I recently told my sophomore English students the “real” version of Cinderella. You know, the version collected by the Brothers Grimm where the step-mother cuts off various parts of her daughters’ feet to make the coveted shoe fit and the birds peck out the step-sisters’ eyes for their wickedness and deceit. My students were horrified, their little world of perfect, happy Disney tales rocked off its balance. I was slightly shocked that they were unfamiliar with the tale. My mother read these tales, along with those of Hans Christian Anderson and others, to me from the time I was an infant. I love the darkness of these tales, their almost nonsensical magic, their sense of time and place. I love that the heroes and heroines are good and the villains are bad. I love those gaps in the tales that require suspension of belief and a willingness to just go with the story. And I love that these tales are real, that they exist, that they are legitimized and preserved and passed down by storytellers, researchers, academics, parents and grandparents alike.
So I was thrilled to hear that Philip Pullman was creating a new edition of 50 of the Grimm’s fairy tales. Yes, that Philip Pullman, he of The Golden Compass and the rest of the His Dark Materials series (among others). I loved that series as a young reader, and he has the perfect balance of whimsy and darkness to pull off a truly excellent collection of the Grimm’s work. The result is the lovely, satisfyingly detailed Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version.
Pullman’s style is clear yet evocative, beautifully capturing the quirks and intent of the original tales. He stays as true as he can to the tales as they were collected, for the Grimm’s collected folktales rather than creating them themselves. Pullman includes perennial favorites like Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, and Rapunzel along with lesser known gems like Jorinda and Jorindel, Lazy Heinz, and the wonderfully titled The Boy Who Left Home to Find Out About the Shivers. After each story, Pullman includes some historical information including the tale type, from whom the Grimm’s first heard the story, and similar stories from other cultures. Finally, he includes a brief discussion of the history of the tale, its purpose, and popular interpretations of the tale’s content and purpose. As a lover and part-time scholar of fairy tales, I am fascinated by and greatly appreciative of these historical and academic insights into the tales. It does much to anchor each tale in its historical and cultural contexts rather than allowing the tale to simply float about untethered to any contextual understanding.
It is in these addenda to the tales, however, that I find my one complaint. I want more! More information about the tale, its teller, how the Grimms collected it, its cultural implications, its connections in other cultures! Perhaps it is the little girl turned academic who loved her British and Irish Folktales and the Romantics class in grad school clawing her way back out of me, but I love that stuff, and I want more of it! It is highly unsatisfying to finish a tale and only find one paragraph about it. WHY is it THIS tale type and not THAT tale type when it shares characteristics of both? Where did the storyteller learn the tale and how was it used? TELL ME, PHILIP PULLMAN!!!
That being said, many of you may not care about these details and will not be bothered by the sometime sparse information. And to be fair to Mr. Pullman, some of these tales are less well-known because they were told less frequently and there is simply less information known about them. But a girl can wish. Whether or not you care about tale types, if you enjoy fairy tales and folktales, particularly of the darker Grimm variety, take a look at Pullman’s collection. It’s one that you can pick up and put down as you please, but my guess is that you’ll be so charmed, you’ll read straight through. And who doesn’t want to spend some time in the land of princes and princesses, witches and talking animals, magic spells and suspicious potions that we all loved as children?