating all the “Mudbloods” and “blood traitors,” and ultimately becoming the means by which Voldemort is able to trick Harry and cause the death of Sirius. No one expected anything but hatred and cunning from Kreacher. And yet, simply and beautifully, we see the transformation of Kreacher in DH. Harry forces him to tell his pitiful tale of loyalty to Regulus, including the poignant line “The house-elf’s highest law is his Master’s bidding” (DH10/195)[FN]. Harry sees the importance of treating his servant with dignity and respect, and also gives him Regulus’ locket (DH10). Kreacher is beside himself with joy and delights to serve Harry from this point on. When they are unable to return to Grimmauld Place, Harry notes regretfully that “it had been their one safe refuge: even, now that Kreacher was so much happier and friendlier, a kind of home” (DH14/271). Kreacher had done what house-elves delight to do: serve their masters, and take joy in doing so.
Next we see Dobby, the lovable (if sometimes annoying) character that Harry freed in Chamber of Secrets. Examples of Dobby’s desire to protect and remain loyal to Harry abound in several of the books, including his painful attempts to protect Harry from Lucius Malfoy’s sinister plan in CS, his procuring gillyweed to help Harry in Goblet of Fire, his assistance in revealing the Room of Requirement in Order of the Phoenix, and his tracking of Draco in Half-Blood Prince. Most of these acts of courage, loyalty, and servitude were after Dobby was freed from slavery. He chooses to help Harry, who has always been kind and respectful to him. The most poignant choice Dobby makes is, of course, in Deathly Hallows, when Dobby courageously Apparates into his previous owners manor to rescue Harry and his friends (DH23). Dobby sacrifices his life to serve and aid Harry, even though he was not bound to do so. He was “Dobby, a free elf,” the epitaph that Harry painstakingly engraves on his headstone. It was in his very nature to serve and to give selflessly. This truth is not lost on Harry, who manually digs Dobby’s grave. It is Harry’s grief over Dobby’s sacrificial death, combined with the physical labor of digging, that provides Harry with increasing clarity of thought, and which illuminates Harry’s path forward from this time. For the first time Harry is able to close his mind to Voldemort, whose “thoughts could not penetrate Harry now, while he mourned Dobby. Grief, it seemed, drove Voldemort out . . . though Dumbledore, of course, would have said that it was love . . . .” Harry now gives up the obsessive desire for the Elder Wand, which had threatened to distract him from his goal of destroying Horcruxes (DH24). Dobby the house-elf’s embodiment of the greatness of serving others is profound indeed.
Harry is not the only one to be shaken by a fuller understanding of the significance and worth of house-elves. Humorously, we see the moment we have all been waiting for during six long books—Hermione and Ron finally kiss and surrender to the attraction they have shared for each other. The impetus? Ron’s declaration, in the midst of the fierce final battle at Hogwarts, about the house-elves in the kitchen, “we should tell them to get out. We don’t want any more Dobbies, do we? We can’t order them to die for us . . . .” This is all Hermione needed to hear to be fully convinced of Ron’s maturity and emotional growth, that he is finally worthy of her love (DH31/625).
The last we see of house-elves in Deathly Hallows is a triumphant Kreacher, leading an army of the Hogwartshouse-elves into the final battle. The image is too precious and endearing to gloss over. “The house-elves of Hogwarts swarmed into the entrance hall, screaming and waving carving knives and cleavers, and at their head, the locket of Regulus Black bouncing on his chest, was Kreacher, his bullfrog’s voice audible even above this din: ‘Fight! Fight! Fight for my Master, defender of house-elves! Fight the Dark Lord, in the name of brave Regulus! Fight!” (DH36/734).
The nature of the house-elf, who truly delights to serve, is open to corruption by the witches and wizards of Harry’s world. The enslavement of elves by Dark Wizards renders house-elves bitter and misguided. Winkyis a sad example of servitude and secret-keeping of masters who don’t respect and honor the house-elves giving nature. Kreacher, despised by Sirius, is awful until shown respect by Harry. Even Hermione, with her well-intentioned and humorous attempts to free the elves with her “S.P.E.W.” does not really appreciate the purity and goodness of the self-giving humility that the house-elves embody. When they are under kind and benevolent masters (Dumbledore at Hogwarts, Harry at Grimmauld Place) their greatness truly shines.
Dumbledore, in all his wisdom and benevolence, recognized the worth of the servanthood and humility which the house-elves personify. When he is chatting with Harry in the chapter entitled “King’s Cross,” he explains of Voldemort’s ignorance: “And his knowledge remained woefully incomplete, Harry! That which Voldemort does not value, he takes no trouble to comprehend. Of house-elves and children’s tales, of love, loyalty, and innocence, Voldemort knows and understands nothing. Nothing. That they all have a power beyond his own, a power beyond the reach of any magic, is a truth he has never grasped” (DH35/710).
As with the characters of the house-elves, the greatness of becoming a servant is a theme that abounds in the life and teaching of Christ as related in the Biblical gospels. Matthew 20:26-27 records Jesus saying, “But whoever would be great among you must be your servant.” After Jesus famously washes the disciples’ feet during the Last Supper, Jesus instructs them, “For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” (John 13:15). And the apostle Paul reminds readers that Jesus, “did not count equality with a God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant . . . .” (Phil. 2:4-6). I am sure there are other literary works which, like the Harry Potter series and the Christian gospels, have characters that embody and personify service and humility—but J.K. Rowling has done this masterfully in her Harry Potter series, in the great and humble characters of the house-elves. As so much of literature does, JKR’s house-elves help us to understand a truth by means of a story.
Originally published at http://guynameddave.typepad.com/stuckinstuff/2007/08/house-elves-the.html#more
All chapter/page references are to the American edition of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.