Fairy Tales From the Brother’s Grimm
by Philip Pullman
2012, Viking Press
Content Warning: This review mentions fairy tales that have themes of incest, femicide, and assault.
I love Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, about a pair of youngsters who wander through parallel universes, make friends with armored bears and cagey harpies, and fight in an epic battle against God. I also love fairy tales — I study them. So when I came across Pullman’s Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, I picked it up excitedly. And flipped to the table of contents. And discovered that my favorite Grimm’s tale, Fitcher’s Bird, isn’t included (Pullman selected fifty out of hundreds of stories). I hemmed and hawed and waited a few weeks, but I couldn’t resist: I’m a sucker for Pullman’s narrative voice.
Pullman’s voice — however lovely — is not the crux of the book. He set out to produce a clear, readable rendition of the Grimm’s classics, and his changes are light-handed. Still, the voice seeps through. Pullman smoothes over abrupt transitions and narrative holes with inventive details (I must admit, I love the awkward gaps in folk tales, and don’t always like how Pullman explains them away). He sprinkles the text with his signature anachronistic details (the devil’s grandmother reads a newspaper and Briar Rose’s parents go on special diets to help them conceive) and has fun playing with dialogue: Snow White’s speaking-in-turn dwarves turn in to a gaggle of overlapping voices.
I see the trickster echoed in the queer, anarchic communities I’m a part of. I also see other aspects of fairy tales, especially in protest stories of improbable proportions and beautifully wrought propaganda posters that identify valor, steadfastness, and hatred of the enemy as important values.
Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm includes many of the classics canonized by Disney and children’s books, but leaves in the dark, gory imagery of the originals. Snow White’s evil step-mother dances to death in iron shoes, Rumpelstiltsken tears himself in two when his name is discovered and The Juniper Tree’s little Marleenken cries tears of blood for her cannibalized brother. Pullman also re-writes lesser known gems, like the wistful horror The Robber Bridegroom and the deeply disturbing, but powerful, Thousandfurs. (It is in the postscript to Thousandfurs that Pullman truly shows his narrative chops: he proposes a new ending with a protracted ghost story and a grisly death for the father who, in the Grimms, tries to marry his daughter — causing her to run away from his court — and is never mentioned again.) He also includes a generous dose of those “everyman” stories about boys named Hans, who are clever or lazy or lucky or bold, accomplish impossible tasks and receive princesses as their rewards.
Grimm’s tales are entertaining — often funny or sad or both — but what fascinates me most is the stories behind the stories. Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm is, thankfully, grounded in scholarship. Pullman takes a keen interest in the genre’s literary devices, discussing them in the introduction and commenting on the plot, style, and structure of the tales in his postscript to each one. He also includes juicy bits for fairy tale nerds: each story’s Aarne-Thompson tale-type (a classification system based on plot patterns; there are 2500 different plots cataloged), similar folk tales from other places (limited, unfortunately, to Europe and the Middle East) and the insight of scholars like Jack Zipes, Marina Warner, and Bruno Betelheim.
Pullman seems remarkably fond of Betelheim, the child psychologist who reduced most things fairy tale to sex, sex, sex (Boring! And short-sighted). He spoons out tidbit after tidbit of Betelheim while ignoring other, more fascinating analyses. He doesn’t discuss the stark class and gender hierarchies that inhabit fairy tales, or how tales transformed with changing social mores and the transition from oral storytelling to print. The biggest gap is probably the absence of feminist fairy tale scholarship. Sure, it’s been done to death and can, at times, edge on second-wave, but it’s also a substantial body of work that calls in to question why most of the women who aren’t beautiful and mild-mannered end up rolled down hills in spiked barrels or are sent up in smoke.
Pullman also leaves out Fitcher’s Bird. It’s the same tale-type as the French Bluebeard, but with a transgressive twist. If you watch horror films, you’ll recognize Bluebeard: A young woman is married off to a wealthy gentleman with a blue beard. Before going away on a trip, he entrusts the bride with a key and tells her that she must never open the door the key unlocks. Of course, she opens the door, sees the bloody, mutilated corpses of his previous wives and, in her horror, drops the key in a pool of blood. Bluebeard returns, sees the blood stained key and prepares to kill his bride. Her brothers — thank the patriarchy! — arrive in the nick of time to save her.
In Fitcher’s Bird, the sorcerer Fitz Fitcher gives his brides eggs that they are instructed to carry with them everywhere. They are also told to avoid a certain room in his house. One after another, they enter the room, find a bloody basin full of dismembered corpses and drop their egg in a pool of blood, staining it. The brides are murdered for their curiosity.
Unfortunately for Fitcher, his most recent betrothed (the youngest of three sisters he’s kidnapped in succession) is a total trickster and witch. She puts her egg in a safe place. She opens the forbidden door. She finds, re-assembles and revives her murdered sisters. She tricks Fitcher into carrying them home on his back (he thinks he’s carrying gold) and, while he’s gone, she invites all his friends to their wedding party. She dresses a skull in bridal garb and sets it in the window of the house, then escapes in an avian disguise made of honey and the guts of a feather bed. She meets Fitz Fitcher and his friends on the road, who don’t recognize her as the bride but as an unexplained creature they call Fitcher’s Feathered Bird. Of course, with a classic Western European fairy tale touch, her male kinfolk show up to burn down the sorcerer’s house with him and his cronies inside it. But it’s the youngest sister—referred to as Fitcher’s Bird — who does most of the tricking and saving.
The absence of Fitcher’s Bird is striking, because the eponymous protagonist reminds me so much of His Dark Material‘s Lyra. Both characters are quick-witted, strong-willed, and know the value of a well-told lie. In folk lore, most tricksters are male (Coyote of North American indigenous stories, Reynard the Fox of medieval Europe, and Loki of Norse mythology being, perhaps, the best known examples). A contemporary female trickster like Lyra is inventive and compelling, but one rooted in folkloric and oral tradition like Fitcher’s Bird is a rare and special thing.
I see the trickster echoed in the queer, anarchic communities I’m a part of. I also see other aspects of fairy tales, especially in protest stories of improbable proportions and beautifully wrought propaganda posters that identify valor, steadfastness, and hatred of the enemy as important values. Even historic episodes — like the invention of the unruly, fire-bombing (and probably mythological) petroleuses by conservatives during the Paris Commune — have roots in folklore and fairy tales.
There’s room (and a need, really) to explore the race and class distinctions classic European fairy tales uphold and to make non-Western tales and marginalized voices a larger part of the conversation.
Fairy tales are ripe for anarchic interpretations. They’ve been studied by feminists, psychologists, and scholars with an interest in socio-history. They’ve been brilliantly re-imagined and re-written by all sorts of freaky weirdo authors and collected in to volumes like My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me. But there’s ample space for anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist, queer, and differently-abled takes on fairy tales. There’s room (and a need, really) to explore the race and class distinctions classic European fairy tales uphold and to make non-Western tales and marginalized voices a larger part of the conversation.
Pullman’s Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm is a decent introduction to the German tales that have such a powerful hold on the American imagination. But it’s just a starting point. If you like the stories and the bits of scholarship behind them, keep reading.