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24 Jan

Elves as Defenders: A Study Based on Harry Potter and Lord Of The Rings- Elizabeth Cherian & Silpa K.S.

Elves as Defenders: A Study Based on Harry Potter and Lord Of The Rings

Elizabeth Cherian & Silpa K.S.

(BA English Literature, Assumption College Changanacherry)


The inculcation of supernatural elements finds expression in the book series of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and J.R.R. Tolkien’s’ The Lord of the Rings, in a number of ways, wherein elves play a significant part. A.J.Greimas, the renowned French-Lithuanian literary scientist known for his theory of “semiotic square”, places the oppositional value of functions to identify three pairs of actants, one of which is the helper/opponent. Nancy Armstrong writes that the square allows us to "identify the preconditions for the meaning of particular narratives" (53). In these cases, the square allows a visualization of two particular kinds of relationships: those of "opposition" and "contradiction" (Prison-House 162). A perspective on the presentation of elves, seemingly serving as opponents in the beginning and later revealing themselves as a helper to the protagonist is attempted in the paper. Griemas Square of contrarieties, complementarities and contradictions is applied to view the roles of the loyal house elf Dobby in the Harry Potter series and the gallant elf Legolas in the Lord of the Rings series.

Dobby in the Potter series is an extremely loyal male house elf. Dobby features a short statured rough-skinned creature with glassy eyes and long pointed bat-like ears. When he makes his first appearance in the second book of the series ‘Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets’, we see him making his purposed visit to Harry at the Dudleys only to warn him not to return to Hogwarts that year. He says, “Harry Potter is valiant and bold! He has braved so many dangers already! But Dobby has come to protect Harry Potter, to warn him...Harry Potter must not return to Hogwarts!” (Ch.2). The very fact that the elf tries to hinder the protagonist’s academic career at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry casts an ominous shade to the elf in spite of its extreme loyal demeanour towards Harry. Read together with its use of magic to seal the 9 ¾ platform so as to prevent Harry’s entry into the Hogwarts Express completes the picture that Dobby is indeed an opponent in the plot of the story. Thus the initial impression regarding Dobby is that of an extreme opponent. It also implies that he is not a helper at any rate.

However the creature’s own acts of punishing itself confuse the readers at least in the initial stages. At this instance, there is a tendency towards considering the elf as a non-opponent if not as a helper, contradictory to what was assumed before. But later we realize that it was the non adherence to the binding loyalty that made him carry out those mad acts which included ironing his hands, slamming his head to the door, cursing him etc. This he used to repeat so often. For instance, he regrets that “Dobby will have to punish himself most grievously for coming to see you, sir. Dobby will have to shut his ears in the oven door for this.” The custom that house elves must be loyal, obedient and faithful to their master forces him to make these utterances. It should be noted that the author was clever enough not to reveal the elf’s real masters [the Malfoys who are close confidants of the Dark Lord Voldemort] until the end of Book 2 when the conflict has been resolved. This is important because any indication of Dobby serving the dark powers would have put him under the badge of a clear opponent, which presumably was not preferred by the author.

As the plot progresses, we see Dobby continuing his venture to keep Harry away from Hogwarts. The sealing of the platform had been overcome with the aid of the Weasleys’ flying car. Dobby enchants a bludger to attack Harry during the Quidditch match. Harry ends up breaking his right hand in this plot, something which he gets cured gradually. Dobby appears to Harry again at the hospital only to warn him, rather plead to him to return home. With this incident it is apparent that Dobby is neither an opponent nor can he be trusted as a helper yet. The loyalty and interest exhibited by Dobby towards Harry though he serves another master is quite an unexplained phenomenon. However it is this uncanny attachment of Dobby with Harry that proves to be fatal in many crucial circumstances of uncertainty that follows. Dobby’s loyalty and affection towards Harry is bonded strongly by the end of Book 2 when Harry uses his wit to free Dobby from his master Malfoy. Thereon we see Dobby as a free elf.

