Wednesday Book Club: The Tales of Beedle the Bard

Wednesday, 10 December 2008 — 10:51pm | Book Club, Harry Potter, Literature

This week’s selection: The Tales of Beedle the Bard (2008) by J.K. Rowling.

In brief: This companion book to the Harry Potter series condenses Rowling’s thematic material into five playful fables, each delivered with the impeccable polish and Pythonic cleverness we have come to expect. The annotations written in the voice of Albus Dumbledore provide the Potterverse with a suggested literary history that parodies our own, though they unwisely attempt to interpret the fairy tales on the reader’s behalf.

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on The Tales of Beedle the Bard, keep reading below.)

The Tales of Beedle the Bard marks the third time that J.K. Rowling has taken a fictitious book mentioned in the Harry Potter series and spun it into a companion volume for charity, after Quidditch Through the Ages and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. (Hogwarts: A History is almost certainly on the drawing board, though for my part, I am still waiting for Charm Your Own Cheese.)

Beedle is a departure from Quidditch and Fantastic Beasts in two respects: first, it is a narrative work rather than an accompanying reference; and second, it plays a small but critical role in the plot of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, with which you are no doubt already familiar if you have read this far.

The collection consists of five stories, each of which explores a familiar thematic question from the Harry Potter books:

  1. “The Wizard and the Hopping-Pot”: Given that magical ability is inherited like a recessive gene—you’re either born with it or you aren’t—what responsibility do wizards have to non-magical peoples?
  2. “The Fountain of Fair Fortune”: When are boons assigned to magical causes actually the product of free decisions and changes in personal attitudes?
  3. “The Warlock’s Hairy Heart”: What is the peril of thinking of love as a human weakness?
  4. “Babbity Rabbity and her Cackling Stump”: How should non-magical society treat those of special talent?
  5. “The Tale of the Three Brothers”: Can you run from Death, or only hide?

If you’ve read the Potter series, you already know the answers to all five.

The stories vary in both their tone and their connectedness to Harry Potter’s world. While the whimsical “Hopping-Pot” and the chivalric “Fountain” play it safe within the bounds of fairy-tale orthodoxy, “The Warlock’s Hairy Heart” is a gruesome horror-show ripped out of the chests of the Brothers Grimm. (The Dumbledore commentaries that accompany the stories make the ironic point that in the wizarding world, it was the first two that were subject to bowdlerization for their vulgar suggestion that wizards and Muggles could mingle, while “The Warlock’s Hairy Heart” propagated from one generation to the next with little transformation.)

“Babbity Rabbity” is the story that gets the most mileage out of the premise that the tales of Beedle the Bard are medieval in origin, predating the segregation of the magical and Muggle worlds in wizarding history. Playing along with the illusion that Beedle the Bard is a discovered text from the past, Dumbledore’s notes on the story take care to comment on its adherence to the physical laws of magic as distinct from the contractual laws, the ones regulated by modern magical government. Broadly speaking, the Dumbledore afterwords—which comprise half the book, and are every bit as much a part of the book as the stories themselves—are at their best when they situate their respective tales in the context of Rowling’s imagined history.

The commentaries also serve as a vessel for Rowling’s views on issues such as literary censorship, which are of obvious real-world relevance, considering the moral hysteria in some circles over the Potter novels (along with everything else written for children and young adults, it must be said). It is Rowling’s unambiguous view that children need not be protected from the outside world; indeed, to do so is irresponsible in the extreme. A character named Beatrix Bloxam appears in several of Dumbledore’s annotations as a redactor of tales and a literary surrogate for Dolores Umbridge:

Mrs Bloxam believed that The Tales of Beedle the Bard were damaging to children because of what she called ‘their unhealthy preoccupation with the most horrid subjects, such as death, disease, bloodshed, wicked magic, unwholesome characters and bodily effusions and reuptions of the most digusting kind’. Mrs Bloxam took a variety of old stories, including several of Beedle’s, and rewrote them according to her ideals, which she expressed as ‘filling the pure minds of our little angels with healthy, happy thoughts, keeping their sweet slumber free of wicked dreams and protecting the precious flower of their innocence’.

I should think it is natural to read this as Rowling’s way of thumbing her nose at her critics, and generating a treasure chest of funds for charity while she’s at it.

Potter readers will of course remember “The Tale of the Three Brothers” as the story that introduces the Deathly Hallows in the book by that name. There is nothing to the story here above and beyond what we already know from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows; it is included for completeness, as the tale that linked Beedle the Bard to the conclusion of Harry Potter in the first place. Dumbledore’s notes on it, however, are of especial interest as an extended exercise in dramatic irony. Observe:

But which of us would have shown the wisdom of the third brother, if offered the pick of Death’s gifts? Wizards and Muggles alike are imbued with a lust for power; how many would resist ‘the Wand of Destiny’? Which human being, having lost someone they loved, could withstand the temptation of the Resurrection Stone? Even I, Albus Dumbledore, would find it easiest to refuse the Invisibility Cloak; which only goes to show that, clever as I am, I remain just as big a fool as anyone else.

Rowling’s introduction to The Tales of Beedle the Bard tells us that “the notes were completed around eighteen months before the tragic events that took place at the top of Hogwarts’ Astronomy Tower.” Dumbledore knows damn well that the Hallows exist, and he has a good idea of their whereabouts. Note that his notes predate his acquisition of the Resurrection Stone, a fact that imbues his rhetorical questions with a wistful air.

If the annotations detract in any way, it is in how Dumbledore’s readings have a habit of spelling out the already self-evident morals of the stories, thus snatching some of the interpretive responsibility from the reader. The magic of fairy tales has never been in their straightforwardness. Fairy tales draw much of their lasting power from their ability to say a lot more, in very little space, than any individual explication. It is therefore easy to get the sense that the imposition of any single reading takes away from the conceptual space of possibility opened by the deceptively simple architecture for which fairy tales are known. And should we choose to read them as fables with unambiguous morals, we can do it without outside help, thank you very much.

In the end, “The Tale of the Three Brothers” remains the most satisfying of the Beedle stories because it functions, to a far greater degree than the other stories in the collection, as a foundational myth that defines the underlying narrative structure of the Harry Potter universe. In The Deathly Hallows, Rowling invites us not to interpret the Three Brothers in the context of Harry Potter, but to interpret Harry Potter in the context of the Three Brothers—much as we can absorb a stunning proportion of Western literature, Harry Potter included, in terms of Homer’s Odyssey or the Book of Genesis.

This is not to say that the four other stories don’t aspire to the same stature; they do, albeit with less success. As I illustrated at the beginning of the review, they all exhibit some form of thematic consistency with the grounding premises of the Harry Potter series. In fact, it is remarkable that they achieve this at all, considering that titles like “The Wizard and the Hopping-Pot” and “Babbity Rabbity and her Cackling Stump” originally appeared as a throwaway joke about the childishness (yet curious universality) of the Beedle tales.

But without Rowling there to speak in the voice of Albus Dumbledore and give us a wealth of fictitious history about how fundamental these stories are to the collective consciousness of the wizarding world, we might never have thought of them as very important at all. “The Tale of the Three Brothers” stands out because it truly feels like it precedes the modern Potterverse, along with the Muggle world we know.

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