- "Loyal magical creatures bound to their owners as servants for life."
House-elves serve wizards and witches and are usually found under the employment of old wizarding families taking residence in elaborate establishments, like mansions, and must do everything that their masters command unless they are freed. A house-elf can only be freed when their master presents them with clothes.
All house-elves have their own brand of powerful magic, which allows them to perform tasks, such as Apparating, where wizards and witches cannot. More than just a mere housekeeper, a house-elf is a ruthless protector of those to whom they give their allegiance. In 1993, Dobby did not hesitate to protect Harry Potter, by using his magic on his former master Lucius Malfoy to blast him away after he attempted to physically assault Harry on the Grand Staircase.
Their magic is limited by the lack of a wand. However, unlike some other magical beings, the house-elf is actually quite happy not to own a wand, as they do not require one for their daily activities. Apart from routine domestic tasks, house-elves usually have to obtain permission from their master before they would use their own brand of magic for other things. Although a house-elf may rarely act without permission, they would have to punish themselves for these acts.
Relationship with Wizardkind
House-elves are subject to the laws of their country's wizarding government, known as Elf Legislation.
The guidelines on house-elf welfare were a set of regulations passed by the British Ministry of Magic regarding the treatment of house-elves. Despite their existence at the time, these guidelines were not enforced by the Ministry of Magic by 1996, and therefore many wizarding households such as the Malfoys and the Blacks mistreated their elves. This led wizards such as Albus Dumbledore and Hermione Granger to personally work to improve the lives of these creatures.
A house-elf must obey any commands given to them by their masters. At times, they seem to desire to disobey these orders, but as their master's orders are "the house-elf's highest law," they cannot, and are forced to punish themselves if they do. However, a house-elf may find loopholes within their master's or mistress's orders. For example, despite his loathing for Sirius Black, Kreacher could not disobey his direct orders. However, when Sirius yelled at him to "get out," which he meant to get out of the kitchen, Kreacher was able to interpret the command in a way that enabled him to leave number 12 Grimmauld Place and go to Sirius' cousins, Narcissa Malfoy and Bellatrix Lestrange.
During the 1996–1997 school year, Harry Potter ordered Kreacher to follow Draco Malfoy in order to find out what he was doing and where he was going, and carefully phrased his command to prevent Kreacher from contacting or alerting Draco. Kreacher, still reluctant to be owned by Harry, was unable to find a loophole in the orders about contacting Draco, but instead merely told Harry only about Draco's mundane daily activities.
- "Kreacher is what he has been made by wizards, Harry. Yes, he is to be pitied. His existence has been as miserable as your friend Dobby's. He was forced to do Sirius's bidding, because Sirius was the last of the family to which he was enslaved, but he felt no true loyalty to him. And whatever Kreacher's faults, it must be admitted that Sirius did nothing to make Kreacher's lot easier."
- —Dumbledore on Kreacher the House-Elf's thought process[src]
In the past in part due to their absolute obedience, house-elves have been treated very brutally by their owners. House-elves have no rights of their own and are viewed as servants without feeling or emotions.
For instance, Kreacher had to sleep in a cupboard under a boiler, where he made himself a den and was given no attention while Sirius Black was his master. Before this, Voldemort forced Kreacher to drink the potion in which his Horcrux was hidden to test its effectiveness, and was then left to die. In addition, Voldemort framed the house-elf Hokey for the murder of Hepzibah Smith.
The house-elf Dobby was so mistreated and under-appreciated by the Malfoy family that he independently sought out to aid and protect Harry Potter in 1992. In 1998, Dobby was slain by Bellatrix Lestrange in the act of protecting Harry's life. Also, Horace Slughorn made a house-elf test of his bottles of mead for poison (although he likely had antidotes on hand).
When a house-elf is mistreated, they will typically work just enough to obey their master's commands. However, if even the slightest loophole can be found in a master's orders, house-elves that are unhappy with their master will exploit that loophole to their advantage. The best way for a master to ensure full loyalty and compliance with their orders is to simply treat them properly. This was evidenced in 1997, when Hermione Granger convinced Harry Potter to be nicer to Kreacher. Soon, Kreacher began to accept his new master, and started serving him much more enthusiastically.
- Albus Dumbledore: "Give him an order. If he has passed into your ownership, he will have to obey. If not, then we shall have to think of some other means of keeping him from his rightful mistress."
- Kreacher: "Won't, won't, won't, WON'T!"
- Harry Potter: "Kreacher, SHUT UP!"
