Rowling on Beedle: “Distillation of HP Themes”

Let me confess that when I read Ms. Rowling’s description of Tales of Beedle the Bard in the Sotheby’s Auction Catalogue that I didn’t think to enter a bid. I doubt those who had the money to enter that fray with a hope of winning jumped in because of what she said about the book, either, but there is an interesting question for us to discuss that is hidden away in her essentially unnecessary book description (what could she have written to make buyers more interested? less interested?). It’s near the end:

“When I conceived the idea of writing The Tales of Beedle the Bard in full, I was intrigued to discover how wizarding fairy-tales would differ from those told to muggle children. In the latter, witches and wizards are relegated to walk-on, if pivotal, roles; within The Tales of Beedle the Bard, they themselves are the heroes and heroines.

You might think that magic would solve any fairy-tale dilemma, but it transpires that there is always somebody who can cast a more powerful curse, or a creature who will not yield to one’s best enchantments. Then, the intractable and eternal human predicaments of love, death and the pursuit of happiness are not necessarily resolved any more easily by the possessors of wands.

So these wizarding fairy-tales have much in common with their muggle counterparts: they exist to express human hopes and fears, and to teach a lesson or two. There are, however, a few important differences: witches tend to save themselves, rather than waiting around for a man to do it, and young wizards are warned, not against the dangers and temptations of the outside world, but of their own magical powers.

The Tales of Beedle the Bard is really a distillation of the themes found in the Harry Potter books, and writing it has been the most wonderful way to say goodbye to a world I loved and lived in for seventeen years.”

A remarkably moralizing, lesson-laden bit of writing, no? Must be the genre. Anyway, the meatiest part of that departure from “my stories have no intentional instruction in them,” is in her assertion that “The Tales of Beedle the Bard is really a distillation of the themes found in the Harry Potter books.” Looking over the Amazon summaries of these stories, do any of you want to take a stab at the themes these stories are a distillation of? She gives us “predicaments of love, death, and the pursuit of happiness” which will have to be teased out into something resembling a “theme” and she points to “character inside” being more important than “flash outside,” an echo or pointer to her Harvard Commencement speech as well as to Harry Potter.

Here’s the HogPro challenge: List 5 Harry Potter themes you see “distilled” or suggested in the 5 story synopses. May the best distiller win!

Book plug time: another review of How Harry Cast His Spell, this one from the Wheat Stone Forum, titled ‘Harry Potter: Evil or Just Medieval?’.

Is Harry Potter a literary Christ figure, or the newest plot to turn you and your children into satanic evildoers?

When the Harry Potter books were new, many Christians refused to sell or even read them because of the elements of witchcraft found in the plot. It became fashionable in some Christian circles to swap Harry Potter horror stories and read books on why the fictional teenage boy was the next worst thing to happen to Christendom. Hating Harry became a popular pastime. It still is, though some of the energy of the anti-Harry Potter movement seems to have worn away as the books have aged and become less of a novelty.

Was this outcry deserved? Have hordes of schoolchildren really embraced witchcraft at the bidding of the green eyed wizard boy? Have we all been taken in by the golden griffin?

Snopes and agree that the internet rumors you’ve probably all heard about the scores of young people eagerly embracing Satanism have no basis in fact. Have individual readers turned from the straight and narrow after entering Harry’s world? Perhaps, but that’s not Harry’s fault. If John Granger is right, it’s not even Potter author J.K. Rowling’s fault.

John Granger, the “Potter Pundit,” holds a degree in classical languages and literature from the University of Chicago and is one of the first real academics to take a careful look at the Harry Potter phenomenon. (Tyndale generously offered to send me a copy of How Harry Cast His Spell: The meaning behind the mania for J.K. Rowling’s bestselling books when I wrote about John’s ideas elsewhere after hearing him speak.) Granger argues that, far from being hotbeds of dangerous occult activity, the Harry Potter books are positively riddled with powerful Christian symbols. In fact, he argues that this seminal Christian imagery is the reason Rowling’s books are so popular. The books have sold millions of copies worldwide and shaped the imagination of a generation because they are deeply and fundamentally Christian.

What? Deeply and fundamentally Christian? Are these the same books that are supposed to be lying in wait for your innocent children, subversively leading them down the path to doom? Yup, same books. If Granger is right, the source of the controversy behind this series lies not in the books themselves but rather in the fact that those reading them aren’t very well educated.

Western literature, built as it is upon a Judeo-Christian worldview, cannot be rightly interpreted without at least a rudimentary knowledge of scripture. Unfortunately, as the west has become increasingly secular, many no longer have this basic knowledge—hence the need for footnotes in newer editions of classical works explaining biblical allusions that would have been obvious to almost anyone just a generation or two ago.

Rowling’s books need similar footnotes, and Granger provides them for us. In How Harry Cast His Spell Mr. Granger unlocks many of the ‘secrets’ of Rowling’s success by explaining the origins and meanings of many of the story elements. Granger examines everything from character names to book structure to literary alchemy in a clear and easy-to-read manner that will delight both nerds and novices. He even explains why these books have appealed to people of so many different faiths and cultures, and why Dumbledore’s first name is Albus. (Come on, you know you’ve always wondered.)

