House Elf Domestication

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(copied from a livejournal post. At some point I should go back and revise restructure it.)

It is clear that are strong constraints on the behavior of modern house elves. It is also clear that they have great power. This begs the question: what is the vulnerability that allows them to be so constrained?

From Dobby's situation in Chamber, we know there are magical constraints placed on the house elves. Dobby wishes to leave the service of the Malfoys, but is incapable of doing so, because of the magical bindings that hold him.

But there are also psychological aspects of the subservience of the elves. We know this from the seeing the house elves at Hogwarts. If those elves wanted to be free, they would be. Dumbledore does not hold them against their will. Instead, they scorn Dobby's shameful behavior.

I believe house elves are the product of domestication. Humans have exploited certain key aspects of the house elf psychological/sociobiological make up, and run a program of selective breeding to enhance those traits which made them useful and tractable.

Most of humanity's successful domesticates are species with structured hierarchs in their natural social structures. Dogs are easy to domesticate because in their natural state they have dominant members of the pack. As result, you don't need to teach them to be subservient, you just need to present yourself as the packleader.

I think the situation with house elves is similar. In fact, I see a similar kind social approach in wild elves, as to wolves, or Florida scrub jays. I see the wild precursor of the house elves, similar to these animals, being more or less based around permanently monogamous, permanently territorial family groups. In these groups, offspring remain with their parents as non-breeding adolescents and adults and help raise their younger siblings.

This is supported by the kinds of tasks we see house elves performing: cleaning and feeding. In fact, the elves at Hogwarts seen to delight in feeding people. These are nest-tending, young-raising tasks.

This social set-up points to adaptation to one or, more likely, both of the following:

  1. House elf children need a lot of care over an extended period of time.
  2. Wild elves have very specific needs for breeding territories, for example suitable den-sites, or food density.

In particular, I see den sites as the limiting constraint. An elf pair has very specific ideas of what is a suitable site to set up a den, and starting raising offspring.

So most territories are filled by long-lived adults, and an adolescent striking out on their own is unlikely to be successful, so they stick around, wait for their parents' territory to become available, and in the mean time add to the success of their siblings, which share a similar amount of their genome as their offspring would, anyway.

This is the progression I see, leading up to the current situation of domestic house elves.

Wild elves are a bit like garden gnomes, pests. But they are much more powerful, and more problematic. They don't just want to live in your garden, they want to live in your house, and more over, they want to re-make it into an elf-den and they're perfectly capable of doing so. A human house, especially a large house, is an ideal den site for elves.

When a pair of young adult elves claim a house as a den site, here are several possibly ways the elves may see the human inhabitants:

  1. The most likely elf viewpoint is that the house is simply a den site, and humans are pests in the den. The elf pair moving into the house is fully mature and ready to start breeding. Except with the expenditure of great effort to evict these powerful, territorial creatures, you can go find yourself a new house.
  2. Some elves may recognize some human claim on the house, and perceive a dual hierarchy in house. The use of the house is to be negotiated between the two inhabiting family groups. The pair is fully mature and ready to start breeding. Since wild elves have very different ideas about what a home should be, conflict inevitably arise. Sooner or later, this will likely dissolve into situation A.
  3. The pair perceive the human owners as being the patriarch and matriarch of the territory they now live in. The pair will not breed, but instead will wait until the "dominant pair" dies. At that point, they will compete with the human heirs for dominance of the site. They will either cede the dominance to the human heirs (and, eventually die of old age without reproducing), or at some point decide they have won the dominance. When the humans refuse to acknowledge their authority, they will attempt to evict what they perceive as unruly and aberrant members of the group.
  4. The elf pair is aberrant: they recognize the dominance of the human inhabitants, but breed anyway. This is an unnatural behavior, which directly conflicts with the standard social structure of the elves; i.e. to other elves, they are perverts. To humans, this is ideal. At least, it is if you manage to teach them what a house is supposed to be like, so they don't go around helpfully re-arranging your house into an elf-den.

The elves of in situation D will not necessarily breed true. Their offspring may be normal elves, and in the next (elf) generation the situation will revert to A, B, or C.

But the elves in situation D have a reproductive edge not shared by elves in the other situations: breeding adults with access to artificial and abundant den sites, without conflict with the resident humans. Eventually chance creates a true-breeding strain of elves who approach human houses as in D.

This begins the process of elf domestication and the creation of the house elf, It is a rocky process. There are throwbacks to non-subservient elf types resulting in renewed elf-human conflict. There are also plenty of wild elves.

It is some time during this stage that the magical binding is placed on the elves, to reduce the damage caused by throwbacks. The wizards are able to powerfully bind the elves because it is only a reinforcement of a subservience the elves have already given to the humans.

It is also around this point that there is a concerted effort to wipe out the dangerous wild elves from populated areas.

Case studies


Dobby is something of a throwback. He is not anywhere near to being a healthy, wild elf, but he does not fully accept his subervience. When Lucius's parents died, Dobby, at some physio-emotional level, expected his turn to take over as the patriarch of the house. The Malfoys have had to use draconian measures to keep him under control since

Though Dobby watches out for his family, he also resents them. Draco, especially, is proof that Lucius is patriarch, not him. Hearing Draco complain about Potter all summer after first year, Dobby takes the idea of Harry as a rival to Draco and latches it into his own rivalry with Lucius, at some level taking Harry as his surrogate child in the struggle. Success for Draco is a success for Lucius as a patriarchal figure. If Dobby foils Lucius's plots, that weakens Lucius. To foil them using Harry is, in Dobby's head, a strengthening of his own bid for patriarch.

When Dobby is freed, released from subservience, he becomes and odd sort of mature, thus his attachment to Winky: it is a shadow of the pair-bonding which should go along the maturation process, in wild elves.


Winky is not a throwback. She fully accepts the subservience which has been bred into her physio-emotional make up. She defies her master not because she believes in her own authority, but because authority is coming into direct conflict with the nesting instinct. Obeying the patriarch is conflicting both with obeying the matriarch, and also with looking after the young.

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