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Philip Pullman – Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm

March 10, 2014

9. Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version by Philip Pullman (2012)

Length: 406 pages
Genre: Short Stories, Fantasy/Fairy Tales

Started: 05 February 2014
Finished: 20 February 2014

Where did it come from? Christmas present… a year ago. I’m the worst.
Why do I have it? See above.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 22 December 2012.

People who want a
“fairy tale ending” should read
the originals.

Summary: The stories of the Grimm Brothers are familiar to most of us; they’re the basis of our earliest picture books, we’ve seen the Disney-ified versions of them, we’ve seen them done and re-done, and we’ve maybe read the originals (or translations of the originals, more likely). In this book, Pullman gives us a new translation of fifty of the Grimms’ stories – some very familiar, some much less so – and provides a little bit of commentary on each, particularly focusing on the role of the storyteller and how the elements of the story work together (or not, on occasion).

Review: I am of two minds about this book. Or maybe three. (Maybe that’s a fairy tale in itself: The Girl Who Was of Three Minds.)

On the one hand, I enjoyed reading this book. Fairy tales have a power to them, a rhythm to their stories, that persists, and that makes them classics, that makes them enjoyable and relevant and interesting even after hundreds of years. As Pullman points out in the introduction to this book, they are stories in their barest form: no fancy language, no endless description, no internal monologuing, just action. (This is why I had so many problems with My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me – it was embellishing the hell out of the classic stories, and in trying to be all “literary” about it, largely missed the soul of what a fairy tale was supposed to be.) Anyways, I am a big fan of fairy tales in all of their various incarnations, so obviously this book was going to be fun to read, and it was. I would read story after story, easily getting lost in the world of the Grimm brothers, peopled with deep dark forests and enchanted princesses and noble princes and honest millers and the occasional witch or sorceress (only a few actual fairies, though.)

On the other hand, though, I am a little unclear as to what this book adds to the world of fairy tale literature. These are tellings, not re-tellings; Pullman owns up when he makes “major” changes to a story, but he’s clearly sticking fairly close to the Grimms’ original source material, at least in intent if not in words. So while he is probably putting his own spin on things, it’s very subtle, and not always apparent which bits are new vs. original, and I didn’t feel like the storyteller’s voice was that much different in this version than in the other translation of these stories I’ve read. But it’s also not an academic work on fairy tales, at all. Each story has a paragraph or two of commentary, but it never really digs into the meat of analysis, so the result isn’t entirely satisfying. Essentially, I wanted something more than a straight-up telling of these stories, some new perspective, but that’s all that was on offer.

On the third hand, Pullman’s a great storyteller, and these stories have stood the test of time on their own merits, so maybe he’s right just to step out of their way and let them speak for themselves. I was just hoping for something new, but that’s not what was on offer. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Enjoyable, and worth reading if you like fairy tales. And if you’re familiar with the stories, but haven’t actually read the Brothers Grimm, this would be a great translation to start with. But I feel like there was a missed opportunity here for some more analysis, or a new perspective on these stories, rather than the basic and straight-forward presentation they’re given.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Bildungsroman, In Bed With Books, Spec-Fic Romantic and more at the Book Blogs Search Engine.
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7 Comments leave one →
  1. echooutside permalink
    March 10, 2014 9:32 am

    This sounds very interesting! Good review

  2. March 10, 2014 12:51 pm

    I have owned this since that Christmas, too! I really must read it!

    • March 14, 2014 10:54 am

      Kailana – At least I’m not the only one that’s bad about reading gift books! I’m trying to buckle down and get through some of my oldest unread gifts this year.

  3. March 12, 2014 12:45 am

    I’ve probably owned this book as long as you have. You raise some really good questions. I may still read this one but I’m not sure now. Nice review.

    • March 14, 2014 10:55 am

      Vasilly – I think it’s probably still worth reading – what I did was keep it on my nightstand and read a story or two every night before bed. Not a major commitment, that way.

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