In Lex Populi [“law of the people,” playing off of vox populi], William MacNeil looks at how popular culture portrays and interacts with ideas of jurisprudence, examining Fight Club, The Lord of the Rings, the debate over Terri Schiavo’s right to die, and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. When discussing Harry Potter, MacNeil draws our attention to the existence of house elves, small creatures who are enslaved to do their human masters’ bidding unless freed by being presented with clothing.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire reveals that there are hundreds of house elves working at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the shining light of all that has been good in Harry’s life. While Harry’s friend Hermione tries to free the house elves from their enslavement, the other students seem unconcerned, as do the house elves themselves, who appear to relish the opportunity to serve well and regard freedom with horror.
MacNeil contrasts the reactions of two house elves to freedom to show the difficulty of finding a legal system that meets the rights of all members of a community. Dobby relishes his freedom, but he “feels that, as far as freedom goes, there can be too much of a good thing. For instance, when Dumbledore offered to pay him ten Galleons a week—a standard wizarding wage… Dobby ‘beat... him down’ to one Galleon. Winky, on the other hand, perceives her freedom as a “‘disgrace’ and a source of ‘shame.’”
MacNeil argues that the novel shows “that rights discourse, and indeed the law itself, might be highly problematic strategies for change, something that you can’t live with, and can’t live without. For how do you change a system’s status inequities—its gender, race, and class ‘intersections’ overdetermined in the figure of Winky—through the very instrument of those inequities, namely the law?”