The Tales of Beedle the Bard Read online

Page 4

  wizards will feel like an axe stroke in your own side, until you will wish you could die of it!”

  At that, the King fell to his knees too, and told the stump that he would issue a proclamation at once, protecting all the witches and wizards of the kingdom, and allowing them to practise their magic in peace.

  “Very good,” said the stump, “but you have not yet made amends to Babbitty!”

  “Anything, anything at all!” cried the foolish King, wringing his hands before the stump.

  “You will erect a statue of Babbitty upon me, in memory of your poor washerwoman, and to remind you for ever of your own foolishness!” said the stump.

  The King agreed to it at once, and promised to engage the foremost sculptor in the land, and have the statue made of pure gold. Then the shamed King and all the noblemen and women returned to the palace, leaving the tree stump cackling behind them.

  When the grounds were deserted once more, there wriggled from a hole between the roots of the tree stump a stout and whiskery old rabbit with a wand clamped between her teeth. Babbitty hopped out of the grounds and far away, and ever after a golden statue of the washerwoman stood upon the tree stump, and no witch or wizard was ever persecuted in the kingdom again.


  The story of “Babbitty Rabbitty and her Cackling Stump” is, in many ways, the most “real” of Beedle’s tales, in that the magic described in the story conforms, almost entirely, to known magical laws.

  It was through this story that many of us first discovered that magic could not bring back the dead – and a great disappointment and shock it was, convinced as we had been, as young children, that our parents would be able to awaken our dead rats and cats with one wave of their wands.

  Though some six centuries have elapsed since Beedle wrote this tale, and while we have devised innumerable ways of maintaining the illusion of our loved ones’ continuing presence,[13] wizards still have not found a way of reuniting body and soul once death has occurred. As the eminent wizarding philosopher Bertrand de Pensées-Profondes writes in his celebrated work A Study into the Possibility of Reversing the Actual and Metaphysical Effects of Natural Death, with Particular Regard to the Reintegration of Essence and Matter: “Give it up. It’s never going to happen.”

  The tale of Babbitty Rabbitty does, however, give us one of the earliest literary mentions of an Animagus, for Babbitty the washerwoman is possessed of the rare magical ability to transform into an animal at will.

  Animagi make up a small fraction of the wizarding population. Achieving perfect, sponta-neous human to animal transformation requires much study and practice, and many witches and wizards consider that their time might be better employed in other ways. Certainly, the application of such a talent is limited unless one has a great need of disguise or concealment. It is for this reason that the Ministry of Magic has insisted upon a register of Animagi, for there can be no doubt that this kind of magic is of greatest use to those engaged in surreptitious, covert or even criminal activity.[14]

  Whether there was ever a washerwoman who was able to transform into a rabbit is open to doubt; however, some magical historians have suggested that Beedle modelled Babbitty on the famous French sorceress Lisette de Lapin, who was convicted of witchcraft in Paris in 1422. To the astonishment of her Muggle guards, who were later tried for helping the witch to escape, Lisette vanished from her prison cell the night before she was due to be executed. Although it has never been proven that Lisette was an Animagus who managed to squeeze through the bars of her cell window, a large white rabbit was subsequently seen crossing the English Channel in a cauldron with a sail fitted to it, and a similar rabbit later became a trusted advisor at the court of King Henry VI.[15]

  The King in Beedle’s story is a foolish Muggle who both covets and fears magic. He believes that he can become a wizard simply by learning incantations and waving a wand.[16] He is completely ignorant of the true nature of magic and wizards, and therefore swallows the preposterous sugges-tions of both the charlatan and Babbitty. This is certainly typical of a particular type of Muggle thinking: in their ignorance, they are prepared to accept all sorts of impossibilities about magic, including the proposition that Babbitty has turned herself into a tree that can still think and talk. (It is worth noting at this point, however, that while Beedle uses the talking-tree device to show us how ignorant the Muggle King is, he also asks us to believe that Babbitty can talk while she is a rabbit.

  This might be poetic licence, but I think it more likely that Beedle had only heard about Animagi, and never met one, for this is the only liberty that he takes with magical laws in the story. Animagi do not retain the power of human speech while in their animal form, although they keep all their human thinking and reasoning powers. This, as every schoolchild knows, is the fundamental difference between being an Animagus, and Transfiguring oneself into an animal. In the case of the latter, one would become the animal entirely, with the consequence that one would know no magic, be unaware that one had ever been a wizard, and would need somebody else to Transfigure one back to one’s original form.) I think it possible that in choosing to make his heroine pretend to turn into a tree, and threaten the King with pain like an axe stroke in his own side, Beedle was inspired by real magical traditions and practices. Trees with wand-quality wood have always been fiercely protected by the wandmakers who tend them, and cutting down such trees to steal them risks incurring not only the malice of the Bowtruckles[17] usually nesting there, but also the ill effect of any protective curses placed around them by their owners. In Beedle’s time, the Cruciatus Curse had not yet been made illegal by the Ministry of Magic,[18] and could have produced precisely the sensation with which Babbitty threatens the King.


  There were once three brothers who were travelling along a lonely, winding road at twilight. In time, the brothers reached a river too deep to wade through and too dangerous to swim across.

  However, these brothers were learned in the magical arts, and so they simply waved their wands and made a bridge appear across the treacherous water. They were halfway across it when they found their path blocked by a hooded figure.

  And Death spoke to them. He was angry that he had been cheated out of three new victims, for travellers usually drowned in the river. But Death was cunning. He pretended to congratulate the three brothers upon their magic, and said that each had earned a prize for having been clever enough to evade him.

  So the oldest brother, who was a combative man, asked for a wand more powerful than any in existence: a wand that must always win duels for its owner, a wand worthy of a wizard who had conquered Death! So Death crossed to an elder tree on the banks of the river, fashioned a wand from a branch that hung there, and gave it to the oldest brother.

  Then the second brother, who was an arrogant man, decided that he wanted to humiliate Death still further, and asked for the power to recall others from Death. So Death picked up a stone from the riverbank and gave it to the second brother, and told him that the stone would have the power to bring back the dead.

  And then Death asked the third and youngest brother what he would like. The youngest brother was the humblest and also the wisest of the brothers, and he did not trust Death.

  So he asked for something that would enable him to go forth from that place without being followed by Death. And Death, most unwillingly, handed over his own Cloak of Invisibility.

  Then Death stood aside and allowed the three brothers to continue on their way and they did so, talking with wonder of the adventure they had had, and admiring Death’s gifts.

  In due course the brothers separated, each for his own destination.

  The first brother travelled on for a week or more, and reaching a distant village, he sought out a fellow wizard with whom he had a quarrel.

  Naturally, with the Elder Wand as his weapon, he could not fail to win the duel that followed.

  Leaving his enemy d