Category Archives: His Dark Materials

Interview: Philip Pullman on his Retelling the Grimm Fairy Tales

Philip Pullman is one of the most thoughtful and creative writers of our day. Best know for the brilliant trilogy His Dark Materials, the former middle school teacher is also a longtime reteller and creator of fairy tales. While I’m partial to his lively online version of “Mossycoat” (first published as a picture book) and the original story I Was a Rat! because of my work with Cinderella, I’ve found all his fairy tales whether retellings or original to be utterly delightful. And so when he told me a few years ago that he was working on a new collection of Grimm fairy tales I was not surprised. Over several magical meals (I’m honored to call him a friend) we talked intensively about his research for this project and I couldn’t wait to read the final version. Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm is now out and it is as excellent as I had hoped. Happily others feel as I do and it is being enthusiastically received by adult and children’s book reviewers alike.

There are a number of terrific interviews with Philip about this project, but I thought that one focusing more on young readers and those who work with them might be of interest. Philip was game so here are my questions and his answers.

To start, I’m intrigued that the UK title is Grimm Tales for Young and Old while the US is Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm. Why the change? 

Publishers like to put their stamp on titles. I have never fathomed why. Arthur Levine (I assume it was him) even changed the title of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, which made sense, into HP and the Sorcerer’s Stone, which made no sense at all. I can’t actually remember being consulted about Grimm. I have to say I prefer the UK title, but I tend to shrug about these things.

You have always been such an advocate of storytelling. I can remember you urging teachers like myself to learn stories to tell to our students, something I know you did a lot of.  And I also recall feeling guilty as I never did this, preferring to read aloud. I could absolutely sense your pleasure in selecting, retelling, and tweaking these stories. How do you think your background as a teacher and teacher of teachers came into this work?  If you were teaching today would you read or tell some of these tales? Or how about to your grandchildren? Any in particular?  Do you see any limitations due to age or anything else?

All kinds of things come into play when we think about reading versus telling. Maybe reading has a greater sense of ‘authority’ – it comes out of a book! It’s been published! But maybe telling has a greater sense of intimacy and immediacy. If I were still a teacher I’d make a point of learning a dozen of these stories well enough to be able to tell them without the book – probably not the most gruesome ones: for that you probably need a mixed audience so the younger children can hide their faces in a parent’s shoulder. But facing a class I would, as I say, make a point of knowing them well enough after many private rehearsals to do without the book and then begin to make little inventions here and there to bring it even more vividly to life.

What really struck me reading these is how playful you are in your alterations and embellishments. Say the hilarious commentary of the three little men of “The Three Little Men in the Woods” or having the wife in “The Fisherman and his Wife” call her husband a defeatist. I especially enjoyed how you upped the ante in “Hans-My-Hedgehog.”

The Grimms:
The king had ordered that if anyone should approach who was carrying bagpipes and riding on a rooster, that he should be shot at, struck down, and stabbed, to prevent him from entering the castle.

Yours:
The king had given strict orders that if anyone approached the palace playing the bagpipes and riding on a cockerel, they should be shot, stabbed, bombed, knocked down, blown up, strangled, anything to prevent them from entering.

Any thing you’d like to say about these delightful touches? Where you place them and why, perhaps? Or anything else you’d like to tell us?

I’m glad you like them! Another one I enjoyed was having the giant say “Respect!” to the little tailor, and the frightened soldiers protest that they couldn’t fight him because having killed seven at a blow he was a weapon of mass destruction. And so on. I thought that if a story was light-hearted enough to start with, it could bear a bit more fooling around. The story I call “Farmerkin’, which is normally rendered as ‘Farmer Little’, is another example. But I wouldn’t have thought it right to play about with ‘The Juniper Tree’, for example, or ‘Hansel and Gretel’. Wrong tone altogether.

I don’t think I did any of that stuff with deliberate forethought, though. It just leapt into my fingers as I wrote. If the story-sprite laughs, then I laugh too.

How did you select the tales?  I can certainly see that some are personal favorites, but some are quite odd, not always likable, and you even say that in your notes. Yet you included them. Why?

The only one I actively dislike is “The Girl Without Hands’, but I put it in because there were some things I wanted to say about it. I had a completely free hand when it came to choosing the stories, and I was very glad of it. I felt I had to put in all the famous ones – though actually there are fewer than we think of those – because people would expect them to be there, and it would be silly to leave them out. I would have put them in anyway, in fact, because they are so good – they’re famous for good reasons. As for the others, they were there because I found them interesting to talk about, such as ‘The Goose Girl at the Spring’, or because I found them powerful and strange, like ‘Hans-my-Hedgehog’, or because I was just fond of them, like ‘Lazy Heinz’ or ‘The Moon’.

