It’s easy to forget the joy and wonder (and sometimes terror and horror) that accompanies our first tentative steps into the world of reading. For a great many of us, I would imagine tales such as ‘Rumpelstiltskin’, ‘Hansel & Gretel’, ‘Cinderella’, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ and ‘Snow White’ are amongst the first to be heard and then subsequently read, the first to worm their way into pictures and dreams, the first to be forgotten as our tastes become quote/unquote more sophisticated. What is less well appreciated, perhaps, is the journey each of these tales – and the 45 others His Dark Materials author Philip Pullman has overhauled and reworked in Grimm Tales – is the journey each take took on its way to being told, the grand oral tradition that sits like an ancient throne-room chair carved from the side of a mountain behind each story.
But before we get to all of that, let’s look at the tales themselves, a great many of which were new to me and yet rang with the distant lowing of familiarity. It’s hard to pick favourites because in truth, each story – some of which run to three or four pages, not many of which run beyond ten pages – is a joy. You dip your toe in the opening lines (which, as Pullman says, tell you pretty much everything you need to know about the protagonist, whether it’s a young boy, a King, Queen, Princess, mouse, cat or sausage) and the next thing you know, you’re surfacing some short time later having seen magic and swordplay, battles and devils, love lost, love won, curiosity provoked, strange wonders glimpsed, some times terrible horrors (usually perpetrated on small children and babies), odd creatures, heroism, cloaks of invisibility, long overdue revenges, redemption and reward, hearts eaten and blood spilled, alongside a veritable cornucopia of other delights and fireworks.
When I started reading Grimm Tales, half an eye on the eventual review I would write, my expectation was that there would be a half dozen stories that would give the potential future reader of the book a sense of what they themselves would find. The fact that there are fifty stories in the book, each as pleasurable and stimulating as each other, that favourites become redundant when you’ve read maybe the first ten – that, what’s more, the stories themselves, as familiar as some of them are, refuse to quite follow the shape you think they should, occasionally twisting, throwing up alternate endings and wicked revisitings (that are themselves not entirely conjured from the fevered Pullman brain but are instead Pullman’s idea of what the true version should be based upon the howevermany retellings there have been over the years)…
The point comes, far more rapidly than you could ever suspect, when you find yourself transformed, a child again, hanging on to the edge of the book as if it were a cliff edge, as if were you to loose your grip you would plunge some many millions of miles into the worlds described. For me, this book is the antidote to ever growing tired of reading. If someone were to ask me what they should read, particularly if that self same someone said they hadn’t read a great book in a while, I would suggest they read this (knowing it would more than likely provoke a kind of ‘what? fairy tales?’ response – but also knowing within about fifty pages they would be pumping my hand and saying thank you thank you thank you). Grimm Tales is an unadulterated joy, worth reading for the never to be forgotten stories but also for Pullman’s comments which grace the end of each piece.
These are not texts, Pullman writes, like Ulysses or [insert your favourite always to be interpreted tome here]; these are experiences that plunge us back into the warming amniotic pool of our first bookish glimpse. They are action films, love stories, comedies, pulpy horror tales. All books are here. Rare indeed is the book as pleasurable as this. Rarer still the book that forces its way through the scrum to the top of the pile saying, If you just happen to find yourself stuck on a desert island you could do worse than find yourself clutching this. It may be that you think you’re done with fairytales. It may be that you think your palate more sophisticated. If that’s the case, you have my pity – because you’ll be missing out on one of the great books of 2013.
Any Cop?: A collection to be read with relish and then re-read (to your children) and re-read again when the day comes that they trot up with their kids (however far in the future that turns out to be…)