Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm by Philip Pullman

Last year was a busy time work-wise. Over the past couple of weeks it’s been a bit quiet over here as I took some time off, but I think things will be better now that things have settled down for the new year and I‘ve had a breather. This is a long overdue review!

My copy of Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm was provided to me for review from the publisher.

The Premise: The Grimm Brothers’ Kinder-und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales), which we know today as Grimm’s Fairy Tales, is a collection of 210 stories first published in 1812. Now, 200 years later, Phillip Pullman retells a subset of these – 50 fairy tales which he calls “the cream” of the collection.

My Thoughts: Philip Pullman is known for His Dark Materials and other books (like the Sally Lockhart mysteries) so I thought that maybe his retelling of Grimm’s Fairy Tales would mean creative reinterpretations of the stories. I was a bit surprised, but also relieved, that these retellings are straightforward and keep the original stories intact. In his introduction, Pullman writes:

“[…] my main interest has always been in how the tales worked as stories. All I set out to do in this book was tell the best and most interesting of them, clearing out of the way anything that would prevent them from running freely. I didn’t want to put them in modern settings, or produce personal interpretations or compose poetic variations on the originals; I just wanted to produce a version that was as clear as water. “

So there you have it. Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm is exactly as the subtitle to this book, A New English Version, suggests: 50 stories told in a clear manner.  This makes it a little harder for me to review because these stories are true to the originals, and you can’t really review a classic fairy tale – they just are. So instead the focus of this review is going to be how they were presented. To tell you the truth, I found very little to complain about.

Pullman’s selections are good ones. He chose a lot of old and familiar stories, like Little Red Riding Hood, Rumpelstiltskin, and Hansel and Gretel, but he also selects some that are less well-known like The Girl with No Hands and Hans-my-Hedgehog. There are also stories that I had personally never heard of at all, like The Singing Bone and The Donkey Cabbage. I also felt like there was some thought that went into where the stories were placed in the compilation, with stories that were of a similar sort of type grouped together, but not so much that you had too much of one kind of thing.  For example, some of the more pious stories were near one another, at least enough for me to see a theme, but they weren’t all in the same place, and The Juniper Tree was close enough to Snow White for me to notice the similarity of children with lips as red as blood and skin as white as snow, even if Pullman doesn’t really mention the link.

At the end of each of the stories, Pullman devotes a couple of paragraphs for notes and observations. This is probably my favorite thing about the collection. When I was growing up, I remember going to the library and reading a lot of fairy tales, but I approached them as a reader. Pullman does this too, commenting on whether a story works and his take on holes in the stories (like characters that were mentioned once and then we never find out what happened to them). I could completely relate to this, and had the same reaction to many of the things Pullman points out (it feels very good to be on the same page as Philip Pullman). But Pullman also approaches the stories from a more scholarly standpoint. From his notes, I could gather that he read the original editions of the Grimm books, as well as later ones, commenting on the translation of the German into English, and how a mother in an earlier version became a step-mother in a later one. He also prefaces each note with the ATU number of each of the stories, the source, and a list of similar stories. It was fascinating to learn some tidbits about these stories through those notes, and the people who passed these stories along to the Grimm’s. I was also a little fascinated by the glimpse of a system for cataloging these fairy tales (I’d never heard of ATU types before this).

Because of the shortness of the stories, reading is hardly a chore. Anytime I sat down with Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm I would gulp down several stories. This book is perfect for picking up whenever the mood strikes to sink into a story, knowing that you can also set it aside quickly after a story or two.

Here are some of the highlights for me in this collection:

The Mouse, the Bird and the Sausage – A trio of unlikely friends live harmoniously together until one day the seed for discord is planted in their midst. This was equally hilarious (in most part due to the sausage) and horrifying. I greatly enjoyed Pullman’s notes where he informs the reader that the sausage was a bratwurst.

