Philip Pullman, Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm and Mervyn Peake (illus.) Grimm’s Household Tales

I wrote last week’s column in a bit of a hurry, and had no idea that this week was the 200th anniversary of Grimm’s fairy tales. There’s an adorable Google Doodle today to commemorate this- it tells a version of the Little Red Riding Hood story in which knitting and rule of law triumph over wolfly evil. Video (from youtube) below; fortuitously-timed column below that.







“This is not a text”, proclaims Philip Pullman in his introduction to his new collection of fairy tale retellings, Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm.  That these fairy tales don’t operate in quite the same way as other forms of story is something we all know. The basic forms of the stories are familiar to most of us – whether through books and parents as children or Disney films. We become aware quite early on that the fairy tale is infinitely adaptable. For many people I knew, this realisation came in the form of Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes, in which the author rewrote such classic stories as “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” and “Jack and the Beanstalk” to give them much more sensible endings. Dahl’s Goldilocks is caught and punished for her various criminal acts, while Jack learns that simply by bathing he can prevent the giant from smelling him.

Later in life we would all come across more versions of these fairy tales, often written specifically for an adult audience. Angela Carter’s short story collection The Bloody Chamber is the classic of this genre. Carter’s versions of these stories are lush and dark and feminist, and very characteristic of the author’s work.  The Bloody Chamber was published in 1979. Since then, fairy tale retellings have become a genre of their own and rather an exhausted one. Writers do occasionally come up with fresh takes on the stories (the Kate Bernheimer edited My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me is a particularly good recent collection). But on the whole, the writerly trend of making a fairy tale one’s own has been mined out.

I’ve recently acquired two collections of Grimm’s fairy tales, both with the names of well-known writers on their covers. And yet both editions do something unusual.

The first is published by the British Library, and is simply titled Grimm’s Household Tales. The cover proclaims that it is illustrated by Mervyn Peake, the great artist and writer. What it doesn’t mention is the name of a writer or translator other than the Brothers Grimm; it’s as if these stories, having  been collected by the Grimms, appeared spontaneously in English. It’s as if the author has been eliminated completely – why should one reteller, only the most recent of hundreds, be given credit over all those others who shaped the story in the past? It’s an artistic choice that earlier editions of the Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales) often made, but it’s not one I’ve seen frequently used in my lifetime. In the absence of a visible author, Peake’s weird, intricate illustrations are given even more prominence.

Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, by contrast, has Pullman’s name featured prominently on the cover. In his introduction Pullman discusses the “tone licked clean” of Grimm’s fairy tales- in the versions of the stories recorded by the brothers there’s no sense of an individual author or style, simply because there is no “single mind” behind any of the stories. Pullman affirms the right of any reader of the Kinder- und Hausmärchen to make the story her own, but he appears to be doing the opposite. There’s nothing about Pullman’s retellings in this collection that makes them quintessentially his own; the author appears to be attempting to obliterate his own literary style in the service of the stories. At the end of each story Pullman adds a few notes on the various ways in which it has been interpreted; again, this is an attempt to embed the stories in their tradition rather than to take them out of it.

It’s convincingly done; to achieve prose this clear and this anonymous is no mean feat. If a child (or adult) were to only ever read one collection of fairy tales, Pullman’s would be ideal. If she was the sort of person who had an entire shelf of them, however, she might find it hard to tell the difference.


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