Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version edited by Philip Pullman

Fairy Tales from the Brothers GrimmTitle: Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version
Editor: Philip Pullman
Published: my edition published 29 October 2013; first published 27 September 2012
Publisher: Penguin Books
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: classics, short stories, fairy tales
Rating: 8/10

In 2012, Philip Pullman published a new edition of Grimms’ fairy tales. It’s not, as I first thought, a collection of modern versions of these tales. The Grimm brothers published seven editions of the Kinder-und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales), with the brothers collecting and editing the tales, not making them up. Pullman is essentially stepping in as a contemporary editor of an English edition.

What this means is that he hasn’t made any fundamental changes to the stories themselves – he hasn’t modernised the language, set them in modern times, or made significant changes to the plots. He describes his approach as such:

But my main interest has always been in how the tales worked as stories. All I set out to do in this book was tell the best and most interesting of them, clearing out of the way anything that would prevent them from running freely. I didn’t want to put them in modern settings, or produce personal interpretations or compose poetic variations on the originals; I just wanted to produce a version that was as clear as water. My guiding question has been: ‘How would I tell this story myself, if I’d heard it told by someone else and wanted to pass it on?’ Any changes I’ve made have been for the purpose of helping the story emerge more naturally in my voice. If, as happened occasionally, I thought an improvement was possible, I’ve either made a small change or two in the text itself or suggested a larger one in the note that follows the story.

I was just a tad worried about this; I love fairy tales, but I have found that reading the ‘originals’ can be tedious. They are very strange, frequently absurd or shocking, sometimes repulsive. Reading them has the odd effect of alienating me from them, unless accompanied by annotations and interpretations that allow me to approach the tales as a scholarly pursuit, rather than trying – and failing – to read them just for pleasure.

But Pullman has given me a fresh appreciation for the tales in their classic form. They are still full of the most insane wtf-moments – like when a king randomly decides that his twelve sons must immediately be executed if his wife gives birth to a girl, and has twelve coffins made to show he’s serious – but I enjoyed reading the anthology in a way I didn’t experience when reading an older one.

Pullman’s changes, though small, seem to have made a big difference. He uses a voice that sounds like the classic fairy tale, but feels a bit more natural to the modern ear. The details he’s added (some of his own devising, some borrowed from other versions), made the stories a bit smoother, while keeping them essentially the same. He’s chosen what he considers to be the “cream of the Kinder-und Hausmärchen, so we’re getting some of the best stories. I think it also helps that he’s driven by plot, by the idea of fairy tales as fantastic stories that are wonderful to read because they’re so focused on what happens next.

The anthology opens with a wonderful introduction by Pullman that gives a brief history of the Grimm’s and their decision to collect and publish fairy tales. They didn’t walk around  the countryside transcribing tales told by peasants, but took tales directly from literary sources or transcribed stories told to them by people in the middle class, including family friends.

He then discusses some of the quintessential characteristics of the classic fairy tale. These are things that we all sort of know about fairy tales, but I for one like to see the essentials pinpointed; it makes me appreciate those qualities that much more:

  • Fairy tales are populated by conventional stock figures: “There is no psychology in the fairy tale. The characters have little interior life; their motives are clear and obvious. If people are good, they are good, and if bad, they’re bad.”
    “They seldom have names of their own. More often than not they’re known by their occupation or their social position, or by a quirk of their dress: the miller, the princess, the captain, Bearskin, Little Red Riding Hood.”
    When names are used, they’re simple everyman names, like Hans or Jack. Some characters come in multiples – twelve dancing princesses, seven dwarves – with little or no need to distinguish one from another.
  • Celerity: Fairy tales move very quickly, saying only what is needed and no more. “You can only go that fast, however, if you’re travelling light; so none of the information you’d look for in a modern work of fiction – names, appearances, background, social context, etc. – is present.” These tales are about what happens and what happens next, seldom pausing for anything else.
  • Imagery and description: Almost none, except for the most obvious, like “white as snow, red as blood”, deep forests, beautiful girls, handsome men, golden hair. “The formulas are so common, the lack of interest in the particularity of things so widespread”, says Pullman. “[U]niqueness and originality are of no interest”.
  • This is not a text. Which is why this book can exist in the first place. The words of fairy tales don’t come from any definitive author, so they’re not static. They’re not like short stories or novels that have to be reproduced word for word. They came from an oral tradition, so changed according to the teller and the transcriber. “The fairy tale is in a perpetual state of becoming and alteration”, says Pullman, and invites readers to retell these stories as they see fit. This of course, is also why fairy tale retellings are so popular among readers and writers.
  • ‘A tone licked clean’. The classic fairy tale has a kind of purity, in that it’s devoid of personal style. This makes sense, since there is no character psychology, and no imagery, description or anything else that depends so heavily on the writer’s personal style. The individual voices of authors and editors are still bound to creep in, Pullman admits, so he suggests not worrying too much about it.

