Thursday, September 24, 2015
The Tales of Beedle the Bard
The book was originally produced in a limited edition of only seven copies, each handwritten and illustrated by J. K. Rowling. One of them was offered for auction through Sotheby's in late 2007 and was expected to sell for £50,000 (US$77,000, €69,000); ultimately it was bought for £1.95 million ($3 million, €2.7 million) by Amazon, making the selling price the highest achieved at auction for a modern literary manuscript. The money earned at the auction of the book was donated to The Children's Voice charity campaign.
The book was published for the general public on 4 December 2008, with the proceeds going to the Children's High Level Group.
JK Rowling inserted a kind of fairy tale into Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh and last Harry Potter tome. In his will, Professor Dumbledore leaves Hermione Granger his copy of The Tales of Beedle the Bard, a collection of children's stories, and she later reads one out. In "The Tale of the Three Brothers", the brothers meet Death and win from him an Elder Wand, a Resurrection Stone and a Cloak of Invisibility. The greedy brothers who win the Wand and the Stone perish by them; the humble brother with the cloak lives a long life protected by it from Death, until in old age he voluntarily relinquishes it. These magical objects are the "Deathly Hallows" of the book's title. The story concerns the dangerous desire to vanquish death, a preoccupation in the book.
Now Rowling has given us Dumbledore's collection, adorned with her own drawings and sold in aid of the children's charity that she set up with politician Emma Nicholson. It is a thin volume, with just four more brief tales added to the reprinted "Three Brothers", and bulked out with Dumbledore's "notes". Rowling is beyond needing to manufacture spin-offs, and the collection probably did begin, as she says, as a jeu d'esprit. Yet the fairy story is a tricky form, and it is not clear that Rowling's inventiveness and humour are suited to the genre.
One problem is magic. Some of the most haunting stories of the Grimms or Hans Christian Andersen get their force from the eruption of the supernatural into the ordinary world. The ending to a fairy tale characteristically involves the end of magic: a curse is lifted, a spell is broken. Rowling explains that in her tales the heroes and heroines are familiar with magic already. In the first tale, "The Wizard and the Hopping Pot", a young wizard inherits a magic cooking pot from his father and has to learn to use it for the good of others. In a traditional tale, the son would be a selfish boy who was being admonished from another world. In Rowling's version, he is more like a geek having trouble with a new machine.
A second story, "The Fountain of Fair Fortune", features a twist that many will recognise from "The Emperor's New Clothes": its characters believe their lives are being transformed by magic when in fact the fountain that brings happiness to each of them "carried no enchantment at all". Yet here too the spin is taken off the narrative by characters who are themselves capable of magic. A love-lorn witch uses her wand to draw from her mind all memories of the lover who has deserted her: a nice psychotherapeutic trick if you can do it.