Fairy Stories for a Wizarding World:

J.K. Rowling’s The Tales of Beedle the Bard

A little while ago, I got into a rant about Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Volume Three: Century, or more specifically its final chapter beat “2009.” I understand the creative conceit behind it, even now: that the material world has a spiritual and imaginative counterpart created from its literature and media and that it reflects a growing banality – a hollowness, an emptiness, or a lack of originality and implosion of wonder – that is supposed to represent the late twentieth to early twenty-first century.

A few years ago I came across a blog called The Mindless Ones back when I was researching for an interview and review of Will Brooker’s My So-Called Secret Identity and it’s funny how in writing my “Where’s Our Moon Over Soho” two-parter piece that I found my way back to it and, in particular a conversation or a three-part blog transcript of one to do with League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: 2009: particularly on the sore point that really got me going on my previous article, that I found my way back to that blog in question.

I’m not going to lie. There is still a part of me that thinks that Alan Moore making, essentially, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter into something of a retrograde Lovecraftian Antichrist figure was a cheap shot, and kind of beneath him, even if that in itself wasn’t even what elicited the ultimate reaction I had towards the sequence. I’m not going to repeat it here, except to say there is something in what Amy, or amypoodle on Part Three of the discussion on Mindless Ones says when she states that the fact Alan Moore’s version of the Antichrist as representative of a great banal and ubiquitous franchise literally urinating death-dealing lightning on Allan Quatermain – as symbolizing an older literary tradition or trope that leads to the creation of adventure stories like Indiana Jones and such – speaks volumes about the writer’s own view of contemporary art and culture. And perhaps that would be all well and good, especially if you are looking at how Alan Moore makes fun of the ludicrous conservative overreaction to Harry Potter and, more specifically, the subject of contemporary culture as well as massively over-hyped franchises that only tell superficial stories with terrible writing.

Except that Harry Potter and its Wizarding World are none of these.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I have had my own issues with Harry Potter in the past. I’ve felt that there were sequences that were extremely “cartoonish” and silly and took away from some of the really fascinating world-building that Rowling creates. And I can’t even begin to tell you how much of a slog those blasted Quidditch sequences had put me through as a reader: to the point of wanting to skip through them altogether. I mean, I can totally suspend my disbelief and think that there is a hidden world amid a contemporary one that still utilizes medieval, Renaissance, and even turn of, and mid-century technology, architecture, and materials to accommodate a lineage and a people with different abilities and rules of reality. But creating more advanced technological brooms just didn’t really do it for me and, well, what can I say: I really never liked sports events.

But as I was scrawling through The Mindless Ones I came across a few things that made me really think about the Wizarding World again. One of these in particular is a statement that Andrew Hickey makes in Part Two of the discussion with regards to “the decade chosen for the ‘reassuring imagery’ [as part of Harry Potter’s setting being] the 1940s. Of course the Potter books are entirely made up of stuff taken from other, better books from the first half of the last century, but the 1940s was probably the decade when reassurance was most actually needed, and when the gap between fantasy and reality was at its widest.” This particular statement is in response to Wilhelmina Murray and Orlando being in a twisted, destroyed version of London, King’s Cross Station Platform 9¾, Hogsmeade Station, and the Hogwarts Express where the latter states “Th-this whole environment seems artificial, as if it’s been constructed out of reassuring imagery from the 1940s … A story-book place, gone horribly wrong …”

There is something of a precedent with regards to using a 1940s, perhaps British 1940s setting with regards to young children’s literature. Certainly C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia comes to mind with regards to the Pevensie siblings and their escape to the countryside and then Narnia during the bombings of London during World War II. Of course, another member of Lewis’ literary Inkling circle J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings before, during, and after this period but the events within his narrative obviously aren’t set in that time period or even that world even if British culture and events at that time did effect his epic cycle. The tradition, along with an even older trope of British private school adventure stories, obviously has been adopted by the Harry Potter series: with Hogwarts being both a safe place with comradery and wise mentors but also an older disciplinarian one filled with arbitrary punishment, bullying, and uncertainty at times but as I mentioned earlier Hogwarts and the Wizarding World itself are actually different eras. In fact, I would venture further and state that there is a definite comparison and contrast between the contemporary mundane – or Muggle – world its diverse and strange mirror of Wizarding society.

