I'm not the easiest person to buy presents for. You can't just pop out and pick me up a CD or a book because chances are if its one I'm inclined to listen to or read I'll have already managed to get a copy to review for these pages. Which made it doubly surprising that my wife walked in the door beaming the other day after returning from a trip to Canada's big bookstore chain – a place she normally hates setting foot in for a vast array of justifiable reasons – sure that she had found me something that not only I didn't own, but would give me a lot of pleasure.
My wife's instincts are usually pretty dead on and this was no exception, The Tales Of Beedle The Bard by J.K.Rowling, distributed in Canada by Penguin Canada, is a delight from start to finish. Its a slim volume reminiscent in both style and layout of the wonderful books of poetry by A.A. Milne that I read as a child, elegant hardcover books on whose pages another surprise always awaited in the form of either a new poem or an illustration peeking out form some unexpected corner.
Now like the rest of the non-magical world I first heard of Beedle The Bard through Ms. Rowling's other books, specifically the penultimate Harry Potter book, Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows in which one story in particular played a crucial role in deciding the outcome of the series. (If you think I'm going to tell you which one you're out of luck – if you've read the Potter book you'll all ready know which it is, and if you haven't… well, what on earth are you waiting for?) The Tales Of Beedle The Bard is set firmly in the same world that Harry Potter occupies. For as Rowling points out in her introduction, two characters from the series played a key role in its production. The text is a new translation by Hermione Granger, from the original runes, and the late Albus Dumbledore wrote the extensive annotations that accompany each story.
You'll notice some obvious differences and similarities between Beedle's tales and the ones told by the non-magical community. The most obvious of the former is of course the fact that magic is taken for granted in the stories, and not something supernatural that the hero or heroine must overcome. Unlike our stories the female characters don't just wait around for someone to come and rescue them as they are every bit as capable as the male characters at getting in and out of scrapes. However, much like many of our stories each of Beedle's tales contains a life lesson for the young witch or wizard reading the tale that stress the importance of personal attributes like tolerance, forbearance, love, and generosity.
As Professor Dumbledore points out in his annotations, this left Beedle open to much criticism by both his contemporaries – he's thought to have lived in the 1500s – and modern witches and wizards alike. He not only advocates cordial relationships with Muggles, but maintains that witches and wizards should use their gifts to help their less talented neighbours whenever possible. Needless to say this was enjoyed very much by those who considered non-magical beings their inferiors. In fact Dumbledore recounts an effort by a certain Lucius Malfoy to have Beedle's book removed from the Hogwarts' library due to its potential for causing young witches and wizards to sully their bloodlines by intermarrying with Muggles. (See the story "The Fountain Of Fair Fortune").
In some cases Professor Dumbledor's annotations provide the reader with valuable historical detail, one of which is to remind us that the International Statute of Wizarding Secrecy wasn't written until 1689. This of course explains why wizards and witches in Beedle's stories have no compunctions about performing magic for, or in front of, their non-magical brethren, and why, in turn, the Muggles take it for granted. It wasn't until the magical community retired from sight that the ability to recognize magic waned. It's unfortunate to note that it was due to an increased level of persecution that forced witches and wizards into this position. We can only hope that someday the Muggle community at large will mature enough to accept "differences" sufficiently that this unfortunate, yet necessary, statute can be lifted.
In The Tales Of Beedle The Bard J. K. Rowling once again manages to immerse us completely in a world where magic is part of the fabric of existence. While the stories themselves are well written and intelligent and more reminiscent of the Brothers Grimm than the sanitized versions of tales like Cinderella and Snow White that are told today, and her illustrations are a delight, half the fun of reading the book comes in Dumbledore's annotations. For as well as being a source of information, they are full of personal anecdotes that remind us of his rather unique character and emphasizes many of the lessons he imparted to his students in the Harry Potter books. Two of the best of these accompany "The Fountain Of Fair Fortune" and "The Warlock's Hairy Heart", of which the former, a recounting of the short history of dramatic presentations at Hogwarts, is my personal favourite. Of course it's the anecdotes that go a long way towards helping us believe we are back in the world of Harry Potter and Hogwarts with their mention of familiar names and the "sound" of Dumbledore's voice echoing through them.
Lest anyone think this is an attempt by Ms. Rowling to make a little extra cash for herself (as if she needs it) around one sixth of the list price (one pound, sixty-one pence of the six pound ninty-nine pence asking price in England) from each book sold is being donated to The Children's High Level Group (CHLG). This is a charitable organization established to give the over a million institutionalized children a chance at a better life. Many of the children kept in large residential institutions are no orphans as is commonly believed but are kids whose parents are unable to care for them because of illness, poverty, or because they are ethnic minorities. The long term goal of CHLG is to ensure the implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child across Europe and around the world. Already four million pounds have been raised for CHLG through sales of Beedle and each copy purchased improves the organization's chance of obtaining their goal.
Aside from the fact that The Tales Of Beedle The Bard are sure to delight all fans, young and old, of the Harry Potter series, buying a copy will make a difference to a child somewhere in the world. Until the repeal of the International Statute of Wizarding Secrecy, that's one of the better bits of magic any of us are going to see in our lifetimes.