By Philip Pullman. Viking, $28.
To mark the 200th anniversary of the original publication of the first Grimm’s Fairy Tales, best-selling British novelist Philip Pullman has taken on the daunting task of translating and updating versions of these odd and frequently epochal stories, arguably as hardwired into Western consciousness as any biblical scripture. Familiar favorites like “Little Red Riding Hood” are here, alongside lesser-known tales like the bafflingly weird “The Riddle.”
Everyone knows the story of Cinderella, and the scene in which her foot slips perfectly into the fated slipper, but her wicked stepsisters cutting off their heels and toes in an attempt to become princesses themselves is rarely part of the bedtime story. In obscure yarns like “The Cat and Mouse Set Up House”—which is about exactly that—evil triumphs completely over good, and the story ends with a shrugging existential epigram: “Well, what else did you expect? That’s just the sort of thing that happens in the world.” The noirish universe Grimm’s tales inhabit is one replete with moral and economic poverty, villainy and only occasional heroism.
Crucially, Pullman makes no attempt to modernize the stories, but instead trusts the primal essence of these narratives to provide all of the wonder, magic and revulsion that have made them inescapable totems for generations. The author deliberately renders his translations in a simple and quick-moving fashion, adding elucidating and pleasantly nondidactic commentary in the process. The main effect is to shine a light on the tales themselves, which remain the strangest, most visceral and morally complicated fables this side of Kafka.
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