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As we sit by the stone fireplace in his home, a comfortable former farmhouse in an Oxfordshire village, Philip Pullman talks about his retellings of Grimms’ fairy tales. There is driving rain outside, though it’s not wintry enough for there to be an actual fire. These hearthside stories have a long history in Pullman’s life. He enjoyed them as a child, but built on his knowledge when he trained teachers in storytelling at Westminster College. When he was approached by Penguin to use his expertise and give the tales his own voice, he “leapt at the chance”.
Pullman whittled down the 200 original tales recorded by the brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm to 50, in a volume that is still 400 pages long. “I’m sure I have the best 50,” he says. The complete collection would have been repetitive, while some tales lacked quality or completeness. “Some excluded themselves: there were a couple of nasty anti-Semitic ones, for instance.”
Pullman worked with the 1857 collection in German in front of him, though he calls the finished book a “version” rather than a translation: “my German is not that rich, or that good”. He was helped by several translations, the earliest of them Victorian, and précised and made notes on all the tales before he made his choices. Inevitably these include famous favourites: Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, Briar Rose (the precursor of Sleeping Beauty), Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin… But there are also tales that have been hidden by time, like Briar Rose’s castle. Pullman has chopped down the undergrowth from, say, the ghoulish The Boy Who Left Home to Find Out About the Shivers, the delightfully silly Lazy Heinz, and his favourite, a story both violent and lyrical, The Juniper Tree.
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