Why read fairy tales? We hardly need books any more to know the outlines of the most familiar ones. They are continually returned to us in new forms, often aimed at adults: a Red Riding Hood movie last year, two Snow White movies this year, not to mention Grimm, the TV series with a fairy-tale twist. Still, we think of fairy tales as reading for children, or we read them to children, even the often violent and bloodthirsty tales gathered by the Brothers Grimm in Children’s and Household Tales, first published 200 years ago this year.
These tales, with their origins in folk culture, weren’t originally intended just for children. They speak to appetites and fears that begin for us in childhood and never leave us, most powerfully the fear of what can happen to the body, the way bodies can be caught up, damaged and destroyed by forces utterly beyond our control: car accidents, superstorms, illness, death.
Terrible things happen to bodies in the Grimms’ tales. In The Juniper Tree, a stepmother lops off the head of her stepson, then serves him in a stew to his father. In The Robber Bridegroom, a girl, hidden behind a barrel in the house of her husband-to-be, watches as he and his followers drag in another girl, drug her, rip off her clothes, lay her on a table, chop her up and sprinkle her with salt. Nor does a kiss transform a frog into prince in the Grimms’ version of this tale: Instead, the princess, in anger, hurls the frog at a wall – only to have him turn into a young man.
The Grimms’ tales operate in a different register than the authored fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen or Oscar Wilde, whose stories allow us to enter the subjective space of character, and it’s their characters we remember. Like many, I was haunted as a child by Andersen’s The Little Match Girl, burning her matches one by one, then freezing to death anyway; there’s pathos here and a hint of realism. In Wilde’s tales, we’re in the realm of troubled and thwarted yearning: of the dwarf for the Infanta in The Birthday of the Infanta. The late English fabulist Angela Carter uses first-person female narrators to take charge of her complex psychological reimaginings of Bluebeard and Beauty and the Beast. Contemporary writers continue to reinvigorate the form, as in the recent American anthology My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, edited by Kate Bernheimer.
Philip Pullman, in his introduction to Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version, published to coincide with their 200th anniversary, writes of the flat characters we encounter in the Grimms’ tales. But they’re not flat, any more than our bodies are. In a sense, these aren’t stories about characters at all; they’re stories about bodies, beautiful and deformed, and they return us as readers to the life of the body and life lived in a body. In The Boy Who Wanted to Feel the Shivers, a fearless and feckless young man desperate to be made to shiver survives nightmarish perils, marries a princess and finally shivers when she dumps a bucket of water and minnows over him in bed. When he shivers, we shiver at this weirdly potent gesture.
Pullman, who retells 50 of the 210 tales, is an apt match for the Grimms. He’s the author of the His Dark Materials trilogy for children, the first volume of which, The Golden Compass, has been adapted to film. The books combine fantastical elements with a narrative vitality and intelligence that reward adult reading. Pullman has given a lot of thought to how narrative works, and has lectured on its roots in gestures of the body. In his introduction, he states his desire to render versions of the tales that are “as clear as water” and that capture the tales’ vigour.
While the tales gathered by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm have their roots in oral culture, they weren’t scribbling them down as they poured from the mouths of old peasant women. Most of their sources were middle-class acquaintances; Wilhelm Grimm even married one of them. Some stories, such as The Juniper Tree and The Fisherman and His Wife, came to them in written form, the work of a single author. Most of their tales, while rooted in German culture, have resemblances to folk tales from other cultures, and the Grimms drew on such written antecedents as Charles Perrault’s end-of-the-17th-century Mother Goose stories and his versions of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and Sleeping Beauty. In the Grimms’ first edition, some of the tales were overt in their sexual content; this was expurgated in later editions, while their violence was amplified, the revisions largely the work of Wilhelm Grimm.
Pullman picks through the Grimms’ various versions with an ear for what will compel contemporary readers. He restores the sexual innuendo of early Grimm while keeping the intensified violence of later editions. In his version of The Frog King, or Iron Heinrich, the frog-turned-prince, fresh from being tossed at the wall, falls back into the bed of the princess. Rapunzel reveals to the old witch who imprisons her in the tower that she has been entertaining a visitor by innocently declaring that her clothes are getting tight (she’s pregnant). When his name is discovered, Rumpelstiltskin rips himself in half.
Pullman’s sense of clarity is most keenly felt in his attention to narrative vividness: He’s ready to tweak the tales to tighten them or overcome gaps in logic so that at the end of Little Brother and Little Sister, the duped king no longer fails to notice for weeks that a one-eyed hag lies in his marital bed in place of his murdered wife.
Why choose Pullman’s over other versions of Grimm? There are translations of the complete stories by Ralph Manheim, also by noted fairy-tale scholar Jack Zipes, not to mention the beautiful illustrated and annotated version of 40-odd tales retold by American fairy-tale expert Maria Tatar.
Pullman’s versions bear the mark of Pullman: His narrative deftness offsets a looseness of rhythm and diction. In his words: “My guiding question has been, ‘How would I tell this story myself if I’d heard it told by someone else and wanted to pass it on?’” He offers notes after each story, which allow readers to encounter the stories unencumbered, then learn of their relation to other tales, Pullman’s alterations and his sometimes opinionated responses. He calls The Girl with No Hands disgusting for its piety while admiring its narrative, and it’s hard to forget the moment when the girl, hands chopped off by her father, wanders by moonlight into an orchard and eats a pear with her mouth from a tree whose fruit the king has numbered so that no one will steal it.
We don’t need to understand fairy tales, we need to experience them and collaborate in their telling. Reading them, or speaking them aloud, we recreate them inside us and allow their wild aliveness to enter our bodies. They bear traces of their origins in oral culture, but, in the best of them, their speed and juxtaposition of strange events radiate the charged, associative energy of poetry. The Grimms’ tales, like the bodies within them, can be hacked at and dismembered and still come back to life. Their coiled vitality demands release in the form of retelling. And Pullman encourages readers to take possession of the stories by continuing to alter their details, as he has done: “You have a positive duty to make them your own.”