Harry Potter

'The Tales of Beedle the Bard' - Review

A short story by any other name simply has to be a tale, cautionary or otherwise.  That’s why I’ve chosen a collection of ‘tales’ to review in honour of For Pity Sake Publishing’s current creative writing competition for short stories and poetry. That and the fact that 2017 marks 20 years of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter phenomenon.

I’d hardly classify myself as a Harry Potter devotee. I never drew a lightning-shaped scar on my forehead, changed the frames of my glasses to nerdy round, nor joined the queue at the local bookstore on the day new additions to the series were released.

But I was certainly reeled into the franchise hook, line and sinker. I didn’t want the series to end with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I wanted the magic, quite literally, to continue.

J.K. Rowling truly is a marketing wizard. For all the people out there  like me, (and I suspect there are more than a few) she’s produced, or had a hand in producing, fabulous little offshoots to the main Harry Potter series, such as Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and most recently, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. The former poses as an official Hogwarts text book and the latter is the script of a West End theatre production.

And while none of the offshoot offerings are substitutes for an eighth book in the Harry Potter series, The Tales of Beedle the Bard comes closest to keeping the magic alive in my view.

There are five tales in the compilation – The Wizard and the Hopping Pot, The Fountain of Fair Fortune, The Warlock’s Hairy Heart, Babbity Rabbity and Her Cackling Stump and the most famous story of all, The Tale of the Three Brothers, the ultimate cautionary tale expounded in the last book in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

The Tales of Beedle the Bard presents in every way like a real-world short story collection complete with explorations of each tale by none other than Professor Albus Dumbledore (headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry) written some eighteen months prior to his untimely demise in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

Hermione Grainger, one of Harry Potter’s closest cohorts and widely credited as being ‘the brightest witch of her age’, gets a nod for her translation of the tales from the original Ancient Runes.

But it is J.K. Rowling’s own introduction to the collection that seals the magical contract, so to speak.  The author never once concedes the smallest amount of territory to the notion that a secret wizarding parallel universe is, indeed, a fantasy.  She stays completely in character, referring to Dumbledore as if he actually existed and even footnoting some of his observations throughout the collection in order to make the deeper wizarding concepts clearer to Muggles or non-magic folk.

Rowling also deftly describes two key differences between Beedle the Bard’s tales, read to wizarding children for centuries, and the fairy tales of the Muggle realm. The first and most prominent of these is that magic isn’t a panacea for the trials and tribulations of everyday life. Witches and wizards have as many problems as Muggle women and men and, it could even be argued, that the application of magic to ordinary life-problems exacerbates them in surprising and often gruesome ways.

The second difference is a more feminist one. Rowling compares the inert female heroines of Muggle fairy stories (think Cinderella or Snow White who need to be saved by a handsome prince) to the witches in Beadle’s tales who are generally more self-directed, even ingenious, in their quests to solve their problems. It’s an interesting take and one that’s the prerogative of the female author to articulate. And yet I suspect it’s real purpose is to further underpin the whole scrupulously constructed concept that there really is a magical realm operating in parallel to the one we mere Muggles currently know.

Which reminds me of the exchange between Harry and the now deceased Dumbledore ‘in the beyond’ in the final chapters of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.  The place where these two meet resembles Kings Cross Station only much cleaner, as Harry himself observes, and filled with heavenly white light.

Harry says, “Tell me one last thing. Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?"

To which Dumbledore replies, "Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” (Relive the movie moment here.)

Way to keep the magic alive, J.K. Rowling!

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Harry Potter Versus the Ghosts of Literature Past: What Makes a Classic?

Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, the Brontë sisters, William Wordsworth, Jane Austen.  These names are the first in a very long list of authors associated with ‘literary genius’ that are shovelled down our throats in English classes at school.  I should stress here that I am an English girl who received a very English education.  This included years of patting ourselves on the back for what a good job we did studying a book that, more often than not, has been studied since its release some two-hundred-years ago. And I mustn’t forget to mention the seriously biased teaching of these books and how they glorify colonialism. That’s not to say that I don’t tear up when Jane finally marries Rochester or I crack a smile while reading one of Shakespeare’s comedies.

