Dec 7, 2012

Fairy Tales From the Brothers Grimm by Philip Pullman

Fairy Tales From the Brothers Grimm by Philip Pullman Grimm Tales For Young and Old by Philip Pullman
Fairy Tales From the Brothers Grimm (published as Grimm Tales for Young and Old in the UK) collects fifty fairy tales subtly reworked and selected by Philip Pullman from among the two hundred and ten the brothers Grimm first published in their Children’s and Household Tales two hundred years ago. Before I go any further, let me take a moment to explain what “reworked” actually means in this context: Fairy Tales From the Brothers Grimm is not a collection of retellings or reinterpretations, but of faithful rewritings of the originals that only very occasional depart from the Gimms.

You may be wondering what the point of this book’s existence is in that case, as indeed Sara Maitland did over at The Guardian. I’m not in a good position to compare Pullman’s versions of these tales with previous translations, as my one attempt to read the complete brothers Grimm, in the Wordsworth Classics edition, was not exactly a success. I can say, however, that the problem I had back then – the stories mostly running together in my head after a while – was not one I encountered now. Pullman’s prose is sharp and vivid: there’s very little here that isn’t essential to the advancement of the story, but at the same time, there’s enough detail to suggest entire worlds, to bring these stories to life, and to give each of them an individual flavour.

In the introduction, Pullman explains what his goal was in creating this “new English version” of the Grimms:
My main interest has always been in how the tales worked as stories. All I set out to do in this book was tell the best and most interesting of them, clearing out of the way anything that would prevent them from running freely. I didn’t want to put them in modern settings, or produce personal interpretations or compose poetic variations on the originals; I just wanted to produce a version that was as clear as water. My guiding question has been: ‘How would I tell this story myself, if I’d heard it told by someone else and wanted to pass it on?’ Any changes I’ve made have been for the purpose of helping the story emerge more naturally in my voice. If, as happened occasionally, I thought an improvement was possible, I’ve either made a small change or two in the text itself or suggested a larger one in the note that follows the story.
In a recent discussion of the film “Mirror, Mirror”, Jodie and Clare talked about whether there’s a new trend to “move fairy tale telling away from revisionism and criticism”. If not for the fact that I recently saw Philip Pullman talk about the Grimms and this collection, I would perhaps have felt that this was what he was trying to do here. However, Pullman’s talk made it clear that by putting this collection out there, he’s not trying to make a statement against retellings or revisionism, and also that he’s far too knowledgeable about fairy tales to ever fall into any sort of purism trap. As Pullman kept reiterating during his talk, there is no such thing as an “original version”, and each storyteller has not only the freedom but almost the duty to make the tale her own.

Personally I’m a big fan of both traditional fairy tales and of revisions. I like the narrative structure of the stories that have come to be so well-known; I like their gaps and the question they pose. But I also love books that try to answer these questions; versions that offer different perspectives; retellings that explore, say, the often troubling gender dynamics of the tales as we know them. I don’t think these two loves have to be difficult to conciliate. A former professor of mine, an Angela Carter scholar, maintained that what Carter wrote were in fact “anti-fairy tales”, because they subverted everything fairy tales stood for. I love Angela Carter and her subversive tendencies with all my heart, but to me this statement only makes sense if we define “what fairy tales stand for” in a way that is both narrow and arbitrary. As this collection illustrates, fairy tales offer fragments and contradictions rather than a single cohesive view of the world, and that’s part of their perennial appeal. You can keep coming back to them and pick different ones to bring to the foreground.

Fairy Tales From the Brothers Grimm is a master class in storytelling and a tribute to story itself. I enjoyed it primarily as a collection of gripping narratives, but it would of course be misleading to suggest that this pure enjoyment of story and an enjoyment of revisionism that takes social and political factors into account are mutually exclusive: some of my absolute favourite books, after all, combine both. All these different versions are worth having, and the kind of world I want to live in is one where different stories coexist, are in dialogue, and complement or challenge one another. To go back to a point I can’t help but keep making: all the stories all the time, please.

