I have a confession to make: as much as I love Disney, King Arthur, mythology in general, Narnia, Tolkien and fairy tales of all varieties, up until this past Christmas I had never actually read anything by the Brothers Grimm – at least, not the originals. Adaptations, variations, inspirations, even vicious skewerings, sure, but not the actual tales themselves. Shocking, I know, and utterly negligent on my part.
Therefore, I decided to rectify this oversight after we received copies of Philip Pullman’s Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version, complete with signed bookplate. In fact, I was compelled to add it to my own signed book collection. Merry Christmas to me!
Pullman chose the fifty best tales (or at least, his favorite fifty) from the Grimm brothers for this collection. A few of his selections are instantly recognizable, the classic favorites: Cinderella, Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, Sleeping Beauty (under the title “Briar Rose”), Rapunzel and Rumpelstiltskin, to name a few. The rest of the book is comprised of the lesser known tales in Grimm canon, among them “The Juniper Tree”, “Hans-my-Hedgehog”, “The Singing, Springing Lark”, and “The Nixie of the Millpond”, but no less satisfying for being brand-new (at least to me).
This is not just a translation, however; it is much more than that. Pullman also includes a brief commentary at the end of each tale, along with a bibliography of other versions of that particular story, classification into Aarne-Thompson-Uther fairy tale “type”, and where the Grimm brothers originally obtained the tale.
In these commentaries, Pullman invites the reader into his imagination, sharing his own insights about the nature of each story and the various narrative devices at work. At the same time, he steers clear of attempting to tease out any sort of “deeper meaning” hidden within the text. There are plenty of books out there that fulfill that function, examining these tales through any and every lens you can imagine: Jungian archetypes, Freudian analysis, or whatever. This is not one of them. Instead, Pullman sets out to see how these tales work as stories, pure narrative, taken straight from the oral tradition, as they were originally told.
As a result, the commentaries are exactly that: the author’s musings and thoughts on each tale. Sometimes this is a description of the different versions of each tale, and why he chose that particular version to retell here: for instance, following “The Mouse, the Bird and the Sausage”, he speculates on how “sausage” may be the funniest word in the English language, and that the tone of the story might be very different were one to substitute “lamb chop” … or even “bratwurst”, despite both being able to fill the exact same narrative function within the story!
The introduction to the collection contextualizes the stories with a brief history of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm and their fairy tale compilations. The brothers were not alone in collecting and publishing folk and fairy tales: it was a widespread phenomenon in Germany in the early 19th century. Pullman also outlines the basic elements of a fairy tale: the traits that separate it from other types of literature, and why it appeals so broadly across so many different cultures.
Although we stock this volume on our “Young Adult” table, no one should dismiss it as a mere “kid’s book”, or a meaningless nostalgia kick. Children would enjoy the stories, undoubtedly, especially comparing them with more famous or Disneyfied versions of the same tales: I’ve always thought it made a lot more sense for pitch on the stairs to pull off one of Cinderella’s slippers, than to believe that she accidentally walked out of the magic shoes made specifically to fit her feet and no one else’s. It takes an adult to really appreciate the beauty of Pullman’s translation, and the wit and wonder of his addendums. There’s a reason why these stories have lasted so long, and achieved such universal fame.
And in addition to all that – they’re just plain fun.