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Published: Sunday April 21, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Friday April 26, 2013 MYT 12:26:38 AM

Dark and delightful stories from the Brothers Grimm

Two books that you should have on your bookshelves, each offering different
aspects of the Grimm ouevre.

Two books that you should have on your bookshelves, each offering different aspects of the Grimm ouevre.

To celebrate World Book Day on Tuesday, we look at new editions of a timeless collection of stories that writer W.H. Auden hailed as ‘among the few indispensable, common-property books upon which Western culture can be founded.’

WHETHER you realise it or not, two brothers from 19th century Germany – Jacob and Wilhelm – have had a lot of influence over the stories you read, hear, watch and share.

If you grew up reading about Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, are a fan of Disney’s animated films, follow Once Upon A Time or Grimm on television, or (god forbid!) enjoyed Kristen Stewart’s turn as Snow White on the big screen last year, it is all thanks to the Brothers Grimm, probably the most popular collectors of folk and fairy tales.

Their Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s And Household Tales), better known as Grimm’s Fairy Tales, has since been published in various versions and editions, and in my humble opinion, is compulsory reading for any lover of stories, magic and fantasy – and not the least because these dark and often gruesome tales deserve to be read in all their original, disturbing glory.

Two of the most recent collections of the fairy tales, both published last year to coincide with the stories’ 200th anniversary, take distinctly different approaches to the material, and depending on your fancies, would both make handsome additions to your bookshelf (and no, I won’t blame you for coveting both!).

Fairy Tales From The Brothers Grimm is a beautiful clothbound edition that is a real visual treat. The classic-looking cover, featuring scenes from several stories and adorned with silver and gold etchings of creeping vines, butterflies, bats and spiders, evokes the darkly fantastical mood of the collection.

The book includes many of the most famous tales associated with the Grimm brothers (though some, like Rapunzel, are inexplicably missing), as well the original illustrations by George Cruikshank. An enthusiastic introduction by German children’s author Cornelia Funke also sets the mood nicely: “Oh, she loved these stories, I hear you say. No! I was terrified by them! But they were irresistible, like a dark spell that echoed through my heart, dark and golden at the same time. Maybe that’s what all enchantments are like.”

What makes this edition particularly worthy of collecting is the fact that six popular illustrators – Oliver Jeffers, Quentin Blake, Raymond Briggs, Emma Chichester Clark, Axel Scheffler and Helen Oxenbury – have each been asked to illustrate their favourite fairy tale in their own unique styles. This is a delightful bonus, but I do wish there was more of it to enjoy. Each artist has done only one illustration, which is inserted into the relevant story, which means there are only six pieces in the 370-page tome.

The stories themselves are in the usual straightforward and simple style, presented supposedly in their original form – according to the preface, “exactly as the Brothers Grimm had written them”.

This I have my doubts about though – I’m very sure I have read versions of Ashputtel (as Cinderella is known) where the stepsisters end up having their eyes pecked out by doves, and I know for a fact that the stepmother in Snow-Drop (or Snow White) is punished by having to dance in hot shoes until she drops dead. In this version of the tales, these decidedly awful endings have been toned down quite a bit.

The other collection, penned by none other than Philip Pullman (of His Dark Materials fame), may actually offer an answer to how this “sanitising” could have happened. Grimm Tales: For Young And Old begins with a wonderful introduction by the British author, himself famed for his darkly magical fantasy realms, where he points out how the Grimms (particularly Wilhelm) themselves changed their stories over the years, sometimes toning down the gruesome aspects.

The book features 50 of the Grimms’ tales as chosen and written by Pullman, which includes both favourites like Hansel And Gretel, Rumpelstiltskin and Briar Rose (or Sleeping Beauty) as well as more obscure yet equally enjoyable ones such as The Devil With The Three Golden Hairs, Thousandfurs and The Three Snake Leaves.

In his introduction, Pullman highlights the stories’ simplicity and use of archetypes to evoke a feeling of familiarity. His aim, he says, is not to produce a personal interpretation or update the settings, but rather, write “a version that was as clear as water”. In keeping with the oral tradition of passing these stories on, his guiding question for this book was: “How would I tell this story myself, if I’d heard it told by someone else and wanted to pass it on?”

A brilliant decision, it turns out, because I can think of little else as absorbing as reading the Grimms’ fairy tales, told by Pullman. The author keeps to the original stories faithfully, adding only a subtle flair to the writing and a touch of dark humour here and there, particularly to conversations (I love how Cinderella’s stepsisters arrive at her derogatory name, settling on it after considering Ashy-face, Sootybottom and Cinderina!). His versions of the rhymes and verses within stories are also more memorable, thanks to his rhythmic writing.

Not one to shy away from the hard truths of life in his own works, Pullman keeps faithfully to the original versions of the stories. Particularly interesting are the short commentaries he inserts after each tale, which range from discussing the psychology behind them to tracing the tale’s evolution to humorous observations.

As such, this collection stays true to its title; it is indeed for the young and old, and in fact, anyone who enjoys a good story, as told by a masterful storyteller. But more than that, it shows us that we can all be storytellers too. As Pullman puts it: “If you, the reader, want to tell any of the tales in this book, I hope you will feel free to be no more faithful than you want to be.... In fact ... you have a positive duty to make the story your own.”

Tags / Keywords: Books, Lifestyle

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