The retelling of fairy tales is a popular business these days, and it’s hardly surprising—these stories are embedded in our culture and provide endless aspects for any writer to ruminate on at length, dozens of lenses through which to reinvent the material. Some are better than others and, inevitably, some leave readers wondering why reclaiming what isn’t broken is necessary in the first place.
But when Philip Pullman says he’s planning to revisit Grimm’s fairy tales, even the most cynical enthusiasts are bound to take notice.
Though it may not sound fun at first consideration, Philip Pullman’s Fairy Tales From the Brothers Grimm is a superb learning device. 80 of the stories have been selected and retold, but the value of this tome goes far beyond the telling; it’s lies in Pullman’s knowledge, his expertise on the background of each tale and how it evolved over time. At the end of each story is a section of footnotes, giving detail on different versions, misconceptions, popular changes to the plots and character relationships.
Pullman’s literal library of background reading is presented with each citation, offering anyone who chooses to give this book a go an incredible mountain’s worth of extra texts, from academic analysis to careful cataloging of the Grimm’s own changes to their work. It’s amazingly useful, particularly to those who may not catch the underlying themes of certain tales when they’re reading them for leisure. The book operates on two levels as a result; it is possible to read for the simple pleasure of reading, but I dare you to stop with the tale and not eagerly eat up all the extra information to be gleaned.
The prose is remarkably neat and evocative. Rather than drown the basic narratives out with a great deal of poeticism or awkward modern twists, Pullman chooses to give us the stories in their purist form possible. At the same time, his own skill with language shines through, making the whole book a delightful exercise for anyone with love of the original material. It makes the book helpful for writers as well, a lesson in faithfulness to good storytelling above all else.
For those who love fairy tales, for those who love retold classics, and for those who would love the benefit of a professorial knowledge base without the hefty cost of graduate school, this book is a mine full of precious metals. And for those who don’t know the Grimm tales as well as they might like, they are in for one treat of an introduction. If these stories have never been your particular cup of tea, don’t fret—now is the perfect time to begin loving them.
It’s true that sometimes beloved narratives need to be told with a fresh pair of eyes and a careful hand, and that is exactly what Philip Pullman has brought to Fairy Tales From the Brothers Grimm. If it seems as though I’m over-praising it is honestly because I can find no fault in the attempt or its execution. It is a commendable way of bringing this canon back out into the open where it belongs.