Every few months, my local library hosts an incredible weekend-long book sale. They clear shelf and storage space and put the money they make toward funding programs and bettering they’re already-excellent catalogue. I love these sales. And what’s not to love? You walk off with an armload of great – and cheap! – books, and can feel good about the fact that every penny you spent is supporting the library.
At this last sale, I came across J. K. Rowling’s The Tales of Beedle the Bard. I remembered hearing about the book when it came out, but hadn’t looked much into it, and hadn’t picked it up. I knew it contained five fables from the Wizarding world, one of which had played an important part in the last book of the Harry Potter series. What I didn’t know, though, was that the book included a brief commentary on each story from none other than Dumbledore himself.
I was already leaning toward putting the book in my must-buy stack, but this fact sealed the deal. I was already eager to find out how Rowling handled introducing young readers to metafictional ideas and techniques, and excited to see how she took advantage of the many funny, fascinating, and profound “tricks” open to authors writing stories-within-stories (and, further, a character’s commentaries to stories-within-stories).
Unsurprisingly, Rowling took full advantage of her chosen form. The stories are excellent in themselves – fairy tales, you could argue, perfect for our modern age. They broach big, messy moral conundrums, and all of this within the confines of entertaining, exciting – and, importantly, non-preachy – stories. Each of the five tales compactly display what Rowling does (and does and does again) so well in her larger novels.
One of my favorite passages in the book comes during Dumbledore’s commentary on “The Wizard and the Hopping Pot,” a story, broadly, about an unkind wizard’s eventual comeuppance. Within the passage, Rowling cleverly makes all kinds of important points about children’s literature – including the mistakes inherent in any bowdlerized versions of it – and, in a way, answers the legions of detractors who banned her books and/or claimed that they promoted all kinds of obscene and immoral behavior. I’ll even risk getting a little grandiose and say that, in these few finely tuned paragraphs (along with the accompanying story), Rowling advances a vision of childhood and an argument for the kind of literature that children not only want, but also desperately need.
. . .
From “The Tales of Beedle the Bard,” by J. K. Rowling (pp. 17-19)
The final objection to “The Wizard and the Hopping Pot” remains alive in certain quarters today. It was summed up best, perhaps, by Beatrix Bloxam (1794—1910), author of the infamous Toadstool Tales. Mrs. Bloxam believed that The Tales of Beedle the Bard were damaging to children, because of what she called “their unhealthy preoccupation with the most horrid subjects, such as death, disease, bloodshed, wicked magic, unwholesome characters, and bodily effusions and eruptions of the most disgusting kind.” Mrs. Bloxam took a variety of old stories, including several of Beedle’s, and rewrote them according to her ideals, which she expressed as “filling the pure minds of our little angels with healthy, happy thoughts, keeping their sweet slumber free of wicked dreams, and protecting the precious flower of their innocence.”
The final paragraph of Mrs. Bloxam’s pure and precious reworking of “The Wizard and the Hopping Pot” reads:
Then the little golden pot danced with delight – hoppitty hoppitty hop! – on its tiny rosy toes! Wee Willykins had cured all the dollies of their poorly tum-tums, and the little pot was so happy that it filled up with sweeties for Wee Willykins and the dollies!
“But don’t forget to brush your teethy-pegs!” cried the pot.
And Wee Willykins kissed and huggled the hoppitty pot and promised always to help the dollies and never to be an old grumpy-wumpkins again.
Mrs. Bloxam’s tale has met 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 a pulp.