I’m not going to review any individual stories; we all understand their appeal and the power of their plots and images, so I prefer to just describe the experience of reading them in an anthology. As I said, it was much more enjoyable than I expected. Rather than just reading them as a kind of research, I curled up with my Kindle and just enjoyed the tales as stories.

Perhaps because of the tales Pullman chose, my attention was also drawn to some common tropes and patterns – the way men decide to marry girls after a single glance, the way female beauty is almost always extraordinary (the princess is the most beautiful woman in the entire kingdom), the boundless loyalty and determination of certain servant and helper characters. In addition, Pullman frequently draws your attention to certain images, shares variations of the tale (each one comes with a list of similar stories), or discusses interpretations.

Because he sticks closely to the Grimm versions, you’ll find some of the lesser-known – and less romantic – details of the most popular tales. Cinderella doesn’t have a fairy godmother but a magical tree growing over her mother’s grave, and her stepsisters cut off parts of their feet to try and fit into her slipper, a strategy that somehow works until talking birds draw the prince’s attention to the dripping blood. Snow White doesn’t wake up when the handsome prince kisses her; instead he convinces the dwarves to give him her comatose body in its glass coffin (god knows what he wants to do with it), and she wakes up when a servant carrying the coffin trips and dislodges the chunk of apple in her throat. Similarly, the princess doesn’t restore the Frog Prince to his humanity by kissing him; she gets angry and throws him against the wall.

All this not only revived my appreciation of classic fairy tales, but made me want to study them again (I did, for a bit, at varsity). To indulge that urge, I’ve got some great non-fiction review copies lined up:

Children Into Swans: Fairy Tales and the Pagan Imagination by Jan Beveridge, published byMcGill-Queens University Press on 15 October 2014

Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale by Marina Warner (who Pullman references several times) published by Oxford University Press on 1 December 2014.

Can’t wait to get into those 🙂

Once Upon a Time: New Fairy Tales edited by Paula Guran

Once Upon a TimeTitle: Once Upon a Time: New Fairy Tales
Editor: Paula Guran
Published: 2 October 2013
Publisher: Prime Books
Genre: short stories, fairy tales, fantasy, science fiction, magical realism
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 7/10

Once Upon a Time is an anthology of eighteen modern fairy tales by contemporary authors. Each story is prefaced with a note by the author describing their inspiration for the tale to follow, and where relevant I’ve provided links to original fairy tales in this review. I feel like I hardly need to review this though – I could just post the title and the pretty cover and fairy tale fans will reach for it as quickly as I did 🙂 Nevertheless, there are some lovely tales in here that deserve being mentioned, so onward!

The anthology opens with a particularly nice introduction by Paula Guran. She gives a ton of recommendations for books and movies inspired by fairy tales, as well as a list of online resources. She also shares some insights into the tale of Rapunzel, which was not only interesting for the story itself, but offers a way of thinking about fairytales in general. For example, Guran says how stupid she thought Rapunzel’s mother was, endangering her husband by insisting that he steal rampion from the witch’s garden (the witch of course, took Rapunzel as compensation). Later, Guran understood this in a different light – a pregnant woman’s cravings may be the result of dangerous vitamin deficiencies, so satisfying those cravings was very important in many folk traditions.

Not that you need to understand traditional cultures to appreciate the fairy tales in this collection. As Guran notes, “fairy tales have always resonated with the reader’s own time and place” and the authors in this collection use them to explore more modern themes and narrative styles. Some authors rewrite old tales. Others use common tropes – like curses, witches, the youngest son who everyone assumes is an idiot – to write original fairy tales. Sometimes the basic elements of a popular fairy tale are reworked for a completely different tale.

The authors work all sorts of magic with their creations. Very often, the passive female victims of the tales are transformed into heroines with the schemes and strengths to control their fates. Good and evil cease to be so easily defined. Familiar stories are told from fresh perspectives, and the motives of normally inscrutable characters are explored.

