The trials of Staying Free and the House Elf Liberation Front

It is a very funny scene and as with most good comedy, has a serious subtext that makes the humour work. Harry Potter fans will know the scene, though it doesn’t apear in the film of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which is why I’d forgotten all about it till yesterday.

Just by chance, I’d been reading a website on the long and arduous process of recovering from spiritual abuse and staying free from the destructive patterns that some dysfunctional and controlling church groups can set up and maintain, when I came across some of these very dynamics cleverly depicted, through the misadventures of Dobby, Winky, Hermione, Harry, and Dumbledore..

In the previous book, Dobby the House-Elf has been freed by Harry Potter from generations of enslavement. He is no longer forced to serve cruel masters who can demand total obedience of him, whilst in reality giving him nothing in return except the sense that they are doing him a favour letting him work for such a noble family for nothing.

But Harry, by tricking Dobby’s master into giving him an old sock (ie real clothes) has caused Dobby to become a Free Elf! However, Dobby has now found it hard to find work, since people aren’t used to paying House-Elves for their labours and what’s more, the other House Elves are perfectly disgusted at Dobby now having ideas above his station.

So the scene begins when Hermione, (who is fighting a lone battle for House-Elf rights) brings Harry and Ron down to the Hogwarts kitchens to where Dobby the Free Elf is now working with the other enslaved Elves and Winky, who has also been made free, but quite against her will:

“Dobby has travelled the country for two whole years, sir, trying to find work!’ Dobby squeaked. ‘But Dobby hasn’t found work, sir, because Dobby wants paying now!”
The house-elves all around the kitchen, who had been listening and watching with interest, all looked away at these words as though Dobby had said something rude and embarrassing.
Hermione, however, said, ‘Good for you, Dobby’

‘Thank you miss!’ said Dobby, grinning toothily at her. But most wizards doesn’t want a house-elf who wants paying, Miss. “That’s not the point of a house-elf,” they says, and they slammed the door in Dobby’s face! Dobby likes work, but he wants to wear clothes and he wants to be paid, Harry Potter.. Dobby likes being free!”

The Hogwarts house-elves had now started edging away from Dobby, as though he was carrying something contagious. Winky, however, remained where she was, though there was a definite increase in the volume of her crying.”

and so they come to work at Hogwarts and Dumbledore is more than happy to pay Dobby if that’s what he wants. But as TS Eliot says in Murder in the Cathedral, ‘Mankind cannot stand very much reality’, and so it seems that House Elves cannot cope at first with too much freedom:

“and Dobby gets a Galleon a week and one day off a month!”
“That’s not very much!” Hermione shouted indignantly from the floor, over Winky’s continued screaming and fist-beating.
“Professor Dumbledore offered Dobby ten Galleons a week, and weekends off,’ said Dobby, suddenly giving a little shiver, as though the prospect of so much leisure and riches was frightening, ‘but Dobby beat him down, miss… Dobby likes freedom, miss, but he isn’t wanting too much, miss, he likes work better.”

and then the master stroke

‘And how much is Professor Dumbledore paying you, Winky? Hermione asked kindly.
If she had thought this would cheer Winky up, she was wildly mistaken. Winky did stop crying, but when she sat up she was glaring at Hermione through her massive brown eyes, her whole face sopping wet and suddenly furious.
‘Winky is a disgraced elf, but Winky is not yet getting paid! she squeaked. Winky is not sunk so low as that! Winky is properly ashamed of being freed.”

and so Dobby explains

“Winky is having trouble adjusting, Harry Potter, squeaked Dobby confidentially. “Winky forgets she is not bound to Mr Crouch any more: she is allowed to speak her mind now, but she won’t do it”. … “Tis part of the house-elves enslavement, sir. We keeps their secrets and our silence, sir, we upholds the family’s honour, and we never speaks ill of them; though Professor Dumbledore told Dobby he does not insist upon this. Professor Dumbledore said we is free to – to –
Dobby looked suddenly nervous, and beckoned Harry closer. Harry bent forwards.
‘Dobby whispered, ‘HE said we is free to call him a – a barmy old codger if we likes, sir!”

and then there is a marvellous moment when Dobby dares to tell the truth about his old masters and to admit that they were.. ‘Bad dark wizards”, but this act of brazen truthfulness is too much for him –

“Dobby stood for a moment, quivering all over, horror-struck by his own daring – then he rushed over to the nearest table, and began banging his head on it, very hard, squealing, “Bad Dobby!, Bad Dobby!”
Harry seized Dobby by the back of his tie and pulled him away from the table.
‘Thank you, Harry Potter, thank you’ said Dobby breathlessly, rubbing his head.
“You just need a bit of practice”, Harry said.”

When you leave a group that cannot be questioned, the very members of the group whom you think would be delighted at the news of a freer and more truthful life are the very ones that will shun you as though you were contagious.

One of the hardest things to do, when you are used to being used up, is to receive gifts. Real grace actually scandalises people who have been in performance-orientated groups, where all approval has to be earned by excellence or by simple obedience. Grace is essentially foreign to the culture, even if it is spoken about. The culture is one of self punishment and self deprecation. Anything else feels very strange indeed.

Thirdly, as in Winky’s refusal to accept that she is not bound any more, there is a sense that the person themselves keeps the enslavement going, when it is not actually present in actuality. It can take a long while to learn new habits and establish within oneself real self knowledge that is not bound to the context of the group.

Next there is the fact that members of a self-enclosed group will protect the group and its secrets even when they go against the conscience of the individual because it cannot be believed by the individual that the group could be wrong. This has become an entirely unacceptable idea, to the person immersed in an abusive group.

Finally I love that final section where Dobby is trying to get out of the habit of punishing himself for being truthful. It truly is a little masterpiece of insight.

If you’d like to read a more orthodox analysis of the development of such dynamics and their healthy unravelling, there is a very helpful and insightful book called The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse that offers some very balanced and accurate diagnosis, without pointing the finger at any particular groups. It is a phenomenon that exists in many places, but the symptoms, if you have ever experienced them are clear indeed.

There’s nothing like a good diagnosis, if you are looking for a cure. And in the meantime, there’s always the power of a good laugh –

“Practice! squealed Winky furiously. “You is ought to be ashamed of yourself, Dobby, talking that way about your masters!”
“They isn’t my masters any more, Winky!’ said Dobby defiantly. ‘Dobby doesn’t care what they think any more!”
‘Oh, you is a bad elf, Dobby!’ moaned Winky, tears leaking down her face once more. ‘My poor Mr Crouch, what is he doing without Winky? He is needing me, he is needing my help! I is looking after the Crouches all my life, and my mother is doing it before me, and my grandmother is doing it before her.. oh, what is they saying if they knew Winky was freed?”

What is they saying, indeed?

One Comment

  1. Dear Sarah,

    Thank you for your work at the service of Christ and His Church.

    With prayers and every blessing,


Comments are closed.