Your notes are simply wonderful. As I told you before, I think nothing beats your suggestion of what to do with Thousand Furs’ father, but you’ve got others too. Say your consideration of Disney’s Snow White film, how it is such a pull on any new telling of the original tale, and most delightfully that his dwarfs are “toddlers with beards.”  Or how you resolved the dilemma of how many pieces to cut the snake in “The Three Snake Leaves.” Given the clear depth of your background reading, how did you decide what to put into these notes? Is there anything you reluctantly left out that you might want to tell us now?

Thank you. I’m always glad when people praise my notes, because I think they do say things that I think are worth saying. I was certain from the beginning that I wanted to follow each story with a few paragraphs (or less, or more) of commentary, and I wanted it to come immediately after the story and not tucked away at the back. The editors were happy to let me do it – in fact they were remarkably non-interfering throughout the whole process. I didn’t want to overburden the notes with scholarly stuff, because others – Jack Zipes, Maria Tatar – have done it already better than I ever could, and because my emphasis was always on how the story worked. I don’t think there’s anything important that I left out, but as I continue to think and talk about the stories I might think of a few more things to put in.

For those in particular who work with children and/or their books is there anything in particular you would want to say to them about these tales, about the Grimms, or about storytelling in general?

The one thing I’d emphasise to the most important people in this situation, namely students who are going to be teachers (most important because it’s in the early stages that we form all our habits), is this: whenever you can, don’t read stories like this to children: get them firmly into your head and tell them, face to face, without a book in your hands. These tales are not literature, which is written, they’re something else. I know it’s nerve-racking to put the book down and just tell, because the book is a protection in many ways (not least: if the session fails, you can blame the book instead of yourself). But it doesn’t really take much memory-effort to learn a story like The Little Tailor or The Three Little Men in the Woods. I don’t mean learn all the words by heart – far from it. I mean get the events in your head so you can relate them easily and confidently. If every young teacher could take the trouble to get two or three dozen stories in their head so they could tell them at a moment’s notice – and they’re not very big, they pack down very flat, there’s plenty of room for them in your brain – then they would never be at a loss how to fill that odd ten minutes at the end of a day, or how to calm down a class if they’re fractious and over-excited during a day when it’s raining and they can’t get out to run around, or if they want to start off a new project. And what’s more they last like nothing else. When thirty or forty years later you meet by chance one of the kids you used to teach, the one thing they’ll remember is that story you told that Friday afternoon about Orpheus and Eurydice, or The Goose-Girl, or Hades and Persephone, or Hansel and Gretel. They’ll forget Pythoagoras’s theorem or the names of the first five American Presidents or the principal exports of Brazil, but the story will still be there, and they’ll be grateful for it. Nothing is so valuable, so lasting, so deeply loved as stories. Why would anyone not seize at once, with both hands, the immense privilege of telling stories, when it’s so easy to achieve?

Oh, Philip, clearly you won’t let me off the hook and so I will now try to get past my self-consciousness and attempt to learn some tales to tell to my own students. Certainly yours are the perfect source material for that. My great thanks for taking the time to answer these questions.  

To end, this lovely book trailer with a taste of Philip’s storytelling prowess:

also at Huffington Post

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Filed under fairy tales, His Dark Materials, Huffington Post, In the Classroom, Philip Pullman

Maria Tatar on Fantasy Worlds Then and Now

I’ve long admired Harvard’s Maria Tatar for her varied work on children’s literature and folk lore. She’s done a number of fine annotated editions of classical books and tales including her latest, The Annotated Peter Pan.  Today she has a very thoughtful article in the New York Times, “No More Adventures in Wonderland” in which she contrasts the older children’s books of J.M. Barrie and Lewis Carroll with more recent ones such as those of Neil Gaiman,  Suzanne Collins, and Philip Pullman, noting that while the older and newer writers are both bridging the line between adult and child, they are doing so very differently.

While Carroll and Barrie were known for spending massive amounts of time with children (something quite acceptable then, but discomforting to us today), Tatar points out that “…Carroll and Barrie knew what children wanted in their stories precisely because they were so deeply invested in finding ways to win their attention and affection in real life.”

She contrasts this to current writers like Suzanne Collins who provide for their child readers,”… an unprecedented dose of adult reality in their books, sometimes without the redemptive beauty, cathartic humor and healing magic of an earlier time.”

For me all these brilliant writers who create imaginary worlds are cross-over writers. It is just that those from an earlier time have a very different orientation than those today. Carroll and Barrie were trying to create worlds of imaginative delight, safe places for readers of all ages to enter. In today’s stories,” writes Tatar,  “those safety zones are rapidly vanishing as adult anxieties edge out childhood fantasy.”

A very interesting read.

