Snow White, Rumpelstiltskin, Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel…these and many other popular fairy tales were collected and published by German brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in the early 19th century. Ever since, they have been delighting and horrifying readers and influencing writers and thinkers. This week I’m recommending a selection of the Grimms’ tales retold by British Fantasy author Philip Pullman. Confusingly this book is known by more than one title. It came out in Britain in 2012 under the title `Grimm Tales for Young and Old’ but the `Luxury’ and American editions seem to be called `Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: a New English Version by Philip Pullman’. Under one title or another you can get in paperback or as an ebook. Samuel West does an excellent job of reading the tales in an audio version, but then you’ll miss out on Pullman’s intriguing end-notes.

Have you seen Terry Gilliam’s comic horror film, `The Brothers Grimm’ ? If so, please try to forget it, because Gilliam’s tall story of conmen and curses bears no resemblance to the rather dull real lives of gentle scholarly Jacob and Wilhelm. They were pioneer philologists who worked together on the first major German dictionary. Their folktale collection went through seven editions and made them famous throughout Europe. In the  introduction to `Grimm Tales for Young and Old’, Pullman outlines how the stories were collected and edited and discusses essential qualities of traditional story-telling, such as celerity and clarity. Out of the original 210 tales, Pullman has selected 50 of the best to retell. After each story, he lists the source (the person who told or sent the story to the Brothers Grimm), the tale type and any similar tales from other countries. Then, with typical frankness, Pullman gives his own opinion of the story and describes any changes he chose to make.

One of the merits of Pullman’s selection is the mix of familiar and unfamiliar stories. Most of the great fairy tales are here, including some like Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty), which are better known from the earlier French versions by Charles Perrault (see Iona and Peter Opie’s book `The Classic Fairy Tales’ for more information). These core tales have been retold over and over again and used as the basis of novels and films, operas and ballets. We all feel that we’ve known the plots since childhood but reading the original versions can still be a shock. These `Grimm Tales’ are not sweet and sparkling as a toy fairy. They are full of violence and hatred, poverty and suffering.  Rumplestiltskin tears himself in two. Rapunzel is forced to survive by begging after falling pregnant. Then there’s `Snow White’. Disney’s 1937 film `Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ is surprisingly dark for its day but not as dark as the version told to the Brothers Grimm by two sisters. In the latter, the `wicked queen’ delights in eating what she thinks are the lungs and liver of innocent Snow White and the story ends with the queen being forced to dance herself to death in red-hot iron shoes. To add to the horror, in the first edition of the Grimms’ book, the jealous queen was Snow White’s mother, not her step-mother (you’ll find my take on this, a story called `Iron Shoes’, in Alex Stewart’s Fantasy and SF anthology, `Arrows of Eros’).

Even largely comic tales, like `The Boy Who Left Home to Find Out About the Shivers’ , have a streak of cruelty and this fairy-tale world is full of hideously dysfunctional familes. There are some bad fathers and brothers, such as the miller who chops off his daughter’s hands to save himself from the Devil (in`The Girl With No Hands’) and the coward who murders his brave younger brother in order to marry a princess (in `The Singing Bone’), but the bad mothers, step-mothers and mothers-in-law are the most memorable. For example, you’ll find a mother who orders her husband to abandon their two children in the forest to starve (in `Hansel and Gretel’), a step-mother who makes her step-daughter go out in the snow wearing a dress made of paper to search for strawberries (in `The Three Little Men in the Woods’), and a mother-in-law who accuses her dumb daughter-in-law of witchcraft so that she’ll be burned alive  (in `The Twelve Brothers’). Most of the original story-tellers were women, who may have been all too familiar with domestic tyrants and dark family secrets. The inventive punishments for the villainesses, such as having a toad pop out every time they open their mouth (`The Three Little Men in the Woods’) or being stripped naked and placed inside a barrel lined with sharp nails (`The Goose Girl’) sound like wishful thinking from women who have no actual power to right the world’s wrongs. Pullman’s Grimm tales are an odd mixture of knowledge and hope. Knowledge that life is often cruel to the poor and the meek, but hope that sometimes, with a little supernatural help, the innocent will be saved and the kind rewarded.

I’m going to pick out just two tales from this book which I particularly enjoyed – `The Shoes That Were Danced to Pieces’ and `The Singing, Springing Lark’.  The first, under its more common name `The Twelve Dancing Princesses’, is an old favourite of mine;  the second is a  variant  on `Beauty and the Beast’ that I don’t think I’ve ever come across before. Pullman points out in his introdution that fairy tales don’t usually contain passages of description because these would slow down the narrative.Sometimes though, magical details are crucial to the plot. That’s the case in `The Shoes That Were Danced to Pieces’, in which an old soldier has to solve the mystery of  twelve beautiful princesses escape from a locked room every night, or face execution. He manages to follow them down a secret staircase into a moonlit underworld where the trees are made of silver, gold and diamonds and sees twelve fairy princes take the princesses across a lake to dance in a castle lit by a thousand lanterns. In other words, they’re out night-clubbing with unsuitable boyfriends. Typical teenagers really. In `The Singing Springing Lark’ (what a wonderful title) a young girl’s innocent request for a lark leads to her being forced to marry a lion in order to save her father’s life. Of course the lion is an enchanted prince but the heroine’s troubles don’t end after she’s discovered this. Her husband is transformed again into a dove, who leaves her a trail of blood and feathers as she follows him around the world for seven years. There are more poetic adventures to come, involving a griffin, a serpent princess,and  a dress that shines like the sun, before this couple reach their glorious happy ending.

So what does Pullman bring to these `Grimm Tales for Young and Old’ ? If you’re already a fan of his `Dark Materials’ trilogy you’ll enjoy finding out more about Pullman’s personality in the endnotes. He is never shy about saying what he thinks. He dismisses most intellectual interpretations of fairy tales as twaddle. He finds the piety in stories such as `The Girl With No Hands’ `nauseating’ but admits to being  superstitious. He has a passionate desire to see everyone get what they deserve and tweaks some of the stories to achieve this. I disagree with many of his opinions but I can’t fault him as a story-teller. He can balance horror with beauty, and sadness with joy. Pullman says in the introduction that he was trying for a `tone licked clean’. His language is lively but not showy and his timing his perfect. There is never a word too much or too little. His aim was to approach the original voice of each story `with a certain degree of respect and courtesy’ but to make the stories his own. I think he has succeeded. If you dare to enter the dark forests of the Brothers Grimm, this book is your best guide. I’m going on my own Northern journey, so I’ll be back in a few weeks time….