MuggleNet Academia 12: House-Elves — and House-Wives!

Marietta College Professor Katy McDaniel joined the MuggleNet Academia crew this week to talk about house-elves and the various ways to understand their trials and triumphs in Harry Potter’s adventures. Here’s a synopsis of the program:

Elfin Mystique in the Harry Potter Series’

House-elves are essential pieces in the setting and backdrop of the Hogwarts Saga, but, as individual actors and as a Magical species, do they really do much more than highlight the prejudice, ideas, and character of the ‘important’ players of the series? Dobby, Winky, Kreacher, and the kitchen crew are good for a great laugh and illustration of how evil the Malfoys are, of Dumbledore’s politics, how sensitive and idealistic Hermione is, what a boob Ron can be, and of Sirius’ serious blind-spots; do they matter, though, in the end? Kathryn McDaniel of Marietta College talks with Keith, John, and [student name] to argue that Rowling’s treatment of the House-elves (and Dobby particularly) is “at the core of her message for the whole series.” The MuggleNet Academia gang talk about feminism — are the House-elves really house-wives? — as well as why Hermione drops S.P.E.W. recruiting, the American Communist Party, even Dobby as Christian hero and Existentialist. Tune in for a wild ride with Kreacher and Kompany!

Check it out by clicking here and listening in! Many thanks to Prof McDaniel for the lively and challenging conversation.

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  1. Professor,

    You guys have turned out another great podcast!

    I was interested to hear McDaniel talk about house-elves as similar to house-wives, which in some ways seems a more helpful analogy than actual slaves – perhaps simply because it raises fewer automatic hackles. It wasn’t an analogy I had considered previously.

    I hope you all talk about house-elves again at some point in the future. I would like to hear the house-elves talked about in relationship to class: house-elves as low-class domestic servants, only to be afforded by the wealthy, and the internalization of class status. I’d also be interested in hearing house-elves, along with other magical creatures, discussed in relationship to British colonialism, where some colonialists wanted total independence, while others preferred to stay subject to the crown. (Maybe you’ll have a chance on your next podcast when you discuss foreign relations? Although I suppose the magical creatures aren’t exactly foreigners.)

    For some reason, I’ve thought of the house-elves as a reflection of how we as a culture think of slavery/service. McDaniel briefly pointed out that some think happiness is not the goal, but a good and productive life is the goal. Do you think Rowling is suggesting that we have lost sight of the latter goal and are now focused too much on the former? She certainly mentions happiness in regards to Harry: Molly doesn’t want to tell Harry about Sirius Black because “he’s happy not knowing,” Dumbledore cares too much about Harry’s happiness to tell him about the prophecy, Fudge and the wizarding world are happy to believe Voldemort hasn’t returned, and Dumbledore is (almost) constantly prescribing what is right over what is easy. Is our aversion to the happy house-elf an indicator of how we think about service? Is Rowling calling for us all to be better servants, not just served? And what is the distinguisher between slavery and servant? Self-identity? Knowledge of the wider world?

    What I’m especially interested in hearing you discuss is how this picture of service/slavery relates to the Christian imagery and messages in the series. It seems like house-elves almost automatically reflect their master’s views of life and other people. I think Paul described himself as a slave to Christ; in other places Christ or truth are portrayed as liberators. Do you think house-elves are a good picture of slavery : freedom :: heathen : Christian? Dobby’s allegiance is to Harry and to Dumbledore, both of whom sometimes serve as Christ figures. Do you think it important that Dobby’s epitaph is “a free elf”? Harry seems to win Kreacher’s loyalty (and happiness) when he gives Kreacher the fake locket; is the locket symbolical?

    I know I’ve asked a lot of questions. I hope you’ll have time to address a few! In the meantime, keep up the great work on the podcasts.

  2. Dolores Gordon-Smith says

    Yet another terrific podcast! My only wish is that there could be an interactive part, where listeners could telephone in with questions. Maybe Keith could organise a Mugglenet Academia phone in? That would be ever so interesting.

    About house elves; I think JK Rowling is posing a genuinely ethical question. Anyone who’s ever been involved in charity work will have come up against this dilemma. The dilemma is this; there’s often a big disconnect between what we (the doners AKA Hermione) think the objects of charity need and what the objects of charity actually want.
    My local church had a project to collect school books, pens and various school supplies for a nursery school in Gambia. The gifts were given with great kindness and good faith and were completely unused. The Gambians preferred to do things their own way. Their way was strict, old fashioned and (by our standards) ineffective but it was their way. They were flattered that foreigners were taking an interest but didn’t want to be told (however kindly) what to do.
    Hermione thinks the house elves need freedom; what the house elves actually want is respect for what they do.
    They do like working at Hogwarts for Dumbledore who treats them with kindness, consideration and respect; they don’t like working for cruel masters (eg the Malfoys) or being ignored (eg Sirius Black).
    What the house elves can actually show us is that one size doesn’t fit all; we have to listen before we instruct and learn before we can teach. Anything else, however kindly meant, is cultural imperialism. Difficult, isn’t it?

    Remember she has a keen sense of social justice and worked for Amnesty, and it all makes more sense.

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