How do you bring new life to venerable fairy tales? How do you make them fresh when we have known these tales since our youths? They were read to us, then we read them, then we read them to our children and grandchildren. Some, we even saw as cartoons, television shows, or movies, Little Red Riding Hood being a recent example. Easy. Get Philip Pullman to rewrite them in his inimitable style. His fans will find much to savor here.
The Brothers Grimm version of the stories first appeared in print exactly 200 years ago this year when Wilhelm Grimm published the first volume of Children's and Household Tales. They were unhappy that another writer's earlier collection had been so bowdlerized and modernized that the tales had lost their piquancy. While they did not go about the country collecting tales, they found all the stories among their friends and acquaintances. Of course, the tales had been around centuries longer in the oral tradition. Even today many of us can tell the more popular stories without referring to the printed page. These stories, their themes, and their lessons are so deeply ingrained that even oblique references to them conjure the entire tale in our collective memories. Enormously popular, the seventh and final edition was published in 1857.
Pullman has selected 50 tales for his treatment. The classics are here: Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, Snow White, and Rumpelstiltskin. Many this writer did not remember are included: The Nixie of the Millpond, The Little Shroud, and The Girl With No Hands. Pullman's interest is in how the tales worked "as stories... in a version clear as water." A brief introduction places the tales into context as he discusses stock figures, celerity (swiftness, movement), and imagery and description. The introduction is followed by a brief but encompassing bibliography. Then, each tale is concluded by noting its "tale type," an index revised by Stith Thompson in 1928 and 1961, the version with which I am most familiar.
Do not be fooled by the presence of an introduction, a bibliography, and references to tale types. This is no dry, simple text. It is a delight to be chewed and savored, a chance to revisit the tales of our youth, and a chance to share these tales with the young people in our lives. Just as tales in the oral tradition changed, so have the written versions. Pullman's tales are both old and new. Do as I did for some of the tales and read a tale from an older edition of Grimm (1945 in my case) and then read the Pullman version.
We tend to remember the story of Rapunzel as her simply letting down her hair for the prince who rescued her. There is a whole narrative however. Read Grimm and Pullman and you will find the entire narrative that begins with the wife who craves a vegetable growing in the witch's garden, the loving husband, the stolen child, the rescuing prince and his near death, blinding, and wandering in the wilderness, and his subsequent reunion with the beautiful girl.
Pullman's retellings capture the imagination and breathe fresh life into each tale, whether it is a tale that we remember or one that we hear for the first time. The tale of Gambling Hans, which was not in my Grimm, is a highlight of the book. Hans is a gambler who loses everything when he is visited by the Lord and Saint Peter. He tries to cheat them but eventually they sit around eating bread and drinking wine. The Lord grants Hans three wishes presuming he would ask for a guaranteed place in Heaven. Not Hans. He wants winning cards, a tree of fruit, and the power to keep a thief up the tree unless he gives permission for the thief to come down. It is done and the visitors leave. Death comes along and climbs the tree, but Hans keeps him at bay for seven years. The Lord tells Hans to let him down. He does and Death strangles Hans who presents himself at the gates of Heaven. He is turned away and sent to Purgatory where he is turned away again for there is too much misery there already. He was let into Hell immediately, of course, and began to gamble with his winning cards. He gains control of all the minor devils and manages to connive his way into Heaven. He continues to gamble and cause discord and drive the Lord and Saint Peter crazy so he is thrown out of Heaven. "His soul was smashed to pieces, and the little splinters went everywhere; in fact there's one of them in the soul of every gambler who's alive today." This tale, type 330A "The Smith's Three Wishes," was sent to the Grimms by Simon Sechter, a composer and teacher of music.
Do not miss this superb retelling of the fairy tales. The Brothers Grimm certainly would have approved of Philip Pullman and his masterful appropriation of these ancient stories. Celebrate their 200th anniversary with a seat by the fire and read a story to yourself and read a story to a child. You will both be richer for the experience.