Beloved old tales, in a polished new setting
This year is the bicentennial of "Grimms' Fairy Tales," and Philip Pullman celebrates the occasion with new translations and retellings of 50 of his favorites. While he does take storyteller's liberties with certain tales, he also strives to keep what James Merrill admired: "a tone licked clean over the centuries by mild old tongues."
And so the old familiar Cinderella appears, with small reminders that she is namesake to the ashes she sleeps among. "Little Red Riding Hood" acquires touches of the sinister from Perrault, but without the dire end: In Grimm, the hunter leaves with the wolf's pelt and Little Red lives to evangelize parental wisdom.
Pullman's retellings are accompanied by endnotes that are small charms of intelligent conversation. Here you learn what version changed to fashion's whim, there you learn why a certain tale took with English audiences, and ultimately, as in his commentary on "The Girl With No Hands," you encounter Pullman's humanity staring itself in the mirror: "Instead of being struck by wonder, here we laugh. ... Perhaps a great many people like stories of maiming, cruelty, and sentimental piety."
Those looking for a transformation of Grimm into the enchanting weirdness of Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy will be disappointed. But we are unlikely to meet a more capable guide to these tales, leaving us capable of adding our own embellishment and invention. Pullman asks us to make the journey through the forest ourselves -- providing a near-perfect map of the Grimms' world that we might walk it -- then encourages us to report with our own voice what we have seen there.