Grimm Tales: For Young and OldBooks
Philip Pullman's Grimm Tales is a wonderful collection for anyone who wishes to recapture some of the magic of childhood.
Penguin Classics, $40
Fairytales are sizzling hot right now. To tell the truth, fairytales have never gone out of style. They have been told and retold for thousands of years, finding new shapes and structures with each new generation of tellers.
However, the 200th anniversary of the most famous fairytale collection of all - the Grimm brothers' Children's and Household Tales, first published on December 20, 1812 - has created a frenzy of retellings.
Some retellers sanitise the tales for a childish audience. Some revel in the grimmer, darker, nastier aspects of the stories. Others draw upon well-known motifs - the poisoned apple, the girl in a tower, the red hood - and abandon the story itself. Still others - such as myself - return to the oldest versions of the tales, seeking to understand their mysterious power by understanding their sources.
Philip Pullman, the respected children's author, has retold 50 of his favourite tales. He writes in his introduction: '' … my interest has always been in how the tales worked as stories. So I decided to retell the best and most interesting of them, clearing out of the way anything that would prevent them from running freely.''
Naturally, the best-loved stories are included, from Cinderella to Hansel and Gretel, but there are also many lesser-known, equally beautiful, stories, such as Three Little Men in the Wood and The Golden Bird.
At the end of each story, Pullman gives a brief commentary, illuminating his own response to the tale, as well as a short history of the tale and its sources. His scholarship is at times a little shaky. For example, he comments that ''in all previous versions'' of Rapunzel, the heroine had betrayed her pregnancy to the witch by commenting on her dress being too tight. In fact, this detail had been added by the Grimms' literary source, Friedrich Schulz, and does not appear in the original version by Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force, in which the heroine merely complains of feeling sick.
Pullman's audience will not care, however. They will love the lucidity and simplicity of his writing, his impish wit, and the occasional flash of his famous grumpiness. For example, on the possible interpretation of motifs in The Golden Bird, Pullman says: ''I don't believe this interpretation for a moment, any more than I believe in most sub-Jungian twaddle.''
My favourite commentary follows the story he calls Thousandfurs, about a princess whose hand in marriage is sought by her own father. She escapes, disguising herself with a coat made from the skins of all kinds of creatures. It is a terrible story of incest and abuse that is never fully resolved. In the afterword, Pullman playfully sets out what he would have done if he'd been writing the story:
''That night the queen would wake from troubled dreams to find earthy fingers probing her lips: her father's [severed] right arm. Mad with terror, she would scream for her husband, only to find him [being strangled by] her father's left arm. No one can help but herself. She would tear the arm away from her face and thrust it into the fire … I think that would work quite well.''
Lacking illustrations and including such dark tales as Thousandfurs and The Girl Without Hands, this is not a book for sensitive little girls. However, it is a wonderful collection for anyone who wishes to recapture some of the magic of long-forgotten childhood tales.
Kate Forsyth is the author of Bitter Greens, a retelling of Rapunzel. Her new novel, The Wild Girl, tells the love story of Wilhelm Grimm and his wife, Dortchen Wild.