Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Wednesday, October 23, 2012: Maximum Shelf: Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm

Viking: Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm by Philip Pullman

Viking: Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm by Philip Pullman

Viking: Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm by Philip Pullman

Viking: Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm by Philip Pullman

Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version

by Philip Pullman

Snow White, Rapunzel, Cinderella, Rumpelstiltskin, Hansel and Gretel: they are among the most recognizable stories in the world. It wouldn't be too hyperbolic to suggest that most adults (at least in the Western world) have had a go at telling at least one of these stories to a child, whether they recite it from memory or read from some version of the tales originally compiled by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in the 19th century. In the two centuries since the first edition of the Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children's and Household Tales), there have been many English-language translations and adaptations; now Philip Pullman, who helped redefine fantasy literature for the modern era with the His Dark Materials trilogy, tackles these classics with his own version of Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm.

Pullman takes 50 stories--"the cream" of the Grimms' inventory, and not just the obvious choices--and presents them in a way that respects the original renditions without being slavish imitations. "My main interest has always been in how the tales worked as stories," Pullman says. "How would I tell this story myself, if I'd heard it told by someone else and wanted to pass it on?" In some cases, such as "The Twelve Brothers" or "Little Brother and Little Sister," he rectifies what he calls the "clumsy storytelling" of the Grimms' sources to make the story run more smoothly.

Other revisions can be a bit more extensive. For "The Three Snake Leaves," a story in which a wicked princess conspires with a ship captain to do away with her husband, Pullman draws inspiration from two Italian variations to make the young man's death scene less ambiguous. Now, instead of simply being thrown overboard, he's strangled first. (Not to worry--the faithful servant still comes along with the magic leaves to revive him.)

Pullman's language crackles with energy, starting with the titles. Where previous editions might offer "The Story of a Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was" or "A Fairy Tale About a Boy Who Left Home to Learn About Fear," Pullman tells us about "The Boy Who Left Home to Find Out About the Shivers." Instead of "The Worn-Out Dancing Shoes" or "The Shoes That Were Danced Through," we'll hear about "The Shoes That Were Danced to Pieces."

And the dialogue! When the enchanted fish in "The Fisherman and His Wife" introduces himself, he jumps straight into the action: "Now look, fisherman--what about letting me live, eh?" Right away, you get a sense of the comic earthiness to Pullman's characters--and since, as he notes in his introduction, the characters in Grimm's tales don't have psychological motivations or interior lives as such, dialogue becomes the chief instrument through which a storyteller can give them personality. It's a tool Pullman uses to masterful effect. Even a simple, 16-word exchange between the protagonist of "Lazy Heinz" and his equally slothful wife can reveal volumes about the characters:

"Oh, Trina, darling! If you come over here I'll kiss you."
"Maybe later," she said.
"Yeah, all right."

Pullman gets the utter other-ness of the worlds in which these stories take place, where young men and women are forever stumbling upon the hideouts of robbers and murderers, men fall in love with princesses at first sight and children constantly fall afoul of evil stepmothers. He also reminds us that the stories are sometimes weirder than we remember. Take the princess and the enchanted frog. She never kisses him; instead, he badgers his way into becoming her companion and invites himself into her bed, and it's only then that he transforms into the handsome prince. ("The kiss has a lot to be said for it, however," Pullman admits. "It is, after all, by now another piece of folklore itself.") And the story doesn't even end there, but goes on to introduce the prince's servant Heinrich, who had bound his heart with iron bands to keep it from breaking when his master was cursed--now that the spell is lifted, Heinrich's heart swells and breaks loose its bonds.

Each story is followed by short notes, in which Pullman identifies the Grimms' sources and lists significant variants from other folklore traditions, then adds his own personal impressions. He holds nothing back in these editorial comments: "The Juniper Tree" is a "masterpiece" he feels privileged to share, but he's disgusted by "The Girl with No Hands," sarcastically commenting, "Perhaps a great many people like stories of maiming, cruelty and sentimental piety." He has fun spinning out an allegorical meaning for one story, which turns out to be a joke: "I don't believe this interpretation for a moment," he confesses, "any more than I believe in most Jungian twaddle." And sometimes he just wonders about a loose narrative thread, as when he ponders the fate of Hansel and Gretel's stepmother. "Perhaps the father killed her," he muses. "If I were writing this tale as a novel, he would have done."