He reappears in Book 5 ‘Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix’ in which he is employed as a paid elf in the ministry by the old Dumbledore. His acceptance of Harry as his unnamed master is expressed clearly in chapter 19 of Book 6 ‘Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince’: “Dobby is a free elf and he can obey anyone he likes and Dobby will do whatever Harry Potter wants him to do!” This declaration is in fact taken granted by Harry himself earlier on. Besides it is this close association between the creature, and Harry and his friends that give him the liberty of addressing them as “friends” though it is while he draws his last breath. In the final book (7) ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’, we see Dobby playing the crucial role in rescuing Harry and his friends from the grip of You-Know-Who. At this instance, Dobby is granted the robes of a true helper. It is with his power of apparition that he rescues the prisoners. Further, it was his witty act of unscrewing the chandelier to save Hermione from Bellatrix Lestrange which ultimately leads to saving Harry and his friends by apparating them to the Shell Cottage. Besides, by this time, the reader is well aware of the fact that it was Dobby’s care for Harry and the fear of him being harmed once the chamber of secrets would be opened, that had forced him to commit the odd deeds in the second book that casted him in the opponent’s side. This revelation adds much effect to the feeling that is aroused on seeing Dobby dying in the venture to save Harry and his friends from Voldemort. The tragic death of this helper elf brings tears to the eyes of every reader and swells every heart with pity. It should be acknowledged that the transformation of Dobby from an opponent to a non-opponent, later to a non-opposing helper and finally into a helper and close confidant has been gradual. Harold Bloom commented in a discourse “Rowling presents two Englands, mundane and magical, divided not by classes , but by the distinction between the ‘perfectly normal’(mean and selfish) and the adherents of sorcery.” Rowling thus uses the magical world to show the manifestation of the good virtue of lending a helping hand to the needy as against the selfish real world.

J.R.R Tolkien, in his series ‘Lord of the Rings’, paints a totally different picture of elves. The elves described as “immortal, wisest and fairest of all beings” at the beginning is an apt prologue to the race of elves. The elves the ‘Lord of the Rings’ breaks off from the popular notion of an elf, although, the celebrated qualities of both head and hand remain unaltered from the convention. They appear as immortal beings with alluring eyes, long pointed ears and fair skin. This ethereal appearance coupled with the charms and skills of a handsome gallant makes a true elven figure. The statement made by Strider, “We are going to see the elves” profuse the minds of the audience with hope and builds a certain degree of suspense. The level of hope accentuates when Strider, who belongs to the race of men, says that “the fatal wound can only be healed by Elvish medicines”. Arwen, an elf woman, not only wins the audience with her charm and beauty but also her expertise in horse riding. Her role was crucial in the saving of Frodo’s life. Upon her spell, the water gushes out like the water steeds gobbling up the ring wraiths who were behind her to kill the ring bearer. However, the past bitter reality known to Elrond, the Elf King makes him pessimistic. Dwarves are mere miners according to him. He had lost confidence in all races, evident through the following lines: “ The race of men is weak... Evil was allowed to endure [because of men]...Line of kings failed...Because of men the ring survives”.

            Middle earth stands in the brink of destruction and doom is sure to befall unless that Ring - One ring to rule them all - is destroyed in the Mount Doom of Mordor. The representatives from all the races of Middle Earth arrive to discuss the Ring. But all they do is quarrell with one another. We feel that the desire for power has rendered them opponents to the realization of the goal. Determination finds expression when Frodo makes the decision and announces, “I will take the Ring to Mordor”. Finally, all the representatives from different races unites for a common cause – to fight against Sauron, the Dark Lord and destroy the Ring forever. Frankly, the hobbit expresses his ignorance about the route to Mordor. Gandalf promises his support to him.

Aragorn says, “You have my sword”. Legolas says, “You have my bow”. Gimli assures, “My axe”. Boromir promises that he will see it done. Hobbits owe their intelligence and passion only to bring a smile upon the audience. “You shall be the fellowship of the ring”, announces Elrond. It is thus that the Fellowship of the ring is formed.

