Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Is Dobby Really Free?

12/16/2008--At the end of the movie Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry tricks Lucius Malfoy into freeing his house elf, Dobby. By the rules of Harry’s universe, masters can grant manumission to what are essentially slaves by giving to the creature an article of clothing. [This is not so odd; in the Book of Ruth in the Old Testament, certain transactions are attested by giving one's shoe to the other party]

Harry secretes a sock in a book that itself is evidence of seditious activity and then accuses Malfoy of having given the book to an innocent party. The charge is a ruse designed to distract Malfoy from looking at the book before giving the book to Dobby. The ruse works.

The question is, why is this trick effective? Obviously Malfoy never intended to free Dobby. Why isn’t intention required? By the logic of Harry’s trick, any elf could easily free himself simply by secreting articles of clothing all manner of containers that would then be unknowingly passed back to the elf.

This issue of the intent required to free a slave, and other aspects of the law of manumission, was the subject of Bob Cover’s groundbreaking 1984 book, Justice Accused: Antislavery and the Judicial Process. A trick like the one Harry pulled would probably not suffice to transfer any other kind of property, absent special circumstances. Cover examined the willingness of judges to bend the rules in favor of freedom. The book raised the question of the relationship of positive law to natural law, or transcendent norms.

The movie, and the book upon which it was based, apparently assume that Dobby is free despite the dishonesty involved. The question is, why would that be so?

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