Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version, by Philip Pullman (Viking, 405 pp., $27.95)
“I left the fairy tales lying on the floor of the nursery,” wrote essayist G. K. Chesterton, “and I have not found any books so sensible since.” Philip Pullman is in full agreement with his fellow Briton. Author of the bestselling His Dark Materials trilogy, Pullman has been hooked on fairy tales since childhood—particularly the folk narratives collected by the eighteenth-century scholars Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. Now, more as a labor of love than as a commercial enterprise (his previous books have sold some 15 million copies), Pullman has given these tales a vigorous new life. Though his translations could stand alone, he has also added scores of insightful annotations.
One of the most famous Grimm stories, about a bullfrog who turns into a royal, opens the book. It’s instructive to compare a staid version of the denouement with Pullman’s lively new one. In the traditional story, the princess
took hold of the frog with two fingers, carried him upstairs, and put him in a corner. But when she was in bed he crept to her. . . . At this she was terribly angry, and took him up and threw him with all her might against the wall. “Now, will you be quiet, odious frog,” said she. But when he fell down he was no frog but a king’s son with kind and beautiful eyes.
In Pullman’s version, we read that the princess
picked the frog up between finger and thumb and set him down outside her bedroom door and shut it firmly.
But he kept knocking and called, “Let me in! Let me in!”
So she opened the door and said, “All right! You can come in, but you must sleep on the floor.”
She made him lie down at the foot of her bed. But still he said, “Let me up! Let me up! I’m just as tired as you. . . .”
But that was too much. In a flash of anger she scooped up the frog and threw him against the wall. But when he fell back into the bed, what a surprise! He wasn’t a frog any more. In fact he’d become a young man—a prince—with beautiful smiling eyes.
“The common memory,” adds Pullman, “is that the frog becomes a prince when the princess kisses him. Grimm’s storyteller knows otherwise. . . . The kiss has a lot to be said for it, however. It is, after all, by now another piece of folklore itself.” (So is the standup comedian’s rendition, in which the king finds his daughter in bed with the prince. She explains that her handsome companion was originally a green amphibian. Punch line: “And you know, to this day her father doesn’t believe her story?”)
Though Pullman’s 30th book has no pictures, the translator/storyteller has much to say about yesteryear’s lavishly illustrated editions. “The most fitting pictorial representation of fairy-tale characters seems to me to be found . . . in the little cardboard cut-out figures that come with the toy theatre. They are flat, not round. Only one side of them is visible to the audience, but that is the only side we need: the other side is blank. They are depicted in poses of intense activity or passion, so that their part in the drama can be easily read from a distance.”
That’s because those characters have no inner life, no detailed biography. They simply appear full-blown on the page, and, because they’re traveling light, immediately go into action, falling and ascending, cursed and rewarded, common and regal—all within a few paragraphs. Pullman brings the most famous of them onstage: Rapunzel, whose long hair is lowered out the window for her lover; Hansel and Gretel and the witch; Cinderella and the wicked stepsisters; Little Red Riding Hood; Snow White. He discreetly omits Grimm tales that reflect the biases and Gothic preoccupations of the German herrenvolk, among them “The Jew Among Thorns,” about an avaricious Hebrew, and “The Poor Boy in the Grave,” in which a homeless child seeks shelter in a crypt, goes to sleep, and freezes to death.
Pullman points out that there’s a deliberate lack of imagery in fairy-tale narratives, “apart from the most obvious. As white as snow, as red as blood: that’s about it. Nor is there any close description of the natural world or of individuals. A forest is deep, the princess is beautiful, her hair is golden; there’s no need to say more. When what you want to know is what happens next, beautiful descriptive wordplay can only irritate.” In modern fiction, these characteristics would be considered liabilities. But in fairy tales, they’re assets. After all, the primary function of each story is to grab the reader’s (or listener’s) attention and hold it.
And yet, something more is working beneath the surfaces of these fictions. As psychologist Bruno Bettelheim notes in his landmark study, The Uses of Enchantment, “fairy stories represent in imaginative form what the process of healthy human development consists of, and how the tales make such development attractive for the child to engage in. This growth process begins with the resistance against the parents and fear of growing up, and ends when youth has truly found itself, achieved psychological independence and moral maturity, and no longer views the other sex as threatening or demonic, but is able to relate positively to it.” Even so, “the fairy tale could not have its psychological impact on the child were it not first and foremost a work of art.”
No one understands the artistic and emotional aspects of storytelling better than Philip Pullman, whom the London Times justifiably named “one of the 50 greatest writers since 1945.” With all his spellbinding skills, however, the author’s most attractive attribute is his modesty. He acknowledges that just as there have been many translators before him, so there will be many afterward. It seems safe to say, however, that few, if any, will surpass his wit and perception. The great classical pianist Arthur Schnabel once made an astute remark about the piano sonatas of Mozart: they’re too easy for children and too difficult for adults. On every page, Pullman shows why that aperçu applies to the Grimms’ fairy tales as well.