Reviewing Philip Pullman's Fairy Tales From the Brothers Grimm is difficult, because much of what one would usually discuss in a review (plot, characters, to some extent even tone) is not really at issue; you don't need me to tell you what Grimm's Fairy Tales are. They're a foundational text of Western Literature, and perhaps particularly of genre fiction. They've led to a dizzying array of valuable critical and fictional reworkings. Familiarity with Grimm's Fairy Tales is cultural currency, capable of enhancing your enjoyment of all the work they've influenced. And all context aside, they're weird, bloody, magical little things that have captivated listeners for centuries.
You also almost certainly know whether or not you might be interested in reading Philip Pullman's star-powered translation. What remains for this review, then, is to evaluate Pullman's choices in his translation, and to compare him to his "competitors"—to perhaps enable you to decide whether this is the appropriate translation for you.
If you're drawn to a "traditional" encounter with the text, Margaret Hunt's Grimm's Household Tales is generally acknowledged as definitive. "[O]f all the translations from the 19th century, hers is the most complete and overall the most accurate," writes Heidi Anne Heiner in The Quest for the Earliest Fairy Tales. However while Hunt's translation was clearly a vital contribution to English-language folklore studies in its day, unfortunately it hasn't aged particularly well. Its prose style presents barriers to the tales' easy enjoyment. For example:
Then he added, "After my death, thou shalt show him the whole castle: all the chambers, halls, and vaults, and all the treasures which lie therein, but the last chamber in the long gallery, in which is the picture of the princess of the Golden Dwelling, shalt thou not show. If he sees that picture, he will fall violently in love with her, and will drop down in a swoon, and go through great danger for her sake, therefore thou must preserve him from that." ("Faithful Jon")
I'm not opposed to deliberate archaism in the language of these stories. In fact I think such choices could potentially add to the stories' atemporal quality, which I feel is a constituent element of the fairy-tale atmosphere. But Hunt's dialogue is clunky. It reads like a mash-up of eras, and it feels very much like watching the 19th century attempting to speak back to an indefinable Medieval past. I ran examples of Hunt's language past both linguist friends and the regular kind. While none of them found a ready, glaring error to point out, all reported some jarring discomfort with Hunt's constructions. This isn't mere pedantry: it's difficult to smoothly read a story with a lot of language-level turbulence.
In all likelihood, 20th- and 21st-century translations will be equally incapable of withstanding the dynamic advances of time and literary sensibility. But the fact remains that Hunt's edition is now more likely to appeal as an interesting historical document than as an engrossing yarn.
The key 20th-century translations (though there are undoubtedly favorites I'm omitting) are those of Jack Zipes and Ralph Manheim. I find editions of Zipes's translations more scholarly, but Manheim's Grimm more fluid and readable.
So how does Pullman stack up? His Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version is at least as fluid and pleasant to read as Zipes's and Manheim's efforts. What a gulf there is between Hunt's copy and Pullman's:
"When I'm gone, this is what you must do: show him over the whole castle, all the vaults, the chambers, the halls and all the treasure they contain. But keep him away from the last room in the long gallery. There's a portrait of the Princess of the Golden Roof in there, and if he sees that picture, he'll fall in love with her. You'll know if that's happened, because he'll fall unconscious. And then he'll put himself into all kinds of dangers for her sake. Keep him away from all that, Johannes: that's the last thing I ask of you." ("Faithful Johannes")
Pullman's Grimm is direct, conversational, folkish—not at all stodgy. His story-world is out of time in a more earthy way than Hunt's.
However his Grimm is also less complete than Hunt's. Pullman has chosen to translate and present fifty of the two hundred (give or take) stories that comprise the others' complete collections. The order of the stories in the book is largely the same as their order in earlier versions, save for the omissions. The stories aren't organized thematically, these are just personal favorites Pullman felt like including. Perhaps an effort at such organization might have proved interesting. As it is, this is a strange book to sit down and read through—the repetitive rhythms of the fragmentary stories settle into a low drone, and the striking imagery and particularity of individual tales gets muddied. The book might be more enjoyable as either a slower or a more spontaneous, episodic reading experience.
Almost all the "major" fairy tales—the ones you'll probably recognize—have made the cut. This seems natural, given that there seems to be a large gap in the degree of quality and resonance between the major tales and the "minor arcana." Though I wonder if I feel that way because the major tales are the ones I'm most familiar with, and are the stories I have nostalgia for. Perhaps my sense of the resonance and quality of given stories is predicated on that familiarity, rather than on any more objective measure of quality.
Pullman's edition includes an introduction stating his aim as a translator. He's opted for clarity, swiftness, and naturalism over the interpretation and stylized retelling common elsewhere in literature and fantasy. Anyone expecting Philip Pullman's fairy tales may well be disappointed. The book doesn't read or feel all that much like his fiction. It certainly can't be compared to something like The Bloody Chamber (1979), in which Angela Carter reworks fairy tales from a psychological, explicitly sexualized, feminist perspective. It's a different project, with quite a different, more straightforward and impersonal aim.
