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Wednesday, January 14th, 2009

Time Event
6:38p
Book Review: The Tales of Beedle the Bard
It was with considerable interest that I took up a friend's copy of The
Tales of Beedle the Bard, by J.K. Rowling. I have enjoyed the "Harry
Potter" series, and found her other marginalia, Quiddich Through the
Ages, and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, amusing, if not up to
the level of the author's main work. Ultimately, Tales falls into the
same category.

I was curious about the stories, since not only is "The Tale of the
Three Brothers" important to the final Harry Potter novel, but because
the work is supposed to be very central to Wizarding culture. If that
were so, I would have to say that the Wizards have a very impoverished
literature: the Tales, as presented, consists only of five very short,
and not that wonderful, stories. Of course Rowling does not have the
time or inclination to write dozens of stories as did Perrault or
Anderson, or collect hundreds, as did the Bothers Grimm, but one wonders
why the collection wasn't presented as a "Best of". One could have had
lots of fun making up names for other stories not reprinted, but that
probably would have provided endless fodder for fan fiction--.

The back cover blurb compares The Tales of Beedle the Bard with the
greatest fairy tales of the past, which is a distinct overreach.  There
is not one that is nearly the equal of "Cinderella," "Snow White,"
"Beauty and the Beast," or "The Steadfast Tin Soldier," all of which are
have much more plot, development, and mythic quality.

One can at least say that Beedle's tales are mostly original: fairy tale tropes
recur in infinite variation, but with few exceptions Rowling has
recoined them in fairly fresh ways.  "The Hopping Pot" combines ideas of
the legendary magic cauldron of Celtic Myth with that of the son who
unwisely ignores his dead parent's wishes. The oddly named "The
Warlock's Hairy Heart" combines the 'severable soul' myth with a
Bluebeard-like theme. "The Tale of the Three Brothers" is a
straightforward 'beat the Devil' plot. "Rabbity Babbity and her Cackling
Stump" derives quite closely from "The Emperor's New Clothes," but with
a wizarding twist. "The Fair Fountain" is the prettiest story, and
follows a well-worn quest theme with a few interesting variations.

The commentaries by "Albus Dumbledore" are potentially interesting, but
in fact very weak. They purport to put the stories into context in the
Wizarding culture, but do not convince. They also tend to expose
Rowling's broad but shallow knowledge of classical themes, since
Dumbledore is portrayed as making a spurious distinction between the
literal severable soul that occurs in the making of a Horcrux, and the
metaphorical severable soul associated with the hidden "hairy heart."
Dumbledore also comes across as rather egotistical, but that may be
because the notes were supposedly not ready for publication at the time
of Dumbledore's death. (Amusingly, the book is presented as supposedly 
a new translation from the "ancient runes" by Hermione Granger, with 
commentary by Dumbledore and footnotes by Rowling.)

Completists can justify adding the book to their collection on the basis
that proceeds go to a good cause, the Childrens' High Level Group, which
seeks to provide adoptions or foster care for children presently housed
in orphanages. 

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