No magic in Rowling’s new book

Last Updated: Wed, Dec 17, 2008 05:36 hrs

The Tales of Beedle the Bard
By J K Rowling
Published by Children’s High Level Group & Bloomsbury
Price: Rs 595
Pages: 105

Let’s get one thing sorted out right at the outset–Harry Potter this ain’t.

J K Rowling’s latest offering has all the makings of a great marketing strategy. It germinates from a story that played an integral role in The Deathly Hallows, thus ensuring that Potterphiles will line the streets to snap up copies at the break of dawn. It was first created as seven handwritten books, six of which were gifted to people closely associate with the Potter series (the seventh was auctioned, the proceedings of which went to charity), but then unexpectedly published for the public–that certainly piqued everyone’s curiosity. And, the piece the resistance, the book came on the bookshelves a couple of weeks before Christmas, just in time for gifting!

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So does the build up and positioning herald a superlative product? I’d have to disagree in the most part and agree in some.

I like how Rowling has built the case for the book. The Tales of Beedle the Bard was first mentioned in The Deathly Hallows, where much to Ron’s bewilderment and amusement he found that Harry and Hermione had never heard of it. Then, after Professor Dumbledore’s death, a copy of the book was found among his papers and, in accordance with his will, was handed to over to Hermione. And, as Rowling explains, Hermione made a brand new translation, to which she appended detailed notes that Dumbledore had made just 18 months before he died. So all Rowling had to do, supposedly, was to write an introduction, give a few footnotes to explain wizarding terms and, of course, throw in a few illustrations before publishing the book for the benefit of Muggles.

The book is a slim volume with five short stories that have been bulked out with Dumbledore’s ‘notes’. The stories are narrated much along the lines of Aesop and the Brothers Grimm. But with one big difference–while the former depended upon magic to create or resolve a story (the spindle needle that sent Sleeping Beauty to slumber land or true love’s kiss that broke the spell), Rowling’s characters are well versed in magic. So it is believable as bedtime reading for wizards’ kids.

The stories themselves are best suited for five-years-olds. I really can’t see an adult enjoying them as much. Each of the stories has a simplistic moral at the end. While The Wizard and the Hopping Pot is an attempt by a father to teach his selfish son a lesson through a magic cooking pot, The Fountain of Fair Fortune is about how people create their own luck (even those with magic skills). I found the ending a little too pat, a little too reminiscent of the placebo effect talked about in medicine.

The Warlock’s Hairy Heart is the most grim and gory of the stories, a true Grimm-like piece, and I can just see Tim Burton hungering to get his hands on it (and dibs on Johnny Depp playing the ‘heartless’ wizard).

Babbitty Rabbitty and Her Cackling Stump is the only other new story in the book (as all who have read the Harry Potter series know The Tale of the Three Brothers). It reminded me a little of The Emperor’s New Clothes, but with an interesting magical twist and a reference to the witch hunts of yore.

But what I liked was how Dumbledore dissected each story, revealing underlying facets–like a pro-Muggle sentiment or a stand against necromancy–all in context with the world of Hogwarts and magic that we are so familiar with. It was a delight to find references to how Sir Nicholas de Mimsy-Porpington (Nearly Headless Nick, the ghost of Gryffindor) died, how Lucius Malfoy had started his campaign against Muggles quite early on in life, and how Professor McGonagall justified her being an Animagus.

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All the humour (at least the ones that adults can appreciate) is in the notes. Dumbledore’s tone is wry and quite mock-scholarly and he relishes taking digs at some of Rowling’s pet peeves–like critics, elitists, and children’s authors who are too sugary to digest. So the problem I faced was wanting to skim through the stories quickly to get to the notes. Especially the last one where Dumbledore goes into detail on his take on the Hallows.

Methinks the book by itself would have sunk like a stone, but with the body of work that is behind it, The Tales of Beedle the Bard is worth a read solely as something that ‘could’ have existed in Harry Potter’s world.