Thursday 27 September 2012

sleep with one eye open...

In case you haven't noticed, I'm on something of a fairy tale kick at the moment.  Growing up, one of my favourite books in the whole world was "The Encyclopedia of Things That Never Were" (by Michael Page and Robert Ingpen).  I've been reading it again, my much-loved edition slightly battered and inscribed on the title page with a dedication of love from my parents dated "Christmas 1985".  I was eleven years old, and I was both mesmerised and slightly scared by some of the entries: Lilith creeping into your room at night, wendigos, red caps, banshees, kobolds.... I can't think of another book I have owned that has played quite such a large role in firing my imagination.  As I start to search around now to discover what I want to write about, I find myself coming back, time and time again, to the idea of writing something fantastical.

Perhaps - now that I think about it - not entirely coincidentally, I have also been dipping into my edition of the "Children's and Household Tales" by the Brothers Grimm.  I was both delighted and slightly horrified to discover yesterday morning that Philip Pullman has just published a book featuring his (faithful) retellings of fifty of his favourite Grimm stories: delighted because I love his writing and I very much want to read this book, but horrified because I'm just shaping ideas to write in this direction myself.  These folk tales are as old as the hills, of course, so they're hardly likely to become old hat now... but even so.  I nearly downloaded the book to my Kindle this morning, but read that the hardback edition is beautifully bound, and in honour of my much-loved old encyclopedia, I've bought that instead.  I think I might re-read the Angela Carter re-tellings too, whilst I'm at it.

As I was looking for reviews of Pullman's book online, I found this quote, taken from a piece he wrote last Friday for the Guardian on the challenge of re-telling the Grimm fairy tales:

"The fairy tale is in a perpetual state of becoming and alteration. To keep to one version or one translation alone is to put a robin redbreast in a cage. A fairy tale is not a text."

I like that.  Now I want to try to create some tales of my own.  New tales.


  1. Hmm... My favourite fairy tale is that of the Soldier and the Tinderbox, because it has some fairly fantastical elements. Dogs with eyes the size of dinner plates?

    I also read a treatise a while back on fairytales being distorted from their rather more grim tellings into more mundane versions - the witch for example in Hansel and Gretal actually being their own stepmother (she vanishes mysteriously at the end of the story after the cannibalistic witch is burnt to death in her own oven).

    So thanks, I'll have a look for these books and have a read.

    But if you are thinking of telling your own, you should at least have a gander at Struwwelpeter, for even more grisly endings to naughty boys and girls.

  2. I love fairy tales and own several volumes of them. Thanks to you I've lately felt like dusting them off.

    I think you and I discussed this, but you might really like the TV show, "Grimm." I don't know if it's available there yet, but I really enjoy it.

  3. I'm reading and enjoying the Pullman book very much, although the stories are so close to the classic translations that you wonder why he's bothered. Bringing the stories to a new audience, I guess. Re. Hansel and Gretel, the witch in the story is clearly a different person to the stepmother, she's described as being incredibly old and blind (which is how Hansel can fool her into thinking that the twig is his skinny finger and he's not fattening up). Pullman says in his notes at the end of the story that it was later stories where the conveniently disappearing stepmother and the witch were merged. Good tales though, of course. The Boy who couldn't get the chills and faithful Johannes are my favourites so far. Very funny.

  4. That said, the stories are filled with a certain earthiness that later versions lack. Remember Rapunzel casually remarking to the witch that she was so much lighter than the prince as she climbed up, and that's how the witch discovers him? In the actual story, the far neater explanation is that Rapunzel innocently remarks to the witch that all her clothes were getting mysteriously tight.....