House-elves are 2-3 feet tall, with spindly arms and legs and oversized heads and eyes. They have pointed, bat-like ears and high, squeaky voices. Their names are usually pet-like diminutives (Dobby, Winky, Hokey); they do not appear to have surnames. They habitually refer to themselves in the third person and use a strange manner of speaking. House-elves are generally obedient, pliant, and obsequious.
Rather than conventional clothing, house-elves wear discarded items like pillowcases and tea-towels. House-elves' masters can free them by giving them an item of clothing: at the end of Chamber of Secrets, for example, Harry tricks Lucius Malfoy into freeing his house-elf Dobby by handing Lucius a book stuffed inside his "slimy, filthy sock." When Lucius discards the sock, Dobby catches it and is automatically freed.
House-elves possess their own forms of powerful magic, distinct from that used by wizards and witches, which they generally use in the service of their masters. This magic can be used without the permission of their masters, or even against their orders, though such disobedience obliges them to punish themselves in various painful ways. Among other things, this magic allows house-elves to travel instantly from place to place, in a manner similar to apparition; they are able to do this even within the boundaries of Hogwarts and other places where Anti-Apparition and Anti-Disapparition charms are in effect, preventing human apparition and disapparition. House-elves can, however, use side-along apparition to transport humans.

The full nature of the elves' magic is never fully disclosed, but it seems to be quite formidable. Along with the ability to apparate anywhere at any time, both Dobby and Kreacher demonstrate that they can overpower wizards when necessary. In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Dobby forcefully repels Lucius Malfoy while protecting Harry. Later, in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Kreacher is ordered by Harry to capture Mundungus Fletcher and bring him to 12 Grimmauld Place, a task that he accomplishes within a few days, even though, as Kreacher puts it, "He has many hidey-holes and accomplices". It would appear that when a house-elf is called upon to perform a duty, his or her magical nature supplements the order in such a way as to ensure its completion. According to Kreacher, a house-elf's strongest law is the master's bidding.
House-elves can become intoxicated by drinking Butterbeer.



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