"When a tale is shaped so well that the line of the narrative seems to have been able to take no other path," Pullman says of one of his selections, "and to have touched every important event in making for its end, one can only bow with respect for the teller." There are several moments in Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm in which Pullman himself earns that honor. --Ron Hogan, founder of

Viking, $27.95, hardcover, 9780670024971, November 8, 2012

Viking: Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm by Philip Pullman

The Frog King, or Iron Heinrich

Viking has created a book trailer with Philip Pullman reading "Little Red Riding Hood." Also available is an e-special--The Golden Key--featuring three bonus fairy tales for $1.99.

Here's an excerpt from Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, Pullman's version of "The Frog King."

In the olden days, when wishing still worked, there lived a king whose daughters were all beautiful; but the youngest daughter was so lovely that even the sun, who has seen many things, was struck with wonder every time he shone on her face. Not far away from the king's palace there was a deep dark forest, and under a lime tree in the forest there was a well. In the heat of the day the princess used to go into the forest and sit by the edge of the well, from which a marvellous coolness seemed to flow.

To pass the time she had a golden ball, which she used to throw up in the air and catch. It was her favourite game. Now one day it happened that she threw it a little carelessly, and she couldn't catch it. Instead the ball rolled away from her and towards the well, and then it ran right over the edge and disappeared.

The princess ran after it, and looked down into the water; but it was so deep that she couldn't see the ball. She couldn't even see the bottom of the well.

She began to cry, and she cried louder and louder, inconsolably. But as she wept and sobbed, someone spoke to her. "What's the matter, princess? You're crying so bitterly, you'd move a stone to pity."

She looked round to see where the voice was coming from, and saw a frog who'd stuck his big ugly head out of the water.

"Oh, it's you, you old splasher," she said. "I'm crying because my golden ball's fallen into the water and it's so deep and I can't see it."

"Well, you can stop crying now," said the frog. "I can help you, but what will you give me if I fetch your ball for you?"

"Whatever you want, frog! Anything! My clothes, my pearls, my jewels, even the golden crown I'm wearing."

"I don't want your clothes, and your jewels and your golden crown are no good to me, but if you love me and take me as your companion and your playmate, if you let me sit next to you at the table and eat from your dish and drink from your cup and sleep in your bed, then I'll dive down and bring up your golden ball."

The princess thought "What is this stupid frog saying? Whatever he thinks, he'll have to stay in the water where he belongs. But still, perhaps he can get my ball." But of course she didn't say that. Instead she said "Yes, yes, I'll promise you all of that if you just bring my ball back."

As soon as the frog heard her say "Yes" he put his head under the water and dived to the bottom. A moment later he came swimming back up with the ball in his mouth, and he threw it on to the grass.

The princess was so happy to see it that she snatched it up and ran off at once.

"Wait, wait!" called the frog. "Take me with you! I can't hop as fast as you can run!"

But she took no notice. She hurried home and forgot all about the poor frog, who had to go back down into his well.

Next day the princess was sitting at table with her father the king and all the people of the court, and eating off her golden plate, when something came hopping up the marble steps: plip plop, plip plop. When it reached the top it knocked at the door and called: "Princess! Youngest princess! Open the door for me!"

She ran to see who it was, and opened the door, and there was the frog.

Frightened, she slammed the door shut at once and ran back to the table.

The king saw that her heart was pounding, and said "What are you afraid of, my child? Is there a giant there at the door?"

"Oh, no," she said, "it's not a giant, it's a horrible frog."

"What does the frog want with you?"

"Oh papa, yesterday when I was playing in the forest near the well, my golden ball fell in the water. And I started to cry and because I was crying so much the frog got it for me, and because he insisted, I had to promise that he could be my companion. But I didn't think he'd ever leave the water, not really. But there he is outside the door and he wants to come in!"

