” ‘Thou shalt not’ might reach the head, but it takes ‘Once upon a time’ to reach the heart,” Philip Pullman has asserted. Pullman, author of such acclaimed fantasies as His Dark Materials trilogy (which began with The Golden Compass), has clearly spent much time at the well of folk literature, both drawing from it and enriching it. For his recently published edition of Fairy Tales From the Brothers Grimm, Pullman has selected 50 favorites, showing off the jagged beauty and power of the stories, first published 200 years ago.
The Grimm brothers, relying on both written and oral sources, produced a work that “shares its eminence only with The Arabian Nights; the two of them are the most important and influential collection of folktales ever published,” writes Pullman in the introduction. Pullman wisely focuses on how the tales work as stories. His goal is to produce a version “as clear as water” — and he succeeds. In an era of parodies, puns, and all manner of mash-ups, here is refreshing and relevant fare for readers who can cope with the requisite elements of gore and conflict.
Pullman traverses both familiar and strange territory here. The Frog King, Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella and Briar Rose, a personal favorite, all appear, but lesser-known characters inhabit the collection as well. In addition to his rhythmic retellings, Pullman includes, after each story, details on the tale type, the source, titles of similar stories, and finally, some personal comments. The author’s comments, brimming with humor and passion, further enliven this ear-pleasing collection.
Some tales deserve more attention than they’ve received in the past. “The Juniper Tree,” for instance, (the title story of Lore Segal and Randall Jarrell’s fine compilation), tells of a woman giving birth to a son “as red as blood and as white as snow.” Pullman praises this story, attributed to the painter Philipp Otto Runge, in this bold manner: “For beauty, for horror, for perfection of form, this story has no equal.” Accordingly, Pullman retells it faithfully.
Yet, Pullman insists, the fairy tale is “in a perpetual state of becoming,” and storytellers and writers may change the stories to suit a range of needs and interests. He improves the Grimms’ gruesome shocker “The Robber Bridegroom,” for instance, by incorporating a repeated claim from the evil protagonist of the English folktale “Mr. Fox”: “This isn’t so, and it wasn’t so, and God forbid it should be so!”
Another pleasure of Pullman’s notes is that readers gain insight into how some of the tales have changed over the years. In his inclusion of “Snow White,” for instance, Pullman contributes to restoring the strangeness of the story, in which the young woman comes back to life when the dwarfs carrying her coffin trip and stumble, and a chunk of the poisoned apple is dislodged from her throat. After the story, Pullman points out that in the Grimms’ original 1812 edition, the wicked queen was Snow White’s mother. This, of course, was but one of the many ways in which the Grimm brothers tried to make the stories more palatable for a broad audience.
For lovers of fantasies and fairy tales, Philip Pullman’s collection should climb to the top of the wish list. Those younger than 10, however, will find better options in picture-book adaptations by such talented author/illustrators as Paul Zelinsky (Rapunzel and Rumpelstiltskin) and Ruth Sanderson (The Twelve Dancing Princesses, Rose Red and Snow White, and Cinderella), as well as the award-winning Ouch! retold by Natalie Babbitt and brilliantly illustrated by Fred Marcellino. And consider picking up Taschen’s heirloom-quality compilation, which I reviewed in the post “Again to the Brothers Grimm.”
- Guardian Books podcast: Philip Pullman on Grimm Tales (guardian.co.uk)
- Philip Pullman’s Twice-Told Tales (newyorker.com)
- “My Path through Fairytales,” Ruth Sanderson’s article for Children’s Literature Network