In J. K. Rowling’s little book The Tales of Beedle the Bard we are presented with a collection of 5 fairytales set in the Harry Potter universe, each with comments made by Professor Dumbledore. These comments spell out the moral lessons of the tale and provide some “historical” information (all within the HP world). As there are only 5 tales, probably the best way to look at this little bundle is tale by tale.
The Wizard and the Hopping Pot
In this tale a young wizard’s father, who spent his life helping the Muggles in their community with his “magic” pot as a front to his spells, dies and leaves the pot and a single slipper to his son. The son does not want to help Muggles and turns everyone away, causing the pot to take on the ails of the people ignored. The pot follows and torments the son relentlessly, untill he finally helps everyone like his father did, after which the pot puts a slipper on its single foot and walks silently behind him.
In Dumbledore’s notes we are provided with a brief history of shifting attitudes towards Muggles, and it is made clear that in the end of the tale, the young wizard’s conscience awakes and he is changed on a fundamental personal level. This message is undone, however, by the final line of the tale:
But from that day forward, the wizard helped the villagers like his father before him, lest the pot cast off its slipper, and begin to hop once more.
This implies that the wizard only does his good things for fear of punishment, not because he feels it is right to do so.
Although this does negate the intended message, it does provide us with a more interesting question: do our intentions matter when it results in us doing good?
The Fountain of Fair Fortune
In this tale, every year 1 person is selected to fight their way to an enchanted fountain which will bless whoever bathes in it with eternal luck. 3 witches make a pact of going together, and when 1 of them gets selected she drags the other 2 along with her, as well as an accidental knight. There are 3 obstacles on their way, which they must clear with their tears (proof of their dispair), sweat (proof of their labours), and memories (treasure of the past). On their way to the top the witches find their issues resolved, letting the knight bathe in the fountain. Promptly the knight and one of the witches fall in love, and all live happily ever after.
The three witches and the knight set off down the hill together, arm in arm, and all four led long and happy lives, and none of them ever knew or suspected that the Fountain’s waters carried no enchantment at all.
This story is so classic that it is easy to forget that it is set in the HP universe (the same counts for The Three Brothers). The protagonists overcome their struggles of ill health, poverty, and broken heartedness by their struggle to get better: their tears, sweat, and memories of their grief they must offer up in order to move on. This is probably the most important tale in the collection, as it teaches the reader that without any miracle, any magic, you can overcome it: it does get better.
The Warlock’s Hairy Heart
The titular warlock of this tale decides to separate his heart from his body, so as to never be weakened by feelings of love. Eventually he decides he must marry and starts to court a maiden who tells him that he is cold. He shows her his heart, shrivelled and hairy, and she begs him to put it back in. The heart had gone mad as a result of his beastly decision, he kills the maiden for her perfect heart, and dies in the process of replacing his with hers.
The maiden lay dead upon the floor, her breast cut open, and beside her crouched the mad warlock, holding in one bloody hand a great, smooth, shining scarlet heart, which he licked and stroked, vowing to exchange it for his own.
What marks this tale as the weakest one of the collection is the language used. The style Rowling was going for was archaic and courtly, but unfortunately we ended up with a tale using words like “gambolling”, “preening”, “mien”, “mewling”, etc. Most readers will not know what these words mean, which makes it hard to get invested in a tale of only 9 pages long. The tale is also very gruesome and gory, and I would not reccomend it for a young reader anymore than I would Bluebeard.
Babbitty Rabbitty and her Cackling Stump
The tale of Babbity Rabbitty is very reminiscent of The Emperor’s New Clothes: a king decides he should be the only one with magical powers and prosecutes all witches and wizards, whilst also searching for a private magic tutor. A charlatan with no powers shows up and cons the king, until the king decides that he must prove his powers. In a panic, the charlatan forces a witch, a washerwoman named Babbitty, to help him by performing the spells the king attempts – which she does, until he attempts to raise the dead. The charlatan and the king are exposed, and they attempt to kill the witch in the form of a tree. They fail, and to avoid a curse they attempt to appease the witch:
Babbitty hopped out of the grounds and far away, and ever after a golden statue of the washerwoman stood upon the tree stump, and no witch or wizard was ever persecuted in the kingdom again.
This is a sweet and simple story. It is quite interesting to read The Emperor’s New Clothes from what is essentially the charlatan’s perspective, and seeing Babbitty outwit everyone and save her people is very satisfying. In the given context of the story we also get a bit of history of Muggle-witches/wizards conflict, which is a nice bonus, especially if you skip Dumbledore’s notes.
Overall this quick read is a nice little tale that quickly quenches my HP thirst.
The Tale of the Three Brothers
This is the most famous tale of the lot, having featured in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and it is arguably the best.
3 brothers cheat Death by creating a bridge over a river that was meant to kill them. To “congratulate” them, Death offers each a gift. The first wishes for the most powerful wand in the world (the Elder Wand), the second the power to bring loved ones back from the dead (the Resurrection Stone), and the third something to let him leave unfollowed by Death (the Cloak of Invisibility). The elder 2 brothers perish as a result of their arrogant wishes, but the youngest evades Death until he chooses to pass with him.
And then he greeted Death as an old friend, and went with him gladly, and, equals, they departed this life.
The reason this is the best tale, in my opinion, is because it is the most consistent in style with other fairytales. Its flow is superb, and besides some jading word repetition here and there, the language touches where any other fairytale does. It is written like a classic, which it is supposed to be in the HP universe anyways, and it is deeply intruiging.
The moral is simple: humans cannot escape from Death.
Although this is not a perfect novel, the tales themselves are very charming. I would, however, suggest to either completely remove Dumbledore’s notes, or to edit them down significantly, as they disrupt the flow of the reading. The stories vary a bit in quality, but put together it does feel like I’m reading classic tales from the HP universe, which has been such a significant part of my childhood. And quite frankly, I’m just not ready to let that go.
Collections like these work the best when read before bed, either aloud or to yourself, on a rainy November evening. And lucky us, this November has been quite wet up here in Scotland, so we get to enjoy it to its fullest.
A bedtime read like this calls for a calming tea. Nothing crazy, not too heavy, with a little hint of cardamom and ginger, and a dash of vanilla. Because of this I would recommend Anteaques’ Vanilla Chai. This is a black tea they describe as a traditional masala chai. If you’re up for it, add both milk and sugar for the full chai experience. It is soothing, warming, and perfect for a cold, rainy wintery night.
So curl up on the couch or your bed with a nice warm cup of Vanilla Chai, and once more pretend that our Hogwarts letter got lost in the mail.