Of course, that isn’t the point is it? The point is that the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, as seen through the lens of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, is that place of conservatism: of perceived safety and education for children and contrasted with a deadly outer world. This is something that amypoodle covers in Part Two of The Mindless Ones dialogue when she states:

“As the reader progresses through each of the Harry Potter books she becomes aware of a profound disconnect between the infantile mise-en-scene of the wizarding world and the increasingly adult threats to it. Here Moore runs with this, postulating that Hogwarts itself is a fantasy, ‘a storybook place’ designed, presumably, to safeguard children from the mindfucking reality of the magical world until they’re mature enough to confront it without stabilisers. Alternatively Hogwarts could be emblematic of a false consciousness currently infecting the whole of the magical community, a ‘good lie’ conjured by a conservative magical elite to keep wizards in check and prevent precisely the kind of threat facing the world in this volume (keep magic users doing silly tricks and they’ll never try to eat the sun, etc). But whatever’s really going on, Hogwarts is revealed as a brainwashing operation producing half formed adults who waffle on about quidditch, butterbeer and hufflepuffs even while they can crucify you with a wave of their magic wand.”

It is fairly clear in the course of amypoodle’s conversation with her peers that there is a continuous and very dismissive tone with regards to the Harry Potter element, I feel as though there are two elements at play here. The first is what Harry Potter supposedly represents as literature and art, and the second how the Wizarding World within it functions. It is a good distinction to bear in mind, and even though discussions in The Mindless Ones and other places seem to lean towards the idea that the rules of magic are inconsistent in the Wizarding World, there are some fairly clear guidelines, tools, ingredients, and terminologies in the books with some mysteries and strange phenomena to go along with them. It is a fascinating idea to consider that Hogwarts and the narrative of Harry Potter is something of a tutorial or training ground to deal with the real world, both in the narrative and also in our world in a way that most children’s fiction arguably functions. But there are many levels of irony in both Harry Potter, League: 2009’s depiction of it as something of a banal “invisible college,” and in how J.K. Rowling herself plays with these ideas.

J.K. Rowling has told other Wizarding World stories without the focus on Hogwarts or Harry Potter. Aside from the fact that she has adapted Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them into a film that takes place in a 1920s Wizarding America which is anything but reassuring with its severe separatist culture, censorship, its sterile and institutionalized justice, its Anti-Muggle fraternization policy, and genuinely displaying what happens when you suppress a child’s magical nature in the form of a destructive obscurus in contrast to Newt Scamander who comes from a more tolerant magical Britain, you also have The Tales of Beedle the Bard.

The Tales of Beedle the Bard is a fascinating collection of short stories. Imagine cautionary or fairy stories that are told in a society that already uses magic in every day life – fairy tales and fables for witches and wizards – and you have The Tales of Beedle the Bard. Think about Harry Potter for a few moments if you’ve read it, watched the films, or even heard about all of them. Take away the supposed imitation 1940s setting with its “reassurance,” schooling, fantastic candies, and Quidditch – even children – and what you have are stories about men and women in various time periods, perhaps even genuinely feudal, or Jacobean times, dealing with moral conundrums and adventures without any form of Ministry of Magic or guidelines. The characters are still archetypal, of course, but they are someone less cartoonish and more “essentialized.” Some of the silliness remains, but the stories and the characters interactions become more like parables or, as I said before, fables.

They also show the reader that the Wizarding World, at least the European one in this case is much older and has been around for a long time. There is this feeling, when you read them, that Beedle the Bard, like Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, and so many others didn’t so much create these stories as he recorded them down, or at least versions of them from an oral storytelling culture. In fact, like Homer and Shakespeare, no one is entirely sure if he actually existed as there is only one artistic depiction of him as a wizard with a great beard and he writes the original Tales down in runes instead of modern English: apparently dating from England, Yorkshire in the fifteenth century.

