Book review. The Tales of Beedle the Bard, by J.K. Rowling..?

I bought this wee book as a stocking filler for my daughter.  She’s pretty Harry Potter obsessed – which I put down to having read all the books while I was on maternity leave, so she somehow osmosed them in the womb.  Or, she could just be a pretty normal child who’s imagination is fired up by a well developed fantasy world.

The book contains five tales, collected from Beedle the Bard, a figure who is part of the padding of the Harry Potter world, who we know little about.  A real world equivalent would be Blind Harry.  Beedle collected the only evidence we have of myth, folklore or legend in the Harry Potter world.   It of course includes the well known Tale of the Three Brothers – an important part of the last two books, explaining the legend of the Deathly Hallows.

In the original HP series JK Rowling’s fantasy world works so well because the contemporary events of the second wizarding war, are firmly embedded in the first wizarding war, a generation before.  The real world equivalent is World War One and Two.  There are more than enough charactor/event similarities between those real world events and the Harry Potter ones for it to be no coincidence.  However apart from the odd scrap of wizarding legislation or anecdote, Beedle is one of the only people in the world to be implanted more than one or two generations before Mr Potter himself.

The stories in Beedle fall into two different categories.  The Wizard and the Hopping Pot, the Fountain of Fair Fortune and The Tale of the Three Borthers, are a sort of morality tale.  A real world equivilent would be the Boy Who Cried Wolf.  Tales designed to impart wisdom, or teach a lesson, that will help the hearer – most likely a child – behave in a certain way, or understand the world within the bounds of a specific morality.  These kind of tales are often neat and to the point, having a very clear message.

The other two stories are, Babbty Rabbity and her Cackling Stump and, The Warlock’s Hairy Heart.  Hairy Heart is my absolute favourite in the whole collection.  Immediately after reading it my eight year-old’s question was “Why would anyone put that in a children’s book?”

Fairy-tales, before they were collected by the middle-classes were not nice moralistic tales where sweet women behaved passively and were rewarded with the hand in marriage of a handsome nameless prince.  Real fairy tales gave voice to the the voiceless.  Not just a voiceless underclass, but often the voiceless within that underclass.  Those who’s mouths were taped over by the privileged and ruling classes, and vocal chords pulled out by anti-children elders, patriarchal attitudes, poverty or plain selfishness within their families and surrounding society. Real fairy-tales are gruesome and bloody ordeals, inhabited by people of moral ambiguity, murderers, incestuous fathers, absent or selfish parents, vain and egotistical relatives, vain and egotistical rulers, abusers, manipulators and the indifferent.  In other words, it’s full of real people, and real situations.  Albeit filtered through the magical, to make the trauma of real life more palatable to those who have suffered it, and those who are being warned.

While the other three stories may be more benign, and Babbity Rabbity just being a bit weird (another feature of original fairy-tales given mistranslation and changes in cultural symbolism) Hairy Heart is the tale that really stands out.

Although the tales are so-so what really brings the magic to the book are the notes by Albus Dumbledore.  In each of the notes Rowling gently unfolds a little bit more knowledge about the HP world and Dumbledore.  Many readers will bask once more in the glow everyone’s favourite teacher.  Rowling gently guided us through the HP world, which developed with every book – much in the way we develop a deeper understanding of our world on the journey between 11 and 17, as her main characters embodied.  The notes just add that little bit more to this unfolding.  It’s a top up for those eager for more, and make the tales more than just a curiosity.

There is only one thing that breaks the magic.  The fact that JK Rowling is credited on the cover as the author.  Yes, she did write it.  However, the title page says the book was translated by Hermione Grange from original runes with notes from Albus Dumbledore – which adds to Rowlings carefully woven world.  To then have Rowlings name proclaimed on the front cover breaks this conceit.   After all, as much as the best fairy-tales reflect the genuinely arbitrary nature of the world, the best magicians continue their performance until they have walked off stage.

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