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Philip Pullman's darker materials

‘Northern Lights’ author Philip Pullman talks us through his adaptations of the Grimm fairytales, now on stage in the East End

© Matt Hass

Last year, Philip Pullman took a break from writing the feverishly anticipated new ‘His Dark Materials’ book to adapt 50 of the Brothers Grimm’s fairy stories. Now five of his versions have been turned into an experimental theatre show that’s taking place in Shoreditch Town Hall. Ahead of their opening, here’s Pullman’s guide to the ‘Grimm Tales’.

Illustrations by Le Gun


Ungrateful parents give birth to hedgehog, who turns out to be awesome

‘A childless couple say they will have a child, even if he’s a hedgehog, and in fairytales you really can’t say that sort of thing because it will come true. So they have a half human, half hedgehog child and they’re embarrassed. Until he turns out to be the most gallant, gifted, charming brave hero who marries a princess. It’s a delightful story.’


Girl locked in tower since birth fails to get haircut

‘The only thing most people know about this story is her letting her hair down. In fact, it’s another story about wanting a child – in medieval times having a child was a basic necessity if you were going to survive.’

The Three Snake Leaves

Prince and princess enter a weird suicide pact. Princess turns out to be evil

‘The Grimms’ tales are filled with northernness: they come out of snowy winters and dark pine trees. This feels more southern, as if by Italo Calvino. There’s nothing supernatural in it – we call them fairytales but there aren’t any fairies!’

The Juniper Tree

Stepmother feeds stepson to his dad, stepson returns as bird and takes revenge

‘The stories mostly came to the Grimms orally. But “The Juniper Tree” was actually written by a painter called Philipp Otto Runge. It’s a masterpiece, with echoes of Shakespeare and ancient Greek myth.’

Red Riding Hood

You know this one…

‘It’s picturesque, it’s grotesque, it’s absurd. Yet children can sense the reality behind the wolf, that there are people they should be careful of. It’s a good example of what Einstein meant when he said, “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairytales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairytales.’

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