Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The Tales of Beedle the Bard by JK Rowling--Book Review

I am not a book reviewer. I am a book writer. However, occasionally I feel compelled to discuss a piece of literature that impacts me strongly. The Tales of Beedle the Bard by Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling is one of those books.

I've run into a lot of naysayers about Rowling's books, which I love unabashedly. A lot of adult readers have considered Rowling an intellectual lightweight. If that's what you thought, take a look at Beedle.

Set up as a series of fairy tales told to children in the wizarding world, this version is allegedly a 'new translation by Hermione Grainger' with footnotes and interpretations by Albus Dumbledore. At first I thought this was a ploy to give us yet another Potter holiday must-have item. It's not. Rowling takes these children's tales and cleverly weaves them into a modern-day equivalent of medieval morality tales. For example, in the first story "The Wizard and the Hopping Pot," a hard-hearted son is bequeathed an old pot and a single slipper by his kindly wizard father who's spent his lifetime healing the various ills of the Muggles around him. When the son is approached by desperate Muggles, he denies them help. The pot grow a metallic foot. The more he denies help, the more the pot bangs around with its metallic foot wreaking havoc in the home. Eventually, just to gain peace and quiet, the son agrees to help the wizard. he then puts the slipper on the foot of the pot, and it no longer makes the noise that keeps him awake every night. At first glance, this is a familiar and simple tale--the stereotypical fairy tale where a father posthumously teaches his son the value of compassion.

What sets the tale apart happens in Dumbledore's notes:

The tale, allegedly written in the fifteenth century, lost popularity as a result of the growing prevalence of witch hunts across Europe. Pro-Muggle stories such as this were revised.

"...In the revised story, the Hopping Pot protects an innocent wizard from his torch-bearing, pitchfork-toting neighbors by chasing them away from the wizard's cottage and swallowing them whole..."--Tale of Beedle the Bard, page 13-14.

Dumbledore goes on to say that the wizarding world grew concerned over "...their unhealthy preoccupation with the most horrid subjects such as death, disease, bloodshed, wicked magic, unwholesome characters, bodily effusions and eruptions of the most disgusting kind..." Tales of Beedle the Bard, page 17.

In an attempt to "...fill the pure minds of our little angels with healthy, happy thoughts..." the Tales were rewritten, in a more child-friendly tone. Dumbledore's final assessment of the situation is that the revamped tale "...has met with the same response from generations of Wizarding children: uncontrollable retching, followed by an immediate demand to have the book taken from them and mashed into pump..." Tales of Beedle the Bard, page 19.

What a brilliant and pointed observation on the sanitization of literature in order to 'protect' the minds of our children today! A basic morality tale had been changed, first because the political climate wasn't favorable to the Muggles it painted kindly and then because it might be considered too violent for the fragile minds of the children who read it! I remember debates when I was a kid about the advisability of keeping Tom Sawyer on the shelves. Speaking of banning books, anyone recollect the brouhaha in recent years over a certain children's wizard book that promoted Satanism?

I'm not one to ascribe political motives to the author of a children's book. But, if this was just an unintentional coincidence and not Rowling's reaction to the reception her books have received from certain narrow-minded corners of our society I'll eat the Sorting Hat. This is an intellectual, but highly entertaining and thoroughly age appropriate set of little stories that not only expand a child's knowledge of the Harry Potter world, but gently initiates them into the concept that politics has no place dictating the future of literature. Ever.

On a different and an amazing note, this book's profits will go to help the Children's High Level Group charity, co-founded by Rowling and the Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne to help children in institutional situations--including those with disabilities. What a lovely and wonderful thing to do!

My advice to you? Buy the book. You're helping a charity, you're getting more from the amazing wizarding world of Harry Potter, and Rowling delivers a delightful and instructive series of tales that will amuse and entertain generations from 7 to 70. At just around one hundred pages, it's a perfect stocking stuffer and a fabulous gift.

And for those naysayers who blathered on about Rowling's lack of intellectual integrity, it's time to eat some crow. Hedwig will be providing shoes...and salt...so that their gnawing on their own shoes might be a bit more favorable. Do yourself a favor and learn from a writer who, despite the squawking to the contrary, has broadened her horizons into an insightful and sometimes pointed expose of the atmosphere surrounding modern literature. Beedle is beautifully written, the stories are definite bedtime stories for your young ones, and adults will appreciate the mature and elegant way in which she handles tough topics for wizards and Muggles both.

I give Beedle five Firebolts--four for sheer entertainment value and one because JK Rowling is just so darn smart.