Friday, March 22, 2013

Review: Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, by Philip Pullman

I've loved the fairy tales as collected by the Brothers Grimm for many, many years, and I found Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy to be one of the best-written fantasy series I've ever read (for younger readers or no), so I was predisposed to enjoy his Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version. I was not disappointed. Pullman begins by providing a short but informative introduction to the book, placing the tales into context for readers unfamiliar with the Grimm brothers' nationalistic project from two hundred years ago. He then offers his new translations of fifty of the Grimms' stories, each followed by a brief afterword explaining that tale's history and analogues as well as what, if any, changes he made to the source material at his disposal.

I was surprised at how straightforward his versions of the tales themselves are; there is little trace of his authorial voice here. However, Pullman is a fan of storytelling, not just of telling stories, and his respect for the tradition behind the tales accounts for his minimal presence here. In some of his afterwords he breaks free a bit and talks about how one might have "improved" a tale in this way or that in a literary sense, but how that generally wouldn't be appropriate because, with rare exceptions, none of these tales were very "literary" to begin with. He does make some changes or add material occasionally to a few of the tales, but these are generally created by importing elements from another, analogous version of the tale, a process well in keeping with tradition.

In fact, as Pullman makes clear to readers unfamiliar with the tales' history, the Grimms themselves often changed the tales quite a bit from the versions received from their sources. In addition, they modified tales from edition to edition of their books, usually removing the more disturbing elements to make them more child-friendly as the years passed.

My only complaint with this book? I wish Pullman's afterwords were longer. I realize that the tales themselves are meant to be the main draw here, but I love reading Pullman's thoughts on the craft of storytelling.

For readers who only know their fairy tales from Disney or other modern popularizers, many of the stories here will be shocking in their brutality or darkness. But make no mistake; fairy- and folktales have always acknowledged the fact that life is harsh. Philip Pullman's new edition of the Grimm tales pays tribute to this fact in a very readable and enjoyable collection.

Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version
by Philip Pullman
Viking, 2012
ISBN-10: 067002497X
ISBN-13: 978-0670024971
406 pages, $27.95