Dec. 7, 2008 -- Dump the Xanax and grab J.K. Rowling's "Tales of Beedle the Bard." This charming little book is the best anti-anxiety medication on the market. Under the Bard's spell, readers will forget at least briefly the tsunami of bad news and find themselves happy and entertained.
This little Bard presents five fairy tales with commentary by Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts, Harry Potter's famous school. The author is ostensibly Beedle the Bard, a 15th-century wizard.
But of course it's Rowling who is the author — and illustrator. Her black-and-white drawings have charm but are not of professional caliber.
Bard originated as a gift Rowling made for friends. It is now being published for the general public (3.5 million copy first printing) to raise money for children in Eastern European institutions.
The book's first tale again reveals why Rowling is a genius with words, blessed with wisdom, a sly wit and an effortless prose style.
"The Wizard and the Hopping Pot" concerns a selfish young wizard who inherits a magic cauldron from his father. When he refuses to help the Muggle (human) villagers, the cauldron torments him until the young wizard learns the value of being a good neighbor.
For a brief, horrifying second, you wonder: Why is Rowling channeling William Bennett's moralistic Children's Book of Virtues?
Dumbledore to the rescue. Of the first story, he notes, "A simple and heartwarming fable, one might think — in which case, one would reveal oneself to be an innocent nincompoop."
Then, in his trademark gently humorous manner, Dumbledore offers historical perspective on this "good neighbor" stuff from the witch and wizard side. In the 15th century, "offering to cast a spell on the Muggle next door's sickly pig was tantamount to volunteering to fetch the firewood for one's own funeral pyre."
Of course Rowling isn't recommending being mean to one's neighbors. But the centuries-long battle between wizards and Muggles was complicated. Part of Rowling's gift is her willingness to explore complicated topics in a children's book.
Rowling's fairy tales are more Grimm than Disney — in a good way. (Parents be warned: "The Warlock's Hairy Heart" is great but terrifying.)
Potter fanatics will scour the book for clues and references. But many readers will most cherish this chance to visit with Dumbledore once more.