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I went into the bookstore a few weeks ago to use the bathroom, and propped up dead center on the “New” table was a book bearing the words, “Fairytales” and “Philip Pullman.”

“Fuck.” I thought, “The whole point of coming here to pee was that I don’t have to buy anything.” I walked out ten minutes later with the book under my arm and a grudging new respect for Mssrs. Barnes & Noble. I immediately sidetracked my other reading projects and made Fairytales my new nightstand book.

Whenever I hear a cover of an old song, or see a remake of a movie, I’m always interested in discovering what possessed the artist to attempt the material. I’m of the firm belief that covers should not be attempted unless the artist feels she has something new to add to or interpret about the original material. But sometimes, you get to do a cover just because you’re awesome. (See: Classikhan, Chaka Khan’s jazz standards album.) Philip Pullman seems to have decided he’s awesome enough to cover the Brothers Grimm, and everyone knows that the 1st Law in the Tao of Awesome is deciding for yourself that you are awesome enough.

I’m going to stop using the word awesome now.

Pullman has chosen some of the tales simply because they’re not so well known, and that on its own holds interest for any lover of fairy tales. He enjoys the truly strange, and stories like “Hans-my-Hedgehog” (there are at least three stories about guys named “Hans” in this book), “The Donkey Cabbage,” and “The Mouse, the Bird, and the Sausage,” are not only curious in and of themselves, they highlight how truly strange are many of the more frequently told stories that have been worn into familiarity. Other tales he has chosen because, as he explains in the brief notes that follow each story, he appreciates some aspect of either their plotting or careful construction. Sometimes, as in the case of “The Girl With No Hands,” he seems to be retelling a tale just to say, “Get a load of this.” Of this particular story, he writes,

This feels merely silly; instead of being struck by wonder, here we laugh. It’s ridiculous. This tale and others like it must have spoken very deeply to many audiences, though, for it to spread so widely, or perhaps a great many people like stories of maiming, cruelty, and sentimental piety.

His sarcasm and scorn are bitingly delightful. In fact, the glimpses we get of Pullman’s personality in the notes are the real savor of this collection, because their conversational tone gives the sense that we are reading alongside him. He is by turns awestruck, admiring, skeptical, and even cocky, as in his notes to the relatively obscure “The Three Snake Leaves”: “But into how many pieces is the snake cut? This vital question seems to have foxed everyone, including the Grimms themselves… I think the best solution is what I’ve done above.” You have to love the bravado of not only re-envisioning the Brothers Grimm, but being forthright about your feeling that you have outdone them.  Another particularly great moment is Pullman’s grisly addendum to “Thousandfurs,” a Cinderella variant. I appreciated his obvious relish of the violent details that have always characterized fairy tales, but have been watered down for marketability to younger audiences. Fortunately, Pullman’s opinionated treatment of these classics is definitely for adults, and adults with a dark side at that.

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One thought on “Fairytales from the Brothers Grimm, by Philip Pullman

  1. Pingback: A Perfect Spy, by John Le Carré | Effusions of Wit and Humour

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