January 15, 2009


The Tales of Beedle the Bard. By J.K. Rowling. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $12.99.

     This is not the first book in which J.K. Rowling has expanded upon some of the inner workings of the world of Harry Potter, but it is in many ways the most interesting. Way back in 2001 – a veritable age ago in terms of the Potter saga’s progress and popularity – Rowling wrote two short books, published in paperback, that went into considerable detail about some interesting but ancillary elements of the wizarding world. One, Quidditch Through the Ages by “Kennilworthy Whisp,” was said on the cover to be the “Property of Hogwarts Library” (the last three people to check it out were F. Weasley, H. Granger and H. Potter). It included an extended history of the game, the background of the Golden Snitch, and information on worldwide variants of the sport. The other book, Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them by “Newt Scamander,” was stated on its cover to be the “Property of Harry Potter” and contained “Harry’s” (and “Ron’s”) notes about some entries, plus the occasional apparent ink smudge. The books were all in good fun – although written seriously, as if Quidditch and the various beasts really existed – and they had a real-world purpose: net proceeds from their sale went to a charity called Comic Relief, to be used in a “Harry’s Books” fund to help needy children in the world’s poorest countries.

     Something very similar is going on in The Tales of Beedle the Bard, a handsome hardcover whose title will be familiar to readers of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, where Beedle’s work is mentioned and discussed. The book is said to be translated by Hermione Granger, with extensive notes by Albus Dumbledore (some of which refer to Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them), and with Rowling herself providing the introduction, notes and interior illustrations (the cover is by Mary GrandPré, who illustrated the U.S. editions of all seven Potter novels). Once again, there is a real-world charitable purpose to the book: net proceeds go to Children’s High Level Group, a charity that Rowling co-chairs and that is intended to promote children’s rights worldwide (as the other co-chair, Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne, MEP, explains in an afterword).

     The charity connection is all very well, and in fact the book is likely to bring in considerable funds as Potter fans eagerly lap up anything new from the world that Rowling so skillfully created. But what about the book itself? Well, it happens to be quite a delightful surprise, including five wizard-focused fairy tales that range from the light and amusing to the frightening and gory – and one of which, “The Tale of the Three Brothers,” is genuinely important to the Potter saga. The stories are written in the simple, straightforward language typical of tales of this type, while the “Dumbledore commentary” is written in a “voice” that is noticeably that of the beloved Hogwarts headmaster. Rowling, although scarcely an elegant stylist, has become a considerably better writer since the first two books of the Potter series, and it shows in The Tales of Beedle the Bard. The interconnection of these stories with the wizard world in general and the Potter tales in particular is quite skillfully handled. “The Wizard and the Hopping Pot” is a straightforward story of a hard-hearted wizard who learns to help Muggle (non-magical) people – and it gains greater depth in commentary showing how factions within the wizard world would have reacted differently to it. “The Fountain of Fair Fortune” is an amusing tale with a twist ending – and, again, the “Dumbledore” commentary shows how, in the Potter world, it could be a source of enmity between “purebloods” and others. “The Warlock’s Hairy Heart” is a scary cautionary tale of the limits of magical power, and is the closest of all these stories to the grimness of pre-Victorian fairy tales. “Babbity Rabbitty and Her Cackling Stump” is a much more amusing take on the limits-of-magic idea, with commentary shedding some light on what it means in the Potter world to be an Animagus. And “The Tale of the Three Brothers,” although it is the shortest story, has the greatest resonance within the Potter world where it was previously mentioned, containing clues to several mysteries that were eventually solved only at the expense of characters’ considerable suffering. Rowling’s skill shows here in the way she has the “Dumbledore commentary,” supposedly written about 18 months before the headmaster’s death, analyze the tale quite neatly but quite incompletely – just as Dumbledore, who always held back some of what he knew or suspected, would have done at that stage of the Potter saga.

     The Tales of Beedle the Bard is scarcely a major book and scarcely a difficult one to read: Potter fans accustomed to physically and emotionally weighty Rowling will find these 107 pages quite easy to get through in a single sitting. But the book does add some genuine depth to the Potter saga, is interesting in its own right, and leaves open the possibility that Rowling – now that she has again tapped her creativity for the sake of a charity in which she believes – will continue to find reasons to flesh out her world of wonder and wizardry even though she has finished writing the main sequence of Harry’s story.

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