‘Golden Compass’ author Pullman reinvents Grimm fairytales

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The Brothers Grimm have always seemed to be a fictional pair themselves — they are known for their collection of witches, princesses and elves, and never insert their opinions or morals into their tales. But Philip Pullman presents the two as “serious-minded” intellectuals in the introduction of “Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version.” Their lives were “not remarkable,” and though they only reluctantly switched from law school to philology, the two created one of the most important and well-known volume of folk tales ever.

So why bother with these tales that have been depicted over and over again in film, animation, and picture books and retold for hundreds of years? The book at first seems like a ploy — the cover looks ominous, with a flock of ravens bombarding towards two innocent Renaissance-looking children. But hopes of classics changed into true horror stories or modernized versions are immediately flicked away by Pullman in his introduction. He states that he didn’t want to “produce personal interpretations or compose poetic variations on the originals; (he) just wanted to produce a version that was as clear as water.”

A little criticism wells up against Pullman for not creating his own fables as grand as his former work, such as the “His Dark Materials” series for children, which includes “The Golden Compass.” He’s more than capable of such imagination and fantasy, but here prefers to stick with existing tales.

However, one attaches quickly to Pullman’s “Fairy Tales,” and unexpectedly so. The 50 stories seem overwhelming, but the combination of rapidity, violence and confidence in the tales make them memorable.

Fairy tales don’t need full character development, which tests the modern reader’s patience, but use what Pullman calls “conventional stock figures” whose “motives are clear and obvious.” As the author/collector/editor points out, “the tale is far more interested in what happens to them … than in their individuality.” The stepmother is cruel. The prince never has trouble finding words. A young girl’s looks alone can make a prince fall in love at first sight. “All we need is the word ‘Once…’ and we’re off.”

This focus on action rather than description differs from modern fiction and keeps up action without sacrificing larger ideas of justice, faith and fate. Pullman’s added notes at the end of each story help with context and interpretation, without too much ink spilled. In fact, the volume would be significantly weaker without his calming presence. After “Iron Hans,” he offers a scholar’s interpretation of the tale as a metaphor for the psychic development of masculinity, but doesn’t push it further than it needs to go. He wants to make clear that, “if such (metaphors) work at all, they work a great deal better when you don’t know they’re doing it. Nothing is more likely to drive listeners away than ponderous interpretations of what they’ve just marvelled at.”

So instead, he plays with the tales just enough, adding his own endings. After “Thousandfurs,” he mentions what his alternate ending would be, including the zombie limbs of the protagonist’s father strangling her husband and trying to do the same to her, until she throws them into the fireplace and they dissolve into cinders. Pullman shows that the tales are available for modification, and can still turn on their heels to surprise the jaded modern reader.

Even the familiar stories such as “The Frog King” (similar to “The Princess and the Frog”), “Snow White” and the Sleeping Beauty-esque “Briar Rose” provide a better contextualization of frequent fantastical images. One can finally understand why the princess kissed the frog in the first place, and what happens afterwards. Or, in “Snow White,” one can defend the dwarves as fully-functioning members of society, unlike how Pullman describes Disney’s image of them as “bearded babies … who have to be cooked for and cleaned up after by Snow White the all-American mom.”

The stories were never fluffy or doe-eyed as other retellings make them out to be, but carry the heavy weight of unpredictable justice — or lack thereof. The violence and gore in the stories can be shocking, with the witch’s cannibalism in Hansel and Gretel, the stepsister of Cinderella slicing a chunk of her heel off to fit into the glass slipper and Rumpelstiltskin tearing himself in half out of frustration and defeat. Though one can’t help but point out the idiotic logic of some of the characters, Pullman says not to worry about it. After “Strong Hans,” he advises: “Once you start ‘improving’ a tale like this, it can easily come apart in your hands.”

It’s possible to dissect the Grimm stories in a scholarly way, but the unconscious rustlings that result from reading them are difficult to define. Pullman, borrowing from pianist Artur Schnabel, succinctly describes the tales as “too easy for children, and too difficult for adults.” This complexity of great storytelling will continue to hold a spell over its readers of all ages for the rest of their days.

A.J. Kiyoizumi is the lead the literature critic. Contact A.J. [email protected]