Ages 10 and up
By Philip Pullman
Philip Pullman has written books for children and adults. He is probably best known for his phenomenal fantasy trilogy, His Dark Materials, which takes place in multiple universes and features a young girl (Lyra) and boy (Will) as they come of age during a time of perilous turmoil. Though marketed to young adults, these true works of literature —which were heavily influenced by John Milton’s Paradise Lost—are most certainly worthy of adult attention; just take a look at the number of books that have been written about this series.
The first book in the trilogy, Northern Lights (1995), which was published in North America as The Golden Compass (1996), was awarded the Carnegie Medal (the British version of the Newbury Medal). It takes place in Lyra’s world, full of dust (a life force that carries intelligence), dæmons (animal embodiments of the soul, pronounced dēməns), witches and armored polar bears.
The Subtle Knife opens in Will’s world where the misuse of the path between worlds—cut open with the object of the title—has released soul-eating Spectres (beings created each time the subtle knife is used to make a new opening).
The Amber Spyglass, the third and final book in the trilogy, finds the two main characters traveling between worlds to escape a multitude of evil forces. This title was awarded the prestigious Whitbread Prize for best children’s book in 2001 as well as the Whitbread Book of the Year prize in January 2002, the first children’s book to receive that award. (The Whitbread Prize has since been renamed The Costa Book Award.)
In 2005 Pullman was awarded the biggest prize in children’s literature, the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award from the Swedish Arts Council, for his career contribution to “children’s and young adult literature in the broadest sense.”
The Golden Compass was my first introduction to Pullman’s work and I can honestly say I’ve loved everything that I’ve read by him, which is nearly everything he’s written. He writes richly detailed, imaginative stories with fully formed, complex characters. And he will surprise you, often; characters die in his books and you cannot count on a perfectly wrapped ending, which makes his writing all the more exciting to read.
Pullman has also written a few books for slightly younger audiences which he refers to as fairy tales, including I Was a Rat!, about a young boy who claims to have been a rat. He knocks on the door of a childless couple and, believing he is the answer to their prayers, they take him in to raise as their own. It is eventually discovered that the boy was indeed a rat, turned into a boy by a fairy godmother facilitating a young girl’s wish to attend a grand ball.
When I first learned of Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, shortly before it was published, it seemed such an obvious pairing: Pullman and Grimm. Pullman, a graduate of Oxford University with a degree in English, also taught literature at Westminster College. He maintains a passionate interest in education (after all, fairy tales were meant to educate) and His Dark Materials shares some basic roots with these elementary tales, featuring brave children, talking animals and magic.
Fairy tales are an integral part of the fabric of every culture and serve as both cautionary tales and lessons of virtue. As a general rule, the stories move quickly, the characters are one-dimensional and the lessons are clear. Readers will quickly notice (if they were not already aware) that the stepmothers are always wicked, fathers are always weak, and any wrong will be amended, provided the person wronged was moral and pious. And more often than you might imagine, parents are perfectly willing to give up or abandon their children for some brief reward. Fairy tales are black and white—good is purely good, bad is purely bad—and everyone lives happily ever after, except the wicked ones who suffer horribly brutal punishments that often lead to death.
Fairy tales were originally passed orally from generation to generation. At the time that the Grimm brothers began collecting and transcribing common German and Western fairy tales many others were embarking on the same enterprise, but the Grimm’s collection became the most widely known. Their original collection, Children’s and Household Tales, contained two hundred and ten stories; fifty tales were chosen from that collection for Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm. As Pullman states in his introduction,
“All I set out to do in this book was tell the best and most interesting [stories], clearing out of the way anything that would prevent them from running freely…I just wanted to produce a version that was as clear as water.”
Though small changes were sometimes made to improve upon a story, most modifications didn’t alter the plot and were made to help the story “emerge more naturally” in his voice. Essentially, the stories were boiled down to concentrated versions with extraneous bits tossed aside so that the reader is left with only the most essential information to move the story quickly forward to its conclusion.
These tales are a far cry from the whitewashed Disney-fied versions that have become so favored in modern times. In fact, Pullman’s version of Cinderella may have been the most surprising to me. First, the father is still living and stands idly by as his wicked wife and stepdaughters treat his actual daughter so horribly. Also, the Fairy Godmother is replaced by a hazel tree, which provides Cinderella with three dresses for each of three grand balls.
Some of the tales in this collection were new to me. The Mouse, the Bird and the Sausage is one example. (I also found this story extremely odd, even for Grimm.) I’m not sure if it’s the use of the word slither or the fact that the sausage is both a living being and a food item but this passage did not sit well with me:
“The sausage stayed by the pot most of the time, keeping an eye on the vegetables, and from time to time he’d slither through the water to give it a bit of flavoring.”
The three title characters in this tale live together; each has a specific role in the running of the household. The bird collects wood for the fire, the mouse gets the water from the well, and the sausage does the cooking. One day the bird is gathering wood and encounters a fellow bird, and boasts of his lovely living situation but his new “friend” calls him a dupe for doing so much work while the mouse and sausage get to stay home. Upon arriving home the bird demands the roles be switched, resulting in all their deaths the very next day.
In at least two tales (The Three Little Men in the Woods and The Goose Girl) the unsuspecting villain’s misdeeds have been discovered and the guilty parties are presented with their crimes, but are not directly accused. When they are given an opportunity to choose the punishment for the criminal they choose horribly painful and elaborate deaths; their suggestions are immediately implemented. Did these villains not foresee their own fate? After all, their exact crime was being presented to them. In his introduction, Pullman offers a useful reminder that applies to this: “There is no psychology in a fairy tale. The characters have little interior life; their motives are clear and obvious.”
At the end of each tale Pullman provides detail on the tale type, taken from an index complied by Antti Aarne published in 1910 titled The Types of International Folktales. This index has been updates three times, most recently in 2004 by Hans-Jorg Uther under the title The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography Based on the System of Antti Aarne and Sith Thompson. Pullman also includes the source (where the Grimm’s originally heard the story), similar stories (most, if not all, have comparable tales in other languages), as well notes on any changes made and his thoughts on the tale.
My favorite note comes at the end of The Girl with No Hands in which a miller unwittingly promises his only daughter to the devil in exchange for riches. When the devil arrives to take the girl he discovers she has been washed clean and declares that he cannot take her this way. He instructs the father to deprive her of water, which the obedient man does, and returns to take the girl the following morning. However, while waiting for the devil’s return, the girl has cried so much her hands have been “washed” clean. So the devil instructs the father to cut off the girl’s hands. And he does! Pullman has this to say: “…The tale itself is disgusting. The most repellant aspect is the cowardice of the miller, which goes quite unpunished.” I quite agree!
Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm is an utterly fascinating take on these age-old tales. This fresh look gives readers an opportunity to see the tales anew, and revel in their bizarre world. And though fairy tales, and Grimm’s tales, are associated with children, I cannot imagine reading many of these stories to anyone under the age of ten.
Buy the book!