- — Kreacher must obey a direct order from his master[src]
House-elves are so intensely loyal to their masters that they will not allow themselves to be set free unless their master presents them with clothes and this loyalty, in and of itself, is something akin to a code of honour among their kind such that it is not uncommon for a house-elf to carry out their imperatives to the best of their ability, and at great personal risk, even if at the cusp of death. Unfortunately, this could also mean that they are left utterly helpless if ordered to be by their masters, even if the elf wishes otherwise, as seen when Kreacher apparently wasn't able to prevent Regulus' sacrifice after the latter's explicit orders for Kreacher to let him die through inaction and not interfering. To symbolise this, they usually wear makeshift clothes made with found objects such as pillowcases and rags. These clothes can become quite filthy, and yet the house-elf will not clean their clothes to further express that they have no needs which are not specifically commanded to them by the master. House-elves will torture and maim themselves if they think it will please the master (or to punish themselves.)
House-elves not only serve one specific master, but the whole family of the master and whoever the house-elf is ordered by the master to serve; however, if an order or instruction from a specific master they serve has been given and worded specifically enough, then not even the other members of the family would be able to circumvent it as seen when Regulus told Kreacher not to divulge the circumstances concerning the former's demise to the rest of the Blacks, with that knowledge resurfacing only after Harry was given ownership over the house-elf and ordering Kreacher to reveal what he knows, not violating Regulus' final command seeing that Harry wasn't a Black. When Sirius Black was killed in 1996, Harry Potter inherited the House of Black's servant Kreacher. Although Kreacher was first unwilling to enter Harry's service, and only did so as a result of the house-elf's enslavement, after he was treated kindly, he eventually formed a fierce loyalty to Harry.
Despite the seemingly horrid lifestyle that house-elves endure, house-elves seem to actually enjoy being enslaved. With few exceptions (Dobby being one of them), house-elves will feel insulted if their master attempts to pay them, give them pensions, or reward their service with anything except kindness. In 1995, when Hermione Granger began hiding clothes in Gryffindor Tower in an attempt to free the house-elves of Hogwarts, the house-elves felt rather insulted, and everyone except Dobby refused to clean the Gryffindor common room in protest.
Despite Hogwarts having had a large number of house-elves for centuries, it was only in their fourth year that Harry, Ron, and Hermione (rather shockingly) discovered their existence at Hogwarts, which happened inadvertently when the ghost of Sir Nicholas casually mentioned them being scared by Peeves the Poltergeist's tantrums. Sir Nicholas explained to them that the house-elves work in hiding, and it is considered the mark of a good house-elf that he or she does all the work but his/her existence is not even noticed.
It should be noted, however, that there are elements of coercion in some house-elves' loyalty. Kreacher disliked Sirius Black even when he was his master, and helped to sabotage Sirius by assisting Bellatrix Lestrange and Narcissa Malfoy, though this may have been easier for him since both witches had been born Blacks. Albus Dumbledore described Kreacher as "forced to do Sirius's bidding, because Sirius was the last of the family to which he was enslaved, but he felt no true loyalty to him." Kreacher also initially despised serving Harry, only coming to be willingly loyal to him after Harry showed him kindness and respect and pointed out that by cooperating with him and his friends, Kreacher would be honouring the dying actions of Regulus Black, the late master he was very fond of. Hermione Granger pointed out that Kreacher was accustomed to "bad, even brutal treatment" and that he was "loyal to people who are kind to him."
The house-elves of the House of Black were, in old age, beheaded and their heads were sickeningly stuffed and mounted on the house walls. This was, no doubt, considered by the house-elves as the very highest honour.
Winky was absolutely loyal to the Crouch family, and when she was dismissed for failure to keep Crouch Jnr under control, she suffered a mental breakdown, thinking that her release was the ultimate disgrace to her family.
While some house-elves were treated abysmally by their masters, some were genuinely loved and cared for. Some wizards treated their house-elves like adored pets or dolls, lavishing praise on them for doing their duties. An example of this is Hepzibah Smith, who was very talkative and pleasant with her house-elf Hokey about her mundane affairs while Hokey was attending to her own tasks.
Some house-elfs also work at wizarding institutions, such as Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, St Mungo's Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries, the Magical Congress of the United States of America, and as bar staff in some wizarding pubs.
A veritable legion of house-elves are enlisted by Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. They work the kitchens, preparing feasts for the entire school. They also move trunks and baggage to and from rooms, clean dormitories, and presumably other areas of the castle as well.
Helga Hufflepuff is credited with bringing the house-elves to Hogwarts. Though technically still bound to servitude, bringing them to a place with good working conditions was the most moral choice available at the time.
They were likely treated extremely well by Professor Dumbledore. In 1994, they became angry with Hermione Granger as she made attempts to free them. Dobby and Winky, who came under Hogwarts' employ at the time, were considered disgraces to the rest of their colleagues due to Dobby being paid and receiving a vacation while Winky getting drunk out of self-pity. During the Battle of Hogwarts, the house-elves fought against the Death Eaters with Kreacher leading them. They defended their masters by using kitchen knives to stab at the attackers' ankles.