It is a relatively short book, one that I suspect Rowling’s detractors, particularly in article by Sameer Rahim of The Telegraph, believe popularity due to the hype of the Harry Potter franchise and “some padding.” But the tales speak for themselves, when the Commentaries by the former Hogwarts Headmaster Albus Dumbledore and Rowling herself aren’t expanding on them in their own scholarly fashion. “The Wizard and the Hopping Pot,” for instance, is about a young wizard who decides not to help his fellow villagers as he late father used to do, only for his father’s pot to plague him with nuisance and noise by manifesting all the ailments of the village he isn’t helping. The pot itself can be compared to a cauldron that contains life such as with the Welsh legend of Pair Dadeni: the Cauldron of Rebirth, or at least something in that archetype. Also, as Dumbledore notes, there is a very pro-Muggle sentiment in the story: in that the young wizard’s father used the pot and his magic to help out both wizards and Muggles in particular which, if you look at the Wizarding World at the time of Jacobean witch-trials would have been fairly radical. Muggles were at best ignorant and at worst enemies. So this story is a fairly radical one even by the Wizarding World’s contemporary standards: in using one’s magic to help those from which one’s society protects.

“The Fountain of Fortune” is about three young witches who seek out a magical fountain in its secret garden in order to cure themselves of illness, misfortune, and heartbreak respectively. They are accompanied by a poor knight named Sir Luckless. It is a morality tale where in the process of helping each other and themselves they get exactly what they want. And despite all indications that the Fountain might contain some natural felix felicis, or luck potion, it is just ordinary water and none of the protagonists ever figure this out. It definitely seems to be a morality tale of hard work and letting go of burdens in order to achieve what you need, and to illustrate that magic is not a short-cut through life lessons.

My favourite of these stories is the darkest one, I think: “The Warlock’s Hairy Heart.” This story…. well, what I can say about it? It is straightforward enough: a powerful young warlock sees emotion and sentiment as weaknesses. He removes his heart and hides it, rendering him immune and supposedly invulnerable to all feelings beyond general surface ones. However, one day after hearing that his servants feel sorry for him not having married, the reader realizes that he still possesses pride and anger. He arranges to marry someone who matches his wealth and power. However, the witch he woos with poetry that he intellectually understands can see there is something lacking in him. She confronts him and he reveals his secret: which horrifies her. In the process of convincing him to restore his heart, you realize that in the amount of time it’s been out of his body, and starved of emotions it has changed into a warping, hungry, ravenous force. Suffice to say, the tale does not end well. Dumbledore, in his comments, makes it clear that it is possible that this tale is a metaphor against creating horcruxes, basically soul mutilations and removal into other objects to make one invulnerable, but more than that of thinking that you can use magic to disrupt the natural order of the world without consequences.

“Babbitty Rabbitty and Her Cackling Stump” is an amusing tale about a king who tries to kill all the wizards and witches his kingdom, except one to teach him magic. Unfortunately, the man he hires is a charlatan – the latter of which going on to get the old washerwoman Babbitty, who is an actual witch, to help convince the king he can practice magic to save his own life and fortune. The problem is, Babbitty proves, in hiding, that magic has its limits. It can’t resurrect the dead. She ends up faking her death and becoming a tree to threaten the king with a curse: that he must protect all witches and wizards and make a statue to her or he will suffer the same cuts to the tree that she was that he attempted to cut down. Of course, another truth is that a witch can’t become a tree either but she is an Animagus – a witch that can change into an animal – which she did to hide the tree as she escapes. Dumbledore and Rowling in the narrative comments mention that this tale has some liberties taken in that Animagi can’t talk as a human in their animal form. But they also mention that the curse Babbitty threatens the king with could be the Cruciatus Curse: a spell that causes a living subject horrific agony and is one of the three Unforgiving Curses outlawed by the Ministry many centuries later.

