Sunday, December 07, 2008

Holiday Gift Guide: The Tales of Beedle the Bard by J.K. Rowling

In the final chapter of the Harry Potter tale, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Hermione Granger inherited a book of wizarding children’s fairytales from Professor Dumbledore, who had known that she would be able to use the clues in the text to work out ways of defeating Voldemort. Only one of them, “The Tale of the Three Brothers,” was described in detail, because that one was important to our trio’s quest, but Ron mentioned the others and we learned that they were as familiar to them as Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty are to Muggle children.

Soon after publication of that book, author J.K. Rowling actually wrote the stories mentioned in the novel, illustrating them herself, and six beautifully-bound, handwritten copies were given to friends, a seventh sold for charity and bought by Amazon. Of course, fans who were already hungry for more Potter were frustrated that they might never see these stories. However, one year later, the first mass-market edition has been published just in time for the holidays and we can all read them.

The Tales of Beedle the Bard is a slim, hardcover volume is the right size to fit into a child’s hands and be carried in a backpack or large pocket. It’s a visual treat, with delicately-drawn illustrations strongly reminiscent in style of Pauline Baynes, who illustrated C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books.

There are five stories, along with an introduction by the author, who never leaves the Potterverse, writing about it as if it was all true. She thanks Minerva McGonagall for allowing her to use notes by Dumbledore which are attached to each story. She gives the history of Beedle the Bard, a 15th century wizard, and comments on the difference in style between wizard and Muggle fairy tales. The only mention of the real world here is the fact that the book is being used to raise money for the children’s charity, the Children’s High Level Group, founded by Rowling herself. There’s also an afterword by Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne, who has worked with Rowling on this charity.

The stories (“translated from the original runes by Hermione Granger”) are “The Wizard and the Hopping Pot,” “The Fountain of Fair Fortune,” “The Warlock’s Hairy Heart,” “Babbitty Rabbitty and Her Cackling Stump” and, of course, “The Tale of the Three Brothers.” All of the stories have a moral and -- in case we didn’t notice it -- each is accompanied by notes by Professor Dumbledore. These notes mention that some of the stories which show Muggles in a favourable light (“The Wizard and the Hopping Pot”) or feature Muggle-wizard marriage (“The Fountain of Fair Fortune”) have been banned in the past or re-written. Some of the notes are hilarious, such as Dumbledore’s reminiscence about Hogwarts’s only attempt to put on a school show, a pantomime version of “The Fountain of Fair Fortune,” in which the students in the lead roles got into fights, a boyfriend-girlfriend relationship broke up and the Great Hall nearly burned down. The teacher involved eventually moved to the wizarding world’s version of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, but never produced that pantomime again. The mind boggles at the image of wizard actors, but it opens that universe just a little more for us.

There is a certain poignancy, not to mention irony, in the notes attached to the final tale. For example, Dumbledore admits he might be tempted by Death’s more dangerous gifts, even knowing, as he does, that you can’t really bring anyone back from the dead. It also makes you think more deeply about some of the final events of Deathly Hallows.

The stories are charming and have the flavour of fairytales, but you really do need to be familiar with the universe that Rowling has created to appreciate them. There’s no point, for example, in giving them to children to read before they’ve read the Harry Potter books. It’s a spinoff, just like Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them and Quidditch Through The Ages.

A good choice to complete your Harry Potter collection. It barely needs reviewing for the hungry fan, but it’s well worth buying.

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