Monday, January 4, 2016

The House Elf Liberation*

Minerva McGonagall stood in the main kitchen, the towering cooler doors looming at her back.  She looked down at the gathered throng before her.

All one hundred and forty-one of the Hogwarts house elves were assembled in the kitchens.  Some looked politely curious, a few somewhat nervous.  They were utterly silent, except for the quiet rustle here and there of tea towels as some of the audience shifted their feet or jostled his neighbor for  a touch more space.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” she began, and the rustling increased noticeably, “I want you to know that you are free…”

The tumult was immediate.  It was also tragic, by the sound of it.  Loud cries of alarm and weeping could be heard from every corner, and a few of the house elves had to sit right down on the flagstone floor of the kitchen as they tugged at their ears or wept into their neighbors’ tea towels.  McGonagall had to set off several loud bangs and bright flashes from her wand before she was able to recapture the attention of all the elves.

“Please calm yourselves!  This is not what you think!  Allow me to finish: you are all free to make choices.”  She waited a while as the elves regained some of their composure and could focus their attention back on her.  Being the center of attention was nothing to Minerva McGonagall, austere and efficient headmistress of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry…but usually her audience wasn’t so emotionally involved in her topics, either.  Fortunately, she wouldn’t have to do all of the talking for this delicate subject, and was very glad to have it handled by someone who had, undoubtedly, considered the emotional side as well.

“This is an issue that has been on my mind for a while now, and I believe the time has finally come that both the wizarding community and the elvish population are ready to accept some changes.”

The hubbub in the room increased a bit, but not like before.  McGonagall could still hear a few sniffling noses but the general mood in the room, so briefly disastrous, appeared to have lightened considerably, and she considered it safe to continue.  She stepped to the doorway beside her and opened it, beckoning a person in the corridor beyond to enter.

“Miss Granger, if you please.”  Hermione Granger stepped into the kitchen, smiling warmly at all the house elves with much greater confidence before such a large crowd than she had in days past. 

Hermione had been pursuing a varied career, and gotten some experience as a public speaker under her belt.  Where before Hermione had been a frightfully clever and driven girl, she was now a much wiser and equally driven young woman.  McGonagall had been watching Hermione’s career in the pages of The Daily Prophet with interest and, admittedly, no small measure of pride.

“Good morning, everyone,” she chimed brightly.  She set down a thin leather briefcase at her feet and stood with her hands clasped gently before her as she surveyed the group.

As one, the elves chorused back, “Good morning, Miss.”

“As we begin, let me assure you first and foremost that no one, not one single one of you, is being set free.  You will not be set free in the future.  You will not be put out of the castle, you will not be sent away.”

Again came the rustling but McGonagall appreciated this preamble, which would set the elves’ minds at ease.  Telling an elf he had to leave his home was tantamount to a death sentence.

“Are we all perfectly clear on this?  No one will be set free.  No one loses his or her home or job.  Right?”

“Right, Miss,” rumbled back, a rolling wave of squeaky voices made somehow impressive by the multitude and the vast hollowing echo of the kitchens.

“Now, what did Miss McGonagall tell you?  She said you were free to…what?”

“Free to make choices, Miss.”

“Very good!  Please remember that.  Just keep it in the backs of your minds.  Now then, ladies and gentlemen,  knowing that…”

“We is not, Miss!”  An absolutely tiny elf at the very front of the crowd piped up.

“I beg your pardon?  You are not what, please?”

“We is not ‘ladies and gentlemen,’ Miss!  We is elves.  We has no business being ladieses and gentlemens, Miss!  We is elves and that’s all we is.”

“That’s part of what we’re trying to address…pardon me again, what is your name, please?”

“I is Dello, Miss!  I is a proper elf, Miss, not a gentleman, Miss.”

“I am very pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. Dello.”

“Not ‘mister Dello,’ begging your pardon, Miss, just Dello!”  He’s even squeakier than Winky, thought Hermione.  I didn’t know that was even possible.

“I understand your meaning, but I must ask that you, and all you elves,” she added, raising her gaze to take in the rest of the crowd.  They were watching the interchange with fascinated attention, some nodding approvingly as Dello asserted his elvishness, “be prepared to make allowances for certain changes in how you are addressed.  You see, the problem we are trying to fix is not about elves.”  

Again the rustling, as the elves seemed to lean back and relax a bit.  “It’s about humans.”

Another tumult, another chorus.  “How can we help?”

“First of all, I’m getting a bit fatigued standing up here.”  The words were hardly out of her mouth before a comfortably battered armchair came zooming through the kitchen atop the heads of four elves bearing it to her.  A few seconds later, a similar one came flying up for Professor McGonagall.  “Thank you so much, you are very kind.”  The elves all nodded, beaming and bowing as Hermione perched on the forward edge of the seat.  “But I am only a visitor in your home.  It hardly feels appropriate for me to sit when you are standing.  Please do not stand on my account, but make yourselves comfortable.”

