Review: Fairy Tales From the Brothers Grimm by Philip Pullman (Nov. 2012)
After reading a slew of books I simply couldn’t put down—The FitzOsbornes at War, In a Glass Grimmly, Son—it was a nice change of pace to find Philip Pullman’s fairy tale collection. I like fairy tales just fine, but they’re best taken in small doses. After a while, all those stock characters and random rescues by angels/mysterious men in the woods/wild critters start to get boring. It’s the ideal book for reading in bits and pieces, and now that I’m done, I find myself with a new appreciation for the Grimm collection.
Pullman’s retelling isn’t nearly as dramatic as, say, Adam Gidwitz’s snarky retakes. What Pullman did was pick dozens of Grimm fairy tales and streamline the narration, tossing out anything that would make them drag. His intent, as he writes in the introduction, was to “produce a version that was as clear as water.” I felt like I was reading something I’d half-forgotten, and rediscovering what makes fairy tales timeless. Some of the stories are well known: Cinderella, Rumpelstiltskin, Little Red Riding Hood. Then there were others I’d never heard of before: The Juniper Tree, The Three Snake Leaves, The Fisherman and His Wife. But they all felt familiar, because they all have classic fairy tale elements, like the repetition of things in threes (something I seem to be doing a lot in this post), or magical animals with the power to grant wishes.
Of course, there’s a reason why some of those stories have faded with time. Every story comes with an author’s note, and I have to agree with Pullman that “The Girl With No Hands” is just appalling. It’s a mess of a tale—even Pullman couldn’t patch it up, not unless he intends to rewrite the entire plot.
If you’re starting to think the book sounds too scholarly and dense, don’t. Pullman clearly had fun with the narration. Take this description of newly crowned royalty:
In the throne room he found his wife sitting on a throne made of one piece of solid gold two miles high, and he could only see her because she was wearing a crown that was three yards high and two yards across.
And this wink to his readers:
In the olden days, when wishing still worked…
Or when Rumpelstiltskin greets the miller’s daughter by asking why she’s “blubbering”—a truly British addition. Her attempt to guess his name reaches new levels of absurdity with “McMustardplaster.”
My favorite story stars a bird, a mouse and a sausage (plus an original take on the dog-ate-my-homework joke). Sounds like the premise of a bad sitcom, but for now you can read it in its rightful place, alongside the other Grimm tales.