Author: Philip Pullman
Genre: Fantasy, Fairy Tales
Publisher: Viking Adult
Publication Date: November 2012
Hardcover: 400 Pages
Two centuries ago, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm published the first volume of Children’s and Household Tales. Now Philip Pullman, one of the most accomplished authors of our time, makes us fall in love all over again with the immortal tales of the Brothers Grimm.
Pullman retells his fifty favorites, from much-loved stories like “Cinderella” and “Rumpelstiltskin,” “Rapunzel” and “Hansel and Gretel” to lesser-known treasures like “The Three Snake Leaves,” “Godfather Death” and “The Girl with No Hands.” At the end of each tale he offers a brief personal commentary, opening a window on the sources of the tales, the various forms they’ve taken over the centuries and their everlasting appeal.
Suffused with romance and villainy, danger and wit, the Grimms’ fairy tales have inspired Pullman’s unique creative vision—and his beguiling retellings will draw you back into a world that has long cast a spell on the Western imagination.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone collection
How did I get this book: Review Copy from the Publisher
Why did I read this book: Like most people that have had the pleasure of reading Philip Pullman’s work, I am an enormous fan. When we were approached by the publisher about this new book, a collection of Pullman’s 50 favorite fairy tales as collected by the brothers Grimm to commemorate the 200th anniversary of their initial publication, I responded with alacrity. Classic Grimm fairy tales, researched and rewritten by Philip Pullman? COME ON. I was an instant goner.
This year marks the 200th anniversary of the first publication of Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm’s collection of folk tales in Children’s and Household Tales (Kinder- und Hausmärchen) in 1812. To commemorate the longevity and significant impact these tales have had on western literature and culture, Philip Pullman has selected 50 tales, researched them intensively, and rewritten them in Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm. These tales span the obvious and readily familiar (Rapunzel, Hansel & Gretel, Snow White, Cinderella, and Briar Rose) to the more obscure (The Three Snake Leaves, The Fisherman and his Wife, The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs, The Brave Little Tailor, and Thousandfurs, for example).
I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect when I started Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm – described as Philip Pullman’s retelling of these classic tales, I thought I might get fifty completely reimagined and reinterpreted stories. In reality, Fairy Tales is a collection of loyally simple, straightforward renderings of the brothers Grimm’s collected fables. Each story is rooted in Pullman’s extensive research of the history of the tale and its renditions over time, and each tale is followed by a list of a specification of “Tale Type” (according to the ATU – Antti Aarne, Stith Thompson & Hans-Jorg Uther – in various revisions of The Types of International Folktales), the original source from which the Grimm brothers gathered the tale, and similar variations of folk stories. Most intriguingly, each tale is appended with a note from Pullman himself; an opinionated commentary about the story, any variations he has included, and in some instances, suggested elaborations for how he would have changed the story.
You could say that Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm is far more of a thesis on folklore and storytelling – that said, at its heart, it is an earnest, unembellished collection of fairy tales that are wholly effective, nostalgic, and memorable. To me, the most striking thing about this collection is the simplistic, yet oddly beautiful and effective tone. In the introduction to the text, Pullman says that flowery language is all and good, but has no place in a fairy tale, which must move quickly and give just enough information to keep the reader engaged and moving forward from act to act in the tale. That sense of forward momentum is beautifully captured here, but there’s also something to be said for Pullman’s gift for conveying just enough description and imagery in a succinct way. For example, take this passage from Briar Rose to show everyone in the palace falling asleep after the princess pricks her finger on the spindle:
Down in the kitchen the very flames under the roasting ox fell asleep. A drop of fat that was about to fall from the sizzling carcass stayed where it was and didn’t ove. The cook had been about to clout the kitchen boy; her hand fell still six inches from his ear, and his face remained screwed up waiting for the blow. Outside the wind stopped blowing; not a leaf stirred; the very ripples on the lake stayed as they were, as if made of glass.
Absurdity and comedy, but also stillness and beauty.
If that wasn’t enough to sell you on the collection, there’s also the interpretation that Pullman adds to each tale – sometimes perfunctory, but often wonderfully outspoken and witty, never afraid to call out a story for its weaknesses. Case in point, for The Girl with No Hands, Pullman opines (and I agree):
This is a widely dispersed story type. The elements are vivid and gruesome and the outcome satisfying [...] However, the tale itself is disgusting. The most repellent aspect is the cowardice of the miller, which goes quite unpunished. The tone of never-shaken piety is nauseating, and the restoration of the poor woman’s hands simply preposterous.
As you can see, larger themes and problems inherent in fairy tales are not ignored, either. In any collection of fairy tales that do not stray from original interpretation, I’m always ever so slightly wary – the women in these tales are virtuous, pious creatures that are valued for their virtue and piety (and heart-stopping beauty); king’s daughters are offered as prizes and traded away on a whim. Pullman’s elaborations following the stories address some of these issues, thankfully (more on that in specifics below).
There’s also the all important nostalgia factor to this collection, too. As a child, I remember reading and loving two distinct collections of fairy tales: Andrew Lang’s assorted color fairy books (our household favorites were Red and Violet), and Collier’s Junior Classics: The Young Folks Shelf of Books. Many of the stories in Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm were ones I read and loved; some were stories I’d long forgotten; some were tales that I’d never read before.