- "You know, house-elves get a very raw deal! It’s slavery, that’s what it is! That Mr Crouch made her go up to the top of the stadium, and she was terrified, and he's got her bewitched so she can't even run when they start trampling tents! Why doesn't anyone do something about it?"
- —Hermione after the 1994 Quidditch World Cup.[src]
In 1994, Hermione Granger, in outrage for the inhumane treatment of house-elves, created the student organisation S.P.E.W.—Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare—in an attempt to win rights for house-elves. She managed to get several students to join, paying a fee of two Sickles, though they only did so to stop her from badgering them. These students included Neville Longbottom, Ron Weasley, and Harry Potter.
Some people refused to join S.P.E.W., like Fred and George Weasley, because they believed that the elves liked being treated the way they did. Hermione even tried to trick house-elves into picking up little hats and socks she had knitted and left around the Gryffindor dormitory so as to grant them freedom. The house-elves did not appreciate this gesture; on the contrary, they took it as an insult and refused to clean the common room, with the exception of Dobby.
Later in life, Hermione would advance the rights of house-elves in the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures, before transferring to the Department of Magical Law Enforcement.
House-elves are between two to three feet tall, with spindly arms and legs and oversized heads and eyes. They have pointed, bat-like ears and high, squeaky voices. Rather than conventional clothing, house-elves wear discarded items like pillowcases and tea-towels.
House-elves' handiness with the English language may show that they speak, or formerly spoke, another language among themselves.
|Dobby||Dobby was a house-elf who served the Malfoy family. During Harry Potter's second year at Hogwarts, he tried to warn the boy of the plot to have the Chamber of Secrets reopened. The same year, Harry freed Dobby from the Malfoys, by giving him one of his socks. Dobby then went on to work in the Hogwarts kitchens. He provided Harry with gillyweed for the Second Task of the Triwizard Tournament. He went on to save the lives of Harry and his friends Ron Weasley, Hermione Granger, Luna Lovegood, Dean Thomas, Garrick Ollivander, and Griphook from Death Eaters at Malfoy Manor, though he was killed by Bellatrix Lestrange in the process. Dobby was a brave, loyal house-elf, willing to put himself in dangerous situations when he knew it to be the right thing to do. He was also very loyal to the few friends he had. He considered himself to be a good house-elf, though other house elves seemed to find his desires and proclamations of being a free house-elf to be shameful.|
|Winky||Winky was a female house-elf, currently in the employment of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and formerly the servant of the Crouch family until she was fired when she let Barty Crouch Jnr out of her grasp. Dobby helped her find work in the Hogwarts kitchens, but she spent most of her time drinking heavily.|
|Kreacher||Kreacher was an aged house-elf who served the House of Black with fanatical loyalty for most of his life, until he was left to Harry Potter upon the death of Sirius Black in 1996. He was particularly fond of "his mistress" Walburga Black, who died in 1985, but whose portrait still shrieked orders from the wall in the front hall of the Black house. After Mrs Black's death, Kreacher let the home fall into disarray, doing little, if any, cleaning. He was also fiercely loyal to Regulus Black, for whom he fought in the Battle of Hogwarts along with many other house-elves.|
|Hokey||Servant of Hepzibah Smith. Hokey was accused of poisoning her mistress's cocoa. She later remembered putting something into the cocoa that turned out not to be sugar, but a lethal poison. The Ministry of Magic put it off to an accident given the fact that Hokey was old and probably confused. However, it is very likely that Tom Marvolo Riddle poisoned Mrs Smith (in order to steal Helga Hufflepuff's Cup and Salazar Slytherin's Locket) and then magically changed Hokey's memory, with a False memory charm, to make her look like the guilty party.|
|Hogwarts||At least a hundred house-elves, they live at Hogwarts and work in the kitchens. They wear uniforms made of tea towels.|
|Former House of Black elves||These elves worked on the House of Black before Kreacher, and were beheaded once they were too old to carry a tea tray. The mother of Kreacher served as the house-elf of the Black family sometime before her son. When she became too old to carry a tea tray, she was beheaded, and her head was mounted on a plaque and hung on the wall above the front hall stairs at 12 Grimmauld Place. It was once Kreacher's sincere wish to suffer the same fate as his mother.|
|House-elves at the Quidditch World Cup||These elves attended the 1994 Quidditch World Cup and were seen riding on some llamas.|
|Hooky||An apparently famous house-elf, though what he achieved or was well-known for is unknown.|
|Pitts||Worked in the kitchens at least in 1988. He was a strict house-elf who made sure other house-elves and students in detention kept working.|
|Khanna family house-elf||This house-elf was owned by the Khanna family. This house-elf used a feather duster at least once.|
Elves or similar creatures doing menial tasks around a home, and leaving when rewarded for their tasks with money or clothes, is a common motif in European folklore.
