Sunday 23 September 2012

Not Just So

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 Pullman’s 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. 

Pullman is interested in the stories as stories.  Yes, yes; that is how it should be.  He came to my bedside.  I lie down, tucked-in, cosy and warm, under my duvet, waiting once again to be thrilled, charmed and beguiled. They are mostly there, the familiar like Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood – a particular favourite -, along with the less familiar like Gambling Hans and Godfather Death

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 Pullman 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.   


  1. Quite right, A perfect world would be German and pagan!

  2. Once upon a time, O Best Beloved, there were no stories at all, and no writing, and no memories of the endless days that stretched uncounted into the mysterious past, and unlooked for into the unimagined future.

    Then, magic happened. Creatures that were not-yet-men began to remember things seen and heard and to dream things that might be, and to reshape things around them to their imaginings. And one day, not-yet-men began to imitate the sounds and movements of other creatures, and invent new sounds and gestures.

    What were the first stories? Maybe something like: "Danger! Hide!" or "Beast. Follow, Kill, Eat." How many thousands of tellings and retellings before Past and Future were discovered? How many before Story became History and Instruction? Memory passed down generations - is this the oldest magic of all?

    Somehow, the very young know exact retelling is important to make the magic work. Just how old are the oldest tales? How much do we remember? How much do we invent?

    1. O, Best Beloved, as old as time and older; as old as memory and older. :-)

  3. Ana, I can't imagine better practical advice for a writer than to imagine, just before beginning their writing session, their ideal reader just as you have described yourself: "I lie down, tucked-in, cosy and warm, under my duvet, waiting once again to be thrilled, charmed and beguiled . . . "

    That simple procedure alone might ignite a new literary renaissance . . . !