Harry Potter isn't a character in The Tales of Beedle the Bard, but that familiar name, with its lightning-bolt "P," takes pride of place atop the book's cover.
As it should. J.K. Rowling's latest addition to the Potter canon, published Thursday, doesn't feature new adventures at Hogwarts, but it expands the magical universe she created in her seven enormously popular novels in intriguing new ways.
Potter fans will of course have heard of The Tales of Beedle the Bard. The book, a collection of five fairy tales for wizarding children, played a crucial role in the final novel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
In that book, a very old copy of Tales was bequeathed by Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore to Hermione Granger, and, ever the girl to do her homework, she spent much of the novel puzzling out the significance of one fable, The Tale of the Three Brothers — research that helped Harry defeat the evil Lord Voldemort.
The wizard Beedle purportedly wrote the five stories down in the 15th century, but don't fear any struggle with their language in this book, a modern translation "from the ancient runes by Hermione Granger," as the title page advises.
Once again, Rowling demonstrates her mastery of folklore and how it works. Where the novels are expansive, packed with characters and plot lines and all the paraphernalia of an alternate universe, the stories are spare and focused, none as long as 20 pages.
There are some differences between wizarding fables and the Muggle kind (Muggles being nonmagical people), as Rowling points out in her introduction.
For example, "Beedle's witches are much more active in seeking their fortunes than our fairy-tale heroines . . . witches who take their fates into their own hands, rather than taking a prolonged nap or waiting for someone to return a lost shoe."
But, like all genuine folk tales — not the sanitized, safe, boring modern versions — these stories bristle with everything from bodily fluids (The Wizard and the Hopping Pot) to bloody murder (The Warlock's Hairy Heart).
And like all fables, they have moral points to make, and their recurring themes are universal: humanity's struggles with prejudice, power and death. Hating others — for their race, creed, whom they choose to marry — inevitably turns and poisons those who hate; power always puts those who crave it in peril; death, no matter how strong one's magical powers, is final.
Tales didn't exist outside the pages of Hallows until Rowling created seven hand-written, illustrated copies of it last year. Richly bound and garnished with jewels, six of them became gifts to her friends.
The seventh copy was auctioned to benefit the Children's High Level Group, a charity for kids that Rowling co-founded (www.chlg.org/). Amazon paid a cool $4-million for that copy, and it became clear the little book had a mission.
So now it's in bookstores, in a first U.S. printing of 3.5-million copies (modest for a Rowling book) and priced at $12.99 (proceeds again go to Children's High Level Group).
There are no real jewels on its cover, but the stories — and Professor Dumbledore's commentaries on them — are little gems.
The commentaries, the introduction tells us, were a surprising discovery "among the many papers that Dumbledore left in his will to the Hogwarts Archives."
It's a pleasure to hear the old wizard's voice again. He writes of The Wizard and the Hopping Pot, "A simple and heartwarming fable, one might think — in which case, one would reveal oneself to be an innocent nincompoop."
He reminisces about an ill-fated dramatic production of The Fountain of Fair Fortune, comments witheringly on those who rewrite or censor fairy tales to "protect" children and ruminates on the nature of love.
He is also shockingly disingenuous in his commentary on The Tale of the Three Brothers, which played that critical role in Hallows — a discrepancy that will no doubt have dedicated Potterites racing to re-read the books, heat up the message boards and solve a new mystery.
The Harry Potter phenomenon over? Not a chance.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.