Of course, there are plenty of tales based on the favourites collected by Hans Christian Anderson and the Grimm brothers. “Tales That Fairies Tell” by Richard Bowes sees “Puss in Boots” in an alternate contemporary world. Puss is not simply a helpful cat but a kind of immortal trickster who amuses himself by changing the fortunes of hapless young men.

A.C. Wise also examines the questionable motives of fairy tale characters in “The Hush of Feathers, The Clamor of Wings” a modern-day version of “The Six Swans”. In her story the youngest brother has fallen in love with the sky, and been seduced by the witch. He doesn’t want to be human again, so he’s wasted his sister’s painful gift of silence. “The Mirror Tells All” by Erzebet Yellowboy retells “Snow White” as a strange mother/daughter tragedy of love and neglect.

“Sleeping Beauty of Elista” by Ekaterina Sedia is the bleakest story in this collection, and the most stark example of a modern retelling. It combines the fairy tale with a true story that took place in Elista, Russia, where babies where infected with HIV/AIDS after getting injections with dirty needles. In that context, the prick of a needle and the notion of eternal sleep become so much more disturbing.

“The Road of Needles” by Caitlin R. Kiernan also manages to make a common fairy tale feature more unnerving – the forest. This was the most baffling story for me, a sci fi retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood” that mostly takes place in an artificial habitat. I didn’t have a good grasp on this story, but what I did really like about it was how excessively, dangerously lush the habitat is. Due to some technical glitch, the natural growth goes into overdrive, and the protagonist finds herself in a forest so thick and tangled that it really drives home the idea of a forest as a wild, threatening place; something that most modern readers don’t fully understand.

While the modern settings are fun, I also like the fact that many authors use the setting and classic feel of fairy tales, but with their own inventive touches. “The Lenten Rose” is Genevieve Valentine’s version of “The Snow Queen”. This story weaves in a lot of details from the original fairy tale, which I had never read. I found Valentine’s story too vague and confusing, so I read “The Snow Queen” and then re-read “The Lenten Rose”. It was so much better once I knew the original, so after this I made sure to read any fairy tale I was unfamiliar first (they’re all available online).

In her intro to the story, Valentine notes how the original tale ends a bit too happily with Kay and Gerda’s ordeals “vanishing from their minds, leaving them, the story suggests, essentially unchanged from the children they were when they began it”. “The Lenten Rose” tells a more realistically sorrowful story. Kay’s obsession with the Snow Queen might have to do with more than just the mirror shards in his eye and heart while Gerda’s  journey to find Kay has a kind of melancholy determination to it, rather than being fuelled purely by her love for Kay. And the entire ordeal leaves them irrevocably changed, trying not to think about the past.

Stories like “The Lenten Rose” have an edginess to them, like a piece of modern art. It’s interesting, but I have to admit that when it comes to fairy tales I prefer the ones the thrive on sheer plot and charm, like “Below the Sun Beneath” by Tanith Lee. This was one of my favourites, a retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” with fleshed-out details and a few delightful twists.

Two of my other favourites were also ones that just had really enjoyable stories. These ones are more original fairy tales using traditional tropes. “Flight” by Angela Slatter is about a princess who turns into a bird and is held prisoner by an evil witch. I thought the story was a bit too conventional at first, but Slatter does some interesting things with themes of gender, tradition good and evil, and freedom, so by the end I quite liked it.

“Castle of Masks” by Cory Skerry was a wonderful and surprising. In a village where young women are regularly offered as sacrifices to the Beast who lives in a castle, a boy named Justus dresses as a girl and takes the place of the next sacrifice. He’s a hunter and plans to slay the Beast, who took his sister the last time. The Beast wants company, however, so Justus has to play a careful gender game while looking for the right time to strike.

“Blanchefleur” by Theodora Goss ends the anthology on a perfect note. Although inspired by a fairy tale called “The White Cat” by Madame D’Aulnoy, Goss tells her own tale about a humble young man who everyone calls ‘Idiot’, but who travels far, learns a lot, and finds his fortune. It’s fully of fantastic talking animals with a range of personalities and it’s stories like this that make you love fairy tales in the first place.

