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Could Hermione really free the Hogwarts house-elves with the little knitted hats she hides around Gryffindor Tower?

‘Why d’you wear that thing, Dobby?’ [Harry] asked curiously.

‘This, sir?’ said Dobby, plucking at the pillowcase. ‘’Tis a mark of the house-elf’s enslavement, sir. Dobby can only be freed if his masters present him with clothes, sir. The family is careful not to pass Dobby even a sock, sir, for then he would be free to leave their house for ever.’

Chamber of Secrets - page 133 - Bloomsbury - chapter 10, The Rogue Bludger

AND:

‘You’re leaving out hats for the house-elves?’ said Ron slowly.‘And you’re covering them up with rubbish first?’

‘Yes,’ said Hermione defiantly, swinging her bag on to her back.

‘That’s not on,’ said Ron angrily. ‘You’re trying to trick them into picking up the hats. You’re setting them free when they might not want to be free.’

Order of the Phoenix - page 230 - Bloomsbury - chapter 13, Detention with Dolores

If a house-elf can only be freed by his or her master or mistress, as Dobby says, how could Hermione free a Hogwarts house-elf if an elf happened to pick up one of her knitted hats, as Ron insists?

This, I believe, brings us back to the question: Who owns the Hogwarts house-elves?

Who knew that house-elves could be so complicated?

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    It is sort of a curious dichotomy: On one hand, the house elves are slaves, but on the other hand, at least at Hogwarts, they have a certain level of freedom. I mean, they clearly chose to not clean Gryffindor Tower because of Hermione's hat stunt (though I'm sure most house elves would not be granted this level of freedom in most houses). Perhaps "freedom" only occurs if a house elf believes him/herself to be free? – Meg Coates Nov 12 '12 at 16:00
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The House Elves didn't clean Gryffindor tower any more because they considered the hidden clothes as an insult.

Dobby says in Order of the Phoenix:

None of them will clean Gryffindor Tower any more, not with the hats and socks hidden everywhere, they finds them insulting, sir. Dobby does it all himself, sir.

And Hermione cannot free house elves because she is not their master.

House elves don't consider Hogwarts students as Masters; Dobby was able to talk about Draco Malfoy in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince when Harry orders Dobby and Kreacher to tail Malfoy. If Draco were Dobby's master, he would have been forced to keep Draco's secret and to not tell Harry about it.

  • 50
    You can't use Dobby as an example, Dobby is a free elf. The rules are different for him. – Yamikuronue Nov 14 '12 at 14:40
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    "And Hermione cannot free house elves because she is not their master." Proof? In fact everywhere in the books its implied that anyone can free house-elves. – TheAsh Jun 21 '18 at 9:34
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Yes, she could have set the house-elves free, provided the house-elves wanted to own the clothes.

How do I know this? Hermione is one of the most-versed Hogwarts students, and she has read up on magical law, and House-elves are her hobby. It is inconceivable that Hermione would think that her hats would make the house-elves go free if it were not the case.

It's also implied in Order of the Phoenix, though its quite likely that Ron would not know the relevant laws:

‘No problem,’ said Ron. ‘Who’s that for, anyway?’ he added, nodding at the neatly wrapped present she was carrying. ‘Kreacher,’ said Hermione brightly. ‘It had better not be clothes!’ Ron warned her. ‘You know what Sirius said: Kreacher knows too much, we can’t set him free!’

So with that said, let us analyze the only time in the books where we see a house-elf getting free:

COS Ch. 18:

Harry grabbed the diary and dashed out of the office. He could hear Dobby’s squeals of pain receding around the corner. Quickly, wondering if this plan could possibly work, Harry took off one of his shoes, pulled off his slimy, filthy sock, and stuffed the diary into it. Then he ran down the dark corridor. He caught up with them at the top of the stairs. “Mr. Malfoy,” he gasped, skidding to a halt, “I’ve got something for you —” And he forced the smelly sock into Lucius Malfoy’s hand. “What the — ?” Mr. Malfoy ripped the sock off the diary, threw it aside, then looked furiously from the ruined book to Harry. “You’ll meet the same sticky end as your parents one of these days, Harry Potter,” he said softly. “They were meddlesome fools, too.” He turned to go. “Come, Dobby. I said, come.” But Dobby didn’t move. He was holding up Harry’s disgusting, slimy sock, and looking at it as though it were a priceless treasure. “Master has given a sock,” said the elf in wonderment. “Master gave it to Dobby.”

Here the sock clearly belonged to Harry, and was never owned by Malfoy, and wasn't even given to Dobby intentionally! Yet, even with all that, Dobby still goes free!

We also see that House-elves can handle clothes of their masters when their masters still own their clothes:

DH Ch. 12

Nothing in the room, however, was more dramatically different than the house-elf who now came hurrying toward Harry, dressed in a snowy-white towel, his ear hair as clean and fluffy as cotton wool, Regulus’s locket bouncing on his thin chest. “Shoes off, if you please, Master Harry, and hands washed before dinner,”croaked Kreacher, seizing the Invisibility Cloak and slouching off to hang it on a hook on the wall, beside a number of old-fashioned robes that had been freshly laundered.

Also: (COS Ch. 3)

"Yeah, Mum's always wishing we had a house-elf to do the ironing," said George.

Therefore we see that a house-elves freedom is not dependent on touching or receiving clothes, but rather on ownership of clothes.

