Folk Poesy


‘The Goose-Girl’. From German Popular Stories by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, 1823. Illustrated by George Cruikshank.

From The Times Literary Supplement:

Most of Pullman’s forerunners turned to imaginative creations of their own after they had quarried the scholarly deposits. M. R. James’s thrilling ghost stories are steeped in his antiquarian and scriptural research; Italo Calvino compiled, with Fiabe italiane (in Italian Folktales, l957), the equivalent of the Grimms’ Tales from the deep deposits in nineteenth-century Italian provincial archives, and only then did he begin to write his magical realist fictions, abandoning the delicate Chekhovian tendency of his earliest stories. Pullman has reversed the sequence. And unlike Calvino, who decided to retain only faint traces of dialect and to give a fresh account of all his tales, Pullman is setting out to render the Grimms limpidly and scrupulously, to respect the originals in a language “as clear as water”. But he is torn. The raw material keeps demanding more. He is not a scholar of German, or a translator. He is not content to “carry across” the stories, but rather from a love of the fairy tale form, he wants to do the best for them, and open up their fullest and most coherent narrative power, approaching translation as (to use Matthew Reynolds’s term) “resurrection”. Music-making provides Pullman with his prime analogy for what he is doing; he invokes a jazz band, with a soloist taking up a tune: “our task is to step from chord to chord, from event to event, with all the lightness and swing we can”. In this collection, he can’t help seizing the melody with improvisatory glee.

The Grimm Brothers reproached their friends and fellow collectors, Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano, for altering the material they brought into print. In the Circular Letter Jacob Grimm sent out in 1815, he began by asking correspondents to find songs and rhymes, but he moved on swiftly to the stories for which the Grimms have become the most widely read writers of fairy tales in the world. He specified “Local Legends [Sagen] not in verse, most especially both the various Nurses’ Tales and Children’s Tales [Ammen- und Kindermärchen] of giants, dwarves, monsters, kings’ sons and daughters spellbound and set free, devils, treasures and wishing objects, . . . Animal Fables in particular are to be noted . . .”. Philip Pullman’s half-century of tales includes a handful of the latter, cynical lessons in the world that fairy tales set out to refute with their “cunning and high spirits” (Walter Benjamin’s phrase), their improbable reversals of fate and happy endings. The Letter’s harvest was meagre, the Brothers’ richest sources remaining closer to hand in their own circle of family and friends, but its aims show the Brothers’ pioneering attempt at popular ethnography, around thirty years before the word “folklore” was introduced into English. The Grimms called what they were looking for “Folk Poesy”, and they stipulated that its origins must be unadulterated: “Above all”, Jacob wrote, “it is important that these items should be gathered faithfully and truly, without decoration and addition and with the greatest possible precision and detail, from the mouths of the story-tellers, where practicable in and with their own authentic words.” The Brothers’ impulse was philological and lexicographical, and in 1812, Children’s and Household Tales came out in an edition of 600, with an apparatus of notes running to hundreds of pages. It was not intended to be read for pleasure by the subjects of its title; it was a learned work setting out to unearth an alternative native canon, reconfigure the cultural history of Germany along lines that would distinguish its special qualities and emancipate it from the monopoly of classical and French superiority. As Jack Zipes has shown in The Irresistible Fairy Tale, the Grimms’ Tales were only repackaged for the general book trade and family entertainment by the Brothers after they received, much to their astonishment, Taylor’s first English translation (l823) with its jolly, child-friendly illustrations by the caricaturist George Cruikshank (the volumes have been handsomely reissued by Crescent Moon Press, with an introduction by Zipes). Cruikshank’s two frontispieces significantly framed the stories as fun for all the family: fireside scenes, one with a comical little grandpa roaring with laughter and kicking up his heels, another with a venerable granny or Mother Goose gathering a rapt clutch of little ones around her knees. This gave the Victorians their precedent for nudging the material into the nursery. Two hundred years later, fairy tale, especially the Brothers Grimm variety, no longer appears such innocent amusement.

The dream of a pure fountainhead, of the old crone storyteller passing on the wisdom of the tribe, is a principle of cultural nationalism, as well as a form of Romantic Pastoral, that still runs through some present-day writings of place and memory. But fairy tales, as the Grimms discovered, have no more sense of nation or native tongue than swifts or butterflies, and have proved recidivist emigrants, always slipping across borders. Wilhelm Grimm soon felt himself obliged to drop some stories and meddle with others, at first because some were too Gallic – Puss-in-Boots and Bluebeard echoed the suavity and courtly Contes of Perrault (1697) – others because they were too off-colour by the standards of the day (Rapunzel bedded, and pregnant before she’s wedded). The most acute quandary, however, that Wilhelm faced persists in Philip Pullman’s enterprise in his new Grimm Tales: how to make the transition to the page and keep the sense of the pristine origin.

“Fairy tales licked clean”, Marina Warner, The Times Literary Supplement