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|Appearance||small, humanoid, bat-like ears, huge eyes, bald|
|Known specimens||Dobby, Winky, Kreacher, Hokey|
|First appearance in canon||Dobby's Warning (CS)|
House-elves have short, human-like bodies. Their heads are bald, with enormous eyes and bat-like ears. It is difficult to tell males and females apart (GF8). House-elves speak in high voices (females even higher than males), and they have a peculiar manner of expressing themselves: they use all verbs in the third person singular and speak of themselves in the third person (CS2).
Enslaved house-elves do not wear clothing (and most elves consider it shameful to do so); instead, they use other pieces of cloth, such as pillow-cases or towels, to cover themselves. This peculiar attire marks the house-elf as a servant (CS10).
Most house-elves serve in wizarding households. The custom of house-elf enslavement goes back centuries and is hardly ever questioned even by progressive wizards (GF14). The possession of a house-elf is a status symbol—only old, wealthy pure-blood families such as the Blacks or the Malfoys own house-elves (CS3).
Hogwarts owns more house-elves than any other dwelling in Britain; over a hundred elves work for the school (GF12). This goes back to the Founder Era—Helga Hufflepuff was an early champion of house-elf welfare, but in her time, a movement for elf rights was unthinkable and so the best she could do for the elves was to offer them a secure position with good working conditions (PC).
Typically, house-elves are loyal to their masters and happy to serve them. They are proud to guard their secrets and hold up the family honour (GF21). However, if they are not treated well, house-elves will become dissatisfied with their masters and although they are still bound to service, they will try to circumvent or reinterpret unwanted orders, or even betray their masters (CS2, OP37).
To be set free, house-elves must be given clothes by their masters (CS10). Most house-elves dread clothes and consider being freed a shame (GF9); however, there are exceptions like Dobby, who is glad to leave his former masters (CS18).
House-elves are subject to the authority of the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures, which is led by wizards. They have few rights in the wizarding world during the Trio's school years. According to the official Ministry of Magic doctrine, they are the natural servants of witches and wizards. The Fountain of Magical Brethren, which adorns the Atrium at the Ministry exemplifies this view (OP7).
House-elf owners have the right to command their elves to execute corporeal punishment on themselves. It is possible that they are even allowed to kill their elves. According to a custom begun by Elladora Black, the Black family decapitates their elves when they become too old to carry tea trays. We do not know whether this practice is strictly legal, but at least the Blacks get away with openly displaying the heads on the walls of their staircase (OP6).
Hermione Granger starts campaigning for elf rights and is the founder of the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare, or S.P.E.W. The society's aims include securing fair wages and working conditions for elves as well as changing clause three of the Code of Wand Use, which forbids elves to carry a wand (GF9) and placing a house-elf in the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures (GF14). Her endeavours have little success during her time at school—for a long time, the only S.P.E.W. members are Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, and students like Neville Longbottom, who only consent to buy a badge to stop Hermione from bothering them (GF15). Furthermore, the Hogwarts house-elves show no interest in being freed. When Hermione starts to leave self-knitted clothes in the Gryffindor common room, Dobby has to clean the whole room by himself as the other elves feel insulted (OP18).
However, Hermione has more success in her post-Hogwarts career at the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures, where she is able to greatly improve life for house-elves and other oppressed magical beings (BLC).
House-elves have their own powerful brand of wandless magic. For example, they can Apparate to and from places wizards cannot (DH10). However, their powers are restricted inasmuch as they cannot act against the direct will of their masters and are not allowed to use a wand (GF9).
In line with the deep-rooted prejudice against house-elves, many wizards tend to underestimate the powers of elf magic. The most prominent example is Voldemort, whose careless neglect allows the elf Kreacher to escape from the cave where he has hidden one of his Horcruxes (DH10). This ultimately leads to the Horcrux's destruction (DH19) and Voldemort's fall (DH36).
Dobby is the Malfoys' house-elf. Unlike other house-elves, he feels no loyalty for his owners. When he learns of Lucius Malfoy's plan to open the Chamber of Secrets in the summer of 1992, he tries to protect his idol Harry Potter (CS2). Altogether, his attempts do more harm than good (CS2, CS5, CS10). By tricking Lucius Malfoy into droping a sock so that Dobby can catch it, Harry is able to free the elf at the end of the school year in June 1993 (CS18). Dobby delights in being free, although he has trouble finding paid work until he thinks of applying at Hogwarts together with Winky. Albus Dumbledore agrees to hire him for a wage (GF21). During his time at Hogwarts, Dobby provides valuable assistance to Harry several times (GF27, OP18, OP27, HBP21). In the spring of 1997, Aberforth Dumbledore sends him to Malfoy Manor to rescue Harry and his friends. Dobby is able to Apparate them to Shell Cottage, but Bellatrix Lestrange throws her knife at him (DH23). He dies from the wound at the cottage and is buried and deeply mourned by Harry (DH24).
Winky is the Crouches' house-elf. She is very loyal to her family and privy to all their secrets. Barty Crouch, Sr. entrusts her with the care of his son Barty Crouch, Sr., a Death Eater whom he has secretly freed from Azkaban and placed under the Imperius Curse (GF35). However, Winky is unable to prevent Barty Crouch, Jr. from stealing a wand and casting the Dark Mark at the Quidditch World Cup in 1994. Mr. Crouch frees her as a punishment (GF9). Dobby takes her with him to Hogwarts, but unlike him, Winky is miserable. She becomes addicted to butterbeer (GF21, GF28). After Voldemort's fall, she gains better control over her drinking habit (BLC).
Kreacher is the Blacks' house-elf. He is very loyal to his family and especially to Regulus Black. When Regulus asks him to assist the Dark Lord, he follows Voldemort to the cave where he hides Slytherin's locket. Voldemort, who has made it impossible for wizards to Disapparate from the cave, expects Kreacher to die, but the elf is not affected by this and returns to his master. Regulus loses faith in Voldemort after he hears Kreacher's tale and decides to destroy the Horcrux. He and Kreacher go back to the cave. Before he dies in there, Regulus orders Kreacher to destroy the locket. For many years, Kreacher is unable to find a way to do so (DH10). When Regulus' parents die, he is left alone in number twelve, Grimmauld Place for several years and starts to become slightly mad. In 1995, Sirius Black, who is now his rightful master, returns to the house and makes it the headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix. Kreacher, who hates Sirius, deeply resents this (OP6). After Sirius' death, Kreacher catches Mundungus Fletcher stealing the locket but is unable to stop him (DH10). Harry inherits Kreacher and orders him to stay at Hogwarts (HBP3). He summons him to Grimmauld Place when he realises that Kreacher might know what became of the locket. Kreacher tells him his tale and is presented with Regulus' locket in exchange. This wins Harry his loyalty (DH10). Kreacher also tracks down Mundungus and brings him to Harry (DH11). After Grimmauld Place falls into the Death Eaters' hands, Kreacher returns to Hogwarts. In the Battle of Hogwarts, he leads the Hogwarts house-elves in their fight against Voldemort (DH36).