How Harry Cast His Spell is a good introduction to some of the ideas and symbols that undergird not only the Harry Potter books but much of western literature. More importantly, it is a useful jumping-off point for discussions of bigger and better things. Mr. Granger, who has taught for Barnes & Noble University, given numerous radio and TV interviews and even made an appearance in the special features section of the Order of the Phoenix DVD, repeatedly invites his readers to interact with him on his blog and through email. How Harry Cast His Spell should not be a stopping place in your quest for a better understanding of these popular books and the culture from which they came, but rather the beginning of a long conversation.

Thank you, Rachel Motte!


  1. As fun as this will be with synopses…we do get another go when we all get our copies of the entire works, right? I distrust synopses rather like I distrust movie versions of a text. But that’s just me…………..

  2. When the book is out and we have an actual text, we’ll be going over the Tales one-by-one and taken all together. I suspect each thread along those lines and one in itself will be dedicated largely to the ‘Dumbledore commentary’ Ms. Rowling has promised.

    And, before that, of course, we’ll have Ms. Anelli’s *Harry, A History* to digest. Insomuch as that will largely be a record of Fandom insider events to which few HogPros were privy or especially interested (the birth of MuggleNet? the secret of LeakyCast’s success?), I doubt it will merit more than one post. Unless the Rowling interviews have substantial “look along” suggestions for serious readers, in which case we’ll give “text first” standards of canon a real workout.

    What if Ms. Anelli mentions Hogwarts Professor and my books or if she leaves this niche of Fandom aside? I think I’m obliged to feign indifference either way, aren’t I? (She interviewed Connie Neal for the book so that’s something.)

  3. Arabella Figg says

    John, you wrote: “What if Ms. Anelli mentions Hogwarts Professor and my books or if she leaves this niche of Fandom aside?”

    I think calling you, your books and what you and we All-Pros are doing “a niche of Fandom” is, well, silly. The “narrow” part of the pie will turn out to be the the piece with the most (and tasty) fruit, and the only one worth eating down the road (see my comment on the previous Great Books thread).

    I find it curious that Rowling continues to paddle shallow waters regarding whom she allows into her Headmaster’s office. Perhaps she wants to keep some mystery, but you’d think, with all the Great Ideas she’s put into her work, she’d be eager to also interact with those plunging to her intellectual and spiritual depths.

    Remus Loopy just plunged from fridge top to floor in a flash to chase Fullatricks down the hall…

  4. I think i’ll try my luck on this one with a little theory of mine:
    (The book themes are taken mainly from the Patterns in Potter series on the HPProgs Podcast where they are flushed out much more fully)

    Book one – Harry learns he is a wizard. The main theme being learning how to deal with his newfound power. This theme is clearly reflected in the first BtB tale with the hopping pot.

    Book two – Harry struggles with identity issues Gryffindor/Slytherin Pureblood/Mudblood. It is beautifully distilled into the quote by the late great Dumbledore “It is our choices Harry far more than our abilities…”. This quote also beautifully summarizes the message of the second BtB tale and is the very essence of the fountain of fair fortune.

    Book three – Harry learns to deal with his emotions.
    Book four – Harry learns to deal with pride.
    Both of these issues come up in the story of the Warlock who tries to cutoff his emotions and is lead to his downfall because of his pride.

    Books five and six deal with Harry’s frustration at not being trusted (OoTP) and his learning to trust others (HBP). Babbitty Rabbitty echoes some of these issues of trust and deception.

    And of course the tale of the three brothers clearly distills the message of book seven about learning to face death.

  5. Johnny said, “actually looking through the Bibliography of “Harry, A History”, Melissa Anelli lists some books, among them “Looking For God in Harry Potter” and “Unlocking Harry Potter: Five Keys for the Serious Reader.”

    Ah, well, there you go, John! I’ve of course not looked at the bibliography at all so no wonder I didn’t see your name.

    You’re mentioned & not negatively either. That’s something!

  6. John, actually looking through the Bibliography of “Harry, A History”, Melissa Anelli lists some books, among them “Looking For God in Harry Potter” and “Unlocking Harry Potter: Five Keys for the Serious Reader”. 🙂

  7. Arabella Figg wrote:
    “I find it curious that Rowling continues to paddle shallow waters regarding whom she allows into her Headmaster’s office. Perhaps she wants to keep some mystery, but you’d think… ….she’d be eager to also interact with those plunging to her intellectual and spiritual depths.”

    My guess is that it is connected to C S Lewis’ advice on how to get past the “sleeping dragons”, as likely referenced by JKR in the Hogwarts motto: “Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus”.

    And so if JKR entered into debate with say Prof John and Travis P – would it not give the whole game away?

  8. Arabella Figg says

    SeaJay, you bring up a point to consider, but Rowling has already spoken about her faith and its influence on how and why she wrote the books, admitted the Christian thrust of the series (while acknowledging the series isn’t a tract, and has also spoken at length about her literary influences.

    As far as I understand, the game has been given away. And no one apparently minds.

