The Bard who saved Christmas

J.K. Rowling’s ‘Tales of Beedle the Bard’ will bring millions to charity, and joy to booksellers

The Bard who saved Christmas

J.K. Rowling’s writing career is a series of one first after another, from being the first author to hold simultaneous worldwide midnight launches to the most remarkable first of all: becoming the first billionaire storyteller. Now, after setting her normal precedent en route—highest purchase price ($4 million) for a modern literary manuscript sold at auction—Harry Potter’s creator is about to provide more millions for a children’s charity she co-founded and, incidentally, brighten Christmas for booksellers anxious about economic hard times.

The Tales of Beedle the Bard began as a plot device in the seventh and final Potter novel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. In his will, murdered Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore left Hermione Granger a copy of the children’s classic—a story collection familiar to Ron Weasley but unknown to Muggle-raised Harry and Hermione. Dumbledore’s bequest gave the trio their first knowledge of the Hallows, information that would later prove crucial in the struggle against Lord Voldemort.

As soon as she’d published Deathly Hallows in July 2007, Rowling began working on the five stories told in Tales. It was typical of her. In the rich Dickensian stew that is Harry’s fictional world, minor characters are a dime a dozen. Rowling may have refused to engage seriously in what fantasy writers call world-building, a detailed explanation of the social, economic and political structures of their settings—for all a reader can glean from the Potter novels, adult jobs in the magical world seem pretty much limited to teaching, the civil service, or dragon wrangling. But she’s almost compulsive in filling in the personal details of the most peripheral of characters. Nor did she ever forget them, even when hundreds of pages passed without an appearance. And while there was no point in fleshing out Beedle, a semi-mythical Mother Goose figure long dead before the events of Harry’s lifetime, there was good reason to write his five tales.

The stories are “The Tale of the Three Brothers” (already included in full in Deathly Hallows), “Babbity Rabbity and Her Cackling Stump” (the very mention of which makes Hermione giggle), “The Wizard and the Hopping Pot” and “The Fountain of Fair Fortune”—all mentioned in the novel—and “The Warlock’s Hairy Heart.” They are purportedly freshly translated from the original Runic by Hermione, with learned commentary by Dumbledore himself. Rowling made six handwritten and personally illustrated (in pen and ink) copies, each bound in leather with five hand-chased silver ornaments (each representing a tale), and different semiprecious stones.

They were made, the author said, “to thank six key people who have been very closely connected to the series, and these were people for whom a piece of jewellery wasn’t going to cut it.” (Two of those six have since identified themselves: Barry Cunningham, Rowling’s first editor at Bloomsbury in Britain, and Arthur Levine, her U.S. editor at Scholastic.) And, Rowling added, in reference both to the Potter series and to a key magical number, “If I’m doing six I really have to do seven, and the seventh book will be for this cause, which is so close to my heart.”

It was for that cause—the Children’s High Level Group charity—that the seventh copy went on the auction block in December 2007. Co-founded in 2005 by Rowling and Baroness Emma Nicholson, a member of the European Parliament, the charity aims to improve the welfare of children living in large residential institutions, primarily in eastern Europe. The consensus pre-sale estimate was about $100,000; eventually prevailed for $4 million. That money went to the CHLG, as did ownership of the story rights. On July 31, Harry’s birthday, the CHLG announced it would publish on Dec. 4 three English-language editions, printed and distributed by Bloomsbury (Penguin Books will carry its version in Canada), Scholastic and Amazon.

Although the Canadian and British publishers have declined to disclose their print runs, they will be proportional to the 3.5 million copies (at $12.95 each) Scholastic will distribute in the U.S. market. Given those figures, and the 100,000 collector’s editions (with more of Rowling’s drawings and other extras) to be published by Amazon and sold for $100 each—and the size of the story-bereft Potter nation—it seems likely the charity will end up with more than $8 million, and booksellers with a very Merry Christmas.