- - Friday, December 14, 2012

By Philip Pullman
Viking, $27.95, 400 pages

It is perhaps time for a new English translation of the Grimm brothers’ “Children’s and Household Tales” (1812) on its 200th anniversary — if only as an occasion to remind us how far from the folk originals most of our latter-day fairy tales have fallen: Kristen Stewart’s bare-knuckles (and meta-adulterous) Snow White, the bubble-gummy soap operatics of ABC’s “Once Upon a Time,” the overwrought tweeny romance qua murder mystery of Catherine Hardwicke’s “Little Red Riding Hood.” But as Philip Pullman reminds us in the introduction to his translation, “Fairy Tales From the Brothers Grimm,” Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were just as guilty of the sort of “cutting and adding and modernizing and rewriting” that many beleaguered film and television critics have noted irritably in their reviews about our cultural moment’s bountiful crop of pop fairy tales.

But what today’s pulp tales get wrong isn’t their tendency toward modernization and revision; it’s that they want to turn tales into novels and in so doing strip them of their most distinctive qualities. As Mr. Pullman notes in his introduction, “The tremors and mysteries of human awareness, the whispers of memory, the promptings of half-understood regret or doubt or desire that are so much part of the subject matter of the modern novel are entirely absent” in fairy tales. The characters of fairy tale are primitive, archetypal.

Thought and action are virtually inseparable for these figures: They have no interior life, no psychological depth — and this is precisely what gives their stories power. Characters are drawn with a few bold adjectives (virtuous, beautiful, rich), perhaps a suggestion of social position, occupation or geography — and then they are off: The progress from birth to marriage may transpire in a few sentences — from birth to death to magical rebirth in a few pages.

All this is a bracing tonic for readers weary of the vagaries and indecision of modern novelists and their characters, especially as these 50 tales are set off in Mr. Pullman’s characteristically crisp style. As readers of “The Golden Compass,” “The Subtle Knife” and “The Amber Spyglass” already know, Mr. Pullman is a writer whose own stories radiate the mythical energies of fairy tales: shape-shifting, magical objects, talking animals, impossibly brave and resourceful children, wicked and troublesome parents.

“Fairy Tales From the Brothers Grimm” is a fitting homage to the literary ancestors of Mr. Pullman’s own novels and includes all of the Grimms’ classic tales (“The Frog King,” “Rapunzel,” “Hansel and Gretel,” “Cinderella,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Snow White,” “The Musicians of Bremen”)as well as many of the stranger and more obscure tales the brothers collected: “The Three Snake Leaves,” “The Girl With No Hands,” “Thousandfurs,” “Hans-My-Hedghog,” “The Boy Who Left Home to Find Out About the Shivers,” “The Juniper Tree.”

For those familiar only with the classics, these less-popular tales are just as haunting in their images, just as grotesque, uncanny and absurd: A beautiful girl whose hands have been cut off by the devil eats a single pear in a moonlit garden assisted by an angel; a slanderous scheming mother and daughter are put into a barrel studded with nails and rolled down a hill; a golden-haired princess whose father is determined to marry her flees her father’s kingdom wearing a patchwork cloak of the skins of 1,000 animals and is mistaken for a rare beast; the devil’s wily granny plucks golden hairs from his head to save a virtuous young man whom she is concealing from her son in the folds of her skirt (after transforming him into an ant, of course); a jealous stepmother decapitates her stepson by slamming his head in a trunk full of apples and then cooks him into a delicious stew and serves him to his father.

It’s the stuff of dreams, of nightmares. But these impossible and improbable images come in the midst of stories undeniably expressive of human nature, not least the human tendencies toward pattern and repetition and type and sin.

These stories are stunningly decisive in their morality — a refreshing change from the world of contemporary fiction. Oscar Wilde’s middling lady novelist Miss Prism insists in “The Importance of Being Earnest,” “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means,” but if this was ever the case since the rise of the novel as the dominant fictional form, it certainly isn’t true in our morally relativist age, in which crooked characters of all sorts seem to thrive.

There is a deep, almost thirst-quenching satisfaction in tale after tale in which truth takes the day; the wicked and perverse and greedy are downcast; bones sing out the guilt of the fratricide; the patiently or cunningly virtuous end rewarded. It’s quaint, yes, but also restorative in a world in which the ideas of goodness and badness and the concept of getting an ending befitting the morality of one life are increasingly rare.

Following the principles laid down by the Grimms and the many who told these tales in their own words — cutting, and adding and modernizing as they saw fit — Mr. Pullman has made these stories his own. As he explains, every teller of a fairy tale has a duty to do; Nonetheless, he has not taken gross Hardwickian liberties with the tales, modernizing and novelizing them out of their mythic strangeness. They are faithful to the originals except for a delightful, often comic and usually illuminating flourish here and there.

In one such flourish, Mr. Pullman has Cinderella’s stepsisters debate her name, deciding on Cinderella after considering “Ashy-face” and “Sootybottom.” It makes the sisters, appropriately, somewhat comic in their villainy — they are fools to set themselves against a virtuous beauty — but it also makes the crucial point that the name Cinderella — one associated with magic and royalty — means dirt and is designed as an insult.

This is, as it should be, an enchanting collection and a welcome invitation to revisit some of the West’s most totemic stories.

• Emily Colette Wilkinson is a recent winner of the Virginia Quarterly’s Young Reviewers Contest. She lives in Williamsburg, Va.

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