The Cursed Child has come and gone, further cementing J. K Rowling’s Creator’s fall from grace. It started at her Ilvermorny stories and it may continue with the Fantastic Beasts movies. So out of a desire to simultaneously cherish better times and understand the reasons for her decline, I went back to her first follow-up to Harry Potter: The Tales of Beedle the Bard. In between every Empire Strikes Back and Phantom Menace, there’s a Return of the Jedi and a Holiday Special. Where do the tales fall?
For the unfamiliarised, The Tales of Beedle the Bard is the third side-canon after Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Quidditch Throughout the Ages. Where the latter two were informative guides on the sport and fauna of the Wizarding World, this book gave us the fairy tales that its residents grew up with —all five of them. The final tale, in particular, carries the gravitas of the Deathly Hallows that marked Dumbledore’s hubris. So who better qualified to provide meta on each of them than our favourite problematic wise-ass?
The book has interspersed commentary on each tale by Dumbledore, who gives us insight on the origins, rewrites and reception of each tale while hiding the relevant information he knows. All in all, a fine use of the most Unreliable of Narrators. How well has Beedle the Bard aged?
The good news is, Rowling’s descent into “brain behind The Cursed Child” isn’t glaring. Its issues are the same as the original: the worldbuilding is quite poor. There’s no reason, however you narrow it, for a magical England to not have a richer tradition than just five stories by one guy (not even the magical seven?) The scripting of female and Muggle characters is problematic, but nothing nearing “comedic sexual harassment”.
The better news is, The Tales of Beedle the Bard REALLY holds up. With one exception, they range from “perfectly okay” to “The Tale of the Three Brothers”. There’s a tapestry of themes interconnecting them and with the original novels that reward careful reading.
But what fascinates most is that, The Tales of Beedle the Bard seems to be the primordial work of literature in the Wizarding World. Hermione, voracious reader as she was, only ever read theory and hadn’t even heard of Beedle the Bard before Dumbledore bequeathed the book. Dumbledore’s commentary only cites its derivative works but never quotes any influences, magical or muggle. And any other non-theoretical book the gang peruses is the newest Skeeter or Lockheart bestseller.
I’ll go into the implications this has on the worldbuilding later, but for now, if we asume that Beedle the Bard is the central work of literature, the ideological practices shown in the series make a tad more sense.
“The Warlock’s Hairy Heart” is the book’s outlier in terms of tone and quality. Its theme is”don’t mess with dark magic”. Clear but nothing special. The two tales I list under “Fatalism and Magic” have a dark edge to them that is born naturally of the stories they tell. This one is just plain dumb and misogynistic. It’s simple enough that I’ll recap it entirely.
The story is “Pride and Prejudice: The Snuff Fic”. A dark, brooding warlock (Discount Tom Riddle) is secondhand embarrassed at his peers’ behaviour when they fall in love and grows to consider it a human weakness. His response is to go Davy Jones and physically keep his heart in a chest. But the truth universally acknowledged of what a single man in possession of a good fortune wants (plus an off-screen gay joke at his expense) compel Discount to romance a witch from a wealthy family to assauge all doubts (straight as a wand, you guys). The maiden has a brain so his efforts fall short and he makes-do by opening her heart to her. She is horrified at the Extreme Dark Magic she witnesses and compels Discount to fix the mess. As his heart comes in, her brain goes out.
Seeing that this was necessary to please her, the warlock dread his wand and unlocked the crystal casket, sliced open his own breast and replaced the hairy heart in the empty cavity it had once occupied.
‘Now you are healed and will know true love!’ cried the maiden and she embraced him.
The same maiden that had seen right through Discount and turned down his advances now sees him perform gruesome magic and her gut reaction is to run unprotected to this maniac, while professing her love. Needless to say, Discount steals her heart (physically).
It’s not explicitly violent and it’s far from the most offensive thing Rowling’s ever written, but it wastes everything it has going for it. It establishes a political scenario of magical nobility that hints it’s going to be about the Warlock using Dark Magic to reconcile his duty and his desires. But the ending (if it can be called that) hinges entirely on the characters turning on a dime: Discount will go to extreme measures to shield himself from love, just to undo them at the first sign of discomfort (why didn’t he just find another trophy wife?). The maiden sasses Discount, yet fails to defend herself or annul the union once his true colours are apparent.
“The Warlock’s Hairy Heart” is a dark story for all the wrong reasons.
The foreword and commentaries claim that Beedle was as good a Muggle ally as they came. Dumbledore validates this against several pureblood supremacists (aka. generations of Malfoys) that have tried to either censor or rewrite them to suit their agenda. Dumbledore (by proxy of Rowling) wants us to consider these stories as supportive of Muggle autonomy.
It’d be fine and dandy if we didn’t run into the pesky problems of the original: Muggles have almost zero agency. They’re not even pawns. They’re the chessboard on which wizards have built and sustain their hegemony. Muggle allyship does not extend beyond saying, “Hey, maybe it’s not cool to kill them”.
The Bard’s storytelling is quite consistent with this pattern because the Muggle characters are carboard props for the wizarding lead to react to.
In “The Wizard and the Hopping Pot”, a Wizarding Jerk refuses to follow his father’s footsteps in concocting the medicine of an entire village. This causes the father’s old cauldron to grow a foot and manifest the symptoms of the ailing to drive him insane. The jerk is conditioned into becoming a model citizen by overexposure to squick and gorey imagery.