    Having used literary influences and traditional Christian symbolism so overtly in the books, and having spoken directly about same, why not speak with those who understand and speak intelligently about them, thus opening doors to great literature and understanding symbolism for young fans who are “under the radar?” I’m sure literature teachers everywhere would rejoice.

    Fled and Gorge are up to tricks again…

  9. Arabella you are of course correct that JKR has made no secret of her faith. However it seems to me that the ‘penny has not dropped’ yet with most HP readers.

    ..and by the way, in my earlier reply to you, instead of putting ‘give the game away’ at the end I do so wish I had written ‘let the cat out of the bag’ sigh…

  10. “As far as I understand, the game has been given away. And no one apparently minds.”

    Well, Arabella, I think some of them DO mind – they are the same ones who didn’t like Deathly Hallows, and were irritated because it might turn out that love saves all back in Order of the Phoenix. They are also the ones who profess loudly that they love Harry Potter books. Huh? That never made sense to me. If I didn’t like the direction an author was going, then I quit reading the books by said author rather than ranting about what she should have written. Stupidest arguement I have ever heard.

    But I do agree that I had hoped that at some point after the books were all done, that Rowling would embrace her readers who are over the age of 14. And I don’t understand either. Maybe it has to do with fame. She really got burned by all of that when she was first writing, and she might just not want to give the press, or those who disagree with her religious overtones, any reason to attack from the other side of the fence.

    I think I’m going to wait for the book before speculating. I’ve read the synopsis for each one and they sound wonderful. But I’m looking forward to reading them with a fresh and open mind. If I think too much about it now, I’m afraid it will spoil it.

    btw, John – that’s a marvelous, and well-deserved, review. I loved the book, and plan to re-read it soon. But right now, I have to put together a short “movie” for a friend who is doing a fund-raiser dinner. Problem is, I’m using someone else’s photos, which is . . . not terribly easy. Even photoshop can’t fix a photo that is just awful because the person doesn’t understand how to focus the camera! Argh! But that’s another problem altogether. I’ll be back when I am done.


  11. If people think Jo’s come in for a great amount of criticism & even hatred from the Harry Haters, that’s nothing compared to what she would get if she started seriously talking about her Christian beliefs. Especially if she held to a primarily orthodox view of the faith. And the vitriol & hatred would come from the open minded, tolerant, rational mainstream people.

    The worst sin one can commit nowadays is to actually truly believe in something & exclude contradictory beliefs as untrue. Objective truth & reality is anathema to our post modern sensibilities.

    Now, if Jo talked about her beliefs in a sort of “oh, it’s true for me but not necessarily for you sort of way,” then she’d be mostly fine.

    Still, I’m guessing she hasn’t really talked much about the Christian aspects because, 1) she knows she’ll get hit by both sides of the culture warriors & 2) she thinks it so obvious that she doesn’t really need to talk about it, as per her interviews where she said if she did talk more openly people would know the ending. Of course, she talks about other obvious things like prejudice & tolerance for others, but those are pretty pc topics.

  12. Arabella Figg says

    Ah, SeaJay, you made me laugh with “cat out of the bag”!

    I do agree that “the penny has not dropped” for all readers, especially very young ones, who don’t need to bother with counting change. However, as Rowling’s readerships spans all age and maturity levels, I think it would generate interest to extrapolate on what went into her books. And as young kids see older siblings, friends, etc., suddenly reading great lit due to Harry Potter; well, it would raise their curiousity level, even if only to reading today’s approximation of Classic Illustrated Comics. “Manga Tale of Two Cities!!”

    Pat, you’re right; some avowed fans would object, but I’d think these were in the minority and have shown closed minds. Their oxymoronic love of the books is brain-twiddling, but as long as their neurons still fire, I guess it won’t damage them too much.

    Having stood up to the Harry-hating religious right, Rowling certainly has the spine to speak on what has gone into canon. I can’t see letting a small number of fans (and there will always be such fans) “dictate” what she speaks about now.

    Good luck with your film project; my sympathies.

    Cats are great posers–even poseurs–in or out of bags….

  13. Arabella Figg says

    RevGeorge, what you say is sadly true. But I think there’s been some misconceptions regarding what I think she’d be interested in talking about.

    I’m not thinking spiritual specifics, nor Christian specifics (such as you cite) that might divide. I’m thinking the influences and hat-tips to Great Lliterature, the alchemical structure for her books, the keys John has written about specifically in UHP and DHL.

    She could also discuss traditional symbolism, but do it in a Western literary historical context. She doesn’t have to go into her personal beliefs to discuss those things. John and Travis could have a perfectly good conversation about such topics, which she hasn’t discussed with other interviewers. Check out what John says in DHL that he would like to discuss with Rowling–nothing inflammatory there. One thing he said was that he’d like to see her bookshelves. I don’t think there would be too much flamethrowing in that.

    Kitties, contrary to popular opinion, definitely have personal beliefs; they just choose to keep them to themselves…

  14. Oh no, I agree with you, Arabella. I just despair of any of that thoughtful discussion of literary tradition & themes happening. As long as Jo is only interviewed by journalists & fanboys or girls, we’re not likely to see a great in depth look into the world view of HP.

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