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This year is the bicentennial of the first publication of a work that WH Auden described as one of “the few indispensable, common-property books upon which western culture can be founded” and “next to the Bible in importance”. It also gave us the fictional character with the highest name recognition in the English language, Cinderella (although in 1812, when the book was published in German, the name she had was Ashputtel). The book is Kinder- und Hausmärchen (more commonly known as Grimms’ Fairy Tales) by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.
So it is unsurprising and, indeed, proper that Penguin Classics should produce a new collection of the tales for this Christmas. And frankly, once you have arrived at this point, Philip Pullman is a shoo-in for the task, because he writes the most limpid, economic narrative prose; because he is already famous for dealing in magical realms (though a very different sort of magic); and, above all perhaps, because he is one of the very few contemporary writers who has written genuine cross-generational fiction. The Grimm Brothers did not set out to record children’s stories, and all the anthropological evidence suggests that until well into the 19th century these kinds of oral folk tales were not specifically for children but for everyone. This is nicely reflected in Pullman’s subtitle – “for young and old”.
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