In the realm of "'things Pullman's Grimm isn't," it is also not a scholarly text, per se (despite what the back cover will oh-so-enthusiastically tell you). Pullman does you the introductory courtesy of stating his process and intentions clearly, in best academic practice. He gives a helpful bibliography. He includes scholarly notes at the end of the stories. But I actually found these notes to be somewhat unhelpful. They indicate where a given story fits within the Types of International Folktale, a system "designed to help folklorists identify recurring plot patterns in the narrative structures of traditional folktales, so that folklorists can organize, classify, and analyze the folktales they research," but don't explain what that typography means for people unfamiliar with it. The notes also don't say anything about these determinations and their implications, such as might be of interest to people who've come across the taxonomy before.
Pullman then references the story's "source," i.e. who told it to the Grimms. This is useful, and handily placed at the end of every tale—though it might be well-anchored with a brief List of Dramatis Personae in the introductory materials or appendices. Knowing the names of the individuals who provided given stories doesn't tell me much if I can't easily see who was a housewife in a town, who was a rich lawyer in a city, and who was a poet in the country, and thus have an opportunity to consider the stories with an eye to that context.
Then comes "similar stories." Being told something is like "Koshchey the Deathless" or "Baba Yaga and the Brave Youth" won't mean much to you if you're not up on Russian folklore. But even if you are, the connections still aren't clear. Both of the aforementioned characters got up to a lot in Russian folklore, and in these cases the "similar story" titles weren't specific enough to jog my memory. I could do with more from Pullman here on what parallels he means to draw, and on how these parallels are operating, or why they exist.
In fact, I could do with more from Pullman generally. I do appreciate the information he has shared. In the introduction he points out that our image of the Grimms as folklorists is overly romantic. We picture them roaming the countryside, transcribing from rural, peasant storytellers. Actually they apparently came by most of their material by asking around their own comfortable, urban circles. This must have made a great deal of practical sense, and the resulting stories are by no means substandard. But many of the tales are about rising above your class via hard work, luck, or virtue. This aspirational message could have mostly appealed to middle-class listeners, for whom class mobility could sometimes be achieved in some measure by such means. Or it could have been an expression of wild hope that would have originated with, or also touched, the poor. The disadvantaged might have craved the ecstatic, Bakhtin-carnivalesque world-on-its-head release the tales could provide. And for them, magical intercession offered about their only means of bettering their status. This background makes me wonder whether poor or rural tellers would have told these stories any differently, or found altogether different tales lastingly compelling.
Pullman's general commentary on the tales, which follows the listing of sources and similar stories, is often similarly learned, compassionate, and artistically interesting. What Pullman brings to narratology as a fiction writer himself is different from what a primarily academic perspective offers, and valuable. I wish he would go further. Sometimes, in fact, Pullman absolutely needs to go further, simply to make what he's getting at clear. For example, he has a couple of paragraphs' worth of scorn for "sub-Jungian" fairy-tale interpretation at the end of "The Golden Bird."
In doing so [writing down the tale] they [the Grimms and their source] made it into something closely resembling an occult or esoteric narrative of quest and salvation, not unlike the third-century gnostic 'Hymn of the Pearl' or The Chymerical Wedding of Christian Rosenkrantz of 1616. It would be easy to construct an interpretation on such lines: the young prince would be the questing individual, the golden princess his female other half, or in Jung's terms his anima, who has to be won from the unseeing powers of the world. . . . [This mock-analysis goes on for over a page.] Such a reading could be sustained. What does that show? That the meaning preceded the story, which was composed to illustrate it like an allegory, or that the story fell accidentally into an interpretable shape? (p. 236)
This is a feeble binary opposition. Neither option can be true, but then neither actually addresses the complex means by which stories and their reception intersect with psychology and culture. Pullman is smarter than this. He's explicitly so a few score pages earlier, in his commentary on "The Girl With No Hands," where he points out the connection between stories that appeal and endure and the underlying anxieties, preoccupations, and narratives they speak to. On a "nauseating," "preposterous" moment of bodily restoration in the tale, he writes:
This tale and others like it must have spoken very deeply to many audiences, though, for it to spread so widely, or perhaps a great many people like stories of maiming, cruelty and sentimental piety. (p. 170)
Given the space he's working with in his commentary on "The Golden Bird," and the limited opportunity to articulate a complex argument therein, it's difficult to tell whether Pullman disdains particularly pat Jungians, or the entire process of looking at why a story might appeal to and resonate with audiences. This is especially strange as his own readings of "Hansel and Gretel," "Briar Rose," "Rapunzel," and other stories have happily incorporated critical theory and historical context to enrich the readers' appreciation of the text. If the "Golden Bird" commentary, and the other occasions on which similar strains appear, represents a rejection of literary causality and interpretability, god, aren't we over that yet? Tolstoy called, he wants his incredibly boring and limited argument back. Which is good, because no one else wanted it cluttering up the place. If Pullman's just giving Jungian fantasias a hard time, hey, I'm all for mocking Jungians. But let it be clear, well-formulated mockery. A clean shot's the only kind worth firing.
