The Tales of Beedle the Bard
Sometimes the commercial aspects of publishing are more apparent than others. Take the book shown at right. In many ways it’s Exhibit A in making the case that publishers–and authors–will do whatever they can to extract every ounce of profit from a property.
It’s a classic marketing problem. With a successful franchise, people want more of the same. Publishers want to satisfy that demand. It’s authors who make this a sticky situation.
That’s especially true if they’ve built their franchise around some finite entity. For Sue Grafton, it’s the alphabet. She made it all the way to ‘Y’ before passing away just before the year turned. A more practical approach is Janet Evanovich‘s use of numbers; there are more of those than she has books in her.
In J.K. Rowling‘s Harry Potter series, the limit is the 7-year course of study at Hogwarts, a sort of Eton for wizards. The limit is even more finite if your hero has met his nemesis in mortal combat. The whole set-up is designed to come to a dead halt even before any promises the author has made..
So how can you wring out another few million sales? You do an end run, of course.
Strictly speaking, the present volume is not a Harry Potter book despite the ‘presence’ of two major characters from the series. What we have here is an artifact. It purports to be a ‘new translation’ of wizarding legends from the original runic.
Our translator is Hermione Granger. You may remember Miss Granger from the novels. Daughter of Muggles, hyper-intelligent, a bit of an overweening student and one of Harry’s best buds. Accompanying her text is extensive commentary by Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts at the time Harry and Co. begin their magical educations.
Just to make things more interesting, our author herself is also present, in one of those ‘breaking the fourth wall’ capers I’m eternally skeptical of. Ms. Rowling tells us, in an introductory note about the text, that the the reader will encounter footnotes by her meant to clarify matters of magical arcana that might not be clear to non-wizards.
That left me wondering whether Rowling occupies some special position between us mere mortals and the enhanced versions at the center of her novels. Or maybe it’s one of those playful, post-modern meta moments in which the creator plays a role in her own creation. That’s another game that’s never sat well with me, which I attribute solely to my limited intellect and advancing age.
As for the tales themselves, they are meant to be, I’m reasonably certain, the wizardly version of Aesop’s fables. Only instead of animals standing in for humans you have wizards learning the limits of their powers.
In form the tales are very familiar. Take just one example, “The Tale of the Three Brothers.” Three wizard brothers encounter Death and best him. You needn’t be a wizard to know that rarely happens, so we all know trouble will result when two of the brothers rub Death’s face in it. The more humble brother manages to live a good long life until it’s his time to meet up with Death again. It works even without wizards.
It’s almost too familiar. The three brothers put me in mind of gruff billy goats and little pigs. The challenge with Death is right out of The Seventh Seal (although I’m partial to Da Duva, which lightens the mood and shortens the time involved). There’s even the happy death at the end, which made me think of Camus.
There’s a good reason why that’s so. Vladmir Propp literally wrote the book on the subject: The Morphology of the Folktale. It is entirely possible to sit down, sketch out your tale as an equation, and then just write it up. Somewhere around here there’s a manila folder containing the tale of a magic parsnip and a knight astride a cow that thinks it’s a horse to prove so.
(I never said the tale had to make sense or that you had to approach an assignment seriously. There were 25 people or so in that class and only a handful of us opted to write a tale/equation. I wonder if anyone else remembers Propp who, I just learned, was born to a German family residing in St. Petersburg even though I was introduced to him as a great Soviet scholar.)
There are five tales here although Dumbledore’s commentary repeatedly references others. That makes me wonder about the book’s title, with its definite article, and adds to my impression that the whole thing is a slapdash affair.
The Potter books were incredibly well-crafted and I credit them for getting me to pick up fiction again. Rowling does wonderful things with language, especially names and incantations, that present a real opportunity to teach kids how to read on multiple levels. (Can you tell I’m preparing to start reading the series with my 9-year old daughter?) They were almost magic, which is what reading has always been for me.
I found little of that magic here. The authorial conceits involved allow for wiggling out of that contract. This is, remember, supposed to be the work of a talented adolescent. Yet even Dumbledore’s commentary seems labored. Worse, a bit of boastfulness creeps into what are allegedly his private notes making me wonder if I missed something in the novels where his self-regard, if it existed, did not call attention to itself.
I should, I suppose, say a little about the other tales. There’s an enchanted pot that teaches its owner the value of service. There’s a wizard who in attempting to stave off heartache brings on an ending that is equal parts Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth. There’s a fountain offering once in a lifetime good fortune that, since in reality it is unenchanted, helps would-be bathers learn how fortunate they already are. And there’s a sham magus who pays the price of coming up against the real thing, learning the value of truth through the impact of force.
Each lesson applies equally to wizards and us ordinary folk alike. So in a way it’s a little like plain oatmeal: you may take in something that’s good for you, but it won’t be the most enjoyable experience you’ve ever had.