And since I'm done with school now I have more time to read for pleasure and to write middlingly scholarly critiques of said pleasure reads.
I recently purchased the Tales of Beedle the Bard with a Christmas gift card. I had seen the Tales themselves before; when Amazon purchased the special edition at auction they transcribed all the tales and published them on the website. However, the commentary by Dumbledore was new, and mostly delightful, although I have to admit that I had mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I loves me a Dumbledore, but on the other hand, it brought up bad feelings about when she published Quidditch Through the Ages and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them in 2001, and they had introductions by Dumbledore, and since the events of the books concluded in 1997 or '98, I took this to mean that Dumbledore was one of the characters who was going to survive, which was one of the reasons why his death came as such a great shock. Of course, there was never any indication WHEN exactly Dumbledore presumably wrote those introductions; I leapt to a conclusion and was well punished for it. That said, I am glad that Ms. Rowling did in fact provide an explanation for this book, and after all, I certainly wouldn't have wanted her to have included author's notes in the other volumes giving away that Dumbledore was doomed.
I understand why Ms. Rowling doesn't necessarily want to stay in the Harry Potter universe for the rest of her writing career, but if she did wish to do so I think there's almost infinite scope for her to continue to develop it. For example, twice she's mentioned Hairy Snout, Human Heart, "a heartrending account of one man's struggle with lycanthropy"...and if she wanted to write it, there would probably be a market for it. I'd buy it. Also, I'd be immensely interested in reading more about the Wizarding Academy for the Dramatic Arts, although I suppose such a novel might be prone to becoming melodramatic (almost certainly, now that I really think about it).
As to the Tales themselves, I was most favorably impressed by "The Fountain of Fair Fortune," dubiously impressed by "The Warlock's Hairy Heart" and "The Wizarding and the Hopping Pot," and minimally impressed by "Babbity Rabbity and Her Cackling Stump" (although it has the best title). And then, of course, "The Tale of the Three Brothers" was nothing new, except for the commentary, and that probably would have been more impressive had I not already read HPDH, although it was kind of interesting to go back and trace the fabled history of the Elder Wand. One thing stood out about the commentary, and that was Dumbledore's footnote that "No witch has ever claimed to own the Elder Wand. Make of that what you will." Well, I make of it that JKR was being uncharacteristically sexist, or at least more blatantly Freudian than is her wont.
"Babbity Rabbity" is a perfectly delightful, though pretty standard, fairy tale; again, the best part about it is the commentary and the insights about Animagi vs. transfigured wizards, etc. I also enjoyed the academic parody of the "excerpt" from Bertrand de Penseés-Profondes' scholarly treatise about reawakening the dead. (Also, I'm proud to say that I retain enough knowledge of French to know that Bertrand's name translates as "Bertrand of Profound Thoughts".)
I'm quite glad for the commentary on "The Wizard and the Hopping Pot," which expounds upon the story's actual theme and puts it in context, because by itself I don't think that the story sends a very good message, particularly for us Muggles who don't have magical powers. Or let me put it another way; I think that, without the commentary, the message could be easily misconstrued. Of course it's good to help people to the extent that you are able, and of course even when you have to refuse someone help you shouldn't be rude about it, but on the other hand, you shouldn't allow people (or enchanted pots) to take advantage of you. I'm not for a moment suggesting that that was Ms. Rowling's (or Beedle's, if you prefer) intended theme, but I can see how it would be easy for people who already have boundary issues to misconstrue that. By the way, on the subject of the commentary, this was another opportunity for Ms. Rowling to wax sardonically eloquent on the subject of censorship, clueless literary reviewers, inane children's literature, etc. and therefore an utter delight; perhaps more so then the story itself.
"The Warlock's Hairy Heart" appeals to my Gothic sensibilities, so I derived much the same pleasure from it as I derive from the works of Stephen King, Edgar Allen Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, etc. That said, the first time I read it I was shocked to find how grim and gruesome it was, because I thought the title made it sound like it was going to be funny. I don't know why, but "Warlock" is kind of a funny-sounding word (with the "K" sound and all), and the alliteration of "Hairy Heart" kind of sounded funny...so maybe if I'd actually thought about what the words meant instead of how they sound I might have gotten a clue, but I didn't. Anyway, I found it to be pleasantly creepy and wonderfully original (particularly the whole concept behind the "hairy heart"), and again, the commentary was quite illuminating.
But without a doubt my favorite story in the whole book is "The Fountain of Fair Fortune," which kicks ASS! Even though it's a pretty standard fairy-tale formula, it is refreshing to see active and proactive female characters within that familiar paradigm, although I have to point out that I felt that JKR was a little bit harsh in her critique of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White; I mean, the point is well taken about the tradition of passive and poorly developed female characters in fairy tales--typically written by men of course--but in fairness to the characters themselves, it's not as though they chose to "take a prolonged nap"; they were poisoned and enchanted, for crying out loud, which could happen to anyone if they're not careful. My point is that I think it's good to strike a balance and to have stronger and better developed female characters in fairy tales without beating your reader over the head with the magnanimity of your female empowerment and gender equality. Similarly, I thought the comical hijinks of Sir Luckless might have been a bit overdone at times, but at least he's redeemed at the end and isn't just the lovable buffoon--plus, of course, he gets to exemplify the point about tolerating Muggle-magic mixed marriages, which is awesome. There are so many good messages and themes in the story, and yet it never gets annoyingly preachy or condescending, plus it's genuinely exciting and engaging. To sum it all up, I wish this story had existed when I was a kid, because fairy tales are and always have been my weakness; according to Keirsey this is due to my Idealist temperament, but I do think that traditional fairy tales did give me an overly romanticized view of reality, and I think that more stories in this vein would have helped to strike a better balance, fulfilling my desire for fantasy and romance and magic, and yet promoting a more realistic view of life and of love, which I think would have been more healthy for me and helped to save me a lot of trouble in the long run. Rest assured that if I ever have kids, they will hear "The Fountain of Fair Fortune" early and often, as often as they can stand it. (But they'll probably have to discover "The Warlock's Hairy Heart" on their own.)
Oh yeah, the commentary for "The Fountain of Fair Fortune" brought me back to one of the fundamentals that made me fall in love with the Harry Potter series in the first place: the moments of pure, silly humor, unrelated to the actual plot. Being a theatre geek, I enjoyed the story of the doomed pantomime performance. That anecdote juxtaposed against the sardonic humor of Lucius Malfoy's attempt to get the story banned from the Hogwarts library just goes to show off Ms. Rowling's genius.
Speaking for myself, as long as Ms. Rowling wishes to stay in the Harry Potter universe, I'll be willing to follow her, but I'll also follow her anywhere else.