A beautiful and terrible thing

J K Rowling: The Tales of Beedle the Bard.
Translated from the original runes by Hermione Granger
Bloomsbury 2008 (2007)

Here is a set of Chinese boxes, fitting intricately one inside the other. As the title implies, a fifteenth-century bard called Beedle is said to have written them down in runes, subsequently translated by “the brightest witch of her age,” Hermione Granger. The translation is itself nested within Albus Dumbledore’s footnotes, then bookended by Jo Rowling’s Introduction (the author added illustrations and additional footnotes) and by Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne’s missive about the Children’s High Level Group charity which supports over a quarter of a million vulnerable children in residential homes across Europe.

Bearing in mind the NGO’s compassionate aims it’s unsurprising that most of these five tales aren’t simply about fantasy or magic (though of course these are present); like many fairytales they are implicitly advocating charitable attitudes and ethical behaviour — in short, common humanity.

Learning to soften one’s heart is the message from ‘The Wizard and the Hopping Pot’, while ‘The Fountain of Fair Fortune’ promotes cooperative behaviour for the benefit of all. Dumbledore characterised the first two tales as being about generosity, tolerance and love but suggested that ‘The Warlock’s Hairy Heart’ is about guarding against “the greatest, and least acknowledged, temptations of magic: the quest for invulnerability.” One need not add that it’s not just magic that tempts individuals to seek that sense of invulnerability: the possession of both power and money has itself been an irresistible incentive for some.

The final two tales deal with perhaps life’s greatest human mystery: death. ‘Babbitty Rabbitty and her Cackling Stump’ underlines the fact that no-one can bring the dead back to life, a truth that’s reiterated in ‘The Tale of the Three Brothers’. This latter was alluded to in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and brilliantly animated in Part I of the filmed version. As we all know by now, the interlaced triangle, circle and line symbol represents the Cloak of Invisibility, a stone to bring back the dead and the unbeatable Elder Wand.

What of the tales themselves? Rowling (for in truth she is “the onlie begetter” of these pieces) has managed to conjure up five short stories which are in the great tradition of literary fables or fairytales. The pace, like Goldilock’s purloined porridge, is just right (not too long, not too short) and the tropes are all in place (three witches or three brothers, magical objects, quests, the lowliest raised up, and so on). There is humour and there is melancholy, poetic justice and repeated refrains. There are wizards and witches, warlocks and fake magicians, there is a foolish king, a dismal-looking knight and there is Death. And, leavening it all, there are Albus Dumbledore’s footnotes, with comments both enlightening and tangential — who can forget, once they’ve read it, his description of the disastrous Hogwarts pantomime?

What of the eponymous Beedle? Perhaps Rowling took the name from a traditional medieval official whose anachronistic office has survived into modern times: a beadle was originally someone who summoned others to a meeting, a herald or even a messenger. A bard of course is a minstrel or poet; the two juxtaposed names strongly signify the important role of the teller of tales, oral or literary, a role that Rowling has been singularly successful at. Like all good fantasy, these pieces tell essential truths; and Rowling quotes Dumbledore’s advice to Harry Potter about truth:

‘It is a beautiful and terrible thing, and should therefore be treated with great caution.’

If there is a criticism then it’s not a literary one. This UK mass market edition (there have others since) features the author’s own line drawings. These, while charming in their way, add little to the quality of the writing and would have served better as preparatory sketches to guide a professional artist for the published work. But it’s nice to see Rowling’s own vision of how the tales should be presented.

In the Ultimate Reading Challenge and my local bookshop Book-ish‘s April Reading Challenge this counts as a Banned Book: all the Harry Potter books have been denounced by one or another benighted organisation or country as promoting witchcraft and therefore regarded as the devil’s work

14 thoughts on “A beautiful and terrible thing

  1. piotrek

    I haven’t actually read this yet, but, as I’m preparing to read HP to my nieces for the very first time, I’m thinking of including “The Tales…”. I assume they don’t require prior knowledge of the series?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No they don’t, and even having no knowledge of who Dumbledore is they may also enjoy the often humorous commentary. In fact as a prelude to the HP series this is ideal.

      Just one caveat, Piotr: depending on how old your nieces are one of the tales (‘The Warlock”s Hairy Heart’) is mildly graphic, and some North American reviewers think young children might not be able to stomach it. But if kids can manage wicked stepmothers being forced to dance in red-hot shoes then this won’t faze them.


      1. piotrek

        Well, I often find North American reviewers to be overly cautious… like Gaiman, I’ve always read whatever I could get my hands on 😉 Now, with the little creatures, I’m more careful, but I’m sure the 5yo oldest one will be able to handle the tales and the first few volumes of HP…

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I agree about the cautiousness: there’s a frequent obsession with grading books for arbitrarily designated reading ages, judging suitability in terms of language, sex, violence and danger to morals, not to mention religious bêtes noires like witchcraft or atheism. Perhaps Europeans overall are less puritanical or, as conservatives like to sneer, more liberal? (But in a good way!)


            1. There’s a sense that kids usually find their own level — for example, what some adults may find risqué may simply go over their heads. I don’t think my parents particularly censored my reading matter, no shelves being out of bounds, but there are definitely books I’ve since reread that feel like different works decades later because I simply didn’t ‘get’ them.

              Anyway, I salute your niece who’s not only keen to read but is clearly proactive in choosing a book-it list for herself! Brilliant. 😊

              Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: A beautiful and terrible thing — Calmgrove – Earth Balm Creative

      1. Yes, I’m not even sure that all dictionaries are accepting it yet but I took a liberty. I agree that it is ‘slightly clunky’, which is rather ironic in itself, considering its meaning.

        Liked by 1 person

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