And then, of course, we come to the most well-known of the tales: “The Tale of the Three Brothers,” which might as well be called “The Deathly Hallows.” It is part of the book of Tales that Dumbledore gives Hermione Granger after his death: which gives her, Ron Weasley, and Harry Potter clues about the powerful three Deathly Hallows artifacts. The story is seemingly straightforward, much like Harry Potter and Rowling’s Wizarding World supposedly is: three brothers use their magic to walk across a bridge and cheat Death. Death attempts to ensnare them by offering them gifts. He gives the oldest brother the Elder Wand, the middle one the Resurrection Stone, and the youngest and most wily brother the Invisibility Cloak. The first brother is arrogant and uses the Elder Wand’s superior power to win a deal, but gets killed in his sleep by a thief who takes the wand from him. The second brother uses the Resurrection Stone to bring back a woman he loves from death, but only resurrects her suffering, cold, intangible shade. This leads him to madness and he commits suicide. But the third brother uses the Invisible Cloak to elude death for many years and it is only when he has made a family and learned all he can that he surrenders his Cloak to his children and walks away with Death, willingly, as his friend and equal.

There is, suffice to say, more commentary on that story than there is story by Dumbledore. Of course, we learn in the Harry Potter series that the Deathly Hallows were something he and Grindelwald sought out in order to conquer Death itself once upon a time before Dumbledore’s priorities changed and he learned his wisdom the hard way. The commentaries are rich in and of themselves. Dumbledore shows how learned he is in Wizarding lore and J.K. Rowling presents it as though Dumbledore and even Professor McGonagall are actual people and experts in their fields. There is even mention of one Beatrix Bloxam who seems to be the Wizarding World’s equivalent to Thomas Bowdler: but whereas the latter cuts out the most graphic and offensive parts of older stories and therefore make their narratives weaker for it, Bloxam censors and sanitizes the stories for children to the point of being saccharine sweet and imaginatively unpalatable: rather like how Alan Moore and those from The Mindless Ones and others seek to claim Rowling herself does with tales of magic. If something can be bowdlerized then a prude afraid of their own darkness should be called a Bloxamite.

The Tales of Beedle the Bard, with its commentaries and scholarly framing – along with Rowling’s own illustrated sketches – reminds me so much of Susanna Clarke’s collection of short stories The Ladies of Grace Adieu: some of which led to another glorious, creatively footnoted novel of English magic and myth Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrel. I feel as though any world-building that comments on itself, or any world that has figurative literature on itself demonstrates a powerful source of self-awareness that a child can experience through enjoying the story and an adult can appreciate with more nuance.

In fact, it is no coincidence that I am focusing on The Tales of Beedle the Bard in reference to observations from League: 2009 and The Mindless Ones. I think I will start by warning you that there a few major quotations that I’d like to respond to and provide some context. The writer amypoodle, again, in Part Two of their Blog series on League: 2009 states the following, that only does she have no problem with regards to “Moore’s summation of Harry Potter as an essentially conservative, possibly reactionary, fantasy,” and that the books “as a way into magic they’re severely wanting” and “if this is where the british dreamtime is now then we’re probably in trouble” she specifically discusses the fact that League: Century is has been created to “track the steady banalification” of art and culture at its highest form: magic. In particular, she mentions how the Century chapter “1910”: illustrates magical societies out and lustrous in the open as mystical lodges and orders, while in “2009” they are “hidden in the cracks” and “little more than a fairytale for grown ups who wish they were children.”

Aside from the fact that this last statement seems to mirror Alan Moore’s own issues with the superhero comics genre, a whole other loaded discussion in and of itself, I think amypoodle really makes her point when she states, flat-out, that “Harry Potter’s universe is ostensibly magical, there are wands galore, but there’s no numinosity to it anymore, no bite. Everything’s somehow spooky-tawdry.  The problem, Moore believes, is that far from pointing the way to magic, Harry Potter points away from it. Potter’s an antichrist in that he substitutes the miraculous for the macguffin, sets himself up as a sorcerer supreme when his only real conjuring trick is to produce fandom. The overabundance of spells fired off computer game style on every page becomes an unhappy metaphor for our own world, a world so chock full of marvels that no-one even notices anymore … Potter’s universe positions magic as a special effect interchangeable with any other special effect – makes it containable, concretizes, reduces spillage. It’s magic as spectacle, made for the cinema, to be consumed along with your popcorn. It won’t hurt you, haunt you, move you, delight you. It won’t change you. Harry Potter and his friends transform all sorts of stuff into all sorts of stuff, but they don’t transform the things that Moore thinks really counts: hearts and minds.”

