Saturday, 19 July 2014

Phillip Pullman- Grimm Tales

Grimm Tales
Penguin Classics

Phillip Pullman

“The fairy tale is in a perpetual state of becoming and alteration. To keep to one version or one translation alone is to put robin redbreast in a cage.”

I have the greatest respect for Phillip Pullman, almost entirely thanks to the brilliance of his YA fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials (my favourite trilogy of any), and so anything new by the author is an instant must read. The aforementioned trilogy built Pullman's reputation as a man who revels in incorporating aspects of classic literature (particularly romanticism such as the poetry of William Blake, or Paradise Lost) to shock and captivate his contemporary audience, which is why I was so intrigued by his last novel, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ where he endeavored to reshape the origins of Christianity itself. Unfortunately for me and, it seems, most other critics, that book ended up as a bit of a mess; self-absorbed, meandering, and not particularly interesting. Pullman's next project (and I use that word specifically, since this definitely isn't a novel) was a very similar proposition, only this time avoiding the multilayered controversy of Jesus for a different kind of human belief system; fairy tales.

Grimm Tales for Young and Old, to give it its full title, was a project offered to Pullman by book publishers Pelican, one that he simply couldn't resist; the opportunity to rewrite (or, as Pullman himself puts it, 'curate') a new edition of the definitive piece of children's literature, brothers Jacob and Wilhelm's Grimm's Fairy Tales. As Pullman explains in the entertaining introduction, his task consisted of first picking a selection of favourite and most relevant stories from the original Grimm collections, then comparing and contrasting each one to similar archetypes published across world literature, and finally writing the purest version of the tale possible. Pullman's stated goal was to deconstruct the elements of each fairy tale, tidy up some of the messier, nonsensical plot details, and put it back all together in such a manner as to embrace the basic, most important features of the genre, and that's exactly what he does.

As a result, Phillip Pullman fans (including myself) likely can't help but feel a little disappointed that his Grimm Tales aren't quite what they could have been; in an ideal world this would be Pullman using his own imagination to take these stories in wild directions and it would've been fabulous etc., but that's not what he was trying to do. There are fifty different Grimm's tales, each of them curtly narrated in a traditional style that's only occasionally betrayed by the author's personality. They're all by nature short, and of varying degrees of interest and fame. After each one Pullman gives a paragraph or two of his thoughts about the story structure and morality aspects. Initially I attempted to read through the book as I would any novel, but after two hundred pages (roughly half way) my tolerance for fairy tales fell to basically nothing, and I had to put it down and read something else (which led to The Country of Last Things). When I resumed it, it became a struggle to pay attention to the later tales, such was their apparant repetition and general demeanor.

At the crux of it is this; despite having Phillip Pullman's name in big letters on the cover, and despite it being entirely written by Phillip Pullman, Grimm Tales is a perfuntory rewrite that essentially looks nice on your bookshelf without offering much of its own substance; if a reader wants to read the classic Grimm's stories then the originals are not hard to come by, and there's just nowhere near enough original input from Pullman to justify buying it to enjoy his writing. It's probably quite a nifty reference tool, but beyond that doesn't offer much more as a vanity project. In its defence I was amused by some of the stories thanks to the well-constructed prose, but it wasn't enough for me to enjoy the experience overall. Having said that, I'll probably keep it since it looks nice on my bookshelf.\