The Girl with No Hands – One of the stories where piety is rewarded, a miller makes a deal with the Devil where he signs away his daughter in the bargain. Because his daughter is so Good she escapes the trap and lives happily ever after.  My reaction to this story was that it is ridiculous. Pullman calls it “disgusting”, and his notes say, “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.” I agree. The mental image of a despondent girl eating fruit with no hands haunts me somewhat.

Strong Hans – This story starts off telling the tale of a woman and her son (Hans) being kidnapped by bandits, but then ends up being the tale of Hans, who grows up strong, sets out to have adventures and rescues a princess. It struck me as one of those odd stories that begins one way, starts to look like something else, then ends up a third thing entirely. Basically, I agreed with Pullman that this story was all over the place. Things were introduced but then never utilized, which feels typical of fairy tales, but even more so here.

The Juniper Tree – This is a lyrical story about an evil step-mother who does a macabre deed but in return is driven to the point of madness as she gets her just desserts. This story struck me as being particularly well-written, and because of this it was one of my favorites. Pullman notes that it was sent to the Grimm brothers by Philip Otto Runge. I loved The Fisherman and his Wife, which was also sent in by Runge and has a similar well-put-together story style. Again I found myself nodding along with Pullman’s notes where he says, “For beauty, for horror, for perfection of form, this story has no equal.”

The Three Snake Leaves – This one I liked for its weirdness. It has a princess who has a “strange obsession” – that if she dies before her husband, he must be willing to be buried alive with her. Except this princess turns out not to be as loyal as she wants her husband to be. This was a new-to-me story, and delightfully bizarre. Pullman makes an interesting observation about the number of pieces a snake is cut into in this story that I would have missed without his note.

Overall: This feels like the perfect gift book for someone who likes fairy tales. It is a well-curated subset of the Grimm’s stories, and the notes by Pullman at the end of each adds just the right amount of perspective. This felt like it would work equally well as a reference book for someone who collects fairy tales, or as an introduction to folk tales for a young reader. I enjoyed this collection a lot. It’s definitely going onto my keeper shelf.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
Charlotte’s Library – “Reading Pullman’s retellings was like coming home to find the walls of my house repainted–fresh and bright and like new again, with the added bonus of some new rooms that I’d never been in before”
The Book Smugglers – 8 (truly excellent)

Philip Pullman talks about Grimm Fairy Tales at Anglia Ruskin University @ Things Mean A Lot
Phillip Pullman reads The Magicians of Bremen

9 thoughts on “Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm by Philip Pullman

  1. Reading Pullman’s notes at the end of each story is the main reason I really want to pick this one up and read it! I like that he chose not to retell the stories so much as present them in a clear manner, and so many of those he’s chosen are either beloved or fairly new to me. I’ve read a few interviews of his thoughts on fairy tales and how we’ve taken them in as a society, and I really want to read those details!

    • The notes are great. One of the the best parts of his notes is how right on the money he is about the story – it makes me feel like he’s just as much a reader as he is a writer. I don’t know, there’s something there in his approach to these stories that makes me respect him as a writer even more now. He also drops little facts that I found fascinating (just about wording and who introduced what story to the Grimms and how a story changed from one edition of the Grimm’s work to the next and so on). Some people may disagree, but I actually wish the notes were even longer than they are.

  2. You know, I got this one for Christmas (so excited) and I too was wondering if the focus was on retellings or staying true to the originals. Though I would enjoy some retellings I am glad that Pullman kept the originals intact as they are amazing just how they are written. This was a great review, it really shed some insight and I am looking forward to picking up my copy soon!

    • Oo, I feel like it’s a really good book to give someone as a gift! What is also good is how short these stories are – I think it’s better to read it in bits and pieces instead of all at once, and it works as a “break book” from some other book you may be reading.

  3. Pingback: This Day In History, Odd News and Facts For February 26, 2013 | Wis U.P. North

  4. Pingback: Philip Pullman – Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm | Fyrefly's Book Blog

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