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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6 Comments

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

6 responses to “Interview: Philip Pullman on his Retelling the Grimm Fairy Tales

  1. Jonathan Hunt

    Would be a Newbery contender if he lived in the US, I think, despite being published by the adult side of the house.

  2. I’ve read four stories so far (my guilty pleasure since it is a UK book) and they are fabulous!! I’m going to bring the book with me to the family Thanksgiving gathering and read to my nieces and nephews — and no, I’m not just going to learn to tell these stories (although I often tell stories without books in hand) because, like it or not, Philip, these have your literary stamps all over them and I want the little ones hear your choices of words and your tones and your embellishments!

  3. Thanks so much for this interview! Pullman has been a huge influence on me as a performer and storyteller. This book is my favorite new read of the year.

  4. Pingback: Fusenews: The P.D. Eastman Influence « A Fuse #8 Production

  5. Such a lovely, wonderful interview! My burning question is now: Monica, have you started learning some of these stories to tell to your classes? I’ve never tried that, and it makes me incredibly nervous!! But, I can really truly see Mr. Pullman’s point about the power in telling a story, instead of reading it. Do tell, how has it gone???

    • I am ashamed to admit I have not yet managed to do this. He makes me feel so guilty, but I am much more comfortable with a book in front of me! I’ve told him this directly and he still pushes me to give it try. I’ve promised, but so far haven’t come through with it.

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