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Friday, November 9, 2012

Book Review: Fairy Tales for Grownups

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 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. 


Gerry said...

All of this rang a bell, so I went rummaging around and sure enough I have a set of the Young Folks' Shelf of Books, with apostrophe (on the cover only - the binding says The Junior Classics and then each volume's title. Volume One is Fairy Tales and Fables.) I believe I must delve into the collection. I'll let you know how it goes.

P. J. Grath said...

Gerry, I am familiar with Junior Classics, not from my childhood but from my years as a bookseller, and I’m sure many sets of books for children include a volume of fairy tales. Perhaps many include identical versions of favorite fairy tales. The set of books my sisters and I had, however, was not Junior Classics but Young Folks (with or without apostraphe) Library. I don’t recall how many volumes made up the full set. All were a basic tan, but then different books in the set had different colors and spine illustrations. I don’t have any in the shop right now, but individual volumes and partial sets are easily findable online. (I don’t have any in my shop at the moment.) It looks as if the publisher was the Auxiliary Educational League in Chicago. Besides A BOOK OF FAMOUS FAIRY TALES, there were A BOOK OF BRAVE DEEDS; A BOOK OF FAMOUS EXPLORERS; A BOOK OF FAMOUS MYTHS AND LEGENDS; etc.

I would love to hear more about your set, Gerry. Is it something you’ve had since childhood, or was it your son’s when he was a child? And what do you think of my idea of writers looking to fairy tales for inspiration? And if you had to pick a FAVORITE fairy tale, which one would it be?

Gerry said...

Working backwards . . . my favorite fairy tales are mostly Aesop's Fables - especially the Town Mouse and the Country Mouse. I had a book of Grimm Brothers tales - scared me to death, although I liked the Bremen Town Musicians. I think folk tales, like bible stories and Shakespeare, are inextricably entangled in all storytelling--even in all language.

I bought my set of Junior Classics at some house auction or other, thinking that Rob the Firefighter would enjoy them. He was not, of course, a firefighter then, but he had moved beyond fairy tales for children and not yet arrived at fairy tales for adults. My timing was off.

The 10-volume set is copyrighted 1938 by P.F. Collier & Son, and is the Popular Edition, Illustrated. I'll send you more in an email because it's easier to show than tell and I'm having a lazy day.

Dawn said...

When I was very young I participated in the summer reading program. When I had read the required number of books I got to pick out a book for my very own. I chose a thick book (I remember it had a pink cover) of fairy tales. Somewhere I bet I still have that.

P. J. Grath said...

Gerry and Dawn, thank you both for jumping through the verification hoop to leave a comment. I have changed my settings back to moderating comments, which doesn't change what you see in a comment string but eliminates the scores of spam fake "comments" I was seeing in my e-mail.

Gerry, I am holed up in our "cozy room" tonight, and what sits right next to me on the floor but a George Routledge & sons edition of Aesop's Fables--THREE HUNDRED of them! And, as the note underneath the title assures me, "literally translated from the Greek." I'm a trifle dubious, since "literal" translation would be pretty pathetic, and these tales are quite well told in English. The illustrations (114 of them) are charming, too. The reason this book is at home instead of at my bookstore is that it is "literally" falling apart. Whole loose signatures are entirely disbound. And yet it is far too wonderful a book to throw away. I'll have to put some pictures of it up on the blog soon.

How clever of you, Dawn, to choose for your prize a thick book with lots and lots of stories in it. I might have done that, too, if there hadn't been a tempting horse story to capture my attention. Let me know if you find your fairy tale book. Maybe you'll write about it on YOUR blog?

Karen said...

Thanks for the reminder! I've pulled out my 1945 ed., illustrated by Fritz Kredel, paired with Hans Christian Andersen tales in a slipcase, purchased at Dog Ears, I think. I'm putting it next to the bed to begin after we finish the ghost stories collection edited by Roald Dahl. I'll let you know my fave when we're done!

P. J. Grath said...

Karen, a.k.a. "Unknown," thank you for visiting and commenting and especially for leaving those magical words "purchased at Dog Ears," which are music to my human bookseller ears! I will look forward to learning which old story is your favorite.

Kathy said...

Interesting that we're both reading fairy tales, Pamela. I have always been fascinated by the magic in them, how they seem to speak to some level beyond logic. Have been reading The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. It's based on a Russian fairy tale. Loving it! Do you have it in the bookstore and have you read it? Wonderful prose.

(Hope this goes through. It's the 3rd time I've failed the robot test.)

BB-Idaho said...

When my sister and I were 4 and 2, my mother would read us fairytales.
Evil witches and dogs with eyes like saucers gave me nightmares !

P. J. Grath said...

Three times was the charm, Kathy, as is almost always true in fairy tales! Thanks for persevering. I did stock THE SNOW CHILD, and I remember that one of my favorite local customers bought, so I'll have to check with her to see how she liked the story.

BB, nice to hear from you again. It's been a while. And thanks for the link, too. :)