This list got me thinking. Why is it that the only ‘great writers’ we first think of are all dead, writing the same generic characters? The damsel in distress, the brooding Byronic hero, the young pauper setting out on a quest for adventure and fortune?  These are just a few characters I have read time and time again in the classics, and I’ve seen them trickle down through history.  You’ll find them in most books in your local Dymocks store, just ask for E. L. James or Stephanie Meyer.  I think there is a worrying backwards focus in the way we teach English nowadays which has resulted in a literary dry spell in terms of originality and diversity.

Why are we so reluctant to celebrate modern authors in line with the classic authors of the centuries before us?  In their day, writers such as Austen, Shakespeare and Dickens were heralded for their modern, intelligent and witty use of language, yet we are so reluctant to redefine these terms to suit the 21st century.  It seems that the quality of modern writing is the elephant in the room; and don’t let the use of ‘mastery’ we so often see in book reviews today fool you.  One of the books for me growing up that I felt deserved to breach this canonical list was Harry Potter. At first I was dubious about a series that focused on magic, but  once I started to read, I was laughing and sobbing like no other book had made me before  Here, the term ‘mastery’ can be used, and deservingly so.

Having only just reached its 20th anniversary, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series has sold over 400 million copies and been translated into 68 languages since its release in 1997, but is still – despite Rowling’s obvious talented writing and gigantic fan base – in some regards thought of as a ‘kiddies’ book.  This puts Rowling’s status as ‘good but not as good as the classics’, or in other words, not good enough to be taught at schools, which seems an injustice when the series is globally adored and revered in the literary world.  Harry Potter should be considered a new classic, not only because of Rowling’s frankly amazing imagination and wonderful way with words, but the immense franchise the books have created, now worth some $25 billion dollars.  The reason for this overwhelming success: J.K. Rowling is a bloody good writer.

What makes Rowling so great is that she challenges the stereotypes found in the colonial era and the ‘great age of literature’. The female characters throughout the series are wonderfully powerful, strong, and confident.  She considers deeper themes than fickle love interests like life and death, identity and purpose.  And to anyone who argues that Rowling is racially unrepresentative, all I say is look not only at the international readership but consider the diversity of characters across Harry Potter, including African, Egyptian, Chinese and Indian.  The decision to cast Noma Dumezweni, an English actress of Swazi descent as Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child last year provoked huge backlash because people apparently didn’t want to see Hermione as a black woman.  Criticisms of the inclusivity of Rowling’s writing don’t stop here: the series has regularly been dubbed anti-Christian owing to its celebration of all things ‘occult’.  It seems the social and religious conservatism of the classics is trying to cling on for dear life.

Perhaps it’s my frustration and boredom with the books we learn about in school being recycled year after year. Do you really expect a modern, suburban student to sympathise with a Scottish loon hallucinating daggers?  Or a sad old English guy wandering as lonely as a cloud?  I love literature so much I decided to put myself in thousands of dollars’ worth of debt so I can read more of it, and I think there are some books everybody should know, even if they don’t read.  But you can’t complain that young people nowadays don’t care about reading. Literature is supposed to be enjoyable. Instead, young people are being bored to death by reading books that no longer have cultural relevance, all for the sake of celebrating the ‘classics’. Is it because J.K. Rowling’s writing isn’t that great or popular that Harry Potter isn’t discussed in schools? No. It’s because the series works against a historical religious stronghold on society and a strict check-list of requirements for a book to be good. What we need in schools today is someone to close the gap between those who love to read and those who have to read.  Someone who can breathe excitement into a story, someone who at the core is representative of today’s multicultural societies.  Someone like J. K. Rowling.

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