In this enchanting selection of fairy tales, award-winning author Philip Pullman presents his fifty favourite stories from the Brothers Grimm in a ‘clear as water’ retelling, making them feel fresh and unfamiliar with his dark, distinctive voice.
From the otherworldly romance of classics such as ‘Rapunzel;, ‘Snow White’ and ‘Cinderella’ to the black wit and strangeness of lesser know tales as ‘The Three Snake Leaves’, ‘Hans-my-Hedgehog’ and ‘Godfather of Death’; Pullman captures the appeal that has held the imagination of readers for centuries, following each tale with a brief commentary on the story’s background and history.
‘Swiftness is a great virtue in the fairytale, all we need is the word ”Once…” and we’re off’.
I was ridiculously excited about this anthology of the tales of the Brothers Grimm as retold by Philip Pullman, because on one hand, I am a complete Pullman fangirl, and on the other, fairy tales are the very epitome of fantasy and mystery; simple yet astounding and irrevocably woven in my childhood memories of fiction. I wanted so desperately for this book to be as perfect and magical as I both remembered and expected, and am relieved and overjoyed that it lived up to those hopes.
To read and enjoy fairy tales, you have to be accepting of absolutes and prepared for repetition. Characters must be taken at face value. Good people are always good, bad people are always bad, there is no deviation from either and your fate is set in stone at birth. Bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people, and sometimes things even out and everyone lives happily ever after, and sometimes they don’t. And almost every story is structured around the power of three – there are three challenges, or three places to reach on a quest, or three witches, or three farmers, or three bits of advice to follow. More often than not there is a king and a miller. Princesses are always the most beautiful girl to have ever lived, and stepmothers are often evil. Centuries can go by in the space of a sentence. This is just how it is.
In this new version, Pullman has chosen 50 such tales; some famous, like Cinderella, Snow White and Rumpelstiltskin, and some less well know, like The Riddle, Famerkin and Faithful Johannes. He doesn’t retell them completely, or even embellish much; instead choosing to consolidate the many variations of each tale into what he considers the ‘best’ version. At the end of every tale, Pullman includes a short explanation of the origin of the story, and notes on its strengths/weaknesses and what he might change, which gives a wonderful touch and a brilliant starting point for research.
The 50 tales include happily ever afters, wicked villains, brave men, abused children, horrific torture, spellbinding magic and beautiful scenery. These are not happy tales, nor are they necessarily ‘ children’s stories’. Some are sad, some are gory, some are scary and some are funny. God, the Devil and Death are personified, incest is suggested, kidnapping is popular and assassination is a favoured pastime. Pullman gives regular intelligent analyses to these sorts of happenings, speaking of punishment and redemption as it is seen in fairy tales and not necessarily in the shades of grey we would assign today. In fairy tales and folklore, morality is a black and white issue, and the Brothers Grimm were clearly not afraid to go to extremes in terms of generosity and depravity. The Girl With No Hands and Thousandfurs are particularly creepy and gruesome, whilst Jorinda & Joringel and The Moon enjoy happy endings and limited strife.
In an enchanted realm, you can expect as many sinister shadows as beautiful sunrises, and Pullman/The Brothers Grimm deliver an absolutely wonderful collection of realms. There is something for everyone in this collection, and it’s a book that can be read again and again, all at once or a couple of stories at a time, carefully chosen for their individual merits.
What I loved most about this edition was it’s simplicity, Pullman stuck to canon and only made changes to the original where he thought it were necessary, and explained his exact reasons why in his commentary. Often he untangled a few of the more confusing tales and set them out in a more linear fashion, and in a few other cases he twisted details to make them more believable/understandable to the modern reader – for example, in his version of Rapunzel he has her confused over her rapidly tightening dresses as the primary indication of her pregnancy, whereas in the original tale she admitted to her stepmother that she had allowed a prince into her bedroom. The latter, he said, shows off a ‘stupid side’ to Rapunzel that is not in fitting with the rest of her brave and beautiful characteristics.
Overall, a stunningly original yet wonderfully familiar collection of tales, with something old and something new and something for everyone. I would highly recommend this version for those who know and love the tales, and for those who might not have read them before. When you get to the end, you will definitely have a favourite, and you will definitely make this your go-to book for a quick dose of fantasy. Everyone has imagination, and Grimm Tales is imagination at its best.
Grimm Tales is published by Penguin Classics and is available from their website, as well as Amazon and all major book retailers.