Many tales & many tellers: Grimm’s malleable fairytales
Philip Pullman opts to tackle the Grimm stories using what he calls “clear as water” versions, a masterstroke when you consider their sheer mulitplicity, writes Janice Pariat.
Janice Pariat 20th Apr 2013
n Jonathan Gottschall's slim, illuminating book The Storytelling Animal, he says that long before primates thought of writing Hamlet or Harlequins or Harry Potter stories – long before writing at all – they thronged around hearth fires trading wild lies about brave tricksters and young lovers, selfless heroes and shrewd hunters, sad chiefs and wise crones, the origin of the sun and stars, the nature of gods and spirits. Gottschall's thesis is that human beings are natural storytellers – that they can't help telling stories, that they turn things that aren't really stories into stories because they like narratives so much. Philip Pullman would agree – "After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world." Pullman's writing, from the magnificent His Dark Materials trilogy to his own finely-crafted children's tales The Fire-makers Daughter, I Was a Rat! and Clockwork bear testament to this belief, as does his latest title Grimm Tales: For Young and Old.
For the past two hundred years, Kinder- und Hausmafchen (Children's and Household Tales) of the Brothers Grimm has been the foundation and origin of the Western fairy tale – stories that permeated the consciousness of children (and grown-ups) around the world. I remember finding a copy in a dusty tea garden club library in Assam in the mid-1990s, well-thumbed and ear-marked. Pullman's Grimm Tales, however, is more than a collection of his fifty favourite stories. He offers comments and notes after each tale, and an insightful introduction, painting the Grimm brothers' world in early nineteenth-century Germany. Contrary to popular belief (bolstered perhaps by Terry Gilliam's film in 2005), the brothers did not walk the countryside, seeking out peasants in their fields and cottages, taking down stories word for word. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, both clever, serious-minded and diligent, were the eldest living sons of a prosperous lawyer in the principality of Hesse. Through their acquaintance with Professor Carl von Savigny, a well-known jurist and historian, they fell within a circle of intellectuals and writers who were greatly interested in German folklore. Pullman shows how the decision by the Grimm brothers to collect and publish fairy tales was not an isolated phenomenon but part of a widespread preoccupation of the time. Their sources, as with most collections of folk tales, were both oral and literary, and by the time the seventh edition was brought out in 1857, Kinder- und Hausmafchen was immensely popular.
Most importantly, Pullman stresses how these stories are not ‘text’ but transcription, made on one or more occasions of the words spoken by one or many people. This is what makes them slippery, effervescent, hard to pin down.
Yet Pullman's main interest is in "how the tales worked as stories" – with their stock characters who have little interior life and whose motives are always clear and obvious. Their 'celerity,' in which the tales move in swift, dreamlike speed – a poor man's son leaving home is marrying a princess a few paragraphs later. Their characteristic lack of context, place and descriptive imagery – which literary theorists would argue is what makes fairy tales 'universal', unshackled by the specificities of time and geographical boundaries. Most importantly, Pullman stresses how these stories are not 'text' but transcription, made on one or more occasions of the words spoken by one or many people. This is what makes them slippery, effervescent, hard to pin down – there are as many versions of a story as there are storytellers. Grimm Tales is Pullman's "clear as water" version – he didn't want to put them in modern settings or compose poetic variations of the originals. Which is why the tales that follow are easy to read and greatly addictive – I dare you to stop at one, or two, or three.
rimm Tales allows you to revisit the classics – Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Cinderella and Snow White – complete with all their scandalous pronouncements and gory details, shorn of Disney's sugar-coated (and musical) benignity. It also reminds you of tales on the fringes of memory, the ones you've read long ago and forgotten, such as The Little Goose Girl and Bearskin. The greatest pleasure though is discovering little-known stories you haven't come across before – for example, the strangely poetic "Juniper Tree" about a little boy who is killed by his wicked stepmother (who else?) and turns into a bird that sings about the crime and carries out a fantastical retribution. "Gambling Hans," who comes in possession of a deck of cards that always win, and gets thrown out of hell and heaven (for nefarious gambling activities). His soul is smashed to pieces on the ground, and they say there's a little splinter of it in the heart of every gambler alive today.
The fairy tale world is extremely special – it's a space for the ultimate suspension of disbelief ("The princess' horse was called Falada, and he could speak"), whimsical magic, great and violent punishment ("Stripped naked, stuffed in a barrel studded with sharp nails and dragged down the streets by horses"), tricksy lovable stock characters, and infinite moral and commonsensical wisdom.
Every story in Grimm Tales carries an air of exaggeration, where the voice of the storyteller – two hundred or more years ago – glimmers through. The pages fly while you ask yourself, wide-eyed and filled with wonder, that question old as language itself – 'And then what happened?'