Book review: Grimm Tales for Young and Old told by Philip Pullman

We all know the stories of Cinderella and Rapunzel and Rumpelstiltskin, but how many of us have read the original versions of them? Or at least, the versions recorded by the Brothers Grimm in one of their editions of Children’s and Household Tales?

I confess I haven’t, so it was with very little knowledge of how the many fairytales we know today were collected that I came to this retelling of 53 of the Brother Grimm’s stories by Philip Pullman.

The author of the Northern Lights series picks his favourite tales to retell, taking the versions told by the Brothers Grimm as his base, and then adding improvements as he sees fit, often taking inspiration from other recorded versions of similar stories.

What emerges is a collection of beautifully told but sometimes bizarre tales. After each one, Pullman writes an author’s note, explaining the origins of the tale, the way it is structured and other information. These notes are enlightening, and heighten the experience of reading the story, although skipping them probably wouldn’t mean you lose anything from the book.

Reading this book made me realise just how ridiculous many of the tales collected by the Brothers Grimm are. Many feature families who desperately want children, but so often treat them badly – abandoning them, abusing them or giving them away in exchange for material possessions. There are few mothers or fathers who come out of the tales well, and even those that are forgiven for their misdeeds are done so too easily.

In addition, many of the tales seem like they are structurally missing something – a fact Pullman often points out, sometimes making suggestions for how the stories should have been fleshed out. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that these are stories originally told orally, so would never have been very long, and would have changed and lost or added things from telling to telling. The structural anomalies are amusing more often than not.

Pullman includes all the most popular fairytales of today, but there are dozens in the book I didn’t know. Some are sweet (The Goose Girl at the Spring), some are dark (Thousandfurs), some are clever (Farmerkin), and some are just downright ridiculous (Gambling Hans). They’re all, however, compelling reads.

This collection is well put together, and I loved the author’s note and the introduction by Pullman to the work of the Brothers Grimm. It also helps that the cover of this book is stunning, reflecting the gorgeous work hidden on the pages within. This is a collection of stories to go back to time and time again, and to share with young and old alike.

How I got this book: From the publisher, Penguin Classics, in exchange for an honest review. Grimm Tales for Young and Old told by Philip Pullman is out in paperback on September 5, 2013.

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