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

Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm catalog link

Two hundred years ago, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm published their tales. Two hundred years later, their stories are still being told and retold. With their simplicity, archetypal characters and symbolic meanings, the tales are open to modernizing, parodying, fleshing out or dressing up.

However, I think it’s just as difficult, if not more, to retell a story straight. When you translate a story, how do you give it voice without sounding like every other translation? But in Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version, Philip Pullman does just that. He clarifies and turns a wonderful phrase here or there, but lets the bones speak for themselves — as bones are wont to do in fairy tales.

Pullman tells 50 tales, from the classic (“Snow White,” “Rapunzel,” “The Fisherman and His Wife”) to the lesser-known (“Gambling Hans,” “Mount Simeli”) to the neglected (“The Little Shroud.”) He lets the subtle remain subtle, without obscuring or bowdlerizing. He brings out humor or humanity; I enjoyed the collective banter he gives any dwarves who appear. His voice is simple and concise without being dull or hurried. I snagged against a couple of slang expressions like “lounge lizard” or “weapon of mass destruction”, but for the most part, his tone is clear, undated, and almost lilting. Notes at the end of each story give the tale type and source, as well as Pullman’s comments on the tale or his reasons for telling it.

Pullman’s notes are as entertaining as the stories themselves. Sometimes it’s his opinion of the original, sometimes it’s a bit of historical context to ground the magical elements, and sometimes it’s even an alternate ending. His approach is refreshingly logical — he even notes the number of sword strokes it would actually take to cut the snake in “The Three Snake Leaves” into 3 pieces — but not so logical as to lose the basic appreciation for the story. Rather, his logic seems an attempt to stay as faithful to the story as possible. I enjoyed his notes about translation and dialect and onomatopoeia; he cares about context and getting the right word, be it the sound of a lame horse’s hooves or the proper translation of pißputt. (If ß is pronounced /ss/, it’s exactly what it sounds like, and the perfect descriptor for the place it describes.) There’s a dry humor in some of his notes — not in Pratchett proportions, but appreciable. Sometimes he touches on a point without elaborating, as when he mentions the small roles of men compared to women, but his inclusion of sources like From the Beast to the Blonde provides means for further research.

Pullman’s book, like a fairy tale, is versatile. The short, plainspoken tales would be good for storytelling, while the introduction and bibliographic notes make it an excellent resource for folklore students.


About Amy

Children's librarian, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh
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