This is a lot to unpack, as it doesn’t just address Harry Potter, but also a world of Dungeons and Dragons and video games. It also has a certain attitude towards fandoms and cinema. But then there is that phrase right there: “hearts and minds.” I think I will get back to that and the assumption behind it.

There is another person or magazine, I am not particularly sure that also has something to add in the discussion under the name Illogical Volume. In Part Two, they make a comment to the effect of the Harry Potter series seeming to exemplify “everything that Michael Moorcock excoriated in his Epic Pooh essay (later revised and re-published as Wizardry and Wild Romance, A Study of Epic Fantasy)” in which he provides an excerpt: “’The sort of prose most often identified with “high” fantasy is the prose of the nursery-room. It is a lullaby; it is meant to soothe and console. It is mouth-music. It is frequently enjoyed not for its tensions but for its lack of tensions. It coddles; it makes friends with you; it tells you comforting lies.’”

Now here is another series of phrases that you should bear in mind here, since we are talking about prose and language: “the prose of the nursery-room” and “lullaby.” There is some examination at the language that Rowling uses in her Harry Potter books and it gets analyzed, but there is something I would like to point out. When Moorcock talks about “the prose of the nursery-room” and “a lullaby,” he reminds me of nursery-rhymes. They are sung to children or performed and they do have a certain level of friendliness or a game quality to them. However, if you think about “Ring Around the Rosies” and how it was an oral cultural rhyme to help people remember the horror of the Black Death, you also realize that nursery rhymes and fairy tales from the Victorian nursery – which were not always sanitized – came from darker, grittier, very real folktales.

Years ago now, I took a course at York University called “Early Times: Literature and the Imagination of the Child.” In that course, taught by Professor Norma Rowen, we learned about folktales, fairy stories, and stories created based off of those tropes and even the conception of what a “child” actually is: not biologically, but in terms of a social and cultural construct. Children’s literature did not always exist the way it does now as the conception of what a child was didn’t always exist as we know it today. This was the hardest course I had to take at the time and, fittingly enough where I was assigned to read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone for the first time. Then years later, I wrote a Blog post after reading Gregory Maguire’s Wicked and Stephen Schwartz’s musical adaptation noticing how the book itself takes L. Frank Baum’s borrowing from the old sanitized fairy stories and lets the ancient archetypal darkness of their folktale forebears creep in and consume those ideas deliciously once more. Interestingly enough, the Wicked musical that I saw first mirrors a lot of that turn of the century darkness and Victorian imperialism much in the way that Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts film compares and contrasts the clinical nature of American Wizarding society to the wonder of the rest of the world.

So if I were to be crude about it, I’d say that Tales of Beedle the Bard are a lot like Wicked the novel, and Beasts like Wicked the musical. However, The Tales of Beedle the Bard are, unlike Wicked, still for children and not nearly as graphic. But that digression aside, The Tales do feel like they are closer to an older source: almost to … Faerie, perhaps. Yes, in my “Literature and the Imagination of the Child” course I had opportunity to read J.R.R. Tolkien’s revised “On Fairy-Stories” in Tree and Leaf in which Professor Tolkien posits that fairy-stories take place in the realm of Faerie itself: an enchanted realm with or without actually fairies and that its ending is marked by joy or as he liked to call happy endings “eucatastophes.”

