200 years ago The Grimms’ Fairy Tales were first published, introducing characters which have stood the test of time such as Cinderella, Snow White and Little Red Riding Hood. On its bicentennial anniversary, acclaimed author Philip Pullman released his rework of the fairy tales, choosing his favourite 50 out of a selection of over 200.
Pullman’s collection of fairy tales was written with both the young and old in mind; the collection is diverse enough to ensure that there is something familiar and new to each reader. The stories are accompanied by little end-notes from the author, an aspect of the book that I found difficult to accustom myself to at the start of my reading. Pullman has always been the kind of author who wears his opinions on his sleeve but such insights into the author’s intent feel distinctly like cheating. Properly speaking, we are generally only allowed these glimpses in introductions and interviews; the author himself is supposed to hide behind a curtain, like Oz.
Instead, Pullman leaves us notes at the end of each story, telling us how he found it, why he likes it and how he chose the things he kept. As the book progressed, I found my relationship with these notes changing – they varied in tone from teacherly to conversational. There is a certain academic quality to them, paired with the detailed bibliographies. Pullman likes to show us the varied sources that each story is pieced together from, which is both illuminating and serves the purpose of tying in quite neatly with the intent of this collection as set out in the introduction; he wanted to create a collection of stories that are more compilations than translations.
His stories are meant to be neat, devoid of all the messiness that differing versions result in. His work is a far cry from other popular retellings as he does nothing to restructure the stories. For instance, he doesn’t pull them out of their uncertain settings or turn them into the visceral pieces that comprise Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. He tells them only as they were meant to be told, taking the elements he likes from each version and building a story to last. Pullman is concerned primarily with the workings of plot and the psychology that accompanies our retelling of these fairy tales: why certain aspects were adopted, dropped and what motivated people to be drawn to these stories in order for them to passed on. He seems to revel in this tradition of storytelling; there is a real pleasure in these pieces. Fairy tale characters, as Pullman reminds us, are flat and one-dimensional but we are drawn in all the same, as when we were children.
Because of the almost opaque nature of the prose, the book takes a while to creep up on you; half-way through you are so immersed in this vague and uncertain fairy tale land that the reminder that Pullman is not the first person to ever tell you these stories is jarring. It is nowhere near as transformative and gripping as other literary collections of folktales have been but it certainly achieves what it set out to do, as Pullman says, to have a version of the fairy tales that are as “clear as water”.