Grimms' Fairy Tales: Pandering to Humanity's Worst Desires Since 1812

Philip Pullman's new book distills classic stories to their purest form, and their purest form resembles today's basest TV shows and movies.

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"There is no psychology in a fairy tale," Philip Pullman writes in his new Fairy Tales From the Brothers Grimm, out today. "The tremors and mysteries of human awareness, the whispers of memory, the promptings of half-understood regret or doubt or desire that are so much part of the subject matter of the modern novel are absent entirely. One might almost say that the characters in a fairy tale are not actually conscious."

The distinction Pullman makes here—between modern novel and traditional story, new and old—gets used often when thinking of folk tales. That binary of old/new is inevitably linked to others: oral/text, simple/complex, pure/corrupt. The folk stories, this thinking goes, are a lost, more limpid way of seeing and being. Pullman's task in telling the stories then becomes, as he says, the task of "clearing out of the way anything that would prevent them from running freely." He wanted, he said, to "produce a version that was as clear as water." Pullman seeks to brush away the psychological and sophisticated clutter of the present in order to return to the simpler clarity of the past.

Pullman's prose is undeniably lucid and easy. As he says in one of many delightful turns of phrase, "a prince is never lost for words." And so Pullman's tales ripple and flow, delighting in their own quiet virtuosity like a stream happy in its banks. Tailors triumph, princesses are married, witches do evil and then are done for, and everything, everything, everything comes naturally and inevitably in threes.

But while the stories in Pullman's telling are certainly enjoyable, they aren't quite as unfamiliar as his introduction suggests they might be. In part, of course, this is simply because many of the stories—Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and others—are as told and retold now as they ever were. In that sense, it seems odd to compare old fairy tales to modern novels. Why not, after all, compare those old fairy tales to those same old fairy tales, which are still current?

Even beyond that, though, many of the aspects of the stories seem less like an older, purer narrative folk tradition, and more like our familiar, contemporary, debased tradition of popular culture. "The Boy Who Left Home to Find Out About the Shivers," for instance, is basically an excuse for a series of slapstick set pieces of the sort (knocking someone down a flight of stairs; dumping minnows in someone's bed) that are as popular in low-brow comedy today as they were in the days of the Three Stooges. Similarly, the delightful "Lazy Hanz," which is basically nothing but a series of anecdotes about how much the protagonist enjoys his own sloth, recalls the evergreen routines of blissful slobs such as Oscar the Grouch or Popeye's Wimpy. Many of the stories—with their series of quests and tasks and magic thingamabobs jiggering gateways to fabulous whatsits—feel like scripts for the simpler kinds of videogames. On the other hand, "Faithful Johannes," in which an abducted princess falls for the suitor who skeevily kidnaps her, seems to come right out of the aren't-stalkers-charming school of vacuous romance. And any number of tales—with their litany of strangulation, drowning, blinding, amputation, cannibalism, and sweet, bloody revenge—foreshadow our own lurid genres of horror and suspense.

There's nothing new in making parallels between pop and older folk tales. Mainstream comics fans like to talk about superheroes as modern myths, for example, and it's not too hard to find academics making parallels between folk stories and slasher films. Usually, these links are meant as apologias. They use the cachet of tradition to try and validate pop.

But it seems like you could just as easily use the pop to question the artistic merit of the folk tales. The bland princes and bland princesses forever marrying and forever happy-ending certainly gets old well before you've read through this 400-page volume. And the simplicity and clarity of the tropes is not always a moral or aesthetic virtue. For example, people in these tales are almost always evil—and when they're not, they're sure to get transformed into more appealing forms by the end. The good may die, but only to be miraculously resurrected. And, of course,the evil are always fitted with red hot shoes and forced to dance to death, or rolled about in spiked barrels, or their eyes are pecked out by crows in that great pulp tradition whereby evil exists mostly as an excuse to enact righteous, cathartic bloodshed.

Pullman himself, in a moment of exasperation with a particularly gory and sententious tale ("The Girl With No Hands,") speculates that "perhaps a great many people like stories of maiming, cruelty, and sentimental piety." I don't think there's any "perhaps" about it. On the contrary, popular narratives over the last few hundred years, whether folk tales or genre pulp, demonstrate pretty clearly that people want their narratives to have violence, sentiment, romance, low humor, and self-righteous revenge. Folk-tale clarity is not the clarity of pre-modern unselfconsciousness. Rather, it's the clarity of serene, sublime audience pandering. As Superman beats the bad guy, as Bella gets Edward, as the final girl guts the slasher, so do fairy tales hurtle towards their inevitable and satisfying ever afters. There is, undoubtedly, a beauty in the banality of the delivery system, as there is a banality in the beauty. But either way, folk tales don't show a simpler past so much as the simple repetition—for better and worse—of desires that we still enjoy dreaming today.