Philip Pullman: Fifty Shades of Grimm
Master storyteller Philip Pullman captivated his audience of young and old at Cheltenham festival this weekend as he talked about his 22nd book Grimm Tales
The children’s author - who has been entertaining children and adults with the His Dark Material trilogy for nearly 20 years - admitted to having a “lifelong interest in fairy tales.”
The reason, he told the Times children’s editor Nicolette Jones, is because they are different to all other stories and traditional children’s stories. “Literary characters are rounded people; Cinderella and Hansel and Gretel are flat. They’re like little toy figures, they’re blank. And that’s enormously refreshing.” Pullman went on to say that the story takes over in fairy tales, and the plot is allowed to move on more quickly: “there are no adverts”.
In 1812, when the Grimm brothers published the first edition of their collected fairytales, “they were short; simple; not elaborated in any way. I used to think that the Grimms had gone along with their knapsacks and found a peasant in the woods and asked them to tell them a story, then written it down. But they were scholars - the people they chose as sources were people they knew in every day life: doctors and academics.”
Pullman adapted 50 fairy stories from the Grimms’ 200 for Grimm Tales (“Fifty shades of Grimm”, he joked), and said a lesser-known fairy story that’s one of his favourites is The Juniper Tree. “It’s magnificent. It’s very strange, and very beautiful, and very horrible.” One that he thought “rotten; disgusting” was The Girl Without Hands, whose father cuts off her hands to settle a debt - “there is a sickly piety shot through it, and no remorse from the father. [But] I put it in because I wanted one I didn’t like.”
It’s the “basic human relationships” that Pullman thinks makes the Grimm tales still so popular two centuries after their publication. “It’s not the people who are interesting, it’s the story. The relationships in fairy tales are all true, and it dramatises them vividly.” Pullman isn’t a Hans Christian Andersen fan, a writer he called “morbid” with his use of decadent suffering. The Little Mermaid is just “nasty”, he said.
The violence in the Grimm stories, Pullman said, is necessary. He left it all in, and when one audience member asked why, suggesting it wasn’t suitable for children, he replied that the Grimm tales were originally published with the subtitle ‘household tales’. “The family drifted apart,” he said. “There are now adult things to do and child things to do. We don’t all sit around eating dinner or by the fire listening to stories any more, so in time people softened them so they wouldn’t be upset by them.”
One young fan asked Pullman what his daemon would be, to which he replied: “Mine would probably be a bird: a crow or a raven or a magpie or a rook. Something that steals things - because that’s how I write my stories. I overhear things. Magpies don’t care whether it’s a diamond or a piece of tin foil - as long as it sparkles and shines she’ll have it.”
Philip Pullman has written a piece about the Grimm tales in the latest issue of We Love This Book, out now.