Philip Pullman, a writer known for his originality and command of suspense, has written a new book almost entirely devoid of either. That hardly sounds like praise but suspense and originality are not the only literary virtues. Pullmans Fairy Tales From the Brothers Grimm transports us to the opposite pole of storytelling pleasure: the domain of the fixed, the communal and the familiar.
Pullmans book is a straightforward retelling of 50 stories selected from the Childrens and Household Tales collected by the philologists and folklore scholars Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in 19th-century Germany. Based on oral and written accounts from numerous storytellers, the first version of the tales was published in 1812; Pullmans book marks its bicentennial, though his version draws on the more popular 1857 edition.
Today the Grimms best-known tales Cinderella, Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, Rumpelstiltskin, Rapunzel are so central to American popular culture that most of us could retell them ourselves. They exist in dozens of formats, from academic compendia to Golden Books to graphic novels.
There is no shortage of Grimm on the market. But Pullmans Fairy Tales offers something unique: the chance to watch a master storyteller think through these foundational tales.
A British childrens author, Pullman became a worldwide sensation with the 1996 publication of The Golden Compass, the first in the majestic fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials. With their magical objects, talking animals and plucky young heroine, these books have roots that extend into fairy-tale tradition.
Fairy Tales From the Brothers Grimm is effectively an album in which a gifted contemporary composer covers classic songs. As Pullman notes, an enormous relief and pleasure comes over the writer who realizes that its 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. And his repertory is undeniably first-rate. These stories, honed through generations of tellers, are the survivors of literary evolution. They are here because they work.
Recognizing this, Pullman keeps his touch light, lending the stories a plain-spoken, casual voice and respecting the strange transformations, reversals of fortune and patterns of three that give them their power. He concludes each tale with a brief analytical note praising or criticizing the story, pulling out a piquant detail, sometimes suggesting improvements. This is shoptalk, essentially an expert narrator pointing out the storytelling triumphs or missteps of his forebears and it is fascinating.