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 favorite 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,1 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 forever — 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.”2 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. 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, but these are ghastly puppets, not truly reawakened 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, tantalizingly both present and absent.
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 “Deathstick.” 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 wandmakers. 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 terrorized 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, dueling 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 bodie of ellhorn, who knowes ways of magick 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 wandlore 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 secondhand 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 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 it9 has insisted that it is “unbeatable,” when the known facts of its “passage through many owners’ hands demonstrate that has it not only 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.
[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]
[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]
[Invisibility cloaks are not, generally, infallible. They may rip, or grow opaque with age, or 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]
[Inferi are corpses reanimated by Dark Magic. — JKR]
“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. An old name for “Elder.” Such as myself. Also an old name for “Elder.” No witch has ever claimed to own the Elder Wand. Make of that what you will.