In a September 2012 column in The Guardian online, Philip Pullman explored at length the impulses that led him to research, revise, and re-tell 50 classic stories in Fairy Tales From The Brothers Grimm. The book celebrates the 200-year anniversary of the first Brothers Grimm collection, Children’s And Household Tales, but that isn’t reason enough in itself to revisit familiar stories that children of Western civilization hear over and over throughout their lives. Pullman says he was specifically driven to clean up all the variants and find their original essences: “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.”
That combination of interest in fantasy tales and desire to impose personal correctives on popular narratives has characterized much of Pullman’s work over the last decade-plus. He wrote the bestselling His Dark Materials trilogy (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass) as an answer to C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books. His 2010 novel, The Good Man Jesus And The Scoundrel Christ, attempts to explain Jesus’ fractured legacy by separating his aspects into separate individuals with separate personalities. He’s become a frequent, outspoken, even strident speaker about religion, atheism, and mythmaking, while writing children’s books that draw on classic fairy tales, like Mossycoat, Puss In Boots, and I Was A Rat.
But Pullman’s obsessions don’t necessarily translate into general mainstream interest. His Fairy Tales From The Brothers Grimm is mostly suited for people with a deep existing interest in classic fables, or in Pullman’s personality, which periodically peeks up throughout the book. Those “clear as water” versions do retain his authorial stamp, which is clearest in his entertainingly curt, judgmental author’s notes. He repeatedly uses the word “clumsy” to dismiss errors in continuity or consistency, and he positively growls over bowdlerization of the original tales: Regarding how later versions of “Rapunzel” elided over the protagonist’s unexpected pregnancy, he snaps, “This is not an improvement: It makes her stupid instead of innocent.” He also occasionally points out his editorial fixes, bringing in an old woman “earlier than she appears in the original, for the sake of timing,” or writing in an explanation of what happens to a corpse that seems to sit around unnoticed after a murder.
That said, the book could use much more of his overt personal touch. There are plenty of obscure stories in Fairy Tales From The Brothers Grimm, but they stand alongside the well-trod likes of “Cinderella,” “The Brave Little Tailor,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” “The Musicians Of Bremen,” “Snow White,” “Rumpelstiltskin,” and more. And all of the stories are short and sparse, and tend to fall into predictable patterns that reflect fairy tales’ traditional combination of moral lessons and wish-fulfillment. Low-born, good-hearted people prove their bravery or kindness and wind up marrying royalty; magical elements aid the righteous; evil gets punished. (Often, in these unsoftened stories, in exceptionally vindictive ways: “The Twelve Brothers” ends up with a troublemaking woman “put into a barrel filled with poisonous snakes and boiling oil, and she didn’t last long after that.” Nor did the snakes, presumably.) After a few dozen go by, they tend to run together.
What makes this collection valuable is Pullman’s occasional input on the storytelling, in terms of craft, meaning, or value. His perspective is unique, and his opinions on these stories are elaborate, scholarly, and vehement. But his notes tend to be brief, as he tries to leave the stories to speak for themselves. They’ve been doing that for hundreds of years without issue, but without his voice in the mix, there isn’t much to distinguish this collection from any other. The book contains a few teases of bigger and better things: After “Thousandfurs” (the story Robin McKinley adapted for the chilling classic fantasy Deerskin), he spins out his own elaborate, graphic horror-movie version of the tale. And addressing “Hansel And Gretel,” Pullman notes that it’s awfully convenient that when the eponymous children find their way home, the conniving stepmother who ejected them has died. “It would have been a sorry ending for the children to come home and find her still ruling the roost. Perhaps the father killed her. If I were writing this tale as a novel, he would have done.” That theoretical novel—a book where Pullman could focus more on his own voice and his predilections, and could take center stage—sounds far more promising than yet another classic-tale collection.