And then there came a second knock at the door, and a voice called:

"Princess, princess, youngest daughter,

Open up and let me in!

Or else your promise by the water

Isn't worth a rusty pin.

Keep your promise, royal daughter,

Open up and let me in!"

The king said "If you make a promise, you have to keep it. Go and let him in."

She opened the door and the frog hopped in. He hopped all the way to her chair.

"Lift me up," he said. "I want to sit next to you."

She didn't want to, but the king said "Go on. Do as he says."

So she lifted the frog up. When he was on the chair, he wanted to be on the table, so she had to lift him up there as well, and then he said "Push your golden plate a bit closer so I can eat with you."

She did, but everyone could see that she wasn't enjoying it. The frog was, though; he ate her food up with great pleasure, while every mouthful seemed to stick in the princess's throat.

Finally the frog said "Well, I've had enough now, thank you, I'd like to go to bed. Carry me up to your room and get your silken bed ready so we can sleep in it."

The princess began to cry, because the frog's cold skin frightened her. She trembled at the thought of him in her sweet clean bed. But the king frowned and said "You shouldn't despise someone who helped you when you were in trouble!"

She picked the frog up between finger and thumb and set him down outside her bedroom door.

But he kept on knocking and called "Let me in! Let me in!"

So she opened the door and said "All right! You can come in, but you must sleep on the floor."

She made him lie down at the foot of her bed. But still he said "Let me up! Let me up! I'm just as tired as you."

"Oh, for goodness' sake!" she said, and picked him up and put him at the far end of her pillow.

"Closer! Closer!" he said.

But that was too much. In a flash of anger she scooped up the frog and threw him against the wall. But when he fell back into the bed, what a surprise! He wasn't a frog any more. In fact he'd become a young man--a prince--with beautiful smiling eyes.

And she loved him and accepted him as her companion, just as the king would have wished. The prince told her that an evil witch had put a spell on him, and that only she, the princess, could have rescued him from the well. What's more, on the following day a carriage would come to take them to the prince's kingdom. Then they fell asleep side by side.

And next morning no sooner had the sun awoken them than a carriage drew up outside the palace, just as the prince had said. It was pulled by eight horses with ostrich plumes nodding on their heads and golden chains shining among their harness. At the back of the coach was Faithful Heinrich. He was the prince's servant, and when he'd learned that his master had been changed into a frog, he was so dismayed that he went straight to the blacksmith and ordered three iron bands to put around his heart to stop it bursting with grief.

Faithful Heinrich helped them into the carriage and took his place at the back. He was overjoyed to see the prince again.

When they'd gone a little way, the prince heard a loud crack from behind. He turned around and called out:

"Heinrich, the coach is breaking!"

"No, no, my lord, it's just my heart. When you were living in the well, when you were a frog, I suffered such great pain that I bound my heart with iron bands to stop it breaking, for iron is stronger than grief. But love is stronger than iron, and now you're human again the iron bands are falling off."

And twice more they heard the same cracking noise, and each time they thought it was the carriage, but each time they were wrong: it was an iron band breaking away from Faithful Heinrich's heart, because his master was safe again.

Type: ATU 440, The Frog King
: the Wild family
Similar stories
: Briggs: The Frog, The Frog Prince, The Frog Sweetheart, The Paddo

One of the best-known tales of all. The central notion of the repulsive frog changing into a prince is so appealing and so full of moral implication that it's become a metaphor for a central human experience. The common memory is that the frog becomes a prince when the princess kisses him. Grimm's storyteller knows otherwise, and so do the tellers of the versions in Briggs, where the frog has to be beheaded by the maiden before changing his form. The kiss has a lot to be said for it, however. It is, after all, another form of folklore itself, and what else is the implication of his wishing to share the princess's bed?

The figure of Iron Heinrich appears at the end of the tale out of nowhere, and has so little connection with the rest of it that he is nearly always forgotten (but he must have been thought important enough to share the title). His iron bands are so striking an image that they almost deserve a story to themselves.

[Accompanying artwork for "The Frog King" added by Shelf Awareness. Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm is not illustrated.]

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