In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Dumbledore leaves Hermione a book of children’s stories called The Tales of Beedle the Bard. Initially, Hermione is puzzled. Why not leave something more practical that might help them destroy Horcruxes? Of course, “The Tale of the Three Brothers” ties in directly with Harry’s quest and provides important clues to defeating Voldemort.
“The Tale of the Three Brothers” was a highlight of Deathly Hallows (especially the film’s adaptation). It probably could have been published as a short children’s story even without the Harry Potter name. So, it’s no surprise that J.K. Rowling published the The Tales of Beedle the Bard as a spinoff book.
I always appreciated how “Three Brothers” plays it straight. It adopts a dark, if not grim, tone and sticks with it. It also teaches an important lesson about how people should cope with death. The first two brothers try to master death, either by dictating who dies or dictating who lives. Neither finds happiness as events spin out of their control. The third brother realizes he can only delay death and greets death “as an old friend” when he is ready.
Unfortunately,the other stories in The Tales of Beedle the Bard don’t work quite as well. Sometimes, the moral lessons are questionable. In “The Wizard and the Hopping Pot,” a wizard refuses to use his magic to heal sick people, so his pot mimics their symptoms. This disturbs the wizard, until he finally agrees to help the people. The moral of the story: harass people who don’t contribute enough charitable work? The wizard might have been petty, but he wasn’t doing anything to harm people. Perhaps he’d decided that wizards shouldn’t interfere in the lives of muggles or make them dependent on magic to solve their problems. Why bother training and paying doctors if your neighborhood witch can fix your maladies?
The Tales of Beedle the Bard is more interesting for the insight it gives into J.K. Rowling’s storytelling than for its morality lessons. Like Tolkien, she clearly believes that fantasy stories have an important place in children’s emotional and intellectual maturation. Fairy tales can contain important lessons forgotten in the modern world. As I discussed back in Sorcerer’s Stone, unlike many modern fantasy authors, her stories spend less time on world-building and developing intricate systems of magic and more time on broader themes and emotions. (It’s hard to imagine Arya Stark using a book of children’s tales to solve her problems in George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones).
Rowling clearly believes in not shielding kids from some of the darker aspects of fairy tales. To be clear, the Harry Potter series never even comes close to the levels of gore or sex found in Game of Thrones. However, the wizarding world is not safe; characters do suffer and die. In The Tales of Beedle the Bard, some of the stories are quite gory. Rowling vicariously pokes fun at parents who complain about darker aspects in children’s literature through “commentaries” on “The Warlock’s Hairy Heart” from Professor Dumbledore. In that tale, a warlock keeps his heart in a glass case and rips out a woman’s heart as a replacement – much worse than anything in the main books!
For casual Harry Potter fans, Deathly Hallows already includes the best of these tales. For anybody interested in conducting serious scholarship on Rowling’s approach to storytelling, The Tales of Beedle the Bard will prove invaluable.
Next week, I provide a retrospective on what the Harry Potter series got wrong…