Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Review: Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm by Philip Pullman

Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English VersionFairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version by Philip Pullman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I think this is the first time I've read a collection of Grimm fairy tales at once. I'm familiar with most of the stories and the tropes, but I've never sat down to read a whole book of them. This was definitely an entertaining way to do so, and I wound up reading some stories with which I was unfamiliar.

Philip Pullman is quick to point out in his introduction that the Grimms didn't wander from town to town, collecting folk tales. Most of their storytellers were people they knew, or who came to them. The shattering of that myth doesn't detract from the tales; it gives them context.

Pullman has commentaries at the end of each tale, explaining what he changed, where the tales came from, the other stories that use the same themes, cultural context, what the Grimms changed from earlier versions, or other remarks about the stories. Pullman doesn't make any major changes, except to clean up tales or give characters something to do besides serve as set dressing.

Something that stands out, reading these all at once, is the trickster/witch dichotomy. If a male character tricks someone, the person tricked was stupid, and the trickster deserves what he stole for his cleverness. If the person tricking someone is female, however, she's a witch and deserves gruesome punishment for her misdeeds. There are few clever women.

There are some common threads throughout these tales, but these are no fables. The heroes and heroines of these tales are not meant to be held up as paragons of virtue nor models of behavior. Some of the characters work hard and are rewarded, and others fall on hard times through sheer bad luck. Some serve as cautionary tales, while others are comic and absurd. Their greatest utility is in giving us insight into the mind set of the time. One can learn a lot about people by reading or listening to the stories they tell.

If you like fairy tales, I recommend picking up this collection. If nothing else, you'll likely read a story you haven't encountered before.

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