Publication date: 11/8/2012
Once upon a time signals that a simple, repetitive narrative featuring a good-natured hero is about to be spun for the benefit of the listener.
With no other motive than to clear a space for a folk tale, His Dark Materials author Philip Pullman revisits the celebrated stories in Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version.
A few notable Listen up! lines in the recently released edition:
“Heinz was bone idle.”—Lazy Heinz
“The mountain and the valley never meet, but the children of men, both good and bad, meet one another all the time.”—The Two Travelling Companions
“There were once two brothers, one rich, the other poor.”—Mount Simeli
Pullman embellishes on the most interesting versions of the Grimm collection, which feature few fairies and originated as a study in German linguistics, scholarly material not regarded as suitable for children.
A demonstrative ham with the chops to brace his barney, Pullman weaves more eloquent stories as the book progresses along showing how literary a fairy tale can become in the hands of a good storyteller. Fairy tales and folklore make up the literary DNA. The master fabulist can embroider on the Grimms’ spare imagery, flat characters and swift movement from event to event.
Industrious, clever and forthright tailors or goose girls are recurrent protagonists in Pullman’s edition, which includes notes at the end of each fairy tale as well as classifications from the Aarne-Thompson-Uther index. The listing helps researchers identify folktales by plot pattern and narrative structure, but there is little in the way of analysis from Pullman.
“Nothing is more likely to drive listeners away than a ponderous interpretation of what they’ve just marveled at. It’s a very good story, whatever it means.”
Pullman begins at the water’s edge with “The Frog King” and circles back with “The Nixie of the Millpond.” (A nixie, selkie or rusalki are different names for a mermaid, who never fails to give tailors and goose girls grief.) He compares the last fairy tale in the collection to Shakespeare’s King Lear.
“When a tale is shaped so well that the line of the narrative seems to have been able to take no other path, and to have touched every important event in making for its end, one can only bow with respect for the teller.”
The most gruesome story in the book is “The Juniper Tree.” The painter Philipp Otto Runge provided the Grimms with the narrative and Pullman’s version is up to Stephen King/Anne Rice horror novel standards. Listeners recoil from the stepmother, her nightmarish inhumanity and madness. The just and the beautiful are in the haunting refrain of the bird coming back to life as the little boy who had been tormented by the evil stepmother.
Pullman’s queens are mostly arrogant and vain, but can be compelling underdogs working against all odds. The queen in the comic “Rumpelstiltskin” guesses the name of her magical ally to square her part of a bargain. In comic relief, she considers:
“Is it Pickleburster?”
“Is it Hankydank?”
“Is it McMustardplaster?”
Revealing to a spying servant, ‘Water, earth, and air, and flame—Rumpelstiltskin is my name!” and the queen and her baby are saved from a fate unknown.
“Snow White,” “Briar Rose,” “The Twelve Dances Princesses,” “The Musicians from Bremen” and “The Brave Little Tailor” are all fresh takes on the Brothers Grimm in Pullman’s edition.
“Six Who Made Their Way in the World” is captivating for a decorated war vet who masterminds an A-team of adventurers. The cigar-smoking character Col. John “Hannibal” Smith can conceivably be based on this story. Soldiers of fortune in the Grimm fairy tale include a strongman, a sharpshooter, a sprinter, a super bag of wind and a tactician with a frost-making hat.
“The story also works very well in the cinema, where plots involving the recruiting of a team of specialists for some impossible task have often been popular. Ocean’s Eleven (Steven Soderbergh, 2001) was one successful version. So, in a different way, was The Dirty Dozen (Robert Aldrich, 1967).”
Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm by Philip Pullman is a highly worthwhile read to commemorate the bicentennial of the celebrated collection of folklore.
Category: Nonfiction, Folklore