Philip Pullman: Rewriting The Brothers Grimm
Two hundred years after the Brothers Grimm first published Children's and Household Tales, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm are getting another rewrite.
Philip Pullman, who wrote The Golden Compass of the young-adult fantasy series His Dark Materials, took on the challenge of retelling 50 of the original Grimm stories for his latest book, Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm.
His collection includes new versions of classics such as "Hansel and Gretel," "Little Red Riding Hood" and "Cinderella," as well as lesser-known tales like "Thousandfurs," "Hans-My-Hedgehog" and "The Musicians of Bremen."
Pullman spoke with NPR's Rachel Martin about the role of morality in fairy tales, how rewriting the Brothers Grimm has influenced his own writing, and whether the princess actually kissed a frog in the original Grimm tale.
On how the Brothers Grimm found stories for their fairy tale collection
"I thought before I began looking into this that [the Brothers Grimm] walked to here and there in Germany with their knapsacks and their notebooks and talking to peasants and saying, 'Tell me a story!' But no, not a bit of it. They were academics. They lived a quiet life, and all the stories that came to them came to them from friends and relations. And they wrote them down, and they altered them a little bit."
On fairy tales as oral stories
"Oral stories are not a text in the way that a great poem like Paradise Lost is a text. It exists as words on paper. ... But an oral story is something told, and these stories in Grimm are a sort of snapshot of something in movement. They're freezing something that was in motion. So I thought I was entitled to ... alter them again and tell them as I would ... if I'd heard the story and wanted to pass it on to somebody else."
On how the frog prince turns back into a human in the original Grimm fairy tale
"The main part of the story that we think we know about 'The Frog Prince' ... is [the princess] kisses the frog and he turns into a prince. Well, no, he doesn't. She throws him against the wall with a great splat, and he falls down in a form of a prince. That's what you get in Grimm. ... The kiss is now part of our own mythology ... and it makes a lot of sense. You know, you kiss something and ... you treat it with love and it turns into something worth loving. But I thought I couldn't put the kiss in [my retelling of the story] if it wasn't in Grimm. In the British version of the folk tale, she has to cut his head off, so there's a lot of bloodshed."
On morality in fairy tales
"They do have a moral, but it's a pretty obvious one: If you behave well, you'll be rewarded; if you behave badly, you'll be punished. You could try and extract a more precise moral from stories like 'Little Red Riding Hood' — don't talk to strange wolves in the woods — but they were intended to entertain. But because we are moral beings, if we tell any sort of story, there will be rewards and there will be punishments. ... We can't really help making stories moral narratives because we're moral beings."
On how rewriting fairy tales has influenced The Book of Dust, his upcoming sequel to the His Dark Materials series
"[The Grimm fairy tales] move very quickly. There's not an ounce of narrative fat in them. They go very, very swiftly from event to event. And another thing is you see very few adverbs in them, so I'm trying to cut down on my adverbs. You choose the right verb, and you don't need an adverb to qualify it."
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: Think back to a time when your imagination could be whisked away to faraway lands with just four little words.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Once upon a...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Once upon a...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Once upon a...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: ...time.
MARTIN: The classic opening line of your favorite bedtime stories, some of which can probably be traced back to one book: "Children's and Household Tales" by the Brothers Grimm, first published 200 years ago. And ever since, the Brothers Grimm have lived on through their classic stories.
PHILIP PULLMAN: The tales that everybody knows are only a handful of them, really.
MARTIN: This is Philip Pullman. You may have heard of his novel, "The Golden Compass," part of his popular series "His Dark Materials." Pullman's latest book is called "Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm."
PULLMAN: We can probably count them on the fingers on one hand: "Cinderella," "Little Red Riding Hood"...
MARTIN: "Hansel and Gretel," "Rumpelstiltskin" and "Rapunzel." We all know their stories. But ever heard of "Thousand Firs?"
PULLMAN: The king's wife is dying. She's a very beautiful woman, golden hair. And she says to the king: If I die, don't marry anyone else unless she's as beautiful as I am or she's got hair as golden as mine.
MARTIN: The queen dies and one day the king realizes the only woman as beautiful as his wife is his daughter.
PULLMAN: And he says that's it, I'll marry my daughter. And the council says, oh, your majesty, you can't do that. It's a terrible sin. It's forbidden. Oh no, you mustn't do that. I'm determined to do it, he said. I'm going to marry my daughter. I'm in love her and I shall marry her.
MARTIN: So, the princess runs away, wearing her thousand fir cloak and ends up in another kingdom. And like Cinderella, goes to a ball and meets her future husband. It's one of the darker fairy tales that Philip Pullman discovered when he went back to the original stories by the Brothers Grimm. He also learned where the Grimms found their stories.
PULLMAN: I thought before I began looking into this that they'd walked to here and there in Germany with their knapsacks and their notebooks and talking to peasants and saying tell me a story. But, no, not a bit of it. They were academics. They lived a quiet life. And all the stories that came to them, came to them from friends and relations. And they wrote them down and they altered them a little bit, because, of course, all those stories are not a text in the way that a great poem like "Paradise Lost" is a text. It exists as words on paper. That's what it is. But an oral story is something told. And these stories in Grimm are a sort of snapshot of something in movement. They're freezing something that was in motion. So, I thought I was entitled to, I was justified, in my wish to alter them again and tell them, as I would, if I were telling them orally, if I'd heard the story and wanted to pass it on to somebody else.
MARTIN: Your version of these fairy tales are a little different from versions that many of our listeners may have grown up with. For example, "The Frog Prince," who becomes friends with a human princess in the fairy tale. This is actually called "The Frog King" in the original.
PULLMAN: Yes. The whole title is "The Frog King or Iron Heinrich." Now, Iron Heinrich.
MARTIN: Someone I wasn't even familiar with. I didn't know he existed.
PULLMAN: He's the servant of the king who spent all his time sorrowing for him. And he was so sorrowful, he had to have iron bands to put around his heart to stop it bursting. Now, that's an extraordinary idea, but it's not the main part of the story. The main part of the story that we think we know about the frog prince, the one incident that everybody will remember is she kisses the frog and he turns into a prince.
MARTIN: A handsome prince, yes.
PULLMAN: Well, no, he doesn't. She throws him against the wall with a great splat and he falls down into the form of a prince. And that's what you get in Grimm.
MARTIN: It's not very romantic.
PULLMAN: Which is odd really because, you know, the kiss is now part of our own mythology, our own sort of folk understanding of the story. And it makes a lot of sense. You know, you kiss something and you treat it tenderly, you treat it with love and it turns into something worth loving. But I thought I couldn't put the kiss in if it wasn't in Grimm. In the British version of the folktale, she had to cut his head off.
MARTIN: Oh, goodness.
PULLMAN: So, there's a lot of bloodshed, a lot of bloodshed.
MARTIN: Interesting also the role of women in these stories. It was the mother, not the stepmother, who wants to abandon Hansel and Gretel in the forest. When we think of that story, the popular retelling, we think of the stepmother. But in the original, it was the mother.
PULLMAN: Well, that's right. This is one of the changes that Wilhelm or Jacob Grimm made in their later editions of the story. They gotten more and more pious, more and more overtly Christian. I suppose it was the temper of the times, they wanted to be more and more respectable and do away with some of the rather shocking things. Another thing they did away with was Rapunzel. Remember, she was in her tower and she let down her hair.
PULLMAN: Well, in the first edition of their collection, she says to the witch: Why is it that my clothes don't fit anymore? And that's how the witch knows that she's been visited by the prince, because she's pregnant. But that had to go because it wasn't very respectable. But in their later versions, she says: Why is it that the prince is so much less heavy than you are, old grandmother, or something, which is a silly question. But it was more respectable than to have her being pregnant.
MARTIN: I wonder then what you think about the morals to these stories. We often think about these fairy tales as having some kind of moral grounding, some lesson.
MARTIN: Do you think that's what they're for?
PULLMAN: No, not expressly. They do have a moral but it's a pretty obvious one: if you behave well, you'll be rewarded; if you behave badly, you'll be punished. You can try and extract a more precise moral from stories like "Little Red Riding Hood" - don't talk to strange wolves in the woods. But they were intended to entertain. But because we are moral beings, if we tell any sort of story, there will be rewards and there will be punishments and there will be people who do wrong things and people who feel shame or guilt about it and people who behave well and are rewarded. So, we can't really help making stories moral narratives because we are moral beings.
MARTIN: I understand that you've been working on a new sequel for your series "His Dark Materials."
PULLMAN: That's right, yeah.
MARTIN: I wonder how delving into these tales, spending so much time with the Grimm fairy tales, how has that influenced your own writing in this particular project?
PULLMAN: These stories move very quickly. There's not an ounce of narrative fat in them. They go very, very swiftly from event to event. And another thing is you see very few adverbs in them. So, I'm trying to cut down on my adverbs.
MARTIN: A lot of verbs. There's a lot of action.
PULLMAN: Well, you choose the right verb and you don't need an adverb to qualify it.
MARTIN: Philip Pullman. His latest book is called "Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm." Philip Pullman, thanks so much for joining us.
PULLMAN: Thank you. It's a pleasure talking to you.
MARTIN: And you can hear Philip Pullman reading one of his favorite Grimm fairy tales, "The Musicians of Bremen."
PULLMAN: (Reading) Ah, shriek, Leftie, and that woke up the cockerel who croaked, cock-a-doodle-doo.
MARTIN: On npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.