What do the Harry Potter books have in common with Grimm’s Fairy Tales? A lot, actually, from Harry’s Cinderella-esque origins to the fictional book of wizards’ fairy tales that plays a key role in the final installment. Those are all topics I will hopefully write about sooner or later, but what I want to talk about today is one particular tale called “The Elves and the Shoemaker”.
The story is simple: an impoverished shoemaker lays out the materials to make a new pair of shoes, and then goes to bed, only to find out in the morning that someone else made the shoes for him while he slept. The same thing happens the next night, and the next, and over time, the shoemaker becomes wealthy. He and his wife decide to stay up one night to watch their mysterious helpers and discover that they are elves. Naked elves – or, in sanitized children’s versions, dressed in dirty old rags. The shoemaker and his wife make clothes for the elves, but when the elves find them, they leave and never return.
Does that remind you of anything?
There are some differences, of course. The wizards of the Harry Potter series are well aware of house elves’ existence and often more than willing to take advantage of their helpful natures. Rather than mysterious creatures that come in the dead of night, they are bound to their wizard masters by magic and cannot disobey them. But like the elves in the fairy tale, a house elf given proper clothes is free to go his own way and will never return to the family he served.
Other similar creatures appear in British folklore. Brownies were magical creatures that supposedly lived in the home and helped with household chores. If a brownie felt insulted, it would leave, or even turn against the family, and presenting it with new clothes was one sure way to offend it. Unlike the house elves in Harry Potter, one had to be cautious around a brownie.
But then again, one would do well to be cautious around house elves, as well. They may have very little free will and not be the tricky, independent creatures that brownies or elves were in older folklore, but Dobby disobeyed the Malfoys to try to save Harry’s life and later defied them to save him again, Kreacher helped Regulus Black steal the locket horcrux, and an army of house elves wielding kitchen knives fought in the battle of Hogwarts. It is mentioned several times that house elves have a powerful magic of their own, and in Deathly Hallows, Dumbledore lists them among the things Voldemort failed to understand, leading to his own downfall.