Book Review: Fairy Tales From The Brothers Grimm by Philip Pullman

Book Review: Fairy Tales From The Brothers Grimm by Philip Pullman

First of all, for those of you who have been following my struggles: I did it! I actually finished a book of short stories! I’ve mentioned a few times now that I have a big problem with story collections, and generally avoid them like the plague. I made an exception, however, for Fairy Tales From The Brothers Grimm by Philip Pullman, because a) fairy tales! and b) Philip Pullman!

And now that that’s out of the way… what can I tell you about this collection? We all — or at least, those of us above a certain age — grew up with the color-themed fairy books, right? I was a bit obsessed with these as a child, and read whichever volumes were available on my library’s shelves at any given book-bingeing visit. It’s been years since I’ve revisited fairy tales in the written form, as opposed to all the Disnified versions that I’ve watched countless times with my kids.

In Fairy Tales From The Brothers Grimm (let’s just call if FTFTBG for now, okay?), Philip Pullman presents fifty Grimm tales which he’s rewritten in modern, simple English. The language is straightforward and pure, without archaisms that abound in more “traditional” Grimm collections. At the conclusion of each story, the author includes source information as well as his own comments on the story itself and any changes he may have made from the original narratives. He is quite faithful to Grimm, identifying which edition of the Grimm stories he’s pulled from, and only deviates from the source material when he feels that the story is missing a connection or a conclusion.

Pullman’s comments vary from factual — stating source and context — to highly opinionated, and it’s these latter types of comments that are the most entertaining. When the author has something to say, he really says it. Here’s one of my favorites:

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… Instead of being struck by wonder, here we laugh. It’s ridiculous. This tale and others like it must have spoken very deeply to many audiences, though, for it to spread so widely, or perhaps a great many people like stories of maiming, cruelty and sentimental piety. (Comments on story #21, “The Girl With No Hands”)

The introduction to FTFTBG is wonderful, outlining the history of the Brothers Grimm and their efforts to record and retell folk tales. Philip Pullman gives a very useful overview of common characteristics of fairy tales, among them the immediacy of the characters and narrative: The characters tend to have no backstory, and often lack names other than “the miller”, “the tailor”, “the youngest son”, etc. The stories are tales of actions and consequences, with little to no time spent on descriptions of settings or the natural world, character motivations, or personal growth or development:

There is no psychology in a fairy tale. The characters have little interior life; their motives are clear and obvious. If people are good, they are good, and if bad, they’re bad… The tremors and mysteries of human awareness, the whispers of memory, the promptings of half-understood regret or doubt or desire that are so much part of the subject matter of the modern novel are absent entirely.

I am not an academic; I have no fancy degrees in folklore, ethnography, or comparative literature. I can’t compare Philip Pullman’s retellings to other versions, reinterpretations, or new translations. What I can assess is how this particular collection of stories worked for me as a reader — and the answer is, it worked very well indeed!

I truly enjoyed this collection, which includes both familiar tales (“Cinderella”, “Rapunzel”, “Snow White”, “Little Red Riding Hood”) as well as tales (with wonderful titles!) that I’d never heard of, such as “Hans-my-Hedgehog”, “The Mouse, the Bird and the Sausage”, and “The Singing, Springing Lark”. Even for the most familiar tales, I was surprised to realize how far my own memory of the stories had strayed from the Grimm version into the land of Disney princesses and happily-ever-afters. There’s something oddly appealing — at least to me, with my appreciation for the dark and off-beat — in realizing that even a story that ends with kisses and marriage (such as “Cinderella”) also includes self-mutilation, horrific cruelty, and shoes filled with blood. In real Grimm stories, fairy tales are definitely not soothing stories to lull children into peaceful dreams!

Some of the stories which were new to me were quirky and funny, such as “The Boy Who Left Home to Find Out About The Shivers” and “Lazy Heinz”. Then again, there are plenty of truly disturbing stories. “Thousandfurs”, for me, is the most disturbing in the collection, not specifically because of Pullman’s retelling, but because “Thousandfurs”  is one of the origin stories for the brilliant yet wildly upsetting novel Deerskin by Robin McKinley.

And perhaps that’s the point and the beauty of reading such a well-written and thoughtful collection of traditional fairy tales: We’ve all encountered these stories in so many ways, with so many different interpretations. In reading them anew, we’re instantly reminded of all the associations we’ve developed with these stories, from reinterpretations in modern novels to our grandparents’ versions of fairy tales as bed-time stories to cautionary tales about greed and duplicity. What’s most interesting to me is that the stories resonate so deeply and so widely; your Rapunzel and my Rapunzel may be very different, but the bottom line is that fairy tales like these give us a common language and cultural points of reference. On my bookshelf, I have a wonderful collection of short fiction by women writers entitled We Are The Stories We Tell. Given the depth of experiences we all share thanks to fairy tales such as those in FTFTBG, I’d say that we are also the stories we read.

