There was once a kindly old wizard who used his magic generously and wisely for the benefit of his neighbors. Rather than reveal the true source of his power, he pretended that his potions, charms, and antidotes sprang ready-made from the little cauldron he called his lucky cooking pot. From miles around, people came to him with their troubles, and the wizard was pleased to give his pot a stir, and put things right.In her latest Harry Potter-related book, The Tales of Beedle the Bard, J.K. Rowling reveals the "contents" of the book that was referenced often in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. This is a slender, 110 page collection of five fairy tale-like stories intended for the fictional wizardly families. Rowling breaks down these five stories into the tales themselves (purportedly "translated" by Hermione Granger), with "commentaries" by Professor Albus Dumbledore. Clever as these tales are, this division often weakens the impact of the stories.
This well-beloved wizard lived to a goodly age, then died, little all his chattels to his only son. This son was of a very different disposition to his gentle father. Those who could not work magic were, to the son's mind, worthless, and he had often quarreled with his father's habit of dispensing magical aid to their neighbors.
Upon the father's death, the son found hidden inside the old cooking pot a small package bearing his name. He opened it, hoping for gold, but found instead a soft, thick slipper, much too small to war, and with no pair. A fragment of parchment within the slipper bore the words "In the fond hope, my son, that you will never need it." (pp. 1-2)
Rowling does a fairly good job with updating and referencing traditional fairy tales and their motifs in tales such as the one cited above, "The Wizard and the Hopping Pot." She manages to capture much of the feel of the old fairy and folk tales in these tales with her carefulness to mimic the structure of these tales without ever really going too far in the direction of creating pale carbon copies of the original tales. While the quoted first story obviously is going to set up a comeuppance for the wizard's son, it is the way that Rowling structures his pratfalls that makes for a satisfactory read. The other four tales are at least as strong as the first, with the middle tale, "The Warlock's Hairy Heart" being the darkest and most admonitory of the five stories. When reading that story, I found myself wishing that Rowling could have resisted the impulse to include the commentaries, as these were the weakest parts of the short collection.
It is difficult to comment upon a tale without risking an intrusion into that space where the Reader and the Fiction Text are interacting. Preferably, commentators will keep their comments succinct, eschewing any attempts at making a direct moral comparison in the tale. Unfortunately, Rowling too often has "Dumbledore" referring directly to the morals found in these tales. While she ostensibly did this as a means of trying to continue the illusion that the stories' readers were seeing it as might a Hogwarts student, she overdid it. At times, it felt as though one had read a really funny story, one that was witty and subtle at the time, but which was ruined at the end by someone explaining in laborious detail what the joke was about and what it aimed to accomplish.
Although the commentaries dampened my enjoyment of Rowling's fabulistic stories, the stories themselves contain that mixture of the familiar and the "new" that made for an enchanting read. While certainly not the type of book that I myself would re-read countless times, The Tales of Beedle the Bard definitely would merit a read by those who loved reading/listening to fables in their childhood and perhaps would be best suited for those growing up who still wish upon a star or hope beyond hope, even if such desires might prove to be costly in the end. Recommended.
Publication Date: December 4, 2008 (US). Hardcover.
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine (Scholastic)/Children's High Level Group.