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Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version
Philip Pullman
Viking, 400 pages

Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version
Philip Pullman
Philip Pullman says that he is not a writer but, rather, that he writes stories, and considers this distinction critical. As a child, he loved radio serials, Superman, Batman, and especially ghost stories. A graduate of Oxford University with a degree in English, he has written novels, plays, and picture books for readers of all ages. He is the author of the highly acclaimed trilogy, His Dark Materials.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Shadow In The North
SF Site Review: Count Karlstein
SF Site Review: The Subtle Knife

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Trent Walters

Philip Pullman tackles the Grimm brothers' fairy tales in Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm. Alan Garner did something similar in his Complete Fairy Tales. Like Garner, Pullman distances himself from rewriting them as modern stories -- developing full characters, setting, etc. -- but instead rewrites them only to improve plot points, occasionally embellishing or detouring slightly from the originals.

"If Pullman doesn't make major changes," a reader may ask, "why would I want lay down so much money for this new book? Couldn't I get a classic ebook, free off the internet?" Good question. You can read the originals free, but Pullman does some research and connects these to similar folktales from around the world. He also comments on the changes he made (or thought of making) and why. If there is one single reason why you should buy this book, the commentary supplies the answer: How does Pullman view the oral storyteller's telling and plotting? How have other writers handled it?

Anthropologically, reading fairy tales is fascinating, providing insight into what traits our ancestors thought important to preserve and what to avoid. Clearly their view of the world was often brutal -- both by the over-reachers and those disciplining them. Justice almost always meets evil-doers. Although good guys don't always live -- sometimes they return after being bathed in tears -- the evil ones do not.

Pullman selects many classic texts -- Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Snow White, Rumplestiltskin, etc. Some texts may be interesting to investigate for their latter inspiration of contemporary texts: "Robberbride Groom," "Briar Rose," "The Juniper Tree," etc. Some of the less familiar tales surprise and delight with their humor and cleverness, such as "The Brave Little Tailor," "The Donkey Cabbage" or "The Boy Who Left Home to Find out about the Shivers."

Interestingly, Pullman remarks less on the viciousness with which the characters behave toward one another than toward the "sentimental piety" in "The Girl with No Hands" (or more famously titled, "The Armless Maiden"). Pullman writes:

  "[T]he 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."  

Interestingly, this one carried more power than most of the tales here, for this reader. We have the miller father who must not only give his daughter to the devil, but also chop her hands off. While his cowardice is disheartening, is it not the baser side of humanity showing? Pullman is right, though: We would like to see a father behave valiantly, but his lack of doing so increases our sympathy for the girl. Moreover, Pullman's disgust misses the theme: sometimes people suffer unjustly. This theme is visited famously in tales like Joseph and Job in the Bible, or Odysseus in Homer's Odyssey, which the story appears to allude to: the king, the girl's husband, spends seven years at war, and seven searching for his wife and child. Finally, the hand restoration is no less preposterous than numerous resurrections and restored eyeballs scattered throughout these tales.

Despite occasional disagreement, this reader feels he's come away from the book enriched by Pullman's observations. Who wouldn't be fascinated by the opinions of a writer who penned The Golden Compass, a classic of children's literature?

Copyright © 2013 Trent Walters

Trent Walters teaches science; lives in Honduras; edited poetry at Abyss & Apex; blogs science, SF, education, and literature, etc. at APB; co-instigated Mundane SF (with Geoff Ryman and Julian Todd) culminating in an issue for Interzone; studied SF writing with dozens of major writers and and editors in the field; and has published works in Daily Cabal, Electric Velocipede, Fantasy, Hadley Rille anthologies, LCRW, among others.

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