It’s a fun little story, but as far as dealing with prejudice and social justice, it’s no “The Painted Lady”. There’s no middle ground where the wizard teaches the Muggles to fend for themselves or reach an agreement towards his autonomy. He’s forced to become the White Saviour. This puts his father’s warning on the cauldron (In the fond hope, my son, that you will never need it) in a very different light. Did the father mean to teach him a lesson? Was he forced into using it too? Did the cauldron condemned an entire lineage into a life of Muggle servitude?
On the other side of the spectrum, “Babbity Rabbity and her Cackling Stump” gives us the most politically confusing tale since Frozen. A king builds a brigade to hunt down witches and wizards, while hiring somebody to teach him magic.
A political leader trying to expel an entire race of people while still trying to profit from their culture? What are the odds of that?
When it turns out that the person behind his tricks is a real witch (the title character), he has her executed, only for her supposed spirit to resurface and order him to undo his atrocities, under threat of the Cruciatus Curse. The old lady worked in the castle as his washerwoman.
We have no explanation as to why Babbity, with all her power and talents, was working for a Muggle king who was actively persecuting her people. We don’t know why she didn’t make any efforts to stop him when she’s in the inside. And I guess there’s no point in trying to reason that the Brigade is hardly a threat when adult wizards have every disguise and mind-controlling arsenal at their disposal.
But the point here is that reading either “Hopping Pot” and “Cackling Stump” as vindicating Muggles is, at best, the Fountain of Honeypots. One depicts the tragedy of a wizard who’s doomed to serve a people he hates; the other shows the overwhelming gap of power and control between the frigging King and a little old lady with magic.
If anything, Beedle the Bard is rich enough to allow interpretation on what the Bard was going for in his depiction of Muggles. But I will say that, if this is really the only work of fiction that children are exposed to in this world, the ideological practice of this world starts making a lot more sense.
Fatalism and Magic
“The Tale of the Three Brothers” is perfect.
It’s an immaculate fairy tale of our time with all the classic ingredients: hubris, fatalism and jerks for older brothers. “Death, uh, finds a way” is one of the series’ tenets and it’s perfectly encapsulated here.
Even though the foreword dates the commentary a year and a half before “The Lightning Struck-Tower”, I headcanon that Dumbledore started writing seriously after his arrangement with Snape. He wouldn’t have appreciated the tale, nor understood what Beedle was going for, quite as well if he wasn’t expecting Death around the corner. No canon source ever makes the explicit connection between fiction and history, so that’s up for speculation too. Either Beedle wrote the story with the Deathly Hallows in mind OR those were invented because of his story.
Speaking of which, the most popular reading postulates that the brothers are parallels to Riddle (who sought power), Snape (who died for romantic fixation) and Harry (who survives), with Dumbledore serving as Death. It’s a sound reading, but I take issue with glorifying Albus Severus’ namesakes this much. If anything, Dumbledore is closer to the second brother because he literally succumbs to the stone’s temptation speak of getting stoned, right?- and Snape offers another interpretation for the third brother. His entire agenda was lurking in the shadows—being invisible—while bidding his time to take down Voldemort. I seriously doubt he had any life prospects after the war without a vengeance to drive him or a Dumbledore to play him. Snape would have welcomed Death as a friend.
Whereas “The Three Brothers” is significant to the last book, “The Fountain of Fair Fortune” recreates Goblet of Fire almost to a T: Three contestants (with an unplanned fourth) are chosen from a large pool to participate in three dangerous tasks for a prize that is ultimately meaningless. But whereas Harry outshone the three legitimate contestants, Sir Luckless (his mother planned ahead) fails every step of the way, so that our protagonists (Asha, Altheda and Amatha)can get the job done…yet somehow he’s still rewarded with the “prize” and a girlfriend.
“The Fountain of Fair Fortune” is really good, but it’s the final twist that seals the deal. I’m sure the intent was “Be yourself, etc.” but really think about it: Some ulterior force is hyping millions of people to travel in search of this magic fountain. The “lucky” person has to fulfill tasks that result in fatigue, triggering memories and letting a giant slug get super inappropriate with them (I’m not exaggerating), for no discernible purpose whatsoever. Who is in charge of this place? What person has this much free time to be petty, meandering and ABSURD?!
I wager that there’s an extended edition somewhere where we see the aftermath of the prize: Asha’s condition relapses, Altheda’s provisions run out and Amatha realizes that giving her hand to the first man she met after a traumatic break-up (one without skills, prospects or chemistry) wasn’t such a good idea. Even Anna took it nice and easy the second time.
Beyond that, “Three Brothers” and “Fountain” mirror each other almost perfectly with the triads and the escaping of death and heartbreak. Whereas the all-male story is about finding death in the path taken to avoid it, the one with the female leads affirms life and being able to build on it despite failure. It’s indicative of a very monolithic view of gender (Women are Wiser, Destruction/Creation), but it’s worth noting how it still permeates society’s way of thinking and how fairy tales manifest that view.
The Tales of Beedle the Bard gives us a Rowling who was still in touch with her series and understood what made it work. Above all, it gives us a wonderful insight into metanarratives and ideologies, whether she meant it or not (I’m sure she didn’t). Pierre Menard would be proud.
Images courtesy of Warner Bros ©, FOX © and Mary Grandpré