One of the best things about this edition are Philip Pullman’s comments: at the end of each tale, he lists other folktales of the same type, offers contextual or sociological information, makes remarks about the changes he made, suggests other changes he would like to have made, etc. For example, here’s what he had to say about “Rapunzel”:
In later versions of the Grimm brothers’ tales, Wilhelm Grimm bowdlerized the exchange between Rapunzel and the witch that had existed in all previous versions, and indeed in the Grimms’ own first edition of 1812. Instead of revealing her pregnancy by saying that her clothes no longer fit, Rapunzel asks the witch why she is so much harder to pull up than the young prince. This is not an improvement: it makes her stupid instead of innocent. Besides, the story is preoccupied with pregnancy: according to Marina Warner, in From the Beast to the Blonde, the particular plant longed for by the wife, which was originally parsley, was a well-known abortifacient. What’s more, ‘Persinette’, the title of the de La Force story on which ‘Rapunzel’ is based, means ‘Little Parsley’.
And here are his very opinionated comments on “The Girl With No Hands”:
The elements are vivid and gruesome and the outcome satisfying, with the royal family restored, hands included. And the picture we’re given of the beautiful handless girl, dressed all in white and accompanied by an angel, nibbling her way through a pear in the moonlit garden, is very affecting and strange.
However, the tale itself is disgusting. The most repellent aspect is the cowardice of the miller, which goes quite unpunished. The tone of never-shaken piety is nauseating, and the restoration of the poor woman’s hands simply preposterous. ‘But aren’t fairy tales supposed to be full of preposterous things?’ No. The resurrection of the little boy in ‘The Juniper Tree’, for example (p. 187), feels truthful and right. This feels merely silly: instead of being struck by wonder, here we laugh. It’s ridiculous. This tale and others like it must have spoken very deeply to many audiences, though, for it to spread so widely, or perhaps a great many people like stories of maiming, cruelty and sentimental piety.
I actually laughed when I read this – I’m not a fan of the story myself, not so much because of the sentimentality or the religions elements, but because it’s a story that suggests that girls should quietly resign themselves to violence. Then again, a few Christmases ago Chris gave me a book titled The Armless Maiden and Other Tales of Childhood Survivors. I have not read it yet, but the title alone suggests a very different take on this tale – and this plurality is part of why I’m so drawn to fairy tales.

Lastly, here are Pullman’s very insightful notes on “The Goose Girl at the Well”, a new to me tale that became an instant favourite:
This is one of the most sophisticated of all the tales. At the heart of it is the old story of the princess who told her father she loved him as much as salt, and was punished for her honesty. There are many variations on this tale, including King Lear.
But look what this very literary telling does. Instead of beginning with the unfortunate honest princess, it hides her until much later in the story, and begins with another figure altogether, the witch or wise woman; and not with a single event, either, but with a sketch of what she usually did, what her habitual way of life led her to do, and the reaction that aroused in others. But is she a witch, or isn’t she? Fairy tales usually tell us directly; this one instead shows us what other people thought of her, and allows the question to remain equivocal, undetermined. The story-sprite here is flirting with modernism already, in which there is no voice with absolute authority, and we can have no view except one that passes through a particular pair of eyes (the father and his little son); but all human views are partial. The father might be right, or he might not.
And then there’s another reminder of the partiality of knowledge: the storyteller says that the story doesn’t end there, but the old woman who originally told it is losing her memory and has forgotten the rest. Nevertheless, it might happen that . . . and so on. This marvellous tale shows how complex a structure can be built on the simplest of bases, and still remain immediately comprehensible.
This was my first time reading a collection of fairy tales rather than of retellings in a very long time. The year I started blogging actually marked a shift away from fairy tales that I’m only now starting to understand. I still love them, but in my late teens and very early twenties I read them because they fed the part of me that had writerly delusions. All the questions the stories left unanswered, all the gaps they presented, all the psychological detail that they lacked, made me want to retell them for myself so I could understand the “whys”. What did it feel like to be the girl who follows the White Bear in “East of the Sun and West of the Moon”? Or to be Psyche, when in the most fairy-tale like of all myths the candle shakes in her hand and the three fatal drops of wax fall on her sleeping lover?

I no longer think about writing, but what Philip Pullman’s Fairy Tales From the Brothers Grimm made me realise is that it’s still immensely pleasurable to dwell over these questions as a reader. The mysteries, the hidden motivations, and all the little story nooks and crevices into which we pour our own psychological complexity are the reasons why I’ll always want fairy tales to be a part of my life.

They read it too: Charlotte’s Library, The Book Smugglers


Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%. I downloded a review copy of this book via NetGalley.


  1. I am not even close to a purist, so I would be totally open to reading a re-telling. in fact, I suspect it would be more palatable, as the originals aren't always easy to consume.

  2. Wonderful post, as is usual on your blog :--) And oh, oh, you make me want to go reread East of the Sun and West of the Moon, always a favorite of mine when I was younger, even though I have NO RECOLLECTION OF IT WHATSOEVER, which is why I plan to run right to an online version and reread it! :--)

  3. This sounds right up my sister's alley - I'll have to tell her about it.

  4. Oh, I so cannot wait to have this book!!! But you know, even more, I wish you hadn't given up those ideas of writing yourself. Seriously.

  5. I would say you haven't given up on writing; you've just turned in a new direction.

  6. I love fairy tales and folklore, and I have a book of Grimm's Fairy Tales on my shelf. Pullman's commentary sounds really interesting.

  7. I've been hearing some good things about this, and your review just convinced me (as you always do, dear Ana) that I must have this. I'm interested in fairy tales as well as the way they are revisioned - I find both interesting.

    I didn't know you wanted to be a writer. I like the commentator who said you've changed direction perhaps in writing, but you are very much a writer, you know. You are literate and observant, reasoning and intelligent in all your posts. You write very well, in other words. Did you ever try writing stories?

  8. Thanks for clarifying just what this book is. I've read bits about it here and there but for some reason still wasn't sure if it was retellings or not. Now I know (and I want it)!

  9. I love fairy tales and I will read this book the week.

  10. thanks for sharing.

  11. I am reading this slowly and really enjoying myself!!


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.