The Tales of Beedle the Bard - 05 - The Tale of The Three Brothers 三兄弟传说
There were once three brothers who were traveling 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 the three new victims, for travelers 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 traveled on for a week 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 dead upon the floor the oldest brother proceeded to an inn, where he boasted loudly of the powerful wand he had snatched from Death himself, and of how it made him invincible.
That very night, another wizard crept upon the oldest brother as he lay, wine-sodden upon his bed.
The thief took the wand and for good measure, slit the oldest brother's throat.
And so Death took the first brother for his own.
Meanwhile, the second brother journeyed to his own home, where he lived alone.
Here he took out the stone that had the power to recall the dead, and turned it thrice in his hand.
To his amazement and his delight, the figure of the girl he had once hoped to marry, before her untimely death, appeared at once before him.
Yet she was silent and cold, separated from him as by a veil.
Though she had returned to the mortal world, she did not truly belong there and suffered.
Finally the second brother, driven mad with hopeless longing, killed himself so as to truly join her.
And so Death took the second brother from his own.
But though Death searched for the third brother for many years, he was never able to find him.
It was only when he had attained a great age that the youngest brother finally took off the Cloak of Invisibility and gave it to his son.
And then he greeted Death as an old friend, and went with him gladly, and, equals, they departed this life.
Albus Dumbledore on “The Tale of the Three Brothers”
This story made a profound impression on me as a boy.
I heard it first from my mother, and it soon became the tale I requested more often than any other at bedtime.
This frequently led to arguments with my younger brother, Aberforth, whose favourite story was “Grumble the Grubby Goat”.
The moral of “The Tale of the Three Brothers” could not be any clearer: human efforts to evade or overcome death are always doomed to disappointment.
The third brother in the story ( “the humblest and also the wisest” ) is the only one who understands that, having narrowly escaped Death once, the best he can hope for is to postpone their next meeting for as long as possible.
This youngest brother knows that taunting Death – by engaging in violence, like the first brother, or by meddling in the shadowy art of necromancy, (Note1: Necromancy is the Dark Art of raising the dead. It is a branch of magic that has never worked, as this story makes clear. JKR) like the second brother - means pitting oneself against a wily enemy who cannot lose.
The irony is that a curious legend has grown up around this story, which precisely contradicts the message of the original.
This legend holds that the gifts Death gives the brothers – an unbeatable wand, a stone that can bring back the dead, and an Invisibility Cloak that endures for ever – are genuine objects that exist in the real world.
The legend goes further: if any person becomes the rightful owner of all three, then he or she will become “master of Death”, which has usually been understood to mean that they will be invulnerable, even immortal.
We may smile, a little sadly, at what this tells us about human nature.
The kindest interpretation would be: “Hope springs eternal”. (note2: This quotation demonstrates that Albus Dumbledore was not only exceptionally well read in wizarding terms, but also that he was familiar with the writings of Muggle poet Alexander Pope. JKR)
In spite of the fact that, according to Beedle, two of the three objects are highly dangerous, in spite of the clear message that Death comes for us all in the end, a tiny minority of the wizarding community persists in believing that Beedle was sending them a coded message, which is the exact reverse of the one set down in ink, and that they alone are clever enough to understand it.
Their theory (or perhaps “desperate hope” might be a more accurate term) is supported by little actual evidence.
True Invisibility Cloaks, though rare, exist in this world of ours; however, the story makes it clear that Death's Cloak is of a uniquely durable nature.
(Note 3: Invisibility Cloaks are not, generally, infallible.
They may rip or grow opaque with age, of the charms placed upon them may wear off, or be countered by charms of revealment.
This is why witches and wizards usually turn, in the first instance, to Disillusionment Charms for self-camouflage or concealment.
Albus Dumbledore was known to be able to perform a Disillusionment Charm so powerful as to render himself invisible without the need for a Cloak. JKR)
Through all the centuries that have intervened between Beedle's day and our own, nobody has ever claimed to have found Death's Cloak.
This is explained away by true believers thus: either the third brother's descendants do not know where their Cloak came from, or they know and are determined to show their ancestor's wisdom by not trumpeting the fact.
Naturally enough, the stone has never been found, either.
As I have already noted in the commentary for “Babbitty Rabbitty and her Cackling Stump”, we remain incapable of raising the dead, and there is every reason to suppose that this will never happen.
Vile substitutions have, of course, been attempted by Dark wizards, who have created Inferi, (Note 4: Inferi are corpses reanimated by Dark Magic.) but these are ghastly puppets, not truly reawaken humans.
What is more, Beedle's story is quite explicit about the fact that the second brother's lost love has not really returned from the dead.
She has been sent by Death to lure the second brother into Death's clutches, and is therefore cold, remote, tantalisingly both present and absent.