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Filed under Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Children's Literature, Fantasy, Fantasy Worlds, His Dark Materials, Neil Gaiman, Philip Pullman

Teaching With Blogs: Top Ten Children’s Books

Earlier this week I told my class about the Top 100 Children’s Book Poll and how my votes counted.  I then wrote a post (over at my class blog) with my top ten list (and how I fared in the final voting) and an invitation for them to create their own lists.  It is a fun assignments for avid readers. Here are some of their results:

  • RG’s top choice is  The Hobbit “….because it’s amazing, has a story behind it and great characters.” Go here to see the rest of his list.
  • SB chose Hugo Cabret for number one. The rest of his list is here.
  • GN thinks her #1 Charlotte’s Web is, “…a classic. It’s touching, funny, and AMAZING!!!”  See her list here.
  • FB’s top choice is His Dark Materials (hmmm…that is three books, but I can’t blame her).  Her list is here.

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Unsettling No-News Re Another HDM Film

Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials film trilogy in doubt after Golden Compass sequel in limbo – Telegraph

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Biometric Daemons

Pantalaimon, avert your eyes.

According to this article, a couple of professors have come up with a new device “inspired by the Philip Pullman fantasy novels – recently turned into the hit film The Golden Compass – which include animal daemons which are physical representations of character’s souls.”  They have in mind “… biometric daemons [that] could carry people’s personal details and replace pin numbers and passwords for everyday transactions, reacting to different levels of risk and becoming stressed and eventually dying if they are apart from their owner.”

According to one of the professors, Dr. Clark,  “The idea of the daemon is that it is a living credit card,” he said. “It would recognise it is with you, and if you put it in your pocket, it can recognise your walk and your voice.”

And would it also know what is in my heart?

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Freakonomics Meets Lyra

Freakonomics author Steven D. Levitt on reading The Golden Compass:

Earlier this month I asked readers what I should do to fill my post-Harry Potter void. I didn’t anticipate just how full of reading suggestions blog readers would be — 270 comments.Of the hundreds of books mentioned, I had to start somewhere, so I read The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman.

I can’t really say that I liked it. I had a hard time identifying with the hero, Lyra. I couldn’t really picture her in my mind, for starters. (Which got me thinking that maybe it helped me to like the Potter books because I had seen some of the movies first, and thus knew what the characters were supposed to look like.)

I found the whole discussion of “Dust” to be boring. Things happened too fast and too unrealistically in the book: somehow she can all of the sudden read some impossibly difficult instrument; she’s in trouble and then some lady appears out of nowhere who had been her wet nurse 13 years earlier and saves her not realizing who it is.

The only part I really liked was what she did to the undeserving bear king.

I bought the trilogy, but given my lack of imagination, maybe I better see the movie first before trying the second installment.

Steven D. Levitt on The Not-So-Golden Compass – Freakonomics – Opinion – New York Times Blog

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The Hugo Awards

I have always known about the Hugo Awards, but not how they were selected.  Interesting!

Denvention 3, the 66th World Science Fiction Convention, has announced the ballot for the 2008 Hugo Awards. Nominations were made by the members of last year’s World Science Fiction Convention, held in Yokohama, and this year’s, to be held in Denver. Members of the 2008 convention will have until July 1, 2008, to vote on this ballot. Winners will be announced and trophies awarded at Denvention’s Hugo Awards Ceremony on Saturday, August 9.

The voting will be conducted by mail and online. The online ballot will be available at the Denvention 3 web site in the near future. You do not have to attend the convention to vote. A Supporting Membership ($50) is sufficient to secure you voting rights. Memberships can be purchased here.

(The members also created the shortlist by way of nominations.)

And then there are the categories, like none I’ve seen before. Children’s material shows up on several short lists:

Best Related Book

  • The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community by Diana Glyer; appendix by David Bratman (Kent State University Press)
  • Breakfast in the Ruins: Science Fiction in the Last Millennium by Barry Malzberg (Baen)
  • Emshwiller: Infinity x Two by Luis Ortiz, intro. by Carol Emshwiller, fwd. by Alex Eisenstien (Nonstop)
  • Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction by Jeff Prucher (Oxford University Press)
  • The Arrival by Shaun Tan (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic)