I suppose what I’m trying to say in a very long-winded manner is that you can argue that Rowling takes the concept of the Faerie, of faerie stories or fantasy, and expands the archetypes into a more modern world: perhaps even saying something about the more “ubiquitous” elements of magic or popular geek cultural aspects of our contemporary world through her depiction of Wizarding society. She is not the first one to do this, but she does attempt to essentialize it and make it easier for children to relate. And I think that is the point here: Harry Potter and the Wizarding World is made primarily for children. However, can anyone in good conscience compare something like The Tales of Beedle the Bard with their moral lessons and quirky world-building depth to something that “spams spells” or reduces everything into material categories and commodities? How can you explain the mysteries and nuances of the world to children who are still learning about it?

In The Mindless Ones, amypoodle talks about how magic should “transform hearts and minds,” but is she talking about those of adult readers, or children? Granted, I am not saying that Rowling’s conception of Faerie for children is perfect, but she tries to make a morality tale and another perspective on the contemporary world around them based on the tools that she has from her own society and the book she grew up with.

I think what I really want to say, when we come right down to the matter, is that Harry Potter might be a part of Alan Moore’s Immateria, or the Blazing World, but it is also a gateway. Here is a question: what are the limits of the imagination? And what specifically are the limits of a child’s hunger for knowledge and dreams? Imagine a child reads Harry Potter or Tales and sees the Latin magical phrases, and the different kinds of wands, or the creatures they encounter. Think of them reading those books over and again as they grow older and wanting more. They start to find other novels and books on history and culture. And, who knows, maybe they want to study magic or the occult or just comics and find Alan Moore’s works.

What I’m trying to say is what J.K. Rowling has done, among other things, is that she didn’t just make a realm she made a gateway into other forms of imagination and art and magic. Or, if you want to inject an Alan Moore Courtyard conceit into the metaphor, it is the Aklo – the fourth dimensional linguistic “gateway drug” that leads to a world of language and a whole vista of imagination. The Wizarding World, while it continues to evolve, is not the end destination. It’s only the beginning. I think the issue that many people don’t seem to understand with regards to Rowling’s Wizarding World is this. Aside from the fact that you have actual human characters interacting and having friends and relationships, and heart, is that some people are so intent on wanting the Wizarding World to be as blatant and phallic as the Elder Wand, or a pale rehashing of old tropes like the power of the Resurrection Stone, that they don’t actually see the world-building and interactions with that world of Faerie are as subtle as an Invisibility Cloak.

Think about Harry: the so-called Antichrist. Think about “The Three Brothers” and the lesson the third brother learned and the two did too late. Think about how possessing all three Deathly Hallows could have made someone supposedly “The Master of Death” and how Harry in the last novel of the series willingly let go of the Elder Wand, and the Resurrection Stone despite fighting his parents’ killer and missing his lost family and friends. Certainly if Harry had been some stereotypical video game protagonist he would have kept all three Hallows and continued to abuse their powers into perpetuity, never mind facing down a Dark Lord’s penchant for killing curses with a disarming charm: a symbol of their opposing philosophies. Think about Sirius Black disappearing through a mysterious arch where we never see or hear from him again. Think about where ghosts come from in that world, or who or what could have made the Deathly Hallows and how much Wizarding society for all its power, still doesn’t know.

Tell me if wonder can truly be commonplace and become meaningless in such past that strange veiled gateway. Tell me, again, how these stories explaining a fictional world of Faerie, refracting back at our world before inverting itself into invisibility, cannot help but transform hearts and minds.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Matthew Kirshenblatt is a graduate from York University, Toronto, Ontario, and is a writer and blogger living in the city of Thornhill. He is a comics and mythology fanatic; having written his Master's thesis, "The Spirit of Herodotus in Gaiman and Moore: Narrative Spaces and their Relationships in Mythic World-Building," he also contributes science-fiction, horror, and revisionist short stories to Gil Williamson's online Mythaxis Magazine. Nowadays, he can be found writing for G33kPr0n, and creating and maintaining his Mythic Bios: a Writer's Blog, in which he describes his creative process and makes weird stories, strange articles, reviews, overall geek opinion pieces and other writing experiments.

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