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Philip Pullman offers a purist’s take on Grimm fairy tales

British author Phillip Pullman

Randy Quan/The Globe and Mail

Philip Pullman loves soap operas, his current favourite being the Australian series Neighbours, which charms him he says "partly because there's nothing original in it." Even when new characters appear, they keep on doing the same old things. "And I like to see these old patterns show up," Pullman says.

Readers who have made Pullman, author of the trilogy His Dark Materials, one of the world's most successful writers of hyper-imaginative fantasy fiction might well be surprised by his stated disdain for originality. But that is precisely the quality that made Pullman the ideal candidate for the assignment that resulted in his latest book: Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version.

There's nothing new in this book. And unlike so many modern tellers of its familiar tales, Pullman doesn't try to find it. There is no Freudian, feminist or neo-Marxist subtext poking through the smooth surface of his prose, nor any hint of the notorious atheism that has made Pullman such a hero and a villain – far out of proportion to his nominal status as writer of young-adult fiction – in a worldwide religious debate.

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It's not that he isn't aware of all the reassessments various authors have offered since the Grimms' last German edition was published in 1857. Bruno Bettelheim's psychological reading in The Uses of Enchantment is "profoundly convincing," according to Pullman. He calls himself a "great admirer" of Jack Zipes and his Marxist interpretations of the same fairy tales, and admires well-known feminist retellings by Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood and others. "It is perfectly true that all the girls are trodden down and put-upon and all the powerful roles are taken by men," Pullman said in a recent interview.

Keeping his poetic license in a drawer, Pullman refrained from modernizing the stories of Cinderella, Rumpelstiltskin & Co. "I wanted to make versions of them that could read with perfect ease and naturalness in today's language, but which didn't bring the stories up to date," he said, adding that to do so would "falsify" them. "I wanted to make a version that would run as clear as water," he said.

Doing so also required Pullman to shuck off the normal preoccupations of a novelist. "The characters in fairy tales are not characters in the sense that you get in a modern novel," he says. "They don't reflect on anything, they don't think, they haven't got much consciousness…. They're more like puppets than people."

But what might be a problem for a conventional novelist is anything but for Pullman. He finds the company of one-dimensional characters refreshing: It is because Cinderella is such a blank that every child can identify with her. And the fact that people all over the world from the dawn of time have told their own versions of the same stories speaks well of the old formulas.

No novelty intrudes in the dozens of collections of folk tales from other cultures he studied while preparing his book, according to Pullman. "In every folk-tale collection I know, the relations between people are the same as the ones we know," he said, "because that's all you can do with men and women and parents and children."

But every teller of a story that was old long before it was ever written down has a right to their own version. Pullman is at his most free in his rhymes, which are much more natural than those in most translations. He discreetly straightens some of the weirdest narrative kinks out of these least linear narratives and sprinkles small grace notes here and there: In easy rhyming conversation with the hazel tree in her stepmother's garden, Pullman's Cinderella chooses dresses not of gold and silver but of sunlight, moonlight and starlight.

The peril of Pullman's approach lies in its very success: Readers accustomed to freer adaptations of these most famous stories might well regret that there is nothing new in this version. But given the endless proliferation of freehand adaptations in modern culture, a literal, natural translation could be the greatest novelty of all.

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People buying his New English Version "will be looking for Grimm, not Pullman," he said. "So I tried to be as faithful as I could to the stories as we have them in the final edition of Grimm, from 1857, while being true also to my calling as a story teller."

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