Book review: Grimm Tales For Young And Old, by Philip Pullman

WILHELM Grimm, good Calvinist that he was, thought that “the reason for telling fairytales was to awaken the thoughts and feelings of the heart”. Philip Pullman’s motivation in retelling the Grimm brothers’ folk tales is simpler: it’s to retell a good story for the sake of story­telling.

“An enormous relief and pleasure ... comes over the writer who realises that it’s not necessary to invent: the substance of the tale is there already, just as the sequence of chords in a song is there ready for the jazz musician.”

So he sees it as his job in telling 50 of the best of the tales in his own words to clear “out of the way anything that would prevent them from running freely”. To that end he makes some changes “for the purpose of helping the story emerge more naturally in my voice”. That’s fair enough. The brothers Grimm made changes to their collection of tales between the first editions in 1810-12 and the seventh edition in 1857. In a note to one of the stories, Jakob Grimm wrote: “Endung stimmt nicht” – the ending doesn’t make sense.

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That’s more or less what Pullman does in his notes at the end of each of the tales: he analyses the story, including its provenance, and identifies what works and what doesn’t and where he’s made changes. In other words, he does, however, provide some background reading, and to studies such as Marina Warner’s he could have added Ronald Murphy’s The Owl, The Raven And The Dove, which identifies the subtle religious colouring of the stories.

In one case he provides an alternative version of a story — the creepy tale of Thousand Furs, which begins with a king’s desire to marry his own daughter and ends up with something like Cinderella. It’s a hotchpotch but Pullman’s attempt at an alternative is more complex and no better. In ­other cases he observes that when you start to fiddle with these tales they simply fall apart. Elsewhere he contents himself with observing how well a story is told: of The Juniper Tree, he remarks, “for beauty, for horror, for perfection of form, this story has no equal”.

His selection of 50 from the original 210 tales includes the ones that have entered into the British imagination, such as Snow White, Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Briar Rose (The Sleeping Beauty) and Hansel And Gretel, and less familiar ones such as the symbolic Twelve Brothers, the curious Hans-my-Hedgehog and the fable-ish The Mouse, The Bird And The Sausage.

The collection doesn’t stint on violence, but that’s in the spirit of the original; there was controversy about whether these stories were suitable for the young but as folk tales they were for general consumption. I tried a few out on a nine-year-old; he thought some were “strange” and liked others.

Is a retelling of this much- visited collection worthwhile? I’ll say. Pullman tells the tales as well as he can. It means the injection of a certain humour in the dialogue — “Respect!” says the giant to the little tailor — and a brisk clarity in the narrative. Other than that, he gets out of the way of the story. He doesn’t obsess about the usual controversies: whether the stories are pure folk tales, French rather than German or fiddled with by the Grimms. He has given the tales a new lease of life: Respect! «