Tales of Beedle the Bard
by Ari Armstrong
This essay, originally published May 30, 2009, was rewritten in 2011 for the Expanded Edition of Values of Harry Potter. The revised text appears here.
J. K. Rowling's The Tales of Beedle the Bard was published in 2008 by Children's High Level Group in association with Arthur A. Levine Books. Page numbers in this essay refer to that book. To evaluate the moral significance of the tales, important details about them must be revealed, so readers may wish to peruse the stories before returning to this essay.
J. K. Rowling's The Tales of Beedle the Bard postdates her seven-volume Harry Potter series and expands that universe. It is not a novel. Instead, it presents five short fairy tales beloved (in the Potter universe) by young witches and wizards. In her introduction, Rowling explains that the tales "have been popular bedtime reading for centuries, with the result that the Hopping Pot and the Fountain of Fair Fortune are as familiar to many of the students at Hogwarts as Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty are to Muggle (non-magical) children" (p. vii).
Why should children and adults read the new stories, whether readers hail from the magical world or the real one? In Tales, Rowling consciously offers morality stories for children; she intends the stories to offer guidance for the reader's behavior. Thus, the stories shed light on the moral messages of the Harry Potter series, and they offer children and their parents an opportunity to contemplate and discuss the themes of a new set of fairy tales.
The mythical background of the book appeals to fans of the novels. Beedle the Bard lived in the fifteenth century, and his stories are newly translated by Harry's good friend Hermione Granger. Moreover, Albus Dumbledore, headmaster of Hogwarts during most of Harry's stay there, offers extensive commentary on the stories. Thus, not only does Rowling present a new set of morality tales, but (through Dumbledore) she explains their intended meaning in depth.
The real background of the book offers its own insights into Rowling's moral commitments. Rowling originally hand-wrote six copies as thank-yous to friends associated with the Harry Potter novels. She sold a seventh copy at Sotheby's auction in London, where Amazon purchased it for nearly two million British pounds. Rowling donated the proceeds to the Children's Voice Campaign, a project of the Children's High Level Group, a charity that she co-founded. Proceeds from the mass-produced hardback, as well as the limited run Collector's Edition (offered by Amazon), also fund the charity.
Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne, who co-founded the charity with Rowling, explains in an afterword to Tales, "More than one million children live in large residential institutions across Europe," often without adequate nutrition, health care, education, or "emotional contact and stimulation" (p. 109). The charity aims to improve the conditions of these children and enable them to "live with families...or in small group homes" (p. 110).
Anyone who has read the Harry Potter series realizes that Rowling is very concerned with the well-being of children. Before he enters the magical world at the age of eleven, Harry himself suffers neglect and abuse. The charity, then, is a natural extension of Rowling's interests. It is also in line with the values of the major heroes of the novels. In her introduction, Rowling writes, "It is the belief of all who knew him personally that Professor Dumbledore would have been delighted to lend his support to this project, given that all royalties are to be donated to the Children's High Level Group, which works to benefit children in desperate need of a voice" (p. xii).
"The Wizard and the Hopping Pot"
Rowling's charitable cause relates to the theme of the first tale, "The Wizard and the Hopping Pot," though it is a shame that the story is not nearly as interesting as the book's real background.
The "Hopping Pot" involves the son of "a kindly old wizard who used his magic generously and wisely for the benefit of his [non-magical] neighbors" (p. 1). Not wanting to reveal his magical identity, the older wizard pretends his powers come from his "lucky cooking pot" or cauldron. His son, however, nurses his bigotry toward his Muggle neighbors. To counter this bigotry, before he dies the father places a spell on the cauldron, causing it to pester the son if he neglects to similarly care for his neighbors. Finally, with the pot driving him crazy, the son relents and starts helping his neighbors as his father did before him.