There were a couple of stories based on fairy tales that were entirely new to me. “The Coin of Heart’s Desire” by Yoon Ha Lee is inspired by Korean folktales featuring the Dragon King Under the Sea. A young monarch approaches the dragon in the palace treasury to find impressive magical gifts for the powerful families of her kingdom. The dragon tests her by asking what she wants for herself. I’ve read and listened to several stories by Yoon Ha Lee, who I’ve come to know for her uniquely surreal stories. Some are so weird that I find them alienating, but this hits the right balance between the fantastical and the familiar.

“Born and Bread” by Kaaron Warren is based on a Russian fairy tale called Sivka Burka, which begins with a man who asks his three sons to bring bread to his grave for three nights after his death. Warren wondered “what sort of man would demand such a thing and what sort of bread would be best for a dead man”. She then answers this with an original fairy tale, about an ugly child who is born looking like dough, but has a wonderful personality and grows up to be a talented baker.

“The Giant in Repose” by Nathan Ballingrud is a metafictional reworking of a Norwegian fairy tale called “The Giant Who Had No Heart In His Body”. In the original, a youngest son/prince has to find the place where a giant keeps his heart. In Ballingrud’s version he strays from the Story and lives his own life, but because the Story is incomplete, the crow who played a role in the original calls him back to finish it.

“Lupine” by Nisi Shawl is one of the original tales, exploring the curse trope. A mother who hates her daughter gives her a potion that makes her “act hatefully toward those she loved and lovingly toward those she hated”, turning her life into a miserable existence. You will find another mother who is displeased by her child in “Egg” by Priya Sharma, a somewhat disturbing story about a wish. A wealthy, career woman wishes for a child, but she’s single and infertile. A witch grants her wish, but the child she gets is more bird than human. Raising her is akin to raising a child with severe mental deficiencies, and protagonist has to struggle with the vast differences between her expectations and the grim reality.

“Eat Me, Drink Me, Love Me” by Christopher Barzak and “Warrior Dreams” by Cinda Williams Chima  both explore the world of the fae. In Barzak’s tale, a girl spends a short time in that world, and longs to go back not just because it’s so sensual, but because it’s so much more liberal than her own small society where she can’t have the romantic relationship that she wants. “Warrior Dreams” is full of water fae-folk: nixies, grindylows, a Wendigo, a kelpie, a black dog, the Red Dwarf of Detroit. However, it takes place in an urban setting, with the far calling on a homeless ex-soldier to help them fight a monster who is devouring their kind.

The only story I haven’t mentioned yet is “The Spinning Wheel’s Tale” by Jane Yolen, partly because it’s my least favourite. It’s written from the POV of the spinning wheel that pricked Sleeping Beauty’s finger. Yolen has an impressive history with fairy tales, so I expected this story to be quite good, but somehow it just fell completely flat for me.

On the whole though, Once Upon a Time is a pretty strong collection. While nothing had me awe-struck like some short fiction, quite a few gave me the pleasure of simply reading a really good story. It’s also always fun to see how different writers interpret fairy tales or their tropes, and to be introduced to new ones. If you love fairy tales, this should be on your shelf.

Review of Lies, Knives and Girls in Red Dresses by Ron Koertge

Title: Lies, Knives and Girls in Red Dresses
Author: Ron Koertge
Published: 10 July 2012
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Genre: fairy tales, short stories
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 9/10

Note: the eBook file was converted from pdf to awz when sent to my Kindle, and it messed up the formatting. As a result, my quotes are almost all incorrectly formatted. My apologies to the author, publisher and readers; I’ll fix it if I get the chance.

Ron Koertge. That’s all I needed to know. In high school I read his prose-poetry novel The Brimstone Journals, about fifteen teenagers in their last year of high school. Using only simple, intertwined narratives (one of which involves a guy planning a Columbine-style shoot-up), Koertge captivated me with brief but intimate portrayals of the many facets of teenage angst – alienation, insecurity, sexuality, anger, hating your body or being obsessed with it, being too smart or not smart enough, wanting to stand out or wanting to fit in. A narrative made up of poems was unusual and exciting, and Koertge proved masterful with this short form, skilfully filling it with more memorable, evocative details than you would ever find in an ordinary novel. I still remember some of the lines and many of the characters, perhaps not perfectly, but at least in essence.

Lies, Knives and Girls in Red Dresses is written in a similar style – narratives in the form of poems, although in this case each of them tells its own story. Each is a retelling of a classic fairy tale in contemporary language, often with a modern setting. In writing both elegant and punchy, the stories explore relationships, the body, sex and sexuality, desire, violence, prejudice, and cruelty. It can be funny, tragic, and bold, it’s usually very twisted, and sometimes perfect.