This point is further proven in the books where the sign of a house-elf is a disgusting wardrobe:

COS Ch. 2:

Harry noticed that it was wearing what looked like an old pillowcase, with rips for arm- and leg-holes.

Also (Ch. 21)

He blew his nose on a corner of the filthy pillowcase he wore, looking so pathetic that Harry felt his anger ebb away in spite of himself. “Why d’you wear that thing, Dobby?” he asked curiously. “This, sir?” said Dobby, plucking at the pillowcase. “ ’Tis a mark of the house-elf’s enslavement, sir.

OOP Ch. 6:

George made to shut the door to drown the noise, but before he could do so, a house-elf edged into the room. Except for the filthy rag tied like a loincloth around its middle, it was completely naked.

And Dobby takes pride in his wardrobe - or more accurately the fact that he can own clothes: (Again notice the emphasis on the ownership of clothes)

GOF Ch. 21:

When Dobby had worked for the Malfoys, he had always worn the same filthy old pillowcase. Now, however, he was wearing the strangest assortment of garments Harry had ever seen; he had done an even worse job of dressing himself than the wizards at the World Cup. He was wearing a tea cozy for a hat, on which he had pinned a number of bright badges; a tie patterned with horseshoes over a bare chest, a pair of what looked like children’s soccer shorts, and odd socks. One of these, Harry saw, was the black one Harry had removed from his own foot and tricked Mr. Malfoy into giving Dobby, thereby setting Dobby free. The other was covered in pink and orange stripes.

From all these quotes we see that handling clothes isn't what sets a house-elf free, it is OWNERSHIP of clothes.

Thus when Harry relinquished ownership of his sock and it was given to Dobby, Dobby went free even though Malfoy never owned the sock. And thus, if Hermione relinquished ownership of the hats, if a house-elf so desired to own one of them, he would go free.

So why do more house-elves not go free?

Because a house-elf cannot go against his masters wishes, and if the master has commanded them not to receive clothes from anyone else, they cannot take possession of clothes until the master presents them with clothes.

This is also how a master can free a house-elf against his will (a la Mr. Crouch) by commanding them to take clothes, which a house-elf is required to do, even if it doesn't want to own the clothes (a la Winky).

So how could Hermione free the house-elves in Gryffindor's house? Because Dumbledore never made such a command to the house-elves that they were forbidden to own clothes, because it wouldn't bother him if they went free. Thus, any house-elf in Hogwarts could set themselves free by availing themselves of Hermione's hats.

So why didn't they? Because ownership of clothes and freedom is insulting to most house-elves:

None of them will clean Gryffindor Tower any more, not with the hats and socks hidden everywhere, they finds them insulting, sir. Dobby does it all himself, sir.

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    I think the example you gave shows the opposite: Harry gave his Sock to Malfoy (who is now its new owner), Malfoy then gave Dobby ownership by discarding it. Harmione could only free the elves if she gave the hats to the elves master who then discarded them around the castle. You point about ownership is right but it has to be the Master who give ownership to the elf: it can't just be a student or stranger – Matt Sep 25 '17 at 15:46
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    @Matt Giving an item of clothing which is immediately thrown away does not make the reciever the owner. If I threw my garbage into your yard, would you become the owner of my garbage? Rather we see that the item does not need to belong to the master. In Dobby's case the master indeed had to give it to him, but I postulate that's because of a side rule - that House-elves have to listen to their owner, thus Malfoy had commanded Dobby to accept clothing from no one but him. – TheAsh Sep 27 '17 at 11:19
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    @TheAsh It most certainly would be if he's a hoarder. Otherwise not really - but in the mind of the law who knows? They might indeed consider your rubbish his rubbish since it's in his yard. And anyone complaining to the district would also consider it his rubbish. So it's not as easy as that although I get your point; loaning versus giving. Harry's intent suggests it wasn't really either of the two though. And I rather doubt the master has to say don't accept clothes from anyone but me; I dare say it's part of the enthralment or the magic thereof. – Pryftan Oct 26 '17 at 20:59
  • Where do you see in Chamber of Secrets that ownership of the clothes is at all relevant? All it says is that the master giving clothes to the elf sets the elf free. – Alex Jun 20 '18 at 18:16
  • @Alex I'm saying that ownership is not relevant. That's exactly my point. – TheAsh Jun 21 '18 at 9:32
0

Hermione does not have the power to free the Hogwarts House Elves. I'm not sure if it's an oversight on the part of JK or if she covered it by allowing that "the house elves see it as insulting" that Hermione leaves clothes around.

Clearly any random person cannot free someone else's house elf, that would be counterintuitive to the entire system of house elves.

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She does not have the power to free them. Dobby was actually freed by Lucius though Harry gets the credit because he tricked Lucius into "giving" the sock Harry gave him to Dobby. House elves clean the dorms all the time, and you know they have picked up clothes on a regular basis; it's a kid's room after all. To say the clothes had to be intended for the elf in order to free them, I'm sure they would have been freed on many occasions, as you know kids would be doing it on a dare, as a joke, or would have felt like Hermione did over the long number of years of Hogwart's existence. It would simply be too easy. If you had the ability to free them, you have the ability to make them obey you, and there have been thousands of kids over the years going to Hogwarts. It would be pandemonium and they would never get any work done! The students would have them all over the castle doing their bidding.

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    Well, the case of the "enslavement" clause for the house elves at Hogwarts is quite ambiguous. No one and also everyone are their masters. So there may be a possibility of Hermione setting them free. – Shreedhar Jan 20 '18 at 13:10

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