Fairy Tales From the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version, by Philip Pullman (Viking, 2012). Hardcover $27.95
My introduction to reading fairy tales for myself came in a volume from a set of books called “The Young Folks’ Library.” (Was there an apostrophe on the bindings? I don’t remember.) The set contained everything from poetry to biography, and while I read every page in every volume, some I read more eagerly and more often than others, and the fairy tales volume was a special favorite.
The Brothers Grimm have had a hold on the Western world’s imagination for a long, long time. How many versions of those collected fairy tales have there been in 200 years, since the first edition came out in Germany in 1812? (Six more editions came out during the Grimm Brothers’ lifetimes: Wilhelm died in 1859, his brother Jacob in 1863.) “Children’s and Household Tales,” the stories were called back then—Kinder- und Haus-Märchen.
Well, now Viking has brought out a new English version in which Philip Pullman, author of the wildly popular “His Dark Materials” trilogy (The Golden Compass; The Amber Spyglass; and The Subtle Knife) has chosen 50 of his favorite Grimm tales in honor of the 200th anniversary, retelling them and adding a brief commentary of his own at the close of each one. There are no illustrations in this new edition, and some of the commentary would have set my eight-year-old head awhirl, e.g., when Pullman notes after his telling of “The Boy Who Left Home to Find Out About the Shivers” that “Marina Warner, in From the Beast to the Blonde, suggests a sexual interpretation of the bucket of minnows.” (To my adult mind, the suggestion seems superfluous.) The book has read-aloud potential, but little children primed to beg, “Let me see the picture!” may prefer pages more specifically aimed to their tastes. This is not criticism, just the facts of the matter in one bookseller’s view—although, according to Wikipedia, even the first edition was not considered suitable for children, both for its content of the stories and for the scholarly additions. Inote, however, that Elizabeth Kennedy’s commentary on the tales is found under the 4-8-year-old tab on About.com. Make of all that what you will. Given a little discretion in choosing tales and times and audience, here is a book with almost boundless appeal.
As an adult reader, I find Pullman’s retellings delightful. His introduction is informative and sets the tone by reminding us that fairy tales are about stock characters and that they are, first and foremost, storytellers’ stories. The pace is quick, description minimal where it exists at all. In his retelling, therefore, he notes that the best he felt he could do was to aim for “clarity.” No invention is necessary: the story is already there, freeing the storyteller to improvise. At the close of the introduction, this storyteller makes the lovely statement that the finest of fairy tales “have the quality that the great pianist Artur Schnabel attributed to the sonatas of Mozart: they are too easy for children and too difficult for adults.” I interpret that “too difficult” to be saying that one has never done mining the richness of fairy tales, and I don’t think what I’m calling richness argues against Pullman’s characterization of them as clear, fast-moving stories peopled with stock characters.
There are surprises in some of the tales themselves. An early surprise for me came with the “The Frog King, or Iron Heinrich.” I know the basic story as “The Frog Prince,” and the princess who promised the frog a reward for retrieving her golden ball was familiar. The character of “Iron Heinrich,” the prince’s servant, says Pullman in his commentary, “is nearly always forgotten.” Also, because this character “appears at the end of the tale out of nowhere” but with a striking image (one I will leave to your discovery), Pullman notes that a separate story seems almost warranted for Heinrich. Also—prepare to be shocked—the princess does not kiss the frog to return him to human form! Instead she hurls him against the wall of her chamber in anger and disgust! No matter. The charm works, anyway, and the spell is broken, returning the frog to princely form.
After beginning at the beginning and reading several tales in order as Pullman presents them, I let my curiosity off the leash and turned back to the table of contents. Ah, “The Musicians of Bremen,” an old favorite. Yes, yes, it is as good now as it always was—perhaps better, now that I am getting a bit long in the tooth myself. The old animals, no longer valuable to their masters, take to the road to find new careers as musicians. Do you remember what happens? I love this story! It involves no mutilations, no deaths, and the old greybeards come out on top. Yes!!!
Which Grimm tale is your favorite? “Cinderella,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” and “Snow White” are all here, along with tales less often told, such as “The Shoes That Were Danced to Pieces.” I’m not going to give away every surprise in this book, but I can’t help saying that the happy ending of the danced-to-pieces shoes gave me considerable satisfaction. The prince did not choose the youngest of the twelve princesses for his bride. Sssh-sh-sh! Enough said!
Pullman’s language in these stories is casual and conversational, so I see a lot of read-aloud possibilities for friends, lovers, and families. Although it might not be the best book version for reading tiny ones to sleep at night (and some of the stories would work fine for that, if the tiny ones don’t insist on pictures), this book would definitely be my top pick for groups of mixed ages, from toddlers through the oldest elders. Maybe Thanksgiving evening, when the dishes are all done, the big game over, and the last pieces of pumpkin pie are being passed around? I can imagine very spirited discussion among all ages following each story. Doesn’t that sound like fun for the holidays?
Then, of course, there are the Pullman fans (of all ages), along with a whole crowd of young people who will be meeting most of these characters and settings for the first time in Pullman's version. What a treasure trove this book will be for them! Finally, another, more specialized group of readers sure to appreciate the new Grimm version will be writers. Like the Bible and Shakespeare, fairy tales offer infinite inspiration, and I can easily imagine a writer trolling through the stories to find a way around writer's block, real or imagined. Yes, fairy tales--a must for every writer's reference shelf.