Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version by Philip Pullman

When I was young, someone gave us a book of fairy tales. These were not the Disney versions. They were the dark, original versions full of gore, people being killed and rising from the dead, Cinderella’s stepsisters having their eyes pecked out. Of course that instantly became my favourite book of fairy tales. No bowdlerization there! When you’re a kid, you’re always suspecting that something’s being kept from you – because it is – so when I encountered a book that held nothing back, I was delighted. It felt honest, and real. Plus, the villains were usually punished in appropriately graphic fashion. In a world full of unfairness, it was satisfying to read stories in which everything came out right and the bad guys got their just desserts.

150Philip Pullman (author of The Golden Compass) has re-told these stories, keeping in the gore but editing for clarity and concision. It’s a fabulous read. I read one story aloud to my daughters and they loved it too, so I might have to buy this (I confess I got this from the library) so they can read for themselves. I tried to find an original Grimm’s fairy tales book for them (my mother having given away all the books of my youth!) but in these PC times, all you can find are extremely edited and saccharine versions. It’s sad. Kids know when something’s being sugar-coated and the modern versions are just so slack and pale.


The fairy tale books we favour are those that at least have wonderfully dramatic illustrations. My favourite illustrator is Trina Schart Hyman, whose work illuminates and brings to life the wonderful fairy tale, King Stork by Howard Pyle.

Back to Pullman: my favourite story in the original Grimm book is in Pullman’s book too! It’s The Goose Girl.  A princess rides on her talking horse to marry a prince in a far land. On the way, her maidservant pulls off a coup of sorts, forcing the princess to change places with her and swear not to speak of it. The maidservant marries the prince and orders the horse killed for fear the horse will speak of her perfidy. The princess is made to herd geese and the horse’s head is mounted on the wall. The princess and the head converse from time to time and eventually things come to the attention of the prince, who tries to get the goose girl to speak of her troubles, but she has sworn not to and refuses. He tells her she can tell her troubles to the stove (!) as that would not be breaking her vow, and hides so he can eavesdrop on her. All is revealed. The goose girl is restored. The maidservant, who has apparently forgotten her own history, is asked what the punishment should be for a maid who has usurped her mistress’ place. Her verdict: the culprit should be put naked into a barrel studded with nails and dragged behind two white horses until dead. So that’s what they do. Awesome.

It’s not perfect, obviously. What kind of princess lets her maid take over like that? Why didn’t the horse stop the maidservant from overriding the princess? Weird. But then these old fairy tales are often full of inconsistencies and odd turns. They’re fairy tales, after all. Logic is not an essential. Good and evil, wrongdoing and punishment, magical flora and fauna, virtuous acts rewarded with a shower of gold and immediate elevation to royalty; that’s what fairy tales are all about. And Pullman’s versions are exactly that. In his own words: “I didn’t want to put them in modern settings, or produce personal interpretations or compose poetic variations on the originals; I just wanted to produce a version that was as clear as water.”



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2 responses to “Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version by Philip Pullman

  1. Helen Moore

    LEA!!!! once again you speak to my heart. I am sooooo excited about this new pullman book! can’t wait to order it! and i LOVE trina schart hyman! did you ever read “a walk out of the world” by ruth nichols, illustrated by TSH? i remember getting it from the downtown library (such an adventure to even go there! i loved the downtown library! i think i must have been about 11 or 12 when i first went there with a girlfriend–can you imagine the luxury of heading off downtown at that age? and discovering the library? magic!). anyways, i remember her amazing illustrations more than anything else. but i never knew who she was — never paid attention to illustrators, more to authors — until years later.

    i have her picture book autobiography. her fairy tales are magnificent–try little red riding hood, bearskin, saint george and the dragon, sleeping beauty, rapunzel (although the latter has a wonderful version by Paul O. Zelinsky. He also did an amazing Rumpelstiltskin). My other faves for fairy tales: Puss in boots ill by fred marcellino. He also does a marvellous remake of “little black sambo” called “little babaji”. A must!

    almost anything by Paul Galdone (he is so true to the original. Henny Penny is awesome, as is Three billy goats gruff). i just received a “Yummy: favourite nursery stories” by Lucy cousins (who wrote Maisy) (i troll “abebooks” late at night, sending off for out of print books). And there is a great “musicians of bremen” by PK Page and ill by Kady MacDonald Denton (Canadian).

    i think philip pullman is amazing so i am so excited by this new find!

    Date: Wed, 17 Apr 2013 22:22:35 +0000 To: helenm_moore@hotmail.com

    • I troll alibris.com looking for out of print books too! That’s how I have A Walk out of the World and also The Marrow of the Earth, also by Ruth Nichols. I love them both. I’ve been trying to find Sarah and Katie, also illustrated by TSH but it’s another hard to find book. Why are these amazing books out of print? We treasure our copy of King Stork. TSH’s work is so amazing. She has a picture of a merman in The Marrow of the Earth that I love so much I copied it – but made the merman a mermaid. I put a shirt on her so I could put it on the fridge. We also love Paul Zelinsky – the girls dote on his Rapunzel. Well-known, ubiquitous fairy tales become new and powerful when illustrated so dramatically by these amazing artists. You’ll love the Pullman book – if only TSH illustrated it!