November 08, 2012


Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version. By Philip Pullman. Viking. $27.95.

The Rime of the Modern Mariner. By Nick Hayes. Viking. $32.

      Philip Pullman wears his erudition so lightly that it is easy to underestimate its depth and extent. Best known for His Dark Materials, a universe-spanning trilogy that is emphatically not for children in any way except on the surface, Pullman is also a playwright, the creator of the Sally Lockhart tetralogy, and the author of more than a dozen non-series books – a literary polymath whose inventive well never seems to run dry. He is also a student, lover and creator of fairy tales, numbering among his books and stories several works that tie directly or indirectly to the fairy-tale realm, reimagine it in new and intriguing ways, or simply use it as a jumping-off point for stories that Pullman himself wishes to tell: The Wonderful Story of Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp, Puss in Boots: The Adventures of That Most Enterprising Feline, The Scarecrow and his Servant, I was a Rat! or The Scarlet Slippers, and others.

      And now Pullman offers 50 of the 210 tales collected by the brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, presenting them in wholly enchanting new versions that stay true to the Grimms’ originals (which, in any case, changed somewhat as their later editions were published) while containing just enough subtle tweaks to make them even more intriguing. Pullman is an absolute master of subtlety, and uses it wonderfully here.  Whether adding a telling detail to a murder scene in “The Three Snake Leaves,” creating some additional dialogue for the dwarfs in “The Three Little Men in the Woods,” or telling the story of “Thousandfurs” straightforwardly but then suggesting, in a note afterwards, a much more literary and horrific way it could have ended, Pullman brings his tremendous knowledge, understanding and writing skill to bear on stories that are definitely not for children and were never intended to be. Yes, the Grimms themselves (especially Wilhelm) elaborated and bowdlerized the stories over time, even to the point of removing Rapunzel’s pregnancy as a prime mover of that story’s plot – despite the fact that the whole tale is about sex and childbirth.  But it was really other hands, not the Grimms’, that turned so many of these tales into harmless childhood bedtime stories: “Snow White,” in the original of which the evil queen is forced to dance to her death in red-hot iron shoes, and “Cinderella,” which in the original ends with the selfish and hard-hearted stepsisters’ eyes plucked out, and many others. Those well-known stories are here, along with “Rumpelstiltskin,” “Hansel and Gretel,” “The Musicians of Bremen” and other familiar tales. And so are some decidedly unfamiliar ones, such as “The Mouse, the Bird and the Sausage,” “Farmerkin,” “Gambling Hans,” “The Singing, Springing Lark,” and others.  The stories that would simply be too scurrilous for modern tastes, such as the ones in which stereotypical Jews are humiliated and ruined by good Christians, are omitted, as are many others – some of which it would be nice to have Pullman dredge up in a followup collection.  For now, though, this Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm is a delight from the first story to the last – and even before the first story, thanks to an introduction in which Pullman is so witty and self-aware that it is easy to miss the considerable intelligence underlying what he says: “The speed [of the stories] is exhilarating. You can only go that fast, however, if you’re travelling light…” And “we may do our best by these tales, and find that it’s still not enough. I suspect that the finest of them have the quality that the great pianist Artur Schnabel attributed to the sonatas of Mozart: they are too easy for children and too difficult for adults.” These introductory remarks, and the pithy and forthright comments that Pullman makes after concluding his retelling of each tale (for example, saying that a scene in “The Girl with No Hands” is “very affecting and strange,” but adding that “the tale itself is disgusting”), are reason enough to own this book. And the stories are reason enough, too. There is no reason to seek more reasons.

      Finding a reason for The Rime of the Modern Mariner is considerably more difficult.  This book gets a (++) rating, entirely on the basis of Nick Hayes’ artistic talents, but his retold story of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is handled so badly that the writing gets a zero. Coleridge’s beautifully rhythmic poem (from 1798) is a fable, a fairy tale of sorts, and it is clear from the start that the mariner picks his audience carefully: “he stoppeth one of three” to tell his tale, and at the end explains his God-given erudition:

I pass, like night, from land to land;
I have strange power of speech;
That moment that his face I see,
I know the man that must hear me:
To him my tale I teach.

      But there is no teaching in Hayes’ work, which is strictly polemical, a dull jeremiad about the evils of human-caused environmental degradation, in which the mariner tells his story to a divorced man (to contrast with Coleridge’s wedding guest) who sits in a park eating lunch.  The man learns absolutely nothing from the story, tossing some coins to the mariner at the end and returning to his ordinary life. “A sadder and a wiser man”? Not here. Bereft of teaching and meaning, The Rime of the Modern Mariner is nothing but the umpteenth excuse for an author to say that humans have damaged the planet and are awful, thoughtless, evil creatures, incapable of understanding, much less reversing, the harm they have done. And this extreme and unforgiving viewpoint is communicated through poorly worded poetry that neither scans nor rhymes properly – a stark contrast to Coleridge’s elegant, free-flowing verse.  For instance, Hayes writes:

Closer still I stared through their translucent jelly cells
And saw the heart of a two-inch salp beating like a bell.

And (the ellipses that follow are the original punctuation):

A smudge of smoky cirrus sifted through the sky…
A silent sound of sustenance…that I was still alive!

This is really execrable poetry, so consistently awful that it becomes a full-time distraction from the illustrations – which are the heart and soul of the book (to the extent that it has heart or soul).  Hayes is primarily a political cartoonist, and his sweeps and swirls of modest color (black, white and blue), his looming waves and leering creatures and skeletons and deliberately ugly portrayals of industry, show his penchant for a kind of elegant artistic simplicity that unfortunately, in the pictures of the mariner himself, veers too often into comic-book illustration. By and large, the mariner’s predicament here has little resonance: yes, he kills an albatross, as in Coleridge, but not thoughtlessly – he is overtly vicious. And his act carries none of the tension associated with a sin against God or an invitation to “the nightmare Life-in-Death.” It is simply a demonstration, one among many, of how evil human beings are. Hayes goes on and on with his imperfect rhymes (“eyes” with “lie,” “bet” with “jets,” and so forth) and his overdone and often incoherent tale-telling:

I heard the wind from far away, a horn from foreign wars,
And like a wrathful god it reached me in a rough and ragged roar.

Far from a tribute to or update of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Hayes’ book is essentially a graphic novel advocating environmentalism, but suggesting that the world has deteriorated too much for even the well-meaning to have any significant effect on the future – the book ends with the notion that “Adam’s kin” has, or will have, “vanished in the wind” (in a final non-rhyme).  Too overdone to be depressing, too strident to be convincing, The Rime of the Modern Mariner is really of interest only for its well-wrought pictures, which unfortunately are put at the service of a story so one-dimensional that it would have made Coleridge cringe – and will likely provoke the same reaction from modern readers who are genuinely concerned about environmental destruction.

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