“We is elves, Miss!  We does not sit when there is witches and wizards to be served.”

“But whom are you serving right now?  We are only talking, there is no serving to be done right now.”

“But it isn’t done, Miss!” came the same little voice from somewhere near the back, sounding a bit alarmed now.  “It just isn’t!”

“Very well.”  Hermione opened her briefcase and pulled out a scroll, slightly flattened from the case.  She tapped it with her wand and it unfurled smoothly to a strip of parchment almost as long as she was tall. She rose from the chair to hold it against the door of the immense cooler and tapped it again, and it stuck fast.  She sat again.

“I use the term ‘mister’ because that is what’s called an honorific.  It’s a word humans use to indicate we hold a certain amount of respect for the person to whom we speaking.   That isn’t respect because they’re other humans, it’s just the basic respect you’re supposed to give.

“When I use the phrase ‘ladies and gentlemen,’ that has nothing to do with what species you are.  It makes no difference to me whether you are a house elf, a centaur, a giant or a human.  What is important is that I have made the assumption, from the outset, that you have at least as much dignity, at least as much conscience, at least as much intelligence as I do.”

“But you is one of the cleverest witches Hogwarts ever produced, Miss!  Headmistress McGonagall said so just last Tuesday at teatime.  We is just house elves.  We isn’t as smart as you.  No one is.”

Hermione blushed deeply but carried on just the same.  “That is very generous of you to say, sir, and maybe a little hopeful on Professor McGonagall’s part,” Professor McGonagall began to make noises of protest but Hermione stilled her with a hand, “but it isn’t the important part.  The important part there is I have made that assumption.  I do not want to assume that I am smarter, more intelligent, more powerful than you.  Whether or not it is the case, it is dreadfully important that I never assume that it is the case, do you see?”

The elf who had spoken had gone quite white when Hermione called him “sir,” and tears were visibly welling in his large eyes as he hung on to his ears and listened to her words with a kind of terrified rapture.

“This is about respect humans have for other creatures.  Witches and wizards have been treating house elves – all magical beings that aren’t humans, really – as lesser creatures.  It’s high time we stopped doing that, and this,” she rapped the paper on the cooler door with her knuckles, “is part of that.  It’s terribly important, and it won’t work unless all magical beings, humans, elves, everyone, all work together to make it happen.”

“Tell us what you need, Miss!  We elves will make it happen!”  Again, the crowd rustled and seemed to bristle with vigorous readiness.   It was a bit alarming.

“Nothing whatsoever.”

“But Miss!  We is house elves!  We helps!  It’s what we is for!”  Nods and squeaks of eager assent swept through the room, and the screech of a few chair legs as house elves hopped out of small chairs in a few places.  Hermione hadn’t seen them brought in, but several elves had indeed found seats and sat down.  Granted, some of their neighbors appeared to be a bit relieved when the elves got up from their chairs and stools.

“You are people.  And these,” and she waved her wand.  An enormous wardrobe materialized in the corner next to the cooler.  Its door swung open to reveal three levels of hanging bars, all full with small garment bags.  Dozens of small shoeboxes lined the floor of the wardrobe, several layers deep.  “…are for you.”

There was a gasp like that from the opening of an eons-sealed tomb as the crowd, like one body, recoiled in stunned horror.

“No one has to accept these clothes if you don’t want them!  You are free to choose.  But it is imperative that we humans never, ever enforce the old rules regarding clothes!  If you want to wear clothes, then by all means you should!  If you want to be employed, then you can find a job.  But the two aren’t connected.  No one ever had the right to force you to go about wearing tea towels or pillowcases.

“All these clothes are the property of the elves of Hogwarts.  Ask yourself: if you were walking down the street and found a sock, a sock that didn’t belong to anyone, and you picked it up…would that mean you were sacked?”  Some elves shifted uncomfortably.  “I thought the old rule was that if a master handed you clothes, you were sacked.  But what if it’s litter in public?  That can’t carry any kind of weight, can it?”  A few elves shook their heads.

“But now here we have a wardrobe full of clothes.  No master gave them to you…”

“But, Miss, you is giving them to us right now!”

“No, I’m not.  I’m only conveying them to you.  These clothes were never mine, I am only delivering them to where they are supposed to go.”

“But whose clothes are they, Miss?”

“They’re yours, of course.  If you want them.”

A deep, bullfrog-like voice at the back that Hermione recognized as Kreacher, growled, “Then where does the clothes come from?”

