California Literary Review

Book Review: Fairy Tales From The Brothers Grimm

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December 30th, 2012 at 11:05 am

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Book jacket: Fairy Tales From The Brothers Grimm
Fairy Tales From The Brothers Grimm: A New English Version
by Philip Pullman
Viking Adult, 400 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★½

In the version of Cinderella recounted by the Brothers Grimm, there is no fairy godmother. Instead, the beleaguered Cinderella plants a hazel twig on her mother’s grave, which grows into a tree. The magical gifts that enable her to attend the prince’s ball appear from the trees branches, and her supernatural helpers are the wild birds she calls down while standing beneath it. When the prince comes looking for the mysterious princess who left her slipper behind, Cinderella’s stepsisters cut off pieces of their own feet to make the slipper fit. Twice the prince rides off with the wrong bride; each time, a pair of doves perched in the hazel tree sing him a warning, beginning “Roocoo-coo, roocoo-coo/ There’s blood in the shoe.” And at the end, the doves peck out the stepsisters’ eyes, as punishment for their “wickedness and falsity.”

This is the version of the story Philip Pullman retells in his new translation of Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, out just in time for the bicentennial of the brothers’ original book. With its violence and mystery, its suggestions of the dead mother’s spirit acting on the heroine’s behalf through such primal agents as wild trees and birds, the German story can seem a world away from the familiar version. The more proper and pretty version told by Frenchman Charles Perrault has long been our standard.

Those who know the original versions of the Grimms’ tales – in which the frog prince is disenchanted by being hurled against a wall, rather than kissed, and Rapunzel finds herself pregnant with twins – can rarely resist the temptation to see them as more primitive and authentic, closer to the bone and closer to the original source. Yet even a cursory glance at the history of fairy tales complicates this view. As Marina Warner demonstrates in her magisterial study From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers, the paths leading back from these stories are as likely to bring us to literary creations of the Renaissance as to ancient legends. Perrault’s elegant baroque variations on the same material, ornamented with worldly-wise rhymes explaining what the clever and ambitious may learn from them, predate the Grimms’ tales by more than a hundred years.

When Cinderella’s stepmother and stepsisters try to keep her from the ball by throwing lentils into the ashes on the hearth, and demanding that she pick them out, there are echoes of one of the tasks assigned to Psyche in Apuleius’s The Golden Ass. Like Cinderella, Psyche has animal helpers who will complete the task for her. An ancient detail, certainly, (Apuleius was writing in the second century AD), but still an artifact of literary culture.

The pecked-out eyes, on the other hand, seem to be late invention of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm themselves, inserted into the 1819 edition of the tales (the original edition appeared in 1812). They are part of a pattern in which they downplayed sexual elements of the tales in later editions, but made up for it by spicing them with additional violence.

So who’s to say what’s “authentic” in these tales? Their constituent parts have been ceaselessly borrowed and exchanged, recombined and reinvented; their protean nature may well be their defining quality. This is the spirit in which Pullman (Author of The Golden Compass and its sequels, among other titles) approaches his new translation. He opens his introduction with an extended quotation from James Merrill’s long poem, The Changing Light at Sandover, in which Merrill calls the language of fairy tales “A tone licked clean /Over the centuries by mild old tongues/Grandam to cub, serene and anonymous.” This is the tone Pullman strives for, and largely achieves – neither too modern nor too archaic, too formal nor too colloquial.

Pullman is willing to take certain liberties with the telling, within the bounds of tradition. In “Cinderella,” the heroine’s three magic ball gowns are progressively the color of starlight, moonlight, and sunlight, a detail which crops up in many related stories in which a heroine attends a ball in disguise. It’s often a part of Donkeyskin and its variations, tales which begin with the heroine’s father, a king, wanting to marry his own daughter. Now little known in the English-speaking world, it’s still a standard in France. (A family movie, starring Catherine Deneuve, Jean Marais, and Delphine Seyrig was made of the tale in 1970; the extras on the current DVD, featuring French intellectuals discussing the tale’s meaning, and the filmmakers quizzing a contemporary audience of Parisian kindergarteners about the father/daughter plot, offer a wonderful snapshot of the difference between Anglophone and Francophone thought-worlds.)

Pullman concludes each tale with his own comments on the story and its translation, as well as the Grimms’ own source for the tale, a brief list of similar stories, and even its ATU number, indicating its place in the Aarne-Thompson-Uther classification of tale types used by scholars. His aim in selecting the tales seems to have been to present the reader with a representative sampling, from the cosy animal story “The Musicians of Bremen” to the grisly, glumly religious tale of “The Girl with No Hands.”

Some are strong stuff indeed by contemporary standards. The collection includes “The Juniper Tree,” in which a wicked stepmother tricks her stepdaughter into believing she’s accidentally decapitated her younger brother, whose corpse the stepmother then cooks and feeds to the children’s father (an echo of Medea?). Margaret Atwood cites “The Juniper Tree” as one of her favorites in her excellent essay on the Grimms’ tales, “Of Souls as Birds.” ( However, I wonder if some of the poetic seasonal imagery Atwood interprets in archetypal terms may be attributed to the Grimms’ source, German Romantic painter Philipp Otto Runge.)

I was somewhat disappointed that another of Atwood’s favorites – and now one of mine – was not included: “Fitcher’s Bird,” a lively and evocative variant of Bluebeard in which the heroine saves herself by dressing a skeleton in her bridal garments, and disguising herself as a bird using honey and a feather bed. (As Atwood rightly notes, the Grimms’ tales do not universally endorse female passivity).

Pullman also includes “The Boy Who Left Home to Find Out About the Shivers,” more commonly known in English as “The Boy Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was,” a tale which, Marina Warner notes, became a favorite of the Nazis. Playing on associations like these, Rebecca West infused her journalistic account of the Nuremberg Trials (published in 1946 as “Greenhouse with Cyclamens”) with fairytale imagery inspired, perhaps, by the turreted and spired neo-Gothic industrialist’s mansion in which she and other journalists were housed. Musing on the house, she wonders if the role of fairy tales in German high culture of the nineteenth century contributed to the horrors of the twentieth century, as “the German imagination was at once richly fecundated and bound to a primitive fantasy dangerous for civilized adults.” Margaret Atwood writes of how, on the other side of the Atlantic, the dark side of the tales provided an apt reflection of the wartime world she was born into.

It’s worth noting these previous uses of the Grimms’ tales as we move into another national debate about the confrontation of violence and innocence, safety and fear. Atwood writes at length about how the tales spoke to her own unspoken childhood fears of death and loss, providing a kind of solace through their spells and transformations. (Bruno Bettelheim famously developed similar ideas into The Uses of Enchantment, a Freudian analysis of the tales’ value to children).

The value of Pullman’s new translation, I believe, lies in his willingness to encompass the darkness as well as the light in the tales, and his determination to retell them in language that does not belong to any particular historical moment or sensibility. The tales, with their interchangeable parts, their eager borrowings from whatever sources lie at hand, have never been anything but a work in progress. The achievement of the Brothers Grimm, two hundred years ago, was not so much to freeze them in a particular form, but to make them even more widely available. This is what Pullman aims to do, as well. He encourages those who wish to retell the tales to do so: “The story-sprites,” he says, “are willing to serve whoever has the ring, whoever is telling the tale.”

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