Fans of Harry Potter will already have a few associations with the title of this new book by J. K. Rowling. The first is that The Tales of Beedle the Bard is Dumbledore’s bequest to Hermione Granger in the last book in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The book is a collection of Grimm-like fairy tales wizarding parents tell their children that both amuse? and instruct — or at least keep the listeners occupied. The second is that originally Rowling produced only seven copies, each one lettered and illustrated by herself, with gorgeous jewel-encrusted leather bindings. Six were intended as thank-you gifts to friends who had supported her through the series. The seventh, inset with moonstones, was put up for auction by Sotheby’s and bought by Amazon for $4 million. Tantalizing tidbits have come out, but now we all get to read the five stories ourselves: “The Fountain of Fair Fortune,” “The Wizard and the Hopping Pot,” “Babbitty Rabbitty and her Cackling Stump,” “The Warlock’s Hairy Heart,” and the story that proved so important in Deathly Hallows, “The Tale of the Three Brothers.”
In Deathly Hallows, Harry’s friend Ron Weasley, who was brought up by the sort of wizarding parents who would be good at bedtime stories, is old enough to have begun interpreting the stories for himself. Take the three brothers who bargain with Death to win an omnipotent wand, an invisibility cloak, and a stone that can bring back the dead.
“That story’s just one of those things you tell kids to teach them lessons, isn’t it? ‘Don’t go looking for trouble, don’t pick fights, don’t go messing around with stuff that’s best left alone! Just keep your head down, mind your own business, and you’ll be okay.”
Ron’s idea of a moral lesson stays at the level of the utile, which is a perfectly good place to be when one is raising children. One reason for telling “Little Red Riding Hood,” after all, is to suggest to your children that they shouldn’t let themselves be distracted by strangers who might just turn out to be wolves. Hermione has a more sophisticated notion of the kinds of moral lessons children’s stories teach?. She dismisses them outright.
“It’s just a morality tale; it’s obvious which gift is best, which one you’d choose?.” The three of them spoke at the same time; Hermione said, “The Cloak.” Ron said, “The wand,” and Harry said, “The stone.”
Hermione isn’t often wrong, and never for long. Her interpretation of her gift changes as the novel progresses. In The Tales of Beedle the Bard we learn that Dumbledore, too, interprets “The Tale of the Three Brothers” to his own satisfaction. But hovering in the background, J. K. Rowling seems to be suggesting that moral lessons have a slippery habit of eluding our grasp.
Three of the stories are pleasant riffs on fairy tales. Two are not. “The Tale of the Three Brothers” and, particularly, “The Warlock’s Hairy Heart” descend from the dark woods of Grimm and the eerie psychological landscape of Hans Christian Anderson stories like “The Red Shoes” and “The Shadow.” My ten-year-old son laughed during the first three stories and has kind of forgotten them. He did not laugh at the vision of the wizard’s heart, which “had grown strange during its long exile, blind and savage in the darkness to which it had been condemned, and its appetites had grown powerful and perverse.” The spell of this morality tale, I suspect, he will not so easily cast off.
Nor should he. Such simple tales are richly ambiguous in their refusal to interpret themselves. They can take on a deep life in us that more complicated narratives do not. I found it a curious thing, as I read through the seven volumes of Harry’s adventures, that the wizarding world doesn’t really do fiction. Hogwarts teaches no literature or poetry courses, and although the Hogwarts library has many spellbooks, histories, biographies, law books, and grimoires on its shelves, Madam Pince the librarian seems to guard no stories at all. The only fiction for wizards I recall is an old comic Ron Weasley used to read before he got sent off to school, The Adventures of Martin Miggs, the Mad Muggle. I am glad to know that young wizards are fed by the stories of Beedle the Bard, however bowdlerized and little respected they are by most wizards.
Even in this volume, however, we do not get unmediated wizardry. Rowling has set up a pleasant conceit whereby we approach the stories through Hermione’s translation, get Dumbledore’s commentary after each story, and find her own Muggly notes at the foot of the page. Fans will have a good time picking up allusions and finding tidbits to fill in little chinks in their knowledge of the Potterverse. Nonfans will find plenty to amuse themselves with, too. But I think the critical apparatus Rowling sets up serves another function. One of the most important lessons Harry had to learn was that knowledge, truth, and wisdom don’t come to us straight. You have to figure them out to your own satisfaction. In her short volume, Rowling gives her readers — of whatever age — a little lesson in sifting, parsing, judging, and reading at a slant.
Rowling has said many times that she does not intend to add to Harry’s story, but she has given enormous pleasure by publishing these interpolated books. In the midst of the Harry saga appeared Quidditch Through the Ages and Magical Beasts and Where to Find Them. They are, of course, a testament to the thoroughness of her imagination in creating Harry’s world. It will be interesting to see how thorough her imagination is. Should we expect copies of Bathilda Bagshot’s History of Magic or Hogwarts: A History, both of which seem to have been read cover-to-cover by Hermione? Perhaps those would only be of interest to Hermione’s kindred souls in the Muggle world. But one suspects their number is legion.