I have brought up Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version several times in recent conversation, each time following up with a blurted but it’s not what you think! In my own mind, the notion of “modern retellings of the Grimms’ fairy tales by fantasy author Philip Pullman” immediately brings to mind: OK, so like, Hansel and Gretel, only steampunk, right? Snow White, except she’s a vampire hunter against the backdrop of World War I, surely?
Happily, no, no, nothing at all like that here. As he makes clear in the lengthy preface, Pullman set out in this book to retell fifty of Grimms’ collected tales in their original tone and setting, but also while consciously employing his own voice as storyteller. The resulting collection remains recognizably faithful to the original nineteenth-century German-language material, even as he liberally punches up character dialogue into modern English, and makes a few custom tailorings to the original stories here and there — sometimes patching in improvements from similar tales found in other collections. Every story ends with a translator’s afterword, where Pullman lists any such modifications and their motivations, as well as other thoughts about the tale just concluded, looking at it both as a critical reader and as a translator.
In contrast to visual-medium adaptations of fairy tales, such as in Disney movies or the various contemporary works that make me hear “modern retelling” as “surprising recontextualization” (e.g. Once Upon a Time on TV, or The Wolf Among Us on game consoles), the stories in this collection feature startlingly little characterization. There are no examinations as to what really drives Cinderella, or the ways that Strong Hans learns and grows in his improbable journeys. As Pullman puts it in the introduction, to his eye these tales possess “a tone licked clean” of features expected in conventional storytelling, character description and development chief among them. A king is a king, and nothing more need be said. A serving girl is just that, and if we can’t avoid giving this farmer boy a name, we shall call him “Hans” (just like the kid in the last story) and then return to business. Pullman compares the characters in Grimms’ tales as popsicle-stick puppets in a cardboard theater: built simply, not meant to represent individuals at all, but as instances of whatever classes the story requires to deploy itself.
Expressing the stories through this lens of particular minimalism, Pullman enjoys presenting examples that he feels work with subtle beauty within this framework, and others that come across as a junk-drawer of jumbled story concepts that barely hold together. We must, of course, trust that the translator does not embellish the stories’ own original beauty or ugliness in order to prove his own thesis. I felt comfortable taking the tales as presented, seeing the debriefings as shared more in the spirit of transparency than from someone out to prove a point.
The end of the last story in the collection, involving a startling moment of recognition and love between two grown-ups, made me cry a little.
I’m very happy to have read this collection, gaining a much deeper understanding of what the Grimms collected and preserved in the midst of the industrial revolution’s upheaval in Central Europe. Elements and themes echo and reappear throughout the stories, such as the “rule of threes”, or the fairy-tale trope where good characters in terrible trouble ask favors of nature itself — often composing a short song or rhyme on the spot — and nature responds with uncanny directness. I suppose I always thought these sorts of features original to Disney’s older princess-movies, and read their ancient print antecedents, now subject to my own imagination and interpretation, with interest and joy.