Adaptations of the fairy tales collected by the Grimm brothers are among my great pleasures in life. They account for one of my favorite picture books, Trina Schart Hyman outrageously gorgeous (and even more outrageously out-of-print) version of “Snow White” (Little, Brown, 1974); one of my favorite YA novels, Margo Lanagan’s Tender Morsels (Knopf, 2008), which adapts “Snow White and Rose Red”; and one of my favorite adult books, Angela Carter’s story collection The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (Harper, 1979), which includes several retellings from Charles Perrault’s, but also three adaptations of “Little Red Riding Hood,” and one of “Snow White.” Fairy tales, and particularly the ones collected by the Grimms provide a stunningly fertile ground for interpretation, reinterpretation, and analysis, particularly since so many of us are familiar with at least the most famous of the stories. Which is all to say that I was very excited to get a copy of Philip Pullman’s new translation of 50 of the Grimm’s tales. By and large, I think this is a tremendous translation, and my review below strongly recommends it to teens, but I thought I would take the opportunity to air some thoughts on fairy tales, as well as my one complaint with Pullman. In the introduction to his translation, Pullman makes the following claim:
William Wordsworth’s The Prelude, or James Joyce’s Ulysses, or any other literary work, exists as a text first of all. The words on the page are what it is. . . . But a fairy tale is not a text of that sort. It’s a transcription made on one or more occasions of the words spoken by one of many people who have told this tale. . . . The fairy tale is in a perpetual state of becoming and alteration. To keep to one version or one translation alone is to put a robin redbreast in a cage. If you, the reader, want to tell any of the tales in this book, I hope you will feel free to be no more faithful than you want to be. You are at perfect liberty to invent other details than the ones I’ve passed on, or invented, here. In fact you’re not only at liberty to do so: you have a positive duty to make the story your own. A fairy tale is not a text. (pp. xviii-xix, my italics)
To make sense of this passage, and my criticisms with it, first we need some background. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm published their first edition of Children’s and Household Tales in two volumes, in 1812 and 1814. The tales were not, as later accounts would have it, collected door to door and taken from the lips of German peasants. Rather, they were an amalgamation of already extant literary fairy tales, tales sent to them from around the country of various genealogies, and tales commissioned by them from various women they knew to be fonts of folklore. Furthermore, starting with the second edition, with Wilhelm almost exclusively in charge of the project, the tales were constantly updated, filled out, and made more literary, culminating in the seventh edition of 1857, which is the version with which nearly all American readers of fairy tales are most familiar. This edition was in many senses, very much a “text” which was composed by Wilhelm Grimm, albeit using a great deal of extant material. The Grimm tales, then, were a step (or rather several steps) in the continuing evolution of fairy tales, with later adaptations, retellings, and reworkings (including such prominent retellings as the Disney animated films) merely further steps along the same path laid out by the Grimms.
So Pullman is surely correct to say that the Grimm tales are not a “text” in the sense of being a fixed and final version of the fairy tales in question. Indeed, elsewhere, I have made a similar argument–saying that fairy tales and myths are “meant to be (and have been) retold and recreated unendingly . . . [later adaptations] exist on a continuous stream with earlier adaptations and retellings of the story.” But I think he is wrong to think that this means he can translate them in any way he chooses. As I indicate in my review below and the italicized word “invented”, Pullman makes free with the Grimm tales, to the point of adding new elements, even completing some unfinished tales. Surely he is more than welcome to engage in the dialogue I described above, but to put it under the name of the Grimms does a disservice to the importance of their texts. In particular, I think the texts of the first 1812-14 edition and the final 1857 edition deserve attention as unique takes on the tales: the final version because it is the version from which retellers have most commonly worked and therefore it is the origin of many dialogues; the first edition because even though the process of becoming literature was already occurring, this text is often (though not always) the closest we have to the oral literature from which many of the tales sprang. It is in the first edition that the full emotional power of some of the tales is most vividly present, for instance in a “Snow White” in which it is a mother (not step-mother) who is desperately jealous of her daughter’s beauty–emphasizing the tales origins as a metaphor for the struggle between generations. So too (and Pullman realizes this) it is in the first edition in which “Rapunzel”’s status as a fully integrated metaphor of sex, pregnancy, and motherhood is most fully realized through Rapunzel’s naive question of why her clothes are becoming tighter. These are just two examples, but very frequently going back to the first Grimm edition reveals new levels of the core metaphors and fears embodied in the tales.
