During almost the entire length of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Hermione Granger carried with her an old book titled The Tales of Beedle the Bard that was bequeathed to her by Professor Dumbledore in his will. It was not until much later that the full significance of the book, (particularly the final story) became clear in helping Harry achieve his quest of defeating Lord Voldemort.
There have been little allusions to “wizard fairytales” throughout the series, namely through Ron who had grown up with them and expressed disbelief that Harry and Hermione had never heard of the familiar stories:
“You’ve never heard of the Tales of Beedle the Bard?” said Ron incredulously. “You’re kidding right?”
“No, I’m not,” said Hermione in surprise. “Do you know them, then?”
“Well, of course I do! Oh, come on! All the old kid’s stories are supposed to be Beedle’s, aren’t they? The Fountain of Fair Fortune… the Wizard and the Hopping Pot… Babbitty Rabbitty and her Cackling Stump…”
Perhaps initially starting as a fun way to add some depth to her sub-world and find a way to introduce the meaning and importance of the Deathly Hallows into the final book’s plot, Rowling went on to actually write the complete collection of fairytales to share among her friends and to auction off as a collector’s item for the Children’s Voice charity campaign. Soon enough, it was made available to the general public.
This is a fun little glimpse into the wizarding world, particularly when you keep in mind that these are the stories that wizarding children are brought up on, as familiar to them as Cinderella and Rapunzel are to Muggle children. Acting as an example of life imitating art (or art defictionalising art?) the reader gets the opportunity to delve a little deeper in the Potter-verse and get a taste of what it is that wizarding children are told at bedtimes.
“The Wizard and the Hopping Pot” tells of a young wizard who inherits his father’s cooking pot and his responsibility of caring for the Muggles in his village. Being of an intolerant sort, the wizard refuses to administer help to the villagers that come to him for aid, at which point the pot grows itself a foot and begins to teach him a lesson.
In what is probably my favourite in the collection, “The Fountain of Fair Fortune,” centers around a magical fountain said to grant one’s heart’s desire. Three witches and a Muggle knight face the challenges in the maze that surrounds it, only to come to a surprising truth when they reach the fountain itself.
“The Warlock’s Hairy Heart,” takes a darker turn, in which a warlock decides to avoid the pain of love by cutting out his own heart. When he bows to the social pressure to marry and beget children, he marries a young woman and reveals his secret to her. It doesn’t end well for either of them. This is possibly the most interesting tale in the anthology. Since the warlock is dark, handsome, and in dire need of saving, I couldn’t help but feel that this tale stemmed from Rowling’s vocal discomfort at the popularity of characters such as Draco and Lucius Malfoy and the deliberate misinterpretation of these characters as anything other than elitist, racist snakes.
Tackling the idea of the prickly side of the relationship between Muggles and wizards, “Babbitty Rabbitty” tells of a king who tries to eliminate all the wizards and witches in his kingdom and his own attempts to learn magic. A charlatan comes forward in order to teach the king magic, but the old witch Babbitty Rabbitty has a few tricks of her own up her sleeve…
Finally, “The Tale of the Three Brothers,” is the story told in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, a haunting, thoughtful story of three brothers who meet Death on a bridge. Tricking them into accepting gifts from him, Death gives out an invisible wand, a resurrection stone and an invisibility cloak, leading the three brothers to three very different fates.
The five stories are told in a slightly more archaic tone than was used in the seven Potter books, and the gory nature of some mean they would not be out of place in a Brothers Grimm anthology. Though all of them are original stories, they still adhere to the general format and formula of fairytales, giving them a sense of age and authenticity.
Rowling obviously had a lot of fun in designing this book; not only do we get the stories themselves, but extensive introductions and footnotes penned by Dumbledore himself. For older readers, Dumbledore’s commentary will be more rewarding than the stories themselves. Full of wit and sharpness, Dumbledore manages to have a go at his enemies: “this exchange marked the beginning of Mr Malfoy’s long campaign to have me removed from my post as Headmaster of Hogwarts, and of mine to have him removed from his position as Lord Voldemort’s favourite Death Eater”; recount the disastrous attempts of Hogwarts students to adapt the “Fair Fountain” into a Christmas play, and poke fun at moral guardians who try to shield their children from harsh truths by providing Mrs Bloxam’s more appropriate version of the cooking pot story: “And Wee Willykins killed and huggled the hoppitty pot and promised always to help the dollies and never to be an old grumpy-wumpkins again.”
Also nice is the fact that the stories themselves aren’t treated as historical events, but rather fiction-within-fiction, considering the fact that Dumbledore points out that Animagi cannot speak in animal form (as Babbitty Rabbitty does) and a wizard cannot removed their heart (as the Hairy Warlock does), suggesting instead that the story is based on the idea of a Horcrux.
It’s important to note that this storybook is not so much a book as it is supplementary material; a short but sweet look into the wizarding world and its culture. Although there would be little interest in this anthology if not for the body of work that inspired it, there is a depth and thoughtfulness to these tales that make them a rewarding addition to the Potter-Verse. Rowling proved with her Harry Potter series that she was a very clever woman; The Tales of Beedle the Bard shows that she is also a wise one.