The problem with this tale—and I consider it the weakest of the lot—is that it mixes two distinct themes and fails to strongly develop either. Dumbledore tells us that only a "nincompoop" would take the significance of the story to be merely that a "young wizard's conscience awakes, and he agrees to use his magic for the benefit of his non-magical neighbors." (The young wizard helps his neighbors in order to avoid the pestering pot, not because of any awakened conscience.) Instead, Dumbledore argues, the real significance of the story is its opposition to bigotry against Muggles. Instead of showing Muggle sympathizers to be weak and stupid, the story shows "a Muggle-loving father as superior in magic to a Muggle-hating son" (p. 11). Anyone familiar with the novels knows that bigotry against Muggles is a major trait of the evil Lord Voldemort and his malicious followers.
What are we to make of the competing theme of charity? Unlike Rowling, who, after achieving great personal success, co-founded a charity close to her heart to help innocent children, the wizard's son chooses to help his neighbors just to keep the cauldron from bothering him. He hardly manifests a charitable spirit or pursues charitable work for good reasons.
A wizard might have various legitimate reasons to help his neighbors through magic (though Dumbledore reminds us that, in 1689, largely in response to Muggle persecution, the wizarding world imposed the International Statute of Wizarding Secrecy [p. 13]). The wizard might enjoy spending his extra time honing and perfecting his powers. The wizard might appreciate the friendship of his neighbors and desire to keep them safe from harm. Or the wizard might want to help maintain a peaceful and productive community to live in.
However, a wizard might also legitimately refrain from helping his neighbors. He might find more personally rewarding ways to spend his time and energy. He might fear turning his neighbors into thoughtless and unmotivated dependents. (Potential neighborly spite and persecution play no role in the story, though they might become serious problems in a closer-to-life scenario.)
Regardless, the son is not left free to make his own decisions, whether from good or base motives. Instead, the father essentially compels his son to help his neighbors. Thus, while in the context of Dumbledore's comments the story offers a (poorly developed) lesson against bigotry, it fails to say anything interesting about charity.
"The Fountain of Fair Fortune"
The second tale, "The Fountain of Fair Fortune" (my personal favorite) concerns three witches and a luckless knight who undertake the difficult journey to the lucky fountain. They find that the journey itself, not some magical fountain, creates their fortunes. The effect of the fountain will surprise no one familiar with the "lucky" potion that Ron Weasley drinks before winning a Quidditch match in Half-Blood Prince; neither the fountain nor Ron's drink performs its miracles through magic.
Beedle's story is so pleasant, and so unambiguously positive in its message, that little remains for a reviewer to say. Apparently Dumbledore faces this problem in his own review, as he spends most of his commentary recounting a failed theatrical adaptation of the story at Hogwarts.
"The Warlock's Hairy Heart"
"The Warlock's Hairy Heart," the third story, offers the richest psychological complexity. The story begins: "There was once a handsome, rich, and talented young warlock, who observed that his friends grew foolish when they fell in love, gamboling and preening, losing their appetites and their dignity. The young warlock resolved never to fall prey to such weakness, and employed Dark Arts to ensure his immunity" (p. 43).
The warlock's solution is to physically remove his heart and lock it away, where it "slowly shrivels and grows hair, symbolizing his own descent to beasthood," Dumbledore tells us (p. 59).
Finally, the warlock decides to marry, not for love, but for social status and wealth (pp. 46-47). His intended talks him into putting his heart back into his chest. "But it 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" (p. 51). Overcome with blind passion, the warlock attempts to win the heart of the maiden—by slicing it out of her chest, killing her. "Vowing never to be mastered by his own heart, he hacked it from his chest," joining the woman in death (p. 53).
At one level the story deals with the value of love and the foolishness of trying to protect one's self by forgoing love. The primary significance of the story, however, is its psychology, particularly its warning against repression. One cannot "master one's heart" by trying to sever one's emotional attachment to values. Instead, to the extent that one suppresses values, one tends to become overwhelmed by uncontrolled emotional outbursts and to substitute superficial exploits for genuine values. That is a sophisticated theme for children.
