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Paperback review: Grimm Tales, By Philip Pullman


It's worth remembering that fairy tales were not originally thought of as children's stories.

They were told by and to adults; children might be among the audience, but the stories, with their murders, abductions, beheadings, and cruel and unusual punishments, make no concessions. Philip Pullman's marvellous retelling of 53 of the Grimms' tales – subtitled "For Young and Old" – brings out this transgenerational quality. Pullman has enlivened the stories with his swift, supple prose and occasional, added flourishes of description or humour, but he has stayed true to their essential simplicity. All the old favourites are here – "Little Red-Riding Hood", "Hansel and Gretel", "Cinderella", "Snow White", "Rapunzel", etc – plus less well-known stories such as "The Boy Who Left Home to Find Out About the Shivers", "The Singing Bone" and "The Donkey Cabbage".

As Pullman notes in his illuminating introduction, the great virtue of fairy tales is their swiftness: "All we need is the word 'Once ...' and we're off." In many of these stories the hero has already left home at the end of the first paragraph. Some start with an arresting strangeness: "A mouse, a bird and a sausage decided to set up home together." Because they are so short (none longer than 15 pages, most much less) they are moreish; reading just one is as difficult as eating a single crisp.

Pullman draws on other versions besides the Brothers Grimm, such as Charles Perrault's and Italo Calvino's re-tellings, and sometimes produces his own synthesis of the best elements of several variants. A gloss after each story explains its roots, and how Pullman thinks it is significant or remarkable. But he never makes the mistake of tidying them up to make them logical or over-burdened with psychological motivations, preserving their dreamlike unpredictability.

Read these tales, and lose yourself in a land of wild forests, enchanted castles, beautiful princesses, talking animals, capricious kings, cruel stepmothers, and resourceful younger sons setting out into the wide world to seek their fortune.