The most well-known example of this in the English-speaking world is the Brownie, a small fairy-like creature who helps around a home in exchange for daily food and drink (in the form of hot milk, honey and gruel) but will depart forever if it is paid in human money. In some of the legends, rather than departing, the Brownie would instead turn malicious and antagonise their owners, much like a Harry Potter Poltergeist; such a "wicked Brownie" would be called a Boggart, though the name, of course, refers to an entirely different creature in Harry Potter.
Finally, one last possible source of inspiration for J. K. Rowling's House-Elves is French folklore's "farfadet". Originating in the southern areas, one specific legends about farfadets is that they were "wrinkled, brown-skinned midgets who went around either naked or wearing dirty rags", a description that is almost identical to Rowling's elves. The Farfadets would help around a farming home, completing tasks not done in the day by the human servants. They would leave forever if the master of the house gave them new clothes to replace their shabby old ones; once again, the parallels are obvious, though in this case, the reasoning is that Farfadets are proud creatures who are offended by the implication that their clothes needed replacing.
To have the creatures specifically called 'elves' may be an allusion to the fairy tale of The Elves and the Shoemaker, where a group of elves worked for a shoemaker until his wife, in a fit of generosity, sewed them little clothes and gave them to the elves.
Behind the scenes
- In the film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, two house-elves are briefly seen wearing green and red and riding llamas at the 1994 Quidditch World Cup. (See image)
- According to the WOMBAT test, it is possible that house-elves have an average life expectancy of 200 years, cannot be ordered to kill themselves, breed infrequently and only with their master's permission, can override wizard enchantments, and have an allegiance to their home rather than its inhabitants. The answer key of the test awards five points for counting "cannot be ordered to kill themselves" as false, and one point for counting "A house-elf's allegiance is foremost to its house (rather than to the inhabitants of the house)", likely implying that this is only partially true. Perhaps house-elves are loyal to the inhabitants of a house only so long as they inhabit the house. The other statements are presumably true, and a house-elf can likely be ordered to kill itself, although most owners would have little reason to use this order.
- House-elves are never identified as "beings" in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, though presumably they are.
- No other creature in the series is referred to as an "elf", making the precision that they are House-Elves seem relatively pointless. On the other hand, Erklings are referred to by Newton Scamander as "elvish creatures", implying that "elf" may be the name for a general class that includes several species including House-Elves, Erklings, and (presumably) Yumboes.
- It may be possible for elves to breed with humans as one Ravenclaw student stated that the students in the house thought Filius Flitwick was part elf, but had never been rude enough to ask (in fact Flitwick was part goblin). Irma Dugard was also described as a half-elf.
- Just like Hermione, creature-lover Liz Tuttle protested through hunger strikes against ill-treatment of house elves, striking for at least four days at least once.
- Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (First appearance)
- Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (film)
- Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (video game)
- Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
- Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (film)
- Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
- Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (film)
- Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (video game)
- Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1
- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (video game)
- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (Mentioned only)
- Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: The Original Screenplay
- Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (film)
- Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald - The Original Screenplay
- Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald
- LEGO Harry Potter: Building the Magical World
- LEGO Harry Potter: Characters of the Magical World
- LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4
- LEGO Harry Potter: Years 5-7
- LEGO Harry Potter
- Wizarding World
- Wonderbook: Book of Potions
- Harry Potter: The Creature Vault
- Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery
- Harry Potter: Wizards Unite
- Harry Potter: Magic Awakened (Mentioned only)
Notes and references
- Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Chapter 6 (The Noble and Most Ancient House of Black)
- Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them defines beings as "any creature that has sufficient intelligence to understand the laws of the magical community and to bear part of the responsibility in shaping those laws", which house-elves clearly have.
- Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
- Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
- Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Chapter 9 (The Dark Mark)
- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
- Wizards' Ordinary Magic and Basic Aptitude Test - Grade 1, Question 9
- Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
- Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
- Harry Potter: Magical Places from the Films: Hogwarts, Diagon Alley, and Beyond
- Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: The Original Screenplay
- J.K. Rowling PotterCast Interview - "Yeah, it's a complicated issue. I would say that Hufflepuff gave — Hufflepuff did what was the most moral thing to do at that time, and we are talking about over a thousand years ago. So that would be to give them good conditions of work."
- Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery, Year 5, Chapter 3 (Detention Before Extension)
- Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery, Year 5, Chapter 5 (Penny, Portraits, Peace, and Pressure) - Transfiguration Lesson "Feather Duster to Ferret"