Fresh Catch: This week’s exciting new book arrivals

Two books I’ve been eagerly awaiting arrived this week, and I’m just pleased as punch. (Can punch be pleased? Is that punch as in Hawaiian? Or like what comes from a closed fist? Or should that be with a capital P, as in the puppet who abuses puppet Judy? I think I don’t understand this expression after all. But I digress).

Book #1:

I’ve been waiting for this one since August (I even blogged about it, here, in a fit of intense anticipation), and here it is! Fairy Tales From The Brothers Grimm, by Philip Pullman, is a collection of Pullman’s 50 favorites, including tried-and-true standards such as “Snow White”, “Rumpelstiltskin”, “Little Red Riding Hood”, and “Cinderella”. I can’t wait to read these, but I must confess that I’m even more intrigued by the titles of some of the lesser-known stories in the collection. Has anyone ever heard of “Thousandfurs” or “The Donkey Cabbage”? How about “The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs”, “The Girl with No Hands”, or “The Nixie of the Millpond”? Listen, I adored Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy and I’d be willing to read just about anything he sets his pen to… add to that my love of fairy tales, and this collection seems like a sure bet to me.

Of course, I do have to proceed with caution, as I am admittedly terrible at reading short stories, and no matter how interested I may be in a collection, I almost never make it all the way through. I have a plan, however! I believe I’ll tackle this lovely new book in small bites — let’s say, oh, maybe 2 or 3 stories per week? I think the solution to my unavoidable impatience with story collections is to find a work-around so that I don’t end up frustrated by thoughts of all the novels I could be reading instead. So, if I take this one slow and steady, mixing in fairy tales betwixt and between all my other reading, I should be able to stick with it and get all the enjoyment from Pullman’s new collection that it seems to promise.

Book #2:

Sounds the trumpets! Wave the flags! Send up some fireworks, for Pete’s sake! (Wait, who’s Pete? Never mind…) It’s the newest book from Diana Gabaldon! Yes, Diana Gabaldon Herself, creator of the Outlander series, which I love beyond all reason. But if you live in the US, don’t go looking for this book in your local bookstore — it won’t be there. First things first — the basic facts:

A Trail of Fire, by Diana Gabaldon, is a collection of four novellas, one brand-new and three which were included in already published anthologies. For various reasons related to copyrights, the three already published stories can’t be re-released in the US just yet as they still belong to the anthologies, which is why, if you really want to get your hands on this collection, you’ll have to look outside your usual US sources.**

**So far, I know US readers who have successfully ordered A Trail of Fire from Amazon UK and from The Book Depository. The Poisoned Pen bookstore in Arizona has signed copies available for mail order as well (with a hefty price tag).

The contents of A Trail of Fire are:

1) “A Leaf on the Wind of All Hallows” — published in the US in 2010 in the Songs of Love and Death anthology edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois. (Note to Firefly fans: This is not a Serenity cross-over, and Wash is not a character in this story. Just to clear up any potential confusion.) “A Leaf on the Wind of All Hallows” tells the story of Roger MacKenzie’s parents and their tragic fates during WWII, hinted at in the Outlander books but never fully explained prior to this story. This is essential reading for fans of the series, best read after Echo In The Bone.

2) “The Custom of the Army” — published in the US in 2010 as part of the Warriors anthology edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois. This story focuses on Lord John Grey, a supporting character in many of the Outlander books and lead character in a spin-off series. “The Custom of the Army” is set in 1759 and largely concerns the Battle of Quebec, plus much military intrigue.

3) “Lord John and the Plague of Zombies” — published in the US in the anthology Down These Strange Streets, again courtesy of George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois. This is another Lord John story, dealing with his lordship’s first posting to Jamaica at the head of a squadron detailed to deal with a slave rebellion, who end up with much more sinister forces to contend with. In terms of series chronology, the events in this story occur before the events in Voyager.

4) The new one! “The Space Between” has not previously been available, and will not be published in the US until 2013, when it will be included in the forthcoming anthology The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination. “The Space Between” takes place in 1778, after the events in Echo In The Bone, is set in France, and has as its main characters several side characters from the Outlander series, including Michael Murray, Marsali’s sister Joan, and the Comte St. Germain. I don’t know anything else about it… but I will soon!

At the risk of sounding like an insane fan, I will admit to already owning the anthologies containing stories 1 – 3, but after much debate (me vs. me), decided to go ahead and purchase A Trail of Fire for two reasons: One, to get my hands on “The Space Between” (obviously!) without having to wait until next March, and two, because it just looks like a beautiful book. Yes, I do sometimes judge books by their covers. When I truly give my heart to a book or series, I get a great deal of pleasure from having nice-looking copies on my shelves. A Trail of Fire will look simply smashing with all its “colleagues” — I have a space reserved for it right next to The Scottish Prisoner.