(Note 5: Many critics believe that Beedle was inspired by the Philosopher's Stone, which makes the immortality-inducing Elixir of Life, when creating this stone that can raise the dead. )
This leaves us with the wand, and here the obstinate believers in Beedle's hidden message have at least some historical evidence to back up their wild claims.
For it is the case – whether because they liked to glorify themselves, or to intimidate possible attackers, or because they truly believed what they were saying – that wizards down the ages have claimed to possess a wand more powerful than the ordinary, even an “unbeatable” wand.
Some of these wizards have gone so far as to claim that their wand is made of elder, like the wand supposedly made by Death.
Such wands have been given many names, among them “the Wand of Destiny” and “the Death stick”.
It is hardly surprising that old superstitions have grown up around our wands, which are, after all, our most important magical tools and weapons.
Certain wands (and therefore their owners) are supposed to be incompatible:
When his wand's oak and hers is holly, Then to marry would be folly or to denote flaws in the owner's character: Rowan gossips, chestnut drones, ash is stubborn, hazel moans.
And sure enough, within this category of unproven sayings we find: Wand of elder, never prosper.
Whether because of the fact that Death makes the fictional wand out of elder in Beedle's story, or because power-hungry or violent wizards have persistently claimed that their own wands are made of elder, it is not a wood that is much favored among wand makers.
The first well-documented mention of a wand made of elder that had particularly strong and dangerous powers was owned by Emeric, commonly called “the Evil”, a short-lived but exceptionally aggressive wizard who terrorised the South of England in the early Middle Ages.
He died as he had lived, in a ferocious duel with a wizard known as Egbert.
What became of Egbert is unknown, although the life expectancy of medieval duelers was generally short.
In the days before there was a Ministry of Magic to regulate the use of Dark Magic, duelling was usually fatal.
A full century later, another unpleasant character, this time named Godelot, advanced the study of Dark Magic by writing a collection of dangerous spells with the help of a wand he described in his notebook as “my moste wicked and subtle friend, with bode of Ellhorn, (Note 6: An old name for “elder”. ) who knows ways of magic moste evile”. (Magick Moste Evile became the title of Godelot's masterwork. )
As can be seen, Godelot considers his wand to be a helpmeet, almost an instructor.
Those who are knowledgeable about wand lore (Note 7: Such as myself. ) will agree that wands do indeed absorb the expertise of those who use them, though this is an unpredictable and imperfect business; one must consider all kinds of additional factors, such as the relationship between the wand and the user, to understand how well it is likely to perform with any particular individual.
Nevertheless, a hypothetical wand that had passed through the hands of many Dark wizards would be likely to have, at the very least, a marked affinity for the most dangerous kinds of magic.
Most witches and wizards prefer a wand that has “chosen” them to any kind of second-hand wand, precisely because the latter is likely to have learned habits from its previous owner that might not be compatible with the new user's style of magic.
The general practice of burying (or burning) the wand with its owner, once he or she has died, also tends to prevent any individual wand learning from too many masters.
Believers in the Elder Wand, however, hold that because of the way in which it has always passed allegiance between owners – the next master overcoming the first, usually by killing him – the Elder Wand has never been destroyed or buried, but has survived to accumulate wisdom, strength and power far beyond the ordinary.
Godelot is known to have perished in his own cellar, where he was locked by his mad son, Hereward.
We must assume that Hereward took his father's wand, or the latter would have been able to escape, but what Hereward did with the wand after that we cannot be sure.
All that is certain is that a wand called “the Eldrun (Note 8: Also an old name for “elder” ) Wand” by its owner, Barnabas Deverill, appeared in the early eighteenth century, and that Deverill used it to carve himself out a reputation as a fearsome warlock, until his reign of terror was ended by the equally notorious Loxias, who took the wand, rechristened it “the Deathstick”, and used it to lay waste to anyone who displeased him.
It is difficult to trace the subsequent history of Loxias's wand, as many claimed to have finished him off, including his own mother.
What must strike any intelligent witch or wizard on studying the so-called history of the Elder Wand is that every man who claims to have owned it (Note 9: No witch has ever claimed to own the Elder Wand. Make of that what you will. ) has insisted that it is “unbeatable”, when the known facts of its passage through many owners' hands demonstrate that not only has it been beaten hundreds of times, but that it also attracts trouble as Grumble the Grubby Goat attracted flies.
Ultimately, the quest for the Elder Wand merely supports an observation I have had occasion to make many times over the course of my long life: that humans have a knack of choosing precisely those things that are worst for them.
But which of us would have shown the wisdom of the third brother, if offered the pick of Death's gifts?
Wizards and Muggles alike are imbued with a lust for power; how many would resist “the Wand of Destiny”?
Which human being, having lost someone they loved, could withstand the temptation of the Resurrection Stone?
Even I, Albus Dumbledore, would find it easiest to refuse the Invisibility Cloak; which only goes to show that, clever as I am, I remain just as big a fool as anyone else.