Grimm Tales for Young and Old by Philip Pullman

The overwhelming reaction from the book club members was that they were disappointed that the familiar tales had somehow lost their magic/colour in the hands of a master storyteller. The stories all had a sameness to them, which made them difficult to tell apart, or be interested in. The tales felt more like folktales, which suffered from being taken out of the oral tradition.

Comparing the first line of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ between this version, and an edition of 1949, showed a lyricism in the ordering of the words, which arguably mimicked the cadences of how people tell stories, that is entirely missing from the retelling. That the lyricism can be retained even without sacrificing the uninflected language that appears to be one of the most obvious stylistic choices of the book is shown in one of the best stories in the collection – ‘The Juniper Tree’. It uses the elements that best mimic oral storytelling such as the repetition and the rhymes.

The accompanying critical material was considered more interesting than some of the stories. (The aside about sausage being a funny word was possibly one of the most memorable.) However, some of the notes which pointed out logical or narrative gaps in the already pared-down stories felt like not-totally-necessary exposing of the mechanics, which perhaps contributed even further to the loss of the sense of magic that most readers associate with fairy tales. Animated sausages and talking animals aren’t difficult to adjust to, but in this creaking world where transitions between the realistic and the ‘unreal’ are instant and constantly shifting, it is harder to conceive of why certain deaths are irreversible (like in the ‘real’ world) whilst others are not, why some evil people get their comeuppance and others don’t.

This led to a discussion of several related points:

  • Who was the intended audience for this book, despite the apparent inclusiveness of the title? The pared-down language fitted it for a young(er) audience, but perhaps not the matter-of-fact gruesomeness and acceptance of bizarre occurrences, bad behaviour, as well as the (re)introduction of ‘earthier’ elements such as Rapunzel being pregnant when she is evicted from her prison-tower. In this, at least, elements of the ambiguity surrounding the ‘original’ tales were retained. The stories were originally collected without being meant for children specifically; it was a later cull and stringent editing that led to the version(s) meant for younger readers.
  • That the Grimm brothers intervened in the arrangement of the stories they collected is a given. It was an interesting level of unknowability to wonder how much the tellers had already revised the stories in their telling.
  • What drew Pullman to do this collection? It was felt that the book would not have been as disappointing if he had actually redone (fewer) stories in the style that he points to in the notes, rather than presenting what feels like a fairly random assortment. If he had either rewritten them in a fuller manner rather than merely fixing a few stylistic points, or started on an imagining of ‘what happens next’, he might have come closer to his much quoted premise that ‘some themes are too large for adult fiction; they can only be dealt with adequately in a children’s book’.

Given the beleaguered state of most of the female characters in these tales (those that weren’t unmitigatedly focused on being evil, that is), Marina Warner’s feminist retelling, as well as Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus were considered potential further reading, for a change of pace. Kate Forsyth’s Bitter Greens was another recommendation, a novel length retelling of ‘Rapunzel’, with Rapunzel sharing space with two other strong female characters, (Forsyth’s The Wild One is a reimagining of the story of the Brothers Grimm themselves, so an interesting potential read too.)

Dysfunctional families were entirely the norm in this book, with mothers evil and uncaring and fathers weak and unsupportive. Apart from the fact that happy families aren’t really fertile inspiration for story-telling, a more positive interpretation was also offered. For readers with ‘normal’ families, it provided a way of distancing themselves from the fictional world they encountered; those who related could take heart from the fact that they could also walk away from these difficult situations and come up trumps (and usually beat the evil people).

Some favourite stories: ‘Rapunzel’ (despite the shocking elements); ‘The Mouse, The Bird and The Sausage’; ‘Musicians of Bremen’.

Link to NPR interview:

The next book for discussion will be: Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson



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