Here are a selection of my favorites of the bunch:
Rapunzel – which is true to the original story, making sure to include the parts where the prince is blinded, and Rapunzel saves him and restores his sight with her tears. Rapunzel has always been one of my favorite fairy tales because it is one where the beautiful maiden saves the prince. In this version, Pullman draws special attention to the importance of pregnancy as a theme (after all, Rapunzel is born to a couple that has long yearned for a child). In this version of the tale, the witch discovers Rapunzel’s dalliances with the prince when Rapunzel innocently remarks that every single one of her dresses no longer fits, i.e. she is pregnant. And, in this afterword, I learned for the first time that Rapunzel’s mother’s craving for the titular lettuce leaf (not radish – I had always heard the wife’s craving was for radishes in the past) is recorded in some versions as parsley, which is a well-known aborticant. Now that’s a twist.
Hansel and Gretel – a quintessential tale that has not changed over the generations is included here, of course. The witch is always burned alive in her oven, even in the sugary sweet children’s picture books, and Pullman makes little to no changes to this text. For nostalgia and creepy factor, Hansel and Gretel ranks high on my list.
The Three Snake Leaves – is a story that I could only recall vaguely, and it is freaking FANTASTIC. A brave man weds a beautiful princess, vowing to be buried alive with her in the event of her death, which, of course, happens while she is still young. The husband finds a way to bring her back to life with three snake leaves…but his darling wife is no longer the same. It’s another odd and unsettling story, but one that is expertly crafted. In the words of Pullman, it is a tale that “falls into two halves, the first half being magic and the second romantic/realistic.”
The Fisherman and his Wife – a lesser known tale, but one of my favorites (thanks to Collier’s Junior Classics). An ambitious wife and her somewhat meeker husband make increasingly exorbitant wishes of an enchanted fish…theirs is a story that begins and ends in a pisspot.
The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs – another lesser known tale but one of the more absurd and entertaining of the bunch. A luck-born child grows into a kind young man, who travels to hell to steal three golden hairs from the devil’s head at the behest of an evil king (don’t worry – the king gets his comeuppance). The most compelling part of this story is that in Pullman’s version, the hero may have been born with good luck, but his ultimate reward is given for his courage.
The Robber Bridegroom – a tale that has familiar variations, but this particular one isn’t one I’ve ever read before. This is a nice shocking story, complete with treachery, cannibals, and one heck of a “gotcha” moment.
The Juniper Tree – Oh, I love this story. It’s one of the longer of the bunch, and it is horrific (a sister thinks she has slapped the head off of her brother! And then the unknowing father eats him up!) and beautiful, with sweet vindication at its close. Plus, it has the rhyme:
My mother cut my head off,
My father swallowed me,
My sister buried all my bones,
Under the juniper tree.
Keewitt! Keewitt! You’ll never find
A prettier bird than me.
Snow White – Ok, not one of my favorites. In fact, one of my least favorite of the bunch (behind The Girl with No Hands). This is the version of Snow White who idiotically falls for the tightly laced dress, the poisoned comb, and then finally the poisoned apple. Good grief, woman. Don’t answer the door.
Thousandfurs – This is a story that begins with terror – a king is bereft after the death of his wife, and he promises her on her deathbed that he will never marry anyone less beautiful than her, or with hair less golden than hers. So who does he start to desire, once she comes of age? Why, his own daughter, of course! The princess manages to escape and finds a new husband in the King of a neighboring kingdom, though she disguises herself in a cloak of grime and furs. While the story itself sort of peters out and ends with the princess finding a new home and husband, Pullman asserts that he thinks the story is unfinished, in his final notes. And let me tell you, his suggested last act for the story is fantastic, with this revelation: “No one can help her but herself.” And, after thwarting her father, she lives happily ever after.
The Goose Girl – Another beloved fairy tale, which I think I must owe to Shannon Hale’s beautiful, loyal, and imaginative novel based on this fable. Pullman remarks that the princess in this story, while kind and meek and beautiful, takes second place to the evil maidservant, whom he believes deserves her own book. Thankfully, Hale’s The Goose Girl stays incredibly true to the source material, and manages to give this magnetic if despicable character her due.
And that, dear readers, is my list. I loved Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, and I can think of no better way to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Grimm’s first publication. Absolutely recommended, for the fan of fairy tales in all of us.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From “The Fisherman and his Wife”
Once upon a time there were a fisherman and his wife who lived together in a shack that was so filthy it might as well have been a pisspot. Every day the fisherman went out to fish, and he fished and he fished. One day he sat there looking down into the clear water, and he sat, and he sat, and his line went all the way down to the bottom of the sea. And when he pulled it out, there was a great big flounder on the hook.
The flounder said, “Now look, fisherman – what about letting me live, eh? I’m no ordinary flounder. I’m an enchanted prince. What good would it do you to kill me? I wouldn’t taste nice at all. Put me back in the water, there’s a good fellow.”
“Fair enough,” said the fisherman. “Say no more. The word of a talking fish is good enough for me.”
You can download the full bonus fairy tale online HERE.
Additional Thoughts: The book also has a fantastic book trailer (narrated by Philip Pullman himself, wonderfully):
As I mentioned before, the nostalgia factor is very high for these books – and I’m happy to report that as of last night, my mother and younger sister have informed me that the much beloved Collier’s Classics are still on our bookshelf at home! Behold:
I’ve never been so thrilled!
Rating: 8 – Truly Excellent
Reading Next: The Ordinary Princess by M.M. Kaye
We have ONE copy of Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm up for grabs! The contest is open to addresses in the US and Canada only, and will run until Sunday, November 18 at 12:01am EST. To enter, use the form below. Good luck!
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