I have my favourites just as I am sure you have yours, those tales, told in childhood, which have a lifelong resonance. My grandfather was a particularly good story-teller, both in fact and in fiction, meaning that he could tell true stories and tall stories with equal verve and conviction!
Those I liked best he told me time and time again. I loved them, so much so that I would not tolerate any deviation. Like Josephine, Rudyard Kipling’s lost daughter, for me the tales of a grandfather had to be ‘just so.’ He was my best beloved; they were my best beloved.
It was this ‘just so’ attitude that came increasingly to mind as I worked my way through Philip Pullman’s recently published Grimm Tales for Young and Old in a New English Version. I enjoyed it…up to a point, though I have to say more for his approach than for his telling. Hold on a moment or two. I promise to become a little less cryptic!
The Grimm Tales, which I also know from childhood, are likewise in the ‘just so’ category of narration. When I was learning German, getting to the stage just beyond the foothills of grammar and parsing, it was to the Grimm Brothers I turned, those beautiful, simple stories in beautiful and limpid prose, as clear as glass. Even in another language they were just as I remembered, though perhaps a little darker, a shade or two grimmer.
What I love about them most of all is their child-like simplicity, though these peasant folk tales were not devised for children. The point is, I think, that the outlook of an older, rural and less complicated world is not that far removed from the outlook of children. There are no shades of grey. Good is good and bad is bad. And the really bad are made to dance to death on red hot iron slippers. Quite right!
It’s a world of bright light and sinister shadows, of handsome princes and ugly witches, of forests and of towers, a wonderful, wonderful enchanted realm. The imagery is simple and stark, the psychology non-existent. Things are as they should be, as red as blood or as white as snow. It’s a pre-Christian world, a pagan world, a world where justice comes as retribution and revenge.
It needs no explanation; the tales contain their own morals and their own simple truths. There is no need for metaphysics and metatheory; all judgement, all adult preconceptions, have to be abandoned. The paradox here is that
theory that is not a theory for me was the best part of the whole book!
Now I open my copy at his introduction. Here I see one passage, heavily underlined, an expression of my papal imprimatur.
Pullman says he is not
interested in the “ponderous interpretations” to which the tales have been
subjected. He is not interested in the “…Freudian, Jungian, Christian,
Marxist, structuralist, post-structuralist, feminist, post-modernist and every
other kind of tendency.”
Spot on! I have no time for all of this sub-Jungian twaddle either. The point is that this entire ponderous explanatory superstructure is not just so; this is just so much extraneous rubbish; this is the tendentious uses of enchantment school.
Pullman believes that most of the
interpretations offered are little more than seeing pleasant patterns in the
sparks of a fire, doing no harm. Well, perhaps, though for me much of the
over-intellectualising is little better than a verbal form of the Emperor’s new
clothes. There is simply nothing there.
But, please, hold on: this is not quite right; this is not just so. It’s clever, yes, but cleverness is not what I want. The author has taken the tales at face value, part of an oral tradition, subject to change, variation and retelling over time. The Grimms were guilty, if that is the word, of their own adaptations, which took a more gentrified form in their later collections. Now
has his spin, his retelling.
But I want familiarity, I want to take the paths I remember; I do not want innovation, no matter how clever the story teller. I can’t say to
Pullman, stop: I
want it like this, not like that. I can’t say that’s not what
happened. What works well for you does not work well for me. That
is the biggest disappointment of this book – there is simply too much Pullman. The
materials are beautifully dark enough without his over-voice and polish.