Later, through a quirk of awkward phrasing, Pullman seems as though he might be tentatively licensing the "men's rights" movement in his commentary on "Iron Hans":
This story acquired a good deal of fame in the early 1990s, as a result of Robert Bly's Iron John: A Book About Men (1990), a central text of the men's movement section of the Mind, Body and Spirit shelves in bookshops. Bly maintained that modern men had become feminized and exiled by contemporary ways of life from authentic patterns of psychic development, and needed a model of masculinity that involved initiation into true manhood by those who were themselves true men. Apparently this story, and the wild man at its centre, is such a model.
There may be something in it, but my guess is that if such things work at all, they work a great deal better when you don't know you’re doing it. Nothing is more likely to drive listeners away than a ponderous interpretation of what they've just marveled at. It's a very good story, whatever it means. (p. 360)
I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt here. Though the "I hate criticism because it gets in the way of wonder (but let me use it and its trappings when convenient)" line is, again, tired.
On a similar "questionable choices" note: is Harold Bloom really who you get to blurb you? Admittedly, Bloom's academic reputation for a certain kind of stodgy scholarship is prominent. But so is his reputation for being intellectually enraging. No other intellectual big name has proved so capable of saying five impossibly sexist/generally wrong-headed things before breakfast. When I see Bloom's name on something, it's a turn-off. If he's on the back cover to add a splash of name-recognition and gravitas, surely Philip Pullman doesn't need it. If he's there to boost sales, the possibility that he might deter buyers less than enamored of, say, his widely-publicized, shrieking disdain for popular modern children's fantasy other than Pullman's should surely make the marketing team plump for someone less . . . well, Harold Bloom. One wonders who the makers of this book were trying to appeal to. Which leads to my ultimate point.
Perhaps the most basic questions to ask any work are, "Who are you for? Why this project?" A lot of famous-for-other-things authors have felt compelled to give their version of a beloved classic. Sometimes it ends well. Sometimes the effort's lackluster: at best the writer's white whale, at worst a cynical commercial endeavor or a bit of a vanity project. Dorothy Sayers's Divine Comedy and T. E. Lawrence's Odyssey are probably still in print because of Wimsey and war (the film's not called Lawrence of a Damn Fine Translation of Homer), not their inherent value. But if this is Pullman's own labor of love, I don't feel the passion of it in this polite, reserved work. I can't tell what particular contribution he wanted to bring to the text.
Most Grimm's in English are intended for children (often just a single tale, or a limited, probably sanitized selection), are omnibuses sold to academics and keen laypeople, or are a given writer's "auteur" interpretation. The last are probably limited, curated selections, of interest to whoever might want to read similar genre or literary fiction. While I appreciate Pullman's effort as a lively translation and solid "Best Of Grimm's," its limited selection, lack of authorial contribution, and tantalizing, but ultimately somewhat unsatisfying, academic elements leave me wondering who this book's ideal reader is. It's not a child, or someone who loves Pullman per se, or someone deeply interested in folklore: all of these might be happier with other books. I suppose the translation's demographic is anyone interested in a light, noncommittal fantasy read that's perfectly pleasant and a touch educational. I don't mean to say this pejoratively, but it feels like a good gift book. The kind you wouldn't buy yourself, but would appreciate nonetheless. No one's going to be thrilled to the very core at receiving it, but neither will they be rushing off to eBay it the minute you leave the room. And, having just been obliged to sell off a River Song action figure, I can tell you, that is something.
 As Walter Benjamin observes in "The Task of the Translator," a work in translation is never the same text as the original, and it should, in many ways, be thought of as a truly different, yet related, work. Thus choosing what translation to read can be as important to your experience as choosing the book itself. As you probably know, this can be a confusing and annoying process. What people are looking for in a translation can be subjective, as well as dependent on the work in question and your purpose in reading it. Sometimes you want a recent, modern translation of a classic for the familiarity, immersion and ease with which it will enable you to connect to the crux of the text. Sometimes you want a period translation that seems to harmonize with the content. Sometimes you want something with a flavor of the difference between the source and destination languages, that tries to preserve some of the linguistic context of the original. For me, translation determinations are best made after a fair amount of research. I compare reviews, and then I get hands-on, comparing several randomly selected lines across several options. I can check lines against each other online, but where possible I prefer to make my final call in a bookstore, where I can get a good sense of the material objects in question. Price is an important factor, though be wary: cheap Wordsworth and Dover editions of foreign-language books are likely to rely on older, sometimes shoddier out-of-copyright translations. It can be better to get a library edition, spend a few extra pounds on something nicer, or stick to English-language classics than to endure, say, the Constance Garnett War and Peace.
Erin Horáková (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a southern American writer. She lives in London with her partner, and is working towards her PhD in Comparative Literature at Queen Mary. Erin blogs, cooks, and is active in fandom.
You must log in to post a comment.