Pure Narrative Pleasure
My earliest introduction to story came from two sources, the orange Childcraft books devoted to fairytales and Arthur Maxwell’s blue Bible Story books. If my mother had time in the afternoon, she’d read me a tale or two from Childcraft, and at bedtime, every night, she or my father would sit on the side of my bed and read a Bible story. I think we got through all of Arthur Maxwell’s books, or came close. The Childcraft books had an amazing supply of material, and not only fairy tales, but wonderful children’s poetry, like Alfred Noyes’ “The Highwayman” or Longfellow’s “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.”
I don’t think I ever felt more secure or loved than when my parents were reading to me. It was one of the greatest gifts they ever gave me. Almost as I was learning to speak, I was given a deep sense of the music of language and of narrative structure. I was also tying into some of the deepest sources in the western tradition of common sense, morality, and how absurdly funny life could be. My students, over the years, have tended to be somewhat intimidated by poetry, and sometimes I go back to the great narrative poetry of the nineteenth century, meant mainly for children, to give them a sense of definite rhythm, alliteration, and how much fun it can be. If they’d been read to, as so many of them have not, literature would not seem like a foreign object, dropped from outer space, but more like an old friend.
My childhood was full of fairytales from all directions. There were the great Disney adaptations of Sleeping Beauty, Pinocchio, Snow White, and Cinderella, which C. S. Lewis couldn’t stand as too cute, but which I still maintain are dark, dangerous, and delightful. There were all of the crazy cartoon adaptations on TV, featuring a gum-snapping flapper Red Riding Hood and Nazi wolves planning to carve up pigs like Europe. Best of all were the “Fractured Fairytales” of Rocky and Bullwinkle, which remained surprisingly faithful to their originals, but added hilarious modern deviations—a fisherman who lived in a house that was repeatedly described as “shabby, but neat,” and a Hollywood agent Rumpelstiltskin. Without the Childcraft versions as a baseline, I wouldn’t have found these anywhere near as funny. (YouTube, by the way, preserves “The Fisherman and the Mermaid,” my favorite.)
Philip Pullman, who taught middle school for sixteen years in North Oxford and began writing children’s literature in 1982, is best known for the trilogy, His Dark Materials, which was sensationally popular in England during the early years of this century. This work is somewhat notorious, at least in the United States, for aiming a frankly atheistic message at children. Although I don’t care for Pullman’s religious views, I admire him as a storyteller, and his most recent book, Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, is a gift. It presents fifty of Grimm Brothers tales, some familiar, like “Hansel and Gretel,” “Cinderella,” “The Fisherman and His Wife,” “The Brave Tailor,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Briar Rose,” and “Cinderella,” but beautiful, less familiar stories such as “The Juniper Tree,” and tales that are extended proverbs, such as “The Cat and the Mouse Set Up House.”
Pullman’s aim is to present these stories without exercising a lot of authorial license, and he accomplishes it, presenting fairytales as the clean, unembellished narratives they are.
Pullman explains, “I just wanted to produce a version that was as clear as water. My guiding question has been: ‘How would I tell this story myself, if I’d heard it told by someone else and wanted to pass it on? Any changes I’ve made have been for the purpose of helping the story emerge more naturally in my voice.” Pullman has succeeded in doing this, and his voice added delight to the stories, often in a funny, “fractured fairytale” way. Here are some of my favorites. With regard to the brave little tailor, one of his opponents cries, “He’s a weapon of mass destruction!” In “The Fisherman and His Wife,” when the poor fisherman does not want to return to the flounder to ask for yet another of his wife’s wishes, she upbraids him, “That’s you all over. Poverty of aspiration.” There is a good deal of Roald Dahl’s humor in Pullman’s versions, mixed with his own lyricism. (This would be an excellent book for beginning fiction writers to study.)
After each fairytale Pullman presents the tale’s classification according to the “ATU” system, first developed by Antti Aaarne in The Types of International Folktales (1910) and later revised by