As a modern reader, you might be appalled at the ostensibly clumsy craft on display in Pullman’s “New English Version” of these classic stories. Today’s most celebrated fiction tends to eloquently explore characters’ personalities and psyches at minute, intricate levels—a style of storytelling that Pullman explicitly rejects in his introduction. He isn’t being stubborn or contrarian; he’s composed these tales with minimal description and blunt, plainspoken action out of respect for the culture and tradition behind the fairy-tale form. He leaves his own idiosyncratic stamp on the tales while upholding their core elements, which he so clearly admires—and, by doing so, he refreshes some of the most familiar stories in our canon.
Pullman went through the more than 200 original Grimm tales, as well as a wide range of related fairy and folk tales from Western cultures, to come up with his 50 choices for the book. Each is followed by a brief commentary written with an unpredictable blend of Pullman’s accomplished fairy-tale scholarship and a degree of playful insanity. At the end of “Thousandfurs” he provides an extravagantly detailed explanation of how he would continue the story, right down to the method in which the villain would be dismembered and buried. Pullman is candid; he doesn’t hesitate to express his dislike for “The Girl With No Hands” and makes no secret of how much he loves “The Three Snake Leaves.” His commentary also serves as a helpful guide through the different types of fairy tales on offer. The book has so many stories, and by reading them you get to find your particular taste in Grimm brothers’ tales. It seems impossible that anyone won't be able to find a handful of favorites here.