It is back-to-school time, which means that for children (and anyone who has children in their life), it is easy to think of the Labor Day weekend as just another part of the transition between summer break and a return to class. But if you want to pause and explain what the holiday is about to any of the young people in your life, you are in luck: One of the most famous book series ever written for children is shot through with a sophisticated explanation of what a movement for workers’ rights really look like.
J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” novels have a great many concerns that express the series’ larger themes of fascism, democracy and diversity. Among them is the struggle for the rights of house-elves, who play an enormous role in the functioning of the wizarding world even as they reap almost none of the rewards of the magical economy.
The house-elves emerge as characters in the “Harry Potter” novels much in the same way that children themselves might become aware of the workings of the economy as a whole. When Rowling’s characters initially enroll in Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, they think certain things there come to pass by magic. Food appears, beautifully prepared, on dinner tables. Beds are made, fires are lit.
But Harry and his friends Ron and Hermione come to learn that most of these tasks are performed by house-elves, who work not just at Hogwarts but in the homes of many wizarding families. In almost all cases, they are bound to their employers by magic, which is convenient for wizards in two ways: They can force these virtual slaves to do even the most dangerous and disagreeable tasks, and they can do it without paying the house-elves.
Ultimately Harry, Hermione and Ron decide that their concern for non-magical persons and certain classes of magical beings means that they must become advocates for house-elves’ rights as well.
But that is not the end of their education. They also learn that if you want to help people, you have to listen to what they want and need and respect their wishes. When the main characters in Rowling’s series inadvertently free a house-elf named Winky from her rigid wizard employer, they are initially surprised when she is devastated and becomes an alcoholic. The wizards saw her release as a simple matter of her rights, but Winky lost her home and what she perceived to be her family. Instead of just forcing her out of bad conditions, Harry, Hermione and Ron needed to convince Winky that a new kind of life would be better and then deliver on their promises.
And at the end of the “Harry Potter” novels, the three young characters get a powerful illustration of what solidarity really means.
Hermione, in particular, starts out her advocacy for house-elves in a rather paternalistic way, seeking to free them by accident and force, and becoming frustrated when they reject her efforts. But in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” Dobby saves Hermione from torture and probable death, ultimately at cost of his own life. And the house-elves that Harry and his friends have won over by simple kindness join in an epic battle to save Hogwarts from the forces of evil wizards of their own accord.
The wizards and house-elves interests are intertwined. And the house-elves are capable of leading themselves, rather than simply being corralled by wizards who think they know what is best for their former servants.
Even if the Harry Potter books just explained the house-elves’ plight and helped children understand that there is something wrong with security and pleasure that depend on the immiseration of others, that would be a valuable lesson. But Rowling does more than that. Without preaching, she makes it clear that good intentions are not the same thing as real respect and provides a beautiful illustration of everything you get back when you truly come to know and care about the problems of people who are not like yourself.