As I say in my review, I think in the end Pullman’s book is an important and incredibly well-written one, but it is important that it be put into context as very specifically Philip Pullman’s version of what he wants the Grimm tales to be. But readers of fairy tales who want to know more about the dialogue they engage in should be aware of the evolution of the Grimm tales, and indeed the tales’ origins in previous literature. It is therefore a shame that there is no comprehensive English edition of the first edition. The best advice I have for interested readers is to make use of a fabulous website hosted by the University of Pittsburgh which provides English and German versions of most of the tales, and in many cases has links to the 1812 versions–sometimes even side-by-side comparisons of the 1812 and 1857 versions. You can find it here: http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/grimmtales.html.
As for adaptations, I mentioned a couple of my favorites above, and there are far too many excellent novels and stories based on Grimm to list all the great ones, but I do want to highlight a couple adaptations that may be of particular value to teens:
- Datlow, Ellen and Terri Windling, eds. Snow White, Blood Red series. Avon. 1993-2000. Datlow and Windling edited six collections of fairy tale adaptations, often featuring some of the finest writers of speculative fiction in the world. I can’t remember if I read all six, but several of the individual stories have stuck fast to my brain, so that I can rarely read the Grimm versions without thinking of these adaptations.
- Yolen, Jane. Briar Rose. Tor. 1992. A tremendously moving reimagining of “Sleeping Beauty,” in which the briar hedge surrounding the castle takes on sinister implications as Yolen uses it to invoke the barbed wire around a concentration camp.
- Lee, Tanith. White as Snow. Tor. 2001. Lee is one of our great fantasy writers (and she is featured more than once in the Datlow and Windling collections), and here she intertwines the story of “Snow White” with the myth of Demeter and Persephone.
- Connolly, John. Book of Lost Things. Atria. 2006. An Alex Award winner, this one is closer to Adam Gidwitz’s A Tale Dark and Grimm (Dutton, 2010), in that Connolly integrates a huge number of fairy tales and nursery rhymes as his hero passes through a fairy tale land.
- Atwood, Margaret. The Robber Bride. McClelland and Stewart, 1993. As with many of Atwood’s novels, this one is nearly impossible to encapsulate briefly, but suffice to say that she heavily leans on “The Robber Bridegroom” in this modern day adaptation.
This list is just a tiny hint of all the great fairy tale adaptations out there, and of course many of the great ones are published for children or young adults, so beyond the purview of this blog. Feel free to discuss other favorites in the comments below.
PULLMAN, Philip. Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm. 405p. bibliog. Viking. 2012. Tr $27.95. ISBN 978-0670024971. LC 2012027181.
Adult/High School–In his introduction, Pullman describes some of the essential characteristics of fairy tales: they contain “conventional stock figures” with “little interior life”; they are fast-paced; there is practically “no imagery”; and the tone is “serene and anonymous.” So it is somewhat strange to find that almost all of the changes Pullman introduces to the tales (and he introduces many) move them away from these characteristics, creating motivations and inner lives, adding color to the imagery and tone, and generally slowing the pace. But of course Pullman is following in the footsteps of no less a forebear than Wilhelm Grimm himself, who immediately began making the stories more literary, starting with the second edition of 1819 and running through the final and most familiar seventh edition of 1857. In fact, Pullman’s changes–which include adding dialogue, re-arranging events, and even finishing incomplete tales–are so extensive that this volume should not truly be seen as a new translation at all; it is closer to an eighth edition, expanding on Wilhelm’s project. What readers make of these changes depends on their attitude toward the original 1812 tales and their need (or lack thereof) for a strict translation of the Grimms, for which readers should always turn to Jack Zipes’s The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, 3rd Ed. (Bantam, 2003). Setting that question aside, though, readers are left with what is certainly the most accessible, best-written version of Grimm available. Add to that Pullman’s indispensable notes on each tale and this is surely an edition that lovers of fairy tales everywhere should read.–Mark Flowers, John F. Kennedy Library, Vallejo, CA