Hermione stepped over to the wardrobe and pulled out a garment bag, unzipped it and peeked at the tag.  “This came from Aberdeen.  Very nice, too, one hundred percent cotton.  Honestly, I don’t know where the clothes came from, nor do I want to know.  I know only this: they are yours.  There’s a range of sizes and colors and styles, so there should be something for everybody.  You can have them if you want them.  No one can force you to take clothes if you don’t want them, and no one can force you not to have clothes if you do.  Up until now, there was a cultural rule saying you couldn’t have clothes.   We humans don’t know exactly where that cultural rule came from, but we have decided to not to enforce it, because it doesn’t represent our own culture.”

“Is you saying we has to change?”

“Absolutely not.  I am saying that whether or not you change, it will not be because humans forced or disallowed it.  You are free to choose.

“You were always people.  Whether or not a wizard or witch treated you like an equal, you were always an equal.  You have always been equal.  You were never not equal.  Here at Hogwarts the staff have treated you kindly, but some of you may remember a time when you worked in a private home,” Hermione could see some ears nodding in agreement here and there.  She had chosen the next words very, very carefully to be as neutral as possible.  “…the witches and wizards of those households did not treat you, the elves, the same as they did each other, did they?  Probably not.”

“Is you saying our old masters was bad, Miss?”  That voice, from a large and surprisingly handsome female elf at the middle of the audience, came ringing clearly.  “I is not hearing you say that, am I, Miss?”  This elf looked quite affronted.

“No, no.  I’m not making a qualitative statement like that.  I’m only saying you were treated differently.  We can agree on differently, can’t we?  I beg your pardon again, I don’t know many names.  Tell me your name, please?”

“I is Echo, Miss!”

“Echo, really?  That’s a famous name from human mythology, did you know?”

“No, Miss, begging your pardon.  It is a famous name from elf history.  We cans agree on differently, Miss.  But you does not say Echo’s old master was bad, no, Miss.”

“No, Echo, I couldn’t say that.  I don’t know your old master, after all.  But now that we’ve agreed on ‘differently,’ please let me remind you that you are now, and have always been, people.”  She took a deep breath.  She had hashed these points back and forth with Ron, with great difficulty because of his continued doubts of the elves’ receptivity to a change in their status, but then with difficulty because, really, Ron was a challenging debater.  Once she had finally managed to convince him, she had decided she was ready to bring her proposals directly to the elves themselves.  The most wearing part of this speech was the repetition.  Say it often enough and they would eventually hear it.
“And humans are people, yes?”

“Yes, of course, Miss!”

“If humans are people, and elves are people, then people should be the same to each other, right?”

“But we is elves, Miss!”

“That doesn’t matter.”

Again, the horrified recoil of the crowd.  “You are people first.  You are people shaped like elves.  Professor McGonagall and I are people shaped like humans.  The merfolk in the lake are people shaped like merfolk.  We are all people first.  We all have needs and wants, we all have rights.”  Again Hermione tapped the paper on the cooler.

“This is a government proclamation declaring that all people are people.  It does not say what kinds of people are people.  If you think you’re a person, then you are a person and no one can take that away from you.

“Furthermore, all people are free…” she waited for the outcry to die down but still had to raise her voice, “…to determine their own lives.  Life is a series of choices.  You are absolutely free, no one anywhere can take this power from you except under certain, legal circumstances that are brought about by criminal activity, free to make your own choices.  Free to make your own decisions.

“For generations elves have defined themselves as slaves.  This paper declares that you are not now, and not ever again, slaves."

Some weeping had begun, but she had anticipated this.  Actually Ron had, but she had formulated some strategies for dealing with it.

“You may think you are shamed by this!  Absolutely not!  This is a governmental decision that has, and let me emphasize this very clearly, nothing to do with anyone in particular.  In fact if anyone should be shamed, it’s we humans.”  That shocked them to an attentive silence again.  “How we treat other people reflects most strongly on ourselves.  We, as a species, have been treating far too many other beings very poorly indeed.  We are ashamed.  We are mortified by what we had become.

“You have spent generations being slaves and taking that to yourselves as part of your identity as a people – see, you were already a people, weren’t you?  You just never really put it into so many words, did you? – but in human culture, even human magical culture, being a slave owner is nothing to be proud of.  It’s a crime, something to keep hidden from other, more respectable people.  And yet there was this odd little ‘exception’” – Hermione made quote marks with her fingers – “that witches and wizards relied on that since it was house elves calling themselves slaves somehow made it all right.  That didn’t make it all right, because it still leaves the humans as slaveholders.  And we cannot go on with the awful blot on our conscience.

“So now, we are finally taking steps to become better people than we have been.  We are no longer slave owners.  None of us.  Not one person anywhere is a slave owner.  This piece of paper says so, it’s binding everywhere for everyone.”

Echo spoke up again.  “But what if a master doesn’t give up his elves, Miss?”

“He has to.  He doesn’t get a choice.”

“But what if he doesn’t, Miss?”

Hermione’s tone turned icy.  “Then that person is a criminal.  He will be found out, caught and punished.  That’s the law.”

