Fairy Tales From the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version by Philip Pullman (Galley)
Release Date: November 8, 2012
Genre: Fiction, fairy tales, short stories, fantasy, magic, OMG PHILIP PULLMAN WROTE A BOOK OF FAIRY TALES!
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Summary: Fifty tales from the Brother’s Grimm retold by fantasy author extraordinaire, Philip Pullman. From the well known to the more obscure, Pullman rewrites the stories in a colloquial way while still keeping the essence of the fairy tale alive and well in his stories. Complete with added commentary on the stories themselves, how they have changed and other various reincarnations they have lived through, Pullman leaves no fairy tale stone unturned in this fabulous new edition of folk tales.
When I heard there was a new collection of fairy tales being rewritten by Philip Pullman I practically wet myself in excitement (I seem to do that a lot for the sake of these reviews). This collection combines two of my favorite things: classic fairy tales- particularly of the Grimm variety- and incredibly well-written fantasy, which is where Pullman comes in. If you have yet to do so, I highly recommend checking out the His Dark Materials series. It will amaze and break your heart simultaneously. Please don’t judge a book by its movie.
The collection opens with a lengthy introduction discussing the nature and tradition of oral stories (their prominence in the middle class) and how anyone could have ended up being the well known collector of fairy tales, the Grimms just happened to beat everyone else to the punch. Fun fact: the brothers also worked together on the first German dictionary and it was their interest in the nature of language that led them to collect the oral and written fairy tales in one place. I never thought I’d say this, but thanks linguistics!
There are 210 stories that the Grimm’s found and Pullman, “Set out to tell the best and most interesting of them.” He specifically states that the way in which he wrote the stories was the way he would tell them if he wanted to pass them down orally. No double entendre intended.
Furthermore, in this (did I mention it was lengthy?) opening, Pullman discusses the conventions of fairy tales. Characters have no ulterior motives, they’re explicitly bad or explicitly good, there is no “regret or doubt or desire”. Characters often don’t have their own names and are rather known by their profession: king, giant, shoemaker, kid who repeatedly drop golden balls into wells, etc. What happens to them is more important than who they are, and for that reason fairy tales rarely have any detail. It’s not the setting that matters, it’s the actions. This is why fairy tales are awesome. Minus the moralizing.
Within are some recognizable fairy tales: “The Frog King, or Iron Heinrich” (obviously the original version where the frog is thrown against a wall and transforms into a man), “Cinderella”, “Rapunzel”, “Hansel and Gretel”, “Little Red Riding Hood”, “Snow White”, “Rumpelstiltskin” and a whole bunch that are not as known to the majority of the population. For example, “Hans-my-Hedgehog”, “The Girl With No Hands”, “Thousandfurs” (a “Cinderella” variant with incest) and “Farmerkin” (an amazing trickster story) are not as well known in popular culture. Although they should be.
One story in particular, “The Boy Who Left Home to Find Out About the Shivers” is particularly intriguing. It stars a dimwitted boy who may or may not grow up to be a serial-killer who is non-plussed about everything and is unable to shiver when scared. As a result, he goes on an adventure to get the shivers. On his journey he hangs out with dead people, turns skulls into bowling bowls, wrestles corpses and is generally ridiculous. Favorite line: “Oh, that’s a pity. The ghosts have killed him. Such a handsome young man, too.”
“Faithful Johannes” is about the love and loyalty between a king and his servant. It also features bewitching portraits that are kept around for no reason, kidnapping, love based on royal power, nonsensical prophecies told by talking birds, boob poison, a double case of filicide and people who turn to stone. This is why I love fairy tales. They don’t have to make sense.
Finally of note (with the exception of “The Twelve Brothers” which is based on Juliet Marillier’s amazing Daughter of the Forrest) is “The Three Little Men”, a story that contains some shades of “Snow White” minus any huntsmen. In the story, a kind girl is sent into the woods by her stepmother to die when she stumbles across a cottage where three little men live. In exchange for being nice to them and helping with the housework, they gift her so that every time she talks a gold piece falls out of her mouth. This of course makes a prince fall madly in love with her (because that’s not distracting). Favorite quote (when the stepsister sees the gold pieces falling from her sister’s mouth): “Look at her showing off… I could do that if I wanted.”
While reading through these fairy tales, a lot of the same conventions kept popping up, particularly plots of revenge, child murder and the rule of three (not to mention evil stepmothers and stepsisters). While the rule of three- events and repetitions occurring three times for oral storytelling purposes- is a common convention in all fairy tales, it can get a little bit grating when encountered over and over again. CURSE YOU RULE OF THREE! ::shakes fist at the heavens::
Thankfully, the inhumane deaths more than make up for this. From characters who are put into barrels filled with snakes and boiling oil, girls left in the woods to be eaten, people who have their eyes pecked out, women forced to dance in hot iron shoes until they die and people being nailed into barrels and drowned in rivers (what’s with all the barrels?) there is no shortage of violent deaths in fairy tales. Damn middle class, you’re sick.
In addition to the stories themselves, Pullman ends each fairy tale with some helpful, occasionally humorous and always interesting commentary. He also has a tendency to launch into what could have made the tale better or possibly to just point out plot holes/other nonsensical additions, but his best moments are when he attacks the interpretations of fairy tales which he refers to as “sub-Jungian twaddle”. As Pullman explains, “What does that show? That the meaning preceded the story, which was composed to illustrate it like an allegory, or that the story fell accidentally into an interpretable shape? Obviously the latter.” Oh Mr. Pullman, I love you.
-Fairy tales rewritten by Philip Pullman (all that really needs to be said)
-See above, repeat twelve times
-Puts a new perspective on fairy tales while still retaining their essence
-Gives tales a new audience, makes stories more amusing and accessible
-Great commentary/insight into the fairy tale at the end of each chapter
-Pullman believes every “story is attended by its own sprite”
-Did I mention they’re fairy tales rewritten by Philip Pullman?
-The English cover (image two) is so much more amazing it’s almost painful
-Stories can get repetitive through themes and rule of three
I don’t normally point out a book’s cover unless it’s particularly gorgeous or particularly ugly, but I couldn’t stop myself from including both the US and UK covers in this post. I’m partial to the UK cover, particularly because it’s too damn stunning not to. The whole thing looks like it was physically carved into the book.
Also of note, the change of Fairy Tales From the Brothers Grimm to Grimm Tales For Young and Old. Obviously, Grimm has more significance in England while Fairy Tales is the operative phrase in the US. However, Philip Pullman is obviously the most important selling point in both countries as his name gets top billing. YAY PULLMAN!