"Once upon a time..." And immediately we relax, open our minds, and suspend disbelief. Folk tales are the enduring shards of an oral amusement that was and is universal and for all ages.
Philip Pullman has always been a writer steeped in such legends. Among his books are retellings of "Aladdin", "Mossycoat" (an old English version of "Cinderella") and "Puss in Boots". He also offers his own inventive riffs on the form in "The Firework-Maker's Daughter", "Clockwork", and "The Scarecrow and His Servant". The His Dark Materials trilogy has innumerable echoes of fairy-lore: magical objects, witches on broomsticks, kindly crones, warm-hearted bears, ambivalent parents. Moreover, he writes, just as the Brothers Grimm, Perrault and Hans Andersen did, with adults as well as children in mind. So it is altogether seemly for him to offer his personal bicentenary tribute to the 210 tales collected over 50 years by the German philologists William and Jacob Grimm.
As you would expect of Pullman, he has a larger purpose in mind. He introduces his selection of 50 tales with lines from a marvellous poem by James Merrill: "Fed/ Up so long and variously by/ Our age's fancy and narrative concoctions, I yearned for the kind of unseasoned telling found/ In legends, fairy tales, a tone licked clean/ Over the centuries by mild old tongues". ("The Changing Light at Sandover"). The Grimms' first collection of tales in 1812 fitted Merrill's brief nicely, but over the decades they added to and elaborated the originals, bowdlerising some (stepmothers replace mothers in "Snow White" and "Hansel and Gretel", Rapunzel's pregnancy is erased) and endowing others with pious morals, sometimes by making them viciously punitive.
Since the Grimms' last collection was published in 1864, their tales have been retold countless times. Katherine Briggs, Italo Calvino and Marina Warner included the most famous in their classic collections of fairy-tales, and modern novelists like Angela Carter, Terry Pratchett and Jasper Fforde have revelled in high-spirited variations. Two blockbusting films of "Snow White" appeared last year, and Terry Gilliam gave the lives of the brothers themselves a brilliantly inventive storybook twist in his film The Brothers Grimm. Polly Shulman's lively new teen novel The Grimm Legacy opts for the menace of magic objects, not vampires.
Psychoanaylsts have had a heyday interpreting the stories' meanings. Pullman, however, is not interested in "sub-Jungian twaddle". "There is no psychology in a fairy tale," he declares in a short, hard-hitting introduction. "The characters have little interior life; their motives are clear and obvious." What he is most interested in is what makes the tales work as stories. As essential to the story as stock characters is a swift-moving narrative "A good tale moves with dreamlike speed from event to event, pausing only to say as much as is needed and no more." Imagery is basic: red blood, white snow, dark forests. Nor need the text be slavishly respected. The tales are there to be retold according to the gifts of the performer.
Pullman has chosen carefully; there are both old favourites and strikingly unusual tales. Each has been marinated in his mind, then offered, as a jazz musician offers a familiar theme, in his own wonderfully lucid, compelling voice. He likes retribution to be short and sharp, increasing the savagery of punishment on occasion. Logical inconsistencies have been tidied up with elegance. At the end of each tale, its type, source, and similar versions are listed; then comes a frank comment, sometimes critical or light-hearted, always thought-provoking.
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