This one arrived a couple of days ago and I haven't been able to tear myself away from it since. In Grimm Tales for Young and Old (which I previously blogged about here), Philip Pullman's adapts a selection of the best tales gathered and told by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.
The introduction to the collection provides a potted analysis of the structure and evolution of the fairy tale that will appeal to expert and non-expert alike. Topics such as characterisation, oral versus written storytelling, and adaptive practices are dealt with capably, though perhaps too briefly.
It also sheds light on Pullman's modus operandi in approaching stories that have been told and re-told again and again since the Grimm's initial publication of the Kinder- und Hausmarchen/ Children's and Household Tales two-hundred years ago. Pullman writes:
All I set out to do in this book was tell the best and most interesting of them, clearing out of the way anything that would prevent them from running freely. I didn't want to put them in modern settings, or produce personal interpretations or compose poetic variations on the originals; I just wanted to produce a version that was as clear as water.
Thus, readers should not expect feminist or Freudian retellings or interpretations in the manner of Angela Carter or Bruno Bettelheim, for example. Rather, Pullman's efforts have been to choose the best and trim these of any excess fat. It is the archetypal nature of these figures which lack any psychological depth that appeals to the writer. He compares the stock characters of fairy tales to the 'little cardboard cut-out figures that comes with the toy theatres'.
However, while recognising that the 'millers' and 'princesses' and 'captains' of fairy tales may be lacking in psychological complexity, Pullman is quick to acknowledge that every writer brings his or her own set of preoccupations and values to the tale. While it is not possible to gauge how true the Grimm's were to their source text, Pullman points out that Wilhelm Grimm's edits made subsequent editions of the collection 'more elaborate, occasionally more prudish, certainly more pious than they were to begin with.' Acknowledging his own part in the re-writing process he says: 'I think it's probably impossible to achieve [anonymity] completely, and that our personal stylistic fingerprints lie impressed on every paragraph without our knowing it.'
Readers familiar with Pullman's style will see his mark through the collection. First, there is the selection process. Firm favourites such as Snow White, Rapunzel, Briar Rose (the procurer to Sleeping Beauty) and Rumpelstilskin are all here, but other less well-known tales such as The Juniper Tree (Pullman's personal favourite), Lazy Heinz and The Boy Who Left Home to Find Out About the Shivers also appear. Unsurprisingly, given Pullman's attitudes towards organised religion, the more pious tales are absent.
Each of the tales is followed by a brief summary which categorises it according to type, source and similar stories. A brief comment on each is added here also, which is typically candid and thought-provoking. For example, the note on Rapunzel reveals that the Grimms bowdlerised the tale to conceal Rapunzel's pregnancy:
Instead of revealing her pregnancy by saying that her clothes no longer fit, Rapunzel asks the witch why she is so much harder to pull up than the young prince. This makes her stupid instead of innocent.
By unravelling narrative knots in this manner, Pullman's adaptation makes for informing as well as entertaining reading. The writing is energetic and vivid; the brio of his retelling prefers concrete images and swifter retributions. I would recommend this text to new and established fans of fairy tale collections.