Definitely not for children though. It might be a collection of fairy tales, complete with illustrations (all stark, eerie silhouettes), but I wouldn’t give this to a kid. Teenagers maybe. Koertge tells these tales in ways that expose the violence, sex and cruelty in them, or explores the characters’ psychologies in disturbing ways. These stories aren’t explicit, but there are themes and innuendo that would be better appreciated by adults. Take the ending of “Bluebeard” for example:

She knows her life is on the line but, believe it or not, she’s never been so excited! Her husband’s a serial killer, and her bodice is wet with tears, but there’s a chance her brothers will show up like winning lottery numbers. Which does she want more — her hair wound in the maniac’s hands and her white white throat bared, or the sound of boots on the marble stairs?

That should give you an idea of the dark, sensuous stories that Koertge tells, full of taboo desires. Hansel and Gretal have a semi-incestuous relationship and a taste for revenge. There’s an ogre wants to eat her own children.

Cinderella’s stepsisters tell their own sad story:

Ella is married and happy. Our Ever After is silence, darkness, and bitterness. We have names, by the way. She’s Sarah and I’m Kathy. We were always close. As girls we lay in bed kissing and pretending one of us was the prince. We were practicing for happiness.

One particularly unsettling story is “The Princess and the Pea”, where Koertge considers what life might be like for a woman with such a fragile body:

Have you seen the prince? My God, his hands are big as anvils. Do you know what that would do to me? Do you? I see him ogling my breasts and I think, “If you want one of them black and the other one blue, if those are your favorite colors or something, go ahead and grope. Don’t let the screaming bother you.”

Not surprisingly, few of Koertge’s fairy tales have happy endings. Usually there’s at least the taint of dissatisfaction, if not outright misery and pain. Marriage isn’t as blissful as the princes and princesses imagined, and even if they’re happy, there’s often a longing for the past, with its danger and adventure. The Beast is very happy with Beauty, but he hasn’t forgotten his previous life: “With a sigh, sometimes, I brush my perfect teeth and remember when they were fangs.”

Rapunzel, with more than a touch of vanity, is disappointed with her brutally masculine prince:

RAPUNZEL: Up there in the tower, I was a catapult of questions — one after another to keep the witch at bay. So when I first saw the prince, I was thrilled. I wouldn’t be a prisoner forever after all! But he was so hairy. His kisses were like blows. His cheeks sanded down my mother-of-pearl skin and the Plow Horse Game skinned my knees. I admit he made me feel real. I was vapor, otherwise, only collecting into the form of a girl when the witch called and I tugged and she climbed and she was the oven and I was the bread. Now that it’s all over, I suppose I’m happy. I love my daughter. But the prince is moody and thinks of himself. While the witch thought only of me.

Koertge constantly subverts conventions and expectations. Villains and monsters are portrayed with sympathy, while heroes are often revealed to be selfish, manipulative, or just average imperfect human beings. It’s not all so dark and disturbing though. There’s humour too, as in the reaction of the princess who kisses a toad and gets a prince:

OMG. He’s a gift shop, a lamb kebab with mint, a solar panel poetry machine with biceps. He’s the path through the dark woods, the light on the page, a postcard from the castle and a one-way ticket there. He’s the most astounding arrangement of molecules ever!
Just look at those tights! An honest-to-God prince at last.

I also loved Red Riding Hood as a contemporary teenager, telling her mom what happened when she met the wolf:

So first he’s all into my pretty this and that, like I haven’t heard it all before. What? Where did I hear that all before? At parties. What planet do you live on?

And what she thought when she found out that the wolf had swallowed her grandmother whole:

And it kind of makes me want to know what that’s like. What? No, as a matter of fact, if everybody at my school got swallowed whole I wouldn’t want to. It’s lame if everybody does it, Mom. How old are you, anyway?

There are a few stories that I thought were just ok, but this book still went straight into my ranks of best short fiction. Ok yes, I haven’t read that many short fiction collections, but that’s because I seldom enjoy them as much as this little beauty. I’ve read Lies, Knives and Girls in Red Dresses twice now (it’s really short, you can do it in an hour) and I want to buy a print copy because it’s the kind of thing I like to pick up on a whim. I’d open it for some random reason, perhaps looking for a quote, and then inevitably end up curled on the couch reading the whole delightful thing.

Buy Lies, Knives and Girls in Red Dresses at The Book Depository