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form

  • Enchanted Written by Bill Kelly Directed by Kevin Lima (Walt Disney Pictures)
  • The Golden Compass Written by Chris Weitz Based on the novel by Philip Pullman Directed by Chris Weitz (New Line Cinema)
  • Heroes, Season 1 Created by Tim Kring (NBC Universal Television and Tailwind Productions Written by Tim Kring, Jeff Loeb, Bryan Fuller, Michael Green, Natalie Chaidez, Jesse Alexander, Adam Armus, Aron Eli Coleite, Joe Pokaski, Christopher Zatta, Chuck Kim. Directed by David Semel, Allan Arkush, Greg Beeman, Ernest R. Dickerson, Paul Shapiro, Donna Deitch, Paul A. Edwards, John Badham, Terrence O’Hara, Jeannot Szwarc, Roxann Dawson, Kevin Bray, Adam Kane
  • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix Written by Michael Goldenberg Based on the novel by J.K. Rowling Directed by David Yates (Warner Bros. Pictures)
  • Stardust Written by Jane Goldman & Matthew Vaughn Based on the novel by Neil Gaiman Directed by Matthew Vaughn (Paramount Pictures)

Best Professional Artist

  • Bob Eggleton
  • Phil Foglio
  • John Harris
  • Stephan Martiniere
  • John Picacio
  • Shaun Tan

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Waiting for (More) Lyra: ‘Compass’ spins foreign frenzy

Seems as if my wishful dreaming for film adaptations of The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass is not totally hopeless. Here are some heartening excerpts from ‘Compass’ spins foreign frenzy” in yesterday’s Variety.

After its strong start in Japan last week, “The Golden Compass” is on course to make box office history as the first film to gross $300 million in foreign while failing to reach $100 million in North America.

As producer Deborah Forte points out, with a global gross heading for $375 million-$400 million and an Oscar to its name, “Golden Compass” counts as a success by most yardsticks — just not necessarily for New Line.

With a downsized New Line set to become Warner label, the intriguing question is now whether Warner toppers will see past the domestic flop and greenlight the second and third installments of Philip Pullman‘s “His Dark Materials” trilogy — “The Subtle Knife” and “The Amber Spyglass” — based on those boffo foreign grosses.

Indeed, Warner, the studio behind “Harry Potter,” may turn out to be a better home for the Pullman franchise than New Line ever was.

Clearly, “Golden Compass” was not as unmarketable as the U.S. figures would suggest. “If the movie really wasn’t up to snuff, it wouldn’t have done $300 million,” Forte says.

Excuses that fantasy pics often do better in foreign, or that the film’s perceived anti-God message was a more powerful negative in the U.S., have a certain truth, but can’t fully explain the unprecedented gulf.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the foreign indies such as Entertainment in the U.K., Metropolitan in France, Tripictures in Spain, 01 in Italy and Gaga in Japan, not to mention Warner in Germany, simply did a better job of understanding and positioning “Golden Compass” as a family film, and heading off the potential problems in advance, than New Line’s domestic team did.

Forte notes, “We probably underperformed in the U.S., and we performed according to expectations outside the U.S. Why? It’s so hard to tell. People say fantasy does much better overseas, and that the book was much better known, but I’m not sure either is true. The book was really only known in the U.K. and Australia. Most of the foreign distributors built awareness from scratch.”

It’s hard to imagine the folks at Warner Intl. rubbing their hands at the prospect of more of the same from a downsized New Line. But they might welcome “The Subtle Knife,” the second book in Pullman’s trilogy, for which Hossein Amini has already written a script, and the final installment “The Amber Spyglass.”

New Line’s foreign distribs would certainly snap up the sequels, if offered. If Warner gives the greenlight, the overseas indies won’t get a look-in, but should Warner put the rest of the trilogy into turnaround, there’s a ready-made independent market for the pics.

One way or another, Forte won’t give up the fight. “I will make ‘The Subtle Knife’ and ‘The Amber Spyglass,'” she vows. “I believe there are enough people who see what a viable and successful franchise we have.”

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Waiting for (More)Lyra: American and the Rest of the World

Cultural insights from the box office – Opinion – smh.com.au
■ There’s a case for making part two of The Golden Compass. Its budget was $230 million. In America it made $90 million (most of its accents are British and it was labelled anti-religious). In the rest of the world it was a hit, making $330 million. It’s the world’s 75th biggest moneymaker of all time, well ahead of Passion Of The Christ (90). The Golden Compass ended on a cliffhanger. The plot can’t be resolved without American money.

Can Hollywood rise above xenophobia and lift the world off the edge?

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A Dust-Up Over Dust

Actually, it is a fascinating glimpse into academic politics, this one being a battle royal between two philosophers.

Intellectually, they hold very different views on one of the hottest, and most intractable of philosophical problems, consciousness. Honderich calls himself a radical externalist on consciousness, meaning, he writes in his book, that “my perceptual consciousness now consists in the existence of a world”.

I’m the daughter of an academic and all too familiar with academic feuds, disputes, and other very nasty stuff. The Guardian article suggests that something personal not intellectual is at the heart of this particular fight which makes me quite uncomfortable. No doubt it will make all involved even angrier than they already are. But it was the consciousness stuff that caught my eye — Pullman’s Dust. Interesting, that.

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