Nov 29, 2012

Philip Pullman talks about Grimm Fairy Tales at Anglia Ruskin University

Philip Pullman signing copies of his new book.

Remember how last month I was supposed to have seen Philip Pullman talk about his new book of Grimm fairy tales, but he had to cancel at the last minute due to a health issue? Well, only a few days after that he announced another event not far from me, and I immediately did a little happy dance – not only did this mean he was well on his way to recovery, but I was going to get to see him after all.

Last Tuesday’s event began with a reading of “The Three Snake Leaves”, the same fairy tale Audrey Niffenagger read on Mr Pullman’s behalf at the London event. I’ve been known to resent the time devoted to readings at author events (as it’s time taken away from what could be interesting and perhaps more in-depth conversations), but fortunately that wasn’t the at all case here. Philip Pullman is a great reader, and both this story and “Thousandfurs”, which he read later in the evening, were a delight to listen to. He even did all the different characters’ voices and everything.

He then talked a little bit about the selection process for Grimm Tales for Old and Young, which includes fifty fairy tales. Some of the stories Pullman included, like “The Three Snake Leaves”, were new to him; he added them because it was a pleasure to discover them and he wanted to introduce them to others. He also picked some of the fairy tales he likes best, some that he thinks you can say interesting things about, and one he doesn’t like one bit and even called “disgusting” – I have plenty to say about this, but I’ll save it for when I review Grimm Tales for Old and Young next week.


The original title of the Grimm’s collection, Kinder- und Hausmärchen, is important. The fact that these are “household tales” means that they were stories for the whole household to enjoy, not just children. What this means is that they could, and still can, be enjoyed by children and adults at different levels, a quality shared by the best media even today. We listen to these stories in different ways according to how old we are and what we’ve experienced in our lives. We zoom in on different details, and this only adds to their richness.

The richness of fairy tales was a theme Pullman kept returning to throughout the evening: as he pointed out, fairy tales are open to lots of possible readings: Freudian, Marxist, Feminist, Post-Colonial and other readings can all coexist. They all point to different directions, and they’re all worth reading because they highlight different aspects of the tales. This richness is something fairy tales share with literary works, even though Pullman pointed out that a fairy tale is not a text in the sense that Paradise Lost is a text, for example. It’s not the words that matter, but rather the sequence of events.

The history of the fairy ale was also discussed: initially the Gimms criticized other editors for changing folksongs and stories in other collections published at around the same time (there was a big wave of interest in folklore at the beginning of the 19th century that was linked to a search for “Germanness” and the birth of nationalism throughout Europe), and the 1812 edition was fairly faithful to their sources. However, subsequent editions were heavily edited, particularly by Wilhelm”, all to make them more “polite” and appropriate to an audience of children. It was in these edits that mothers became stepmothers, that Rapunzel’s pregnancy was erased, etc.

Regarding the Grimms’ sources, before he started writing this book Pullman believed that the two brothers had wandered around the fields of 19th century Germany collecting stories from any peasants they happened to encounter – the usual myth, pretty much. But in fact, many of the stories were told to the Grimms by members of their social circle, by people they knew. Others even have literary sources, like “The Fisherman and His Wife” and “The Juniper Tree”. Both were sent to the brothers by Romantic painter Philipp Otto Runge, and there you can detect the mark of authorship that is so elusive in most fairy tales. Pullman added that “The Juniper Tree” is probably his favourite fairy tale (a preference Neil Gaiman shares); he found it impossible to improve, and thinks you can really tell the prose was very carefully worked on. He also thinks it contains one of the most horrifying scenes he’s ever come across anywhere (and I would agree).

Pullman made it clear that what he wanted to do in Grimm Tales for Young and Old was not retell these tales; he wanted to present a selection of the classics, not Philip Pullman’s version of them. The changes he did, then, were mostly to correct small details that pulled him out of the story as a reader. For example, in “The Three Snake Leaves” we were originally told that the snake was cut into three pieces with three sword blows, but in reality three blows would cut it into four pieces (unless one missed). And in “Little Red Riding Hood”, he wanted to clarify whether her rescuer was a huntsman, a woodsman or a hunter. These little sociological notes help clarify the story’s context. Like Neil Gaiman and Meg Rosoff, he remarked that you can sometimes detect the shadow of historical events in some stories (for example, famines in “Hansel and Gretel”).

Also, an interesting historical fact came up, one I’d never come across despite all my fairy tales related reading: during WW2, the Allies used the early versions of these stories as propaganda, to show the “innate cruelty” of the German people. But of course that makes no sense, especially considering that many of these stories have always had English equivalent that are every bit as chilling and horrifying – “The Robber Bridegroom” and “Mr Fox”, just to give you one example.

When asked if children need these stories as an antidote to the ever-popular Disney versions, Pullman answered that he’s not a big fan of deciding what children need, but he does think that making these darker, harsher, older versions available is worthwhile. Disney looms on the horizon every time we retell these stories, and we need to acknowledge that. But his responsibility when writing this book was to the Grimms, not to Disney, even if Disney’s stories are inevitably a part of the conversation now.

Finally, also like Neil Gaiman and Meg Rosoff, Pullman discussed the lack of character in the modern sense of the word and how it’s so distinctive of fairy tales. Fairy tale characters rarely have names – they’re mostly referred to by their professions or relationships (the tailor, the youngest daughter). They also lack the psychological complexity that we expect from characters these days. This creates a level of distance from the horrifying things that often happen, since we don’t feel that they’re happening to people we care about. But it also makes fairy tale characters interesting to spend time with, because we project. These stories can be told in a thousand different ways, adding psychological insight and highlighting different details – they’re full of potential, and that’s part of their timeless appeal.