Unfortunately, the story offers few insights into how to distinguish between staying in control of one's emotions and repressing one's emotional commitment to legitimate values (a bad thing).
Nor does the story offer guidance for overcoming repression by adopting positive values. Only the most extreme cases of repression tend to result in a conclusion as tragic and horrific as the one of the story. In most cases, people can overcome repression and return to psychological health and a value-centered life.
Thankfully, because romantic love is so obviously a positive value that should not be repressed, and because the wizard takes repression to an extreme, Rowling's story illustrates the dangers of repression in a relatively clear-cut way.
"Babbitty Rabbitty and Her Cackling Stump"
Even though Rowling's novels are filled with political themes, "Babbitty Rabbitty and Her Cackling Stump" is the only tale from Beedle with an obvious political angle. A king wants to learn magic himself but stamp out magic elsewhere in the kingdom. A charlatan offers to teach the king magic—for a hefty fee, of course. The charlatan tells the king that his (fake) wand will work only "when you are worthy of it." The king behaves similarly to the emperor with no clothes: "Every morning the charlatan and the foolish King walked out into the palace grounds, where they waved their wands and shouted nonsense at the sky" (p. 64).
Eventually the king tires of the games and demands success—or else he will take the charlatan's life. The charlatan, though, has happened upon a true witch, Babbitty. He threatens to turn her over to the king's witch hunters unless she secretly helps the king perform magic.
At first the king appears to succeed, until he tries a spell that the witch cannot perform, raising a dead dog back to life. Fearing for his life, the charlatan exposes the witch, hoping to deflect any anger onto her. Finally Babbitty outsmarts both the king and the charlatan, protecting the magical community in the process.
"The Tale of the Three Brothers"
The detail about the dead dog provides a transition to the final story. Dumbledore writes, "It was through this story [about Babbitty] that many of us first discovered that magic could not bring back the dead...wizards still have not found a way of reuniting body and soul once death has occurred" (pp. 78-79). As I review in Chapter Five of Values of Harry Potter, Rowling believes in an immortal soul, and the quest for earthly immortality (as opposed to an eternal afterlife) constitutes one of the key motivations of the villains in the Harry Potter series, known as the Death Eaters.
In The Tales of Beedle the Bard, however, Rowling concerns herself with the problem of dealing with death, not the question of how to prepare for some afterlife. This is especially obvious in the final story, "The Tale of the Three Brothers" (which plays a prominent role in the final novel, Deathly Hallows). The problem of dealing with death is separable from a belief in an immortal soul.
Three magical brothers use their powers to cross a dangerous river. Death, "angry that he had been cheated out of three new victims," tries to trick the brothers into risking their lives by accepting dangerous gifts (p. 88). The combative eldest brother asks for an all-powerful wand. After the wizard kills somebody in a duel and brags about his wand, another wizard slits his throat as he sleeps, stealing the wand.
The second brother asks for the "power to recall others from Death" (p. 89). Yet he can summon only a shadowy likeness of his beloved. Distraught, he takes his own life. Harry learns about such dangers from the Mirror of Erised in Philosopher's Stone, when he nearly becomes obsessed with viewing images of his deceased parents in the mirror.
The third brother "asked for something that would enable him to go forth from that place without being followed by Death"; Death offers "his own Cloak of Invisibility" (p. 89). The third brother lives a long, peaceful, and apparently contented life, as opposed to a life of violence or one of endless sorrow. (In the novels Rowling offers a much richer conception of the good life; see Chapter One of Values of Harry Potter.)
These, then, are the lessons from Beedle the Bard. Do not succumb to bigotry. Make your own fortune rather than relying on blind luck. Pursue legitimate values rather than repressing them. Do not try to rule over others or trick them. Deal with death by making the best out of life, not through violence or passive sorrow. Those are good messages for children and adults alike.
With her new tales, Rowling offers another trip, however brief, into the magical world of Harry Potter. She also provides a new body of fairy tales that children will enjoy for generations.
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