Followers of the Fellowship




Frodo Baggins


Ring bearer

Adopted heir of Bilbo

Samwise Gamgee [Sam]


Frodo’s gardener

Gandalf the Grey


Wizard who leads the Fellowship



Chief Ranger of the North and heir of  Isildur and Elendil

A brave warrior

He had accompanied the hobbits from Bree to Rivendell



Son and heir of Denethor II

Steward of Gondor



Son of Thranduil, king of the Silvan Elves of Mirkwood



Son of Glóin

Pippin and Merry


Frodo’s cousins

The Elven presents from Lady Galadriel and Lord Celeborn of Lothlorien to members of the fellowship of the ring proves to be of immense help in the realization of their great mission. To state a few, the strong elvish rope gifted to Samwise Gamgee helps them to descend a dangerous mountain safely. The Light of Earendil, a small crystal bottle of liquid that contains the light of Earendil’s star in the water of Galadriel’s fountain, provides them a brilliant light in the dark tunnel of Shelob the Spider. Galadriel’s three hair strands that Gimili receives strikes a goodwill between the races of Elves and Dwarves. Legolas is an ace archer. His mastery of bow and arrow is unparalleled. Many of the victories in their encounters owe a great deal to Legolas. It is he who tells the companions of the talking trees when they reach Fangorn Forest. Along with his skills in archery, his knowledge about traditional tales and myths deserves special mention. He and Gimli, though appeared to be rivals initially, strike a strong friendship between them. His genius to read signs from nature, like the rising red Sun to suggest imminent violence and gory, heightens the tension of the audience. He remains loyal to the vow he made in the Council. Never is he tempted to secure the ring. When Aragon,who was believed to be dead in a battle with the Orcs returns, he does not forget to give him back Arwen’s pendent. Such a demeanour proves that he is faithful, trust-worthy and responsible. In the battle at the Helm’s Deep, the elves come to aid the Rohan’s army of Men with their forces. They renew a long-lost allegiance and “honour that allegiance”. Arwen chooses a mortal life to unite with her true love, Aragorn. She sacrifices the unique elven gift of immortality to live with him. The elves of Rivendell as well as the elves of Lothlorien share similar qualities of sincerity and strength. Legolas struggles hard for the completion of their mission, risking his own life. This helpul elf keeps his head high and feet firm on the ground.

We can break the action, according to the actantial model, developed by A.J. Greimas. They are as follows:

 à Subject- Object

 à Sender- Receiver

 à Helper- Opponent

Here, the subject is not limited to one individual or one race. All races who want goodness to triumph form the subjects. Frodo is the ring bearer. All the members of the fellowship plays an equally important role in the realization of the mission.The object is the destruction of the Ring. It renders the Dark Lord powerless. If it is accomplished, goodness will prevail in the land .The sender is Gandalf who triggers the epic conquest, whereas the receiver is the whole of Middle Earth. Each race receives its own benefits. For example, Aragon becomes the King, Sam returns to his shire etc.The helpers are the kings, warriors and their armies who fought against the evil power . These include Gandalf the Wizard, Men, Elves, Dwarves, Hobbits and Ents. The elven gifts helped and protected them in their epic conquest. Legolas is never tempted to take away the ring from the real bearer. There is no streak of avarice in this noble being. Saruman ,Sauron and the Orcs army are the opponents. The desire for power is also villainized in this fiction.Their magic, intelligence, qualities like loyalty and sincerity make them stand out.

In ‘Harry potter’ series the elf is an ugly meek servile character while in ‘Lord of the Rings’ series, the elves are valiant and exude the virtues of courage, chivalry and wisdom. But in both the cases, elves, through their actions, assert their ‘helping nature’ to us and can therefore be rightfully regarded as the defenders in the storyline.

Works Cited

Armstrong, Nancy. “Inside Greimas’s Square: Literary Characters and Cultural Constraints.” In The Sign in Music and Literature. Edited by Wendy Steiner. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981. 52-66. Print.

Bloom, Harold. ‘Bloom Harold Reviews.’ Journal.2000. Print.

Felluga, Dino. “Modules on Greimas: On Plotting”. Introductory Guide to Critical Theory.31 Jan. 2011. 13 Aug 2015

Greimas, A. J, Sémantique structurale, Paris: Presse universitaires de France, 1986. Print.

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. London: Bloomsbury, 1998. Print.

---. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. London: Bloomsbury, 2003. Print.

---. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. London: Bloomsbury, 2007. Print.

Tolkein, J.R.R. Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. UK :George Allen & Unwin, 1954. Print.

---. Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. UK: George Allen & Unwin, 1954. Print.

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