Nov 13 2012 12:10pm

A Perfect In-Road: Philip Pullman’s Fairy Tales From the Brothers Grimm

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.

Emily Asher-Perrin once played Little Red Riding Hood in Into the Woods and misses that old red cape something fierce. You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

Karen Prince
1. Karen Prince
Ooooh, I cannot wait to get it. I am a huge fan of Philip Pulman's 'His Dark Materials' so I am sure this will be good. I am particularly looking forward to those footnotes. I read a similar book on Hans Andersen's fairy tales with annotations by Maria Tatar and was amazed at how much depth there was to these little stories which I honestly thought were written on the fly.

Thank you for a great post
Ursula L
2. Ursula
How well will this work for children? I took a quick glance at the bookstore, and saw it wasn't illustrated, but I was wondering if it would be good for read-aloud stories for my neblings - two and four years old.

I noticed the stories were short enough for comfortable reading aloud, but I didn't have time in the store to read enough of them to judge the level of sex/violence, which can sometimes add up in fairytales retold for an adult audience.
Melissa Shumake
3. cherie_2137
while in barnes and noble today, i glanced, as usual, past "his dark materials" and sighed to myself that pullman hadn't written anything new. and then, like a wonderful gift, later today, from both io9 and tor, i find out about this lovely book of fairy tales. i'm stoked.
Emily Asher-Perrin
4. EmilyAP
@Ursula - It definitely contains all of the nastiness that the Grimm's had in the original stories, but none of it is told in a particularly graphic manner. So there is violence and scary things happen, but the language used isn't any cause for alarm.

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