“But what about the elves, Miss?”

“What about them?  The important part is that the elves are not slaves, Echo.  You are free to choose.  Stay or go, work or don’t.If the humans would like to offer the elves the jobs, and the elves want to take the jobs, that’s a matter to be freely discussed.  But no one gets to compel anyone else against his will.”

Echo was shaking her head slightly, looking confused.  “I doesn’t want to be a people!  Echo likes being a elf!”

“But you were already a people – sorry, person – Echo!  And you will always be an elf.  The only thing that has really changed is, now you aren’t a slave.  You never should have been a slave, and you will never be a slave again.  You were always supposed to be free.”  A frisson of dread shuddered through the group and some of the elves looked at Hermione as if she had just uttered a very bad word.

“But…but if I is not a slave…but if I still has my job…what is Echo now?”

“You are an employee, Echo.  And Professor McGonagall is your employer.  She is your boss, not your master.  She can tell you what things need doing, and you can do them.  Or not!  But if you choose not to do the things that need doing, then she is also free to choose to discontinue your employment, and hire someone else to do your job.”

“But who would she hire, Miss?”

“Well, that would be up to Professor McGonagall and whoever applies, wouldn’t it?  I won’t lie to you, there are certain ways that freedom is a bit cumbersome, but it’s generally better for everybody.”

“Does that mean, Miss…if Echo.  Hmm.”  Echo was pondering new concepts and clearly not very comfortable, but Hermione felt quite proud of her.  Echo was doing well.  She certainly was handling the entire idea better than Winky had, for instance.  Winky had come to live with the Weasleys after the Battle of Hogwarts and settled in well…but even now tended to treat Hermione as a dangerous bomb that might go off any moment.  Hermione tended to bounce her people’s rights ideas off Winky, and Winky was still highly reluctant to consider freedom as a choice.  “If Echo wanted to leave, Echo could?”

“If you wanted.  Most employers prefer that they get some warning, but that’s more a matter of good manners, Echo.”

“And if Echo wanted to seek work with some other family, Echo could?”

“Certainly.  Or seek work with some other business.  You’re called house elves, but that doesn’t mean you have to work in a house.  If you wanted to work at refurbishing broomsticks or tending thestrels, whatever you want to do if you can do the job, there’s nothing stopping you from applying for the job like anyone else.”

“Jobses isn’t like tending house, Miss.  Does we have to get paid?”

“That’s between you and your employer, Echo.  But the work you do isn’t worthless.  It’s very important that people be compensated for the work they do.”

“But why, Miss?”

“Because people get paid for their work.  If we humans want to be people who get paid for our work, then we have to pay other people for their work.  It's called reciprocity of rights and duties.  That's a fancy phrase but what it means is, you treat me well and I, in return, treat you just as well.  Since I expect you to respect my rights, that means you must have rights of your own which I must respect in return."

Not Echo this time but Dello again, speaking from his spot near the front.   “Miss…wait one moment.”  His craggy brow furrowed and his ears curled tightly against his head as he considered, small tufts of gray hair peeking out from around the edges of his earlobes.  The other elves waited patiently.  It was an odd thing, seeing such a large crowd all quietly observing another individual, thinking.  “Miss…is you saying if elveses doesn’t take paying, humans isn’t people?”

Hermione smiled, somewhat sadly.  “Yes, Mr. Dello.  That’s skipping a few steps, but that's what it boils down to.  It means humans aren’t people because we would not be worthy of the title.  If we hold that any kind of beings aren’t people, then no kind of beings anywhere are people, including humans.  Since we already insist that we ourselves are, then you must be too, and everyone else.”

Dello stepped forward to Professor McGonagall, looking expectant.  For her part, so too did McGonagall.

“Yes, Mr. Dello?  What can I do for you?”

“Headmistress, me name’s Dello – oh, wait, you knows that already, good – and I would likes to apply for me old job back if the position is still available.”

Hermione smiled.  This was the goal she had been working toward, and she and Professor McGonagall had considered how to address it if they were able to bring it about.  Finally McGonagall had opted for the direct approach.

“Certainly, Mr. Dello.  I have observed your work and found it quite satisfactory, I am glad to say.  I understand there is some cultural resistance to the notions of salary and days off, but I am required by human law to provide both.  What you do with your income and free time are, of course, none of my business.”

Slightly grudgingly, Dello said, “Er, I reckons that would be fine, Headmistress.  And, er…”

“Yes, Mr. Dello?  Please go on.”

“I wouldn’t say no to a pair of pantses, Ma’am.”

Hermione closed her briefcase.

*The wizarding world as depicted in the Harry Potter series, Minerva McGonagall and Hermione Granger, Winky and Kreacher the house elves and Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry are all, of course, the intellectual property of JK Rowling.

I, however, am particularly proud of Echo.

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