On a side note, just before the event my bookish neighbour and I were having dinner when we suddenly realised that Philip Pullman was right there, at the same restaurant as us! This proved very convenient, as neither of us was 100% sure where it was going to be. After dinner, all we had to do was discreetly follow Philip Pullman to the right building.

Also, as Ana noted, this might have been the first time Pullman was asked to sign books for two “Anas-with-just-one-‘n’” in a row. Maybe this means he’ll remember us.

One more name down on my mental list of all-time favourite authors to say an awkward “thank you” to and get books signed by :D


  1. This sounds like a fascinating talk. The book wasn't on my radar but it is now. There's something so powerful about seeing your favorite authors in person. It's almost surreal!

  2. Melissa: When it comes to living authors, I think the only really big one I'm missing now is John Green. Hopefully one day :D

  3. oh pleased you got see him in the end and a nice signed copy ,all the best stu

  4. Thanks so much for sharing this! I'm curious about which one he thinks is "disgusting." I love that he included a tale he didn't like! That tells me that this is a very worthwhile and important collection.

    I've been reading my copy very slowly, not just because I want to savor it, but because I've been making my way through all of the original tales for just over a year now and I was hoping to finish it before Pullman's book came out. It didn't happen!

  5. I love this post! I really love Pullman and also original Grimm tales... I will have to keep my eye out for this. I haven't read those old versions in a long time; I was lucky enough as a kid to have a fairly gruesome collection (which I assume means earlier versions of the tales), which of course I really loved.

  6. Fascinating post. You really brought out all the detail of this discussion. I'm so glad this is sitting on my shelf waiting for me to read.

  7. This sounds amazing, I'm so glad you got to see him. Philip Pullman and fairy tales sounds like the perfect combination.

  8. As my kids were growing up, we read to them from a one-volume copy of Anderson, a bigger one-volume Grimm, and the multi-volume Lang's Fairy Tales. I guess we'll have to read this one silently to ourselves.
    John Green was on campus last week--he's an alum--but he is extremely shy and not that many people got to meet him.

  9. Stu: He also said some stuff about the process of translating these stories that I think you'd have found very interesting.

    Jenna: You will soon find out :P (Okay, I won't be annoying - it's "The Handless Maiden". I'll explain why properly when I review the book next week!) I took my time reading these stories too, and I found that was the best way to enjoy them.

    Daphne: My childhood fairy tale collection had all the gruesome details too - iron shows in Snow White, birds pecking out eyes in Cinderella, and the cat being buried alive at the end of Puss in Boots. The last one kind of traumatized me, but of course I loved the stories anyway :P

    Jodie: Enjoy :D Like Jenna was saying they're probably best savoured slowly, but they're such a joy to read.

    Valentina: I so wish you could have been there! Speaking of which, you should definitely come visit me someday :P

    Jeanne: He's talked about his social anxiety a bit in his videos, so I would definitely be sensible and cautious if I ever randomly bumped into him. But I'm hoping he'll do a Nerdfighters event with Hank Green in the UK one of these days. They sound like so much fun. There was one just before the last time I came over in 2010, and I was so sad to miss it.

  10. Ah, I am familiar with "The Handless Maiden." I actually like that one! The weirder the better. Now I can't wait to get to it. :p And, of course, I can't wait for your review!

  11. So glad you got to see Pullman speak after all. I may put off reading your review as I am saving the tales for mid-winter, or maybe OUAT. Of course, I may just give in and read them over the holidays!

  12. I've been really looking forward to this book -- it's so nice to get your detailed report which almost makes me feel as if I'd been there! Thank goodness, as it's pretty unlikely that I'd be able to see him live over here. (speaking of, I would also enjoy seeing John Green!)

    And my goodness, Philip Pullman's handwriting is lovely!

  13. wow, Ana, what a lovely post. You got the gist of what he said in his lecture about fairy tales, which is fascinating all by itself. It makes me want to see if I can find a copy of Juniper Tree - I must have it in one of my collections.

    I really like how seriously he takes fairy tales. I also like how you point out (through him?) that the characters are generalized so that we can psychologically be told truths without identifying too deeply with the characters. Very interesting, thoughtful, and true.

    I think I need to get a copy of this book :-)

    I'm so glad you got to see him, Ana, that it all worked out in the end.

  14. Jenna: I usually like the dark, gruesome ones too, but that one has too much of an emphasis on a girl being expected to be meek when faced with violence. Of course, that's only one way to read it, and I'd never claim it's the "right" or only possible one! The multiple possible interpretations are one of the best things about fairy tales.

    Gavin: You should give in! They make for perfect Winter-y reading.

    Melanie: I hadn't thought of that, but yes, it actually is :D Fingers crossed that he proves you wrong and does an event near you after all.

    Susan: It was his point, but I certainly do agree, and I've seen fairy tale scholars say the same thing before. You do need this book! I'm pretty sure you're going to love it.

  15. I finally had the chance to sit down and read your lovely recap, Ana, and I'm so glad you shared it!

    I'm really bitter about the UK cover for this one btw, as I like it about 10x better than the US one.

    I really like that his goal wasn't to retell these tales, and also that he doesn't think he needs to determine what children need or don't need in regards to fairy tales, but that the options are there.

    I'm so glad that you and other Ana got to go, and that you pulled off stalking Pullman on the way there. :P

  16. aw so glad you had the chance to go to this and also! so cool about him being at the same restaurant. (also so jealous of you and Ana living close that's like an explosion of coolness right there)

  17. I love Pullman's books and would definitely love to read this. And hurray for awkward thank yous!

  18. So lucky for you to get to see him! Thanks for the write-up--will definitely be adding this one to the to-buy list. Hope it's as good as it sounds!

  19. Is Philip going to sign any more books soon? If then where?

    odszkodowanie UK


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