Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm by Philip Pullman

I am not sure when it happened but somewhere along the line I became interested in fairy tales.  Myths, legends, folklore, you name it, I find it interesting.  Literary adaptions, recreations, new translations, etc.  I have even gone so far as to collect dozens of children’s and adult fairy tale collections of various sorts from library sales and used book stores (and even occasionally newly published).

One of the wise folks at Viking Publishing figured this out and sent me Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version by Philip Pullman.

#1 New York Times bestseller Philip Pullman retells the world’s best-loved fairy tales on their 200th anniversary

Two centuries ago, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm published the first volume of Children’s and Household Tales. Now Philip Pullman, one of the most accomplished authors of our time, makes us fall in love all over again with the immortal tales of the Brothers Grimm.

Pullman retells his fifty favorites, from much-loved stories like “Cinderella” and “Rumpelstiltskin,” “Rapunzel” and “Hansel and Gretel” to lesser-known treasures like “The Three Snake Leaves,” “Godfather Death” and “The Girl with No Hands.” At  the end of each tale he offers a brief personal commentary, opening a window on the sources of the tales, the various forms they’ve taken over the centuries and their everlasting appeal.

Suffused with romance and villainy, danger and wit, the Grimms’ fairy tales have inspired Pullman’s unique creative vision—and his beguiling retellings will draw you back into a world that has long cast a spell on the Western imagination.

I was excited and I started reading it right away.

There was just one small problem.  I found it hard to read 50 fairy tales straight through like it was a novel.  I found myself reading a couple at night before bed, slowly making my way through the collection. So it took me some time to finish.  And of course, then I had to come up with something interesting to say about the volume … So here we find ourselves discussing the book months after it came out. How gauche, right? Sarcasm aside, the publisher probably would have preferred a quicker response but better late than never.

Nevertheless, if you are as fascinated by fairy tales as I am this is a must read. Pullman provides a wonderful collection of Grimm’s Fairy Tales with a straightforward and clean style. Plus, he adds some interesting and whimsical comments at the end of each story.

Many of the tales included will be familiar to the casual reader but some will not be. Reading the collection gives you a great sense of the reach and breadth of folklore even as it reveals similarities and commonalities. I read them over a period of time rather than straight through but still acquired a sense of the scope of the work. It is a great way to familiarize yourself with these classic tales in their original splendor not through the eyes of Disney or popular culture.

Now, if I was a diligent reviewer I would have read some other versions of Grimm’s Tales and been able to speak intelligently about the difference in the ways Pullman edits these stories. But alas and alack, I did not and so can not.  It is not for lack of wanting to, however, I even pulled The Juniper Tree: And Other Tales from Grimm off the shelf with plans to read a selection but never quite got around to it.

Here is Jenny Hendrix in Slate on that issue:

Pullman’s comfy retellings aren’t a far cry from the Grimms’ originals. In fact, he writes in his introduction, he wanted them to be as clear and clean as possible, the way he would tell them himself having heard them before. While Pullman’s name may well reinvigorate the genre, his additions, where there are any, are minimal and unobtrusive. It almost doesn’t matter that it’s Pullman who’s written them. Of course, a fairy tale is by nature a shared thing—when someone retells it, it doesn’t become a picture of their mind but rather a vessel for that mind to fill. “Just as the sequence of chords in a song is there ready for the jazz musician,” Pullman writes, “our task is to step from chord to chord, from event to event, with all the lightness and swing we can.” But Pullman isn’t going for John Coltrane here; he’s Stan Getz, mostly playing the changes. That the result might be called “classic” is as much a testament to the power of the material at hand as to his (nontrivial) skill as a storyteller. The ultimate lesson for would be retellers is that fairy tales, as the sociologist Arthur Frank put it, “are not theirs but there, as realities.”

My sense is that Pullman changed little (with a few exceptions) and succeeded in offering a “clean” edition of these timeless stories.

But why fairy tales? Why read these stories?  Allow me to quote from another expert on the subject, Maria Tatar:

Storytellers from many cultures show their awareness of the philosophical depth of fairy tales when they begin their narratives with: “It was, and it was not.” In short, as with nonsense poetry, narrated dreams, and surreal fictions, we have to interpret and backfill as well as absorb when we listen or read.

Pullman’s investment in fairy tales is both intellectual and moral. From fiction, he tells us, we learn about good and evil, cruelty and kindness, but in ways that are always elliptical, as the text works on us in its own silent, secret way. “ ‘Thou shalt not’ might reach the head, but it takes ‘Once upon a time’ to reach the heart,” he once observed. Fairy tales began as adult entertainment—stories told just for the fun of it. But with their exacting distribution of rewards and punishments, they also increasingly tapped into the human urge to derive morals from stories, In his own fiction, as well as in these retellings of the Grimms’ fairy tales, Pullman tells stories so compelling that he is sure to produce in the reader the connection—both passionate and compassionate—that Nabokov called a little “sob in the spine.”

Let me leave you with one last quote, this one from the NYT review:

These stories make great bedtime read-alouds for children who can handle a little gore. (They’re short-attention-span theater: Deliciously bloody, but not really terrifying thanks to that aforementioned lack of characterization.) The original tales weren’t for children, of course; they were for everyone. So is this book. I would have liked illustrations … but Pullman’s words can manage the heavy lifting. He makes 200-year-old stories feel as fluid and weird and gross and dreamlike as anyone could wish.

As I said, Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm is a must read for anyone interested in folklore and fairy tales but it is also a great read for anyone interested in the art of storytelling and its impact on culture, language and the way we see the world.


Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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