I saw this book at the Glasgow Airport, my flight was due in a couple of minutes, and I wanted something to read on the flight. The cover of Pullman's book was pretty and the back cover stated following praises:
'Gripping ... A clear and humorous retelling, with added sprinklings of wit ...' – Sunday Telegraph
'Told with extraordinary toughness and savagery' – Andrew Marr
'Magical ... This wonderful retelling is set to become a classic in its own right' – Sunday Times
From those quotations I assumed that:
a) Andrew Marr is praising Pullman's way of writing.
b) Retelling is creative work in which Pullman has made new version, his unique versions, of the Grimm's fairy tales. How else could the book 'become a classic in its own right'? The old fairy tales are already classics.
Sadly, my presumptions were wrong. The stories in this book are mostly just a regathering of the old stories. Pullman hasn't altered the Grimm's fairy tales much. In many cases he has merely gathered his favourite versions of the old printed tales. In some stories he has made minor alterations but I have to say they seem irrelevant. It doesn't matter whether an evil stepsister ate cake or chocolate cake, especially since chocolate doesn't become a symbol or motif for anything.
Pullman claims he has altered some text in order to better them but I do not really see it. He hasn't been bold enough with the alterations and therefore they lack significance and individuality. The narrative style is not reaching the 'Pullman way of writing' and hence any writer could claim these texts as his/her work. I expected a little more from a famous writer in the 21st century. There are already so many printed versions of the Grimm's fairy tales, why did we need this one?
One of the most often heard quotes from Pullman (which, of course, is not really his) is that all stories are stolen and all stories have already been told. That is quite true, but to be able to retell a story without slipping into mere plagiarism requires some effort.
Honestly, I was disappointed. I would not have bought this book if I had known that these stories are not really rewritten. I have read several version of Grimm's fairy tales in several languages and the Pullman collection does not bring anything extra to the stories. I assumed this collection would've been more like the My mother she killed me, my father he ate me short story collection or like The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter, in which Carter has really rewritten the old fairy tales, giving them intriguing twists. But no.
The good sides of Pullman's book
I was disappointed, because the back cover praises were misleading. If this is put aside, there is nothing wrong with the collection. Firstly, the cover is pretty. Secondly and more importantly, in the end of each story is a short background report about it. It tells what type of a story it is, and from what year this particular version is (or if it is a mix of two old versions).
I appreciate the background report, and for that the Pullman collection is great. Though I must point out that in some of the background reports there are Pullman's own 'observations' and opinions of the story lines and the morals and those remarks seem often unjustifiable and sometimes even unprofessional.
So, I can recommend the Grimm Tales for Young and Old 'by' Philip Pullman for those who are looking for Grimm's fairy tales in a pretty cover.