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 🙂

Up for Review: The Office of Mercy

The Office of Mercy by Ariel DjanikianThe Office of Mercy by Ariel Djanikian (Viking)

Blurb (Goodreads and NetGalley):

Weaving philosophy and science together into a riveting, dystopian story of love and adventure, The Office of Mercy illuminates an all-too-real future imagined by a phenomenal new voice in fiction.

THE OFFICE OF MERCY takes place three hundred years after an intentional global catastrophe, known as the Storm. Orchestrated by a small group of idealistic young people, the Storm was a last-ditch effort to remake civilization—to start over—after conditions on earth had deteriorated considerably. In that sense, the Storm was a success. Today, people live in high-tech, mostly underground settlements, like America-Five, where everyone’s needs are provided for. There’s no hunger, no money; and cell-replacement programs guarantee all citizens healthy, long lives.

On the top floor of America-Five is the Office of Mercy, where twenty-four year old Natasha Wiley works. Natasha’s job is to track and kill the nomadic descendants of the scattering of people who survived the Storm, and who now roam the wilderness in tribes. Most citizens consider the Office’s work of eliminating the rampant suffering outside their walls to be the paradigm of modern, ethical behavior. Yet Natasha harbors growing doubts. When her beloved mentor, Jeffrey, selects her to join a special team to venture outside the settlement, her allegiances to home, society and above all to Jeffrey suddenly collide.

Along with a band of misfits, Natasha enacts a plan to escape the confines of the settlement and uncover for herself the true effects of her office’s policies. She is willing to wager her safety, her promising career and, eventually, her faith in the values that she has worked for and believed in all her life.

The Office of Mercy will be published on 21 February 2013 by Viking, an imprint of the Penguin Group.

Buy it: Amazon I The Book Depository
The novel at Penguin

About the Author
Ariel Djanikian graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2004 with majors in English, chemistry, and philosophy. She holds an MFA in fiction writing from the University of Michigan, and she lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, with her husband and daughter.
Her writing has appeared in The L Magazine and The Paris Review DailyThe Office of Mercy is her first novel. – NetGalley and author’s website.


Review of Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone by Stefan Kiesbye

Title: Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone
Author: Stefan Kiesbye
25 September 2012
Penguin Books
horror, historical
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley

Stefan Kiesbye’s short horror novel is composed of a series of intertwined stories told from the perspectives of four children who grow up in the tiny German village of Hemmersmoor – the Devil’s Moor. The place lives up to its name in a quietly evil sort of way, with its secrets, superstitions, child abuse and murder. The people of Hemmersmoor do horrible things to each other, and the disturbing thing is that most of these sins seem almost normal and do not stop village life from carrying on as usual.

In the opening chapter, the five main characters – Christian, Martin, Alex, Linde and Anke – are no longer children but the old people of the village. Four of them are gathering for Anke’s funeral, and they are the only ones there to acknowledge her passing. The village has changed drastically – it’s become a quaint little tourist attraction, scrubbed clean and smoothed over. Our four protagonists avoid speaking about each other’s horrible secrets, but the hatred coiling between them is obvious.

From the first chapter we leap back about 60 years to see these characters as children in a village that we soon learn is frighteningly insular and bigoted. The language of the narrative suggests that these stories aren’t being told by children, but by adults looking back on their childhoods. It is not something I’d want to remember, precisely because their tales make for good horror – a family of newcomers is beaten to death by the residents; a boy agrees to capture his sister’s soul in exchange for a glimpse of hell; a girl’s father gives her a face full of scars when she causes him to lose his job.

The horror here is characterised by scary children, terrible secrets and the menace of a small parochial village. Lives are casually ruined or ended and petty grievances lead to violent acts of vengeance. Each tale has its own plot, but the novel as a whole does not, and simply observes the main characters as they grow older. You see them with all their growing pains, but even this is often twisted. For example, the old mill is said to be haunted by the ghosts of the miller and his daughters, who were raped and killed by Swedish soldiers. This gets turned into a sex game, where teenage boys play the soldiers and ‘rape’ the girls playing the miller’s daughters. In an earlier story, a boy cringes while his father gives him tips on sex and girls, knowing that his father has impregnated his sister.

There’s a touch of the supernatural to some of these stories, but that’s not what makes them unsettling. If anything it just emphasises the fact that the supernatural has nothing on the malice of living people. You won’t find it easy to empathise with any of the main characters. If you’re sympathetic toward someone in one story, he or she will disgust you in another.

As the novel progresses, the supernatural element fades, and we’re left with miserable people doing cruel things to each other in their miserable little village. It becomes less creepy and more mundane, but no less tragic or unfair.

Despite the often abhorrent content however, the novel was a pleasure to read. Its elegant, quietly detailed writing flows as easily as fresh blood, and I flew through it. I would have preferred the subtle supernatural element to last throughout the book, because it was much creepier at the start than towards the end. I also found the characters much more disturbing as children than as adults. But that’s my only real complaint. Of the books I’ve read in my recent search for good horror, I enjoyed reading this one the most.


Buy a copy at The Book Depository

Up for Review: The Bay of Foxes

Cracks by Sheila Kohler was one of the most unusual non-genre novels I’ve read, and the kind of book you never forget. It’s an intensely sensual story about desire, beauty, and jealousy set at a girls’ boarding school in rural South Africa. It has the quirk of a group narrator (one of the members actually has the same name as the author), and an unforgettably shocking climax. When I first read it in high school, I also thought it amazingly refreshing to find a South African novel that wasn’t about politics, racism or Apartheid. After re-reading it later I felt that it wasn’t one of the best books I’ve read, but it’s certainly one of the most memorable and poetic, reminiscent of The Virgin Suicides.

When I saw a new Sheila Kohler novel on NetGalley, I immediately requested it in the hope of a similarly evocative reading experience.

The Bay of Foxes by Sheila Kohler (Penguin Books USA)

Marketing copy from NetGalley:

In 1978, Dawit, a young and beautiful Ethiopian refugee, roams the streets of Paris. By chance, he spots the famous French author M., who at sixty is at the height of her fame. Seduced by Dawit’s grace and his moving story, M. invites him to live with her. He makes himself indispensable, or so he thinks. When M. brings him to her Sardinian villa, beside the Bay of Foxes, Dawit finds love and temptation-and perfects the art of deception.


Sheila Kohler was born in South Africa and earned degrees from the Sorbonne, the Institut Catholique, and Columbia University. She teaches at Princeton University and Bennington College and lives in New York City. She has won two O. Henry Prizes, an Open Fiction Award, a Willa Cather Prize, and a Smart Family Foundation Prize. Her books have been published in 10 countries and have sold more than 60,000 copies.

The Bay of Foxes will by published on 26 June by Penguin Books USA.