Those house-elves were small, but they had big personalities.
With S.P.E.W., Hermione sparked the debate that a house-elf should be free, despite many house-elves feeling incredibly uncomfortable at that prospect. Over the books, we met three key house-elves who taught us about their different mentalities and identities.
Dobby started off as a little frustrating for Harry (you know, like blocking him trying to go to the one place in the world he felt happy), but once we got to know him, the house-elf was a dear friend – and to Ron and Hermione, too. When we lost Dobby, it nearly broke us.
The other house-elf characters – Winky and Kreacher – were just as fascinating. Winky showed us the interesting trauma that a freed house-elf can go through, and Kreacher was a fascinating study into a house-elves’ allegiances. Let’s take a closer look at them.
We first met Dobby when he appeared in Harry’s bedroom in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, determined to save Harry’s life. And by ‘save Harry’s life’ we mean ‘stop him getting on the Hogwarts Express, forcing him to fly a car into a murderous tree’.
This was not the first time Dobby used unorthodox methods to protect Harry. How about the time he cursed a Bludger to follow Harry around the Quidditch pitch, which resulted in Harry receiving a broken arm… which then became a boneless arm, thanks to Gilderoy Lockhart’s ineptitude. Alright, to be fair to Dobby, no one could have predicted that a Hogwarts professor would actually remove the bones from a student’s limb, but there we go.
Despite the multitude of ways in which Dobby accidentally caused more aggro for Harry, at the end of Chamber of Secrets, Harry freed Dobby from his servitude – tricking Lucius Malfoy into handing the house-elf a sock. After all, Harry knew he meant well.
Dobby became an anomaly among house-elves – he was happy to be a ‘free elf’, and was not ashamed to ask to be paid for his work. Equality! This made finding employment a little difficult, until he was finally offered a job at Hogwarts. Dobby might just be one of the most progressive house-elves we’ve heard of – and his independent status made the other house-elves feel uncomfortable. Sadly, living to serve was too deeply engrained in their culture.
For the next few years, Dobby was a loyal friend to Harry – genuinely helping him in his times of need, without floppy arms becoming a problem. When Dobby was killed while rescuing Harry and his friends during Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry paid his respects in a hugely apt way: by digging his old friend’s grave by hand, without the use of magic.
Unlike Dobby, Winky was someone who felt lost when she was handed her own freedom. When we met Winky, she was serving the Crouch family – as her mother, and her grandmother before her did – until she was abruptly fired after being implicated in the casting of the Dark Mark in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
As the reader later discovered, it was Barty Crouch Jr, while under Winky’s care, who cast the Dark Mark. While Winky had no love for Voldemort, she was incredibly loyal and loved the family she served, and would have done anything in her power to protect Barty Jr.
Winky did not take kindly to the freedom situation, despite Dobby trying to comfort her about the liberty of his own life. She was embarrassed and emotional after being fired from her job, and worried about the Crouch family since she was no longer around to take care of them. While Hermione believed all house-elves should be liberated, the house-elves themselves had known no other life, and Winky struggled deeply to adjust to her freedom.
In fact, Winky was so traumatised by the turn her life took that she even started drinking. Her Butterbeer addiction haunted her life, but she still gathered the strength to join bravely in the Battle of Hogwarts.
Kreacher was perhaps the most complex of the house-elf characters in Harry Potter. Not to overstate it, but he might have been one of the most complex characters in the series full-stop.
At the time he was introduced, Kreacher skulked around Grimmauld Place muttering under his breath about Mudbloods and impurity. It was the first time we’d really seen a prejudiced house-elf.
It’s no wonder that he was, though. Kreacher had served the pure-blood obsessed Black family for his entire life and, like Winky, he was intensely loyal. When he was passed down to Sirius, Harry’s godfather hated Kreacher, because the house-elf reminded him of his unhappy upbringing; and Kreacher hated Sirius in return, because he had never shown him kindness for his hard work.
At first, Harry disliked Kreacher too – because that’s what Sirius felt – and then came to hate the house-elf after he contributed to Sirius’s death. But as time went on, and after Harry became Kreacher’s master, the relationship between the two changed. Once Harry understood Kreacher’s backstory – how the house-elf loved Regulus Black, and suffered for his family – he began to treat him kindly despite his former betrayals. Harry even went so far as to give Kreacher a gift.
The pair were never going to be best friends, but by the end of the Battle of Hogwarts, Harry wondered if Kreacher would make him a sandwich. That’s certainly progress.