Short Stories

'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!

Get your copy from Booktopia:

the-tales-of-beedle-the-bard

The Best Short Story Collections Right Now

I am a recent short story convert. I enjoy a saga as much as the next reader, but my patience and attention span is growing thinner for door-stopper tomes. I need a break. Short stories are the easiest salve. Much like poems, they can be particularly non-affecting to the novice reader until you stumble upon their secret wonder. In the past, I’ve found short stories to be, well, too short. They can lack the depth and rigour of a novel. But then I had the pleasure of finding a whole slew of contemporary writers who are masters at the form. The stories in these collections may be short, but they’re finely crafted gems - all the more harrowing for their concise, glancing blows on the reader.

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen I picked up this volume while committing the cardinal sin of literary - judging a book by its cover. It was pretty, so I bought it. It wasn’t until I returned home that I realised I’d bought a short story collection. Lucky for me, Nguyen is a master. His novel won the Pulitzer Prize. This follow-up is the work of a writer at the top of his game. Each story is roughly centred around an immigration experience, but there is none of the cumbersome heaviness that a lesser writer would possess with such a topic. Instead, each character is startlingly realised. The humanity of the immigration is experience is touching, occasionally funny, and heart-breaking. I read it in a gulp.

A Few Days In The Country by Elizabeth Harrower Crushingly under-appreciated, Elizabeth Harrower is one of Australia’s greatest literary icons, and the least celebrated. In her latest collection of short stories, she proves herself to be a master of the form - there are few living writers who quite so skilfully provide beautiful worlds in such small bites. There is a darkness and a cruelty to her character insights that are hilariously and deeply recognisable.

In High Places by Fiona McFarlane Another Aussie, this time at the beginning of her career. McFarlane received well-deserved praise for her novel ‘The Night Guest’. This follow-up short story volume showcases her as a writer of immense skill. Funny, dark and varied, the stories are accessible and fun. We travel around the world, we see ghosts, and meet characters at the precipice of mystery and strangeness in their small, relatable lives.

Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami I am a Murakami fan, having enthusiastically completed his door stopper of a masterwork 1Q84. This collection feels as much like a salve for Murakami as it does the reader: a return to the unique romantic noir of his early work, as opposed to the rich surrealism of his more recent novels. Still, the collection left me with barely a scratch - I don’t think it’s his best work. But it’s hard to ignore in a list such as this, as it’s been so popularly reviewed around the world and has dominated any talk of short story collections in 2017. Best read late at night, listening to Leonard Cohen, drinking something that makes you feel sad, drunk and a little romantic.

Upstream by Mary Oliver Yes, okay, this isn’t a short story collection, but I can’t go past it. Mary Oliver’s occasional breaks from her transcendent poetry into prose are well worth your time. Here, Oliver collects a small bundle of essays on the natural world. The prose emerges like a balm. It breathes. Example:

‘Sometimes the desire to be lost again, as long ago, comes over me like a vapour. With growth into adulthood, responsibilities claimed me, so many heavy coats. I didn’t choose them, I don’t fault them, but it took time to reject them. Now in the spring I kneel, I put my face into the packets of violets, the dampness, the freshness, the sense of ever-ness. Something is wrong, I know it, if I don’t keep my attention on eternity. May I be the tiniest nail in the house of the universe, tiny but useful. May I stay forever in the stream.’

Change of Form

I tend to think of myself as an exclusively short story writer. I’ve dabbled in screenplays and obviously write the occasional blog, but in terms of my creative writing endeavours I always write short stories. The other day a new idea popped into my head. I began to think about the ocean, and all the things that are lost there. Word and images began to form in my head, a solid structure surrounding my idea. I let the thoughts develop, exploring the visual setting and emotions that I associated with the idea, then I sat down and began to plot out my story. I drafted this concept numerous times, but something about the narratives I was constructing didn’t feeling quite right. It wasn’t until I verbalised the idea to my boyfriend that I realised what the problem was; this idea I had was not suited to the short story form.

Generally, when I have a realisation such as this about a piece I’m working on I’ll shelve it and work on something else until I can figure out how to make my idea conform to the structure. Often, the idea will completely reform and slip right into the narrative I desire. Other times, this is impossible and the idea itself has to be completely scrapped. But there was something different about this idea, and I knew that if I tried to force into a short story it wouldn’t have the impact I was searching for and the idea would be wasted. So, I did something I’ve never really done before, I turned it into a poem.

I can’t say I’ve ever really had much time for writing poetry- not because I don’t appreciate poetry itself, but because I feel like poetry is one of the purest forms of writing, there’s no room for waffley language or long paragraphs of description. Everything is laid out in a way that is both complex and simplistic, a skill which I don’t believe I’ve ever possessed. Up until now I’ve always thought my poetry had an air of pretention. It always feels as if I corrupted my original idea by trying so hard to writer ‘proper’ poetry.

So, when I sat down to write this poem, I did something different. I didn’t force it. It sat over my notebook, pen in hand, and let the images I had created surrounding this idea flow until I could completely picture the scene and the emotion I wanted to capture, and then I wrote. Granted, this poem isn’t fantastic, it still has a lot of work to go and I doubt it will ever be read by anyone other than myself. But for the first time I had constructed a piece of poetry that I appreciated, something that I can feel proud of, something which has sparked an interest in me to pursue more poetry, to extend my writing beyond the realm of what I know I can do and challenge myself with a new form.

I have spent many years being reluctant to the idea of even attempting to write poetry, mainly due to a fear that it just won’t be good enough. Now that I look back, I see how foolish that was. I want my writing to be a challenge, I don’t want to write the same stories over and over again and never experiment with anything other than what I know. As Theodore Roosevelt rightly said; “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty…”

 

Originally Posted on The Musings of  a Blackie