|The stories in the new book by J.K. Rowling (left) range from whimsical to dark. (David Cheskin/Reuters)|
Author J.K. Rowling has followed up her hugely successful Harry Potter series with a book of five tales set within various concentric narrative frames. "The Tales of Beedle the Bard" purportedly come from a 15th-century wizard named Beedle. Some of the stories are whimsical, some familiar, some classical, one eerily dark. The supposed "translator" of these tales is Hermione Granger, that cleverest of heroines. Commenting on the stories - in an overall introduction and in comments after each - is Albus Dumbledore, whom fans will be relieved to see resurrected on the page, if not in the flesh. (Another haunted and haunting theme here is the finality of death.)
Finally, Rowling herself explicates magical terms and references for the five or six literates who have not yet read the Potter series. Her illustrations illuminate the tales, in delicate sketches reminiscent of Art Nouveau decorations. Sales of this book help fund an international charity, the Children's High Level Group. So that is the setup. What, then, is one to make of "The Tales of Beedle the Bard" as art?
These tales have been compared to Grimm, Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Roald Dahl - not without cause. But they have a distinctly modern flavor, with frequent nods toward popular culture and feminism.
Writers are at the whim of their own obsessions, and in this collection Rowling writes, as if through a five-sided prism about the bright and dark nature of love and self-sacrifice.
"In Muggle fairy tales, magic tends to lie at the root of the hero's or heroine's troubles. . . . In 'The Tales of Beedle the Bard,' on the other hand, we meet heroes and heroines who can perform magic themselves, and yet find it just as hard to solve their problems as we do." The first tale, "The Wizard and the Hopping Pot," is a new rendition of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," demonstrating the importance of taking seriously the troubles and needs of one's neighbors. While Dumbledore's commentary undercuts this interpretation - his role is to undercut all obvious readings, providing comic alternative interpretations and wizarding anecdotes - it is a fairly straightforward tale even for younger children, told with charm and vigor.
"The Fountain of Fair Fortune" is the most classic tale, about a foursome that bands together to win a prize, discovering that the true magic lay in the effort and "the Fountain's waters carried no enchantment at all."
At the dead center of the book lies the book's strangest, most original, gruesome, and peculiar story, "The Warlock's Hairy Heart." I will let Mr. Freud address the title; it is about a wizard who decides to protect his heart by locking it safely away. To have an "unloving heart" is the deadliest of sins, and rightly has the deadliest, most perverse consequences. A final theme of these tales, perhaps the fiercest, is the pangs of unreturned love. This tale has the shadowed, odd beauty of some of the best, most mysterious moments in the Potter series. Rowling is less good at answering questions than she is at raising them, and "The Warlock's Hairy Heart" finishes with a banshee cry of bewilderment.
"Babbitty Rabbitty and Her Cackling Stump" provides a burst of high spirits and may prove the most popular tale here. It recasts the basic plot of "The Emperor's New Clothes," with a sovereign greedy for magical power rather than a wardrobe update.
Finally, "The Tale of the Three Brothers," which also appears in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," is well served at a remove from that final volume and set off here, jewel-like. The classic trickster tale about death reminds us that death cannot be tricked - only put off as long as possible and then accepted. Here, as elsewhere, we find "hopeless longing" and unrequited love; vanity and brutality; bravery, wizarding lore, magic, and dignity. That seems like the right way to end the Harry Potter series, and for those of us still writhing from the final book's epilogue, it will remind us to celebrate Rowling's bona fide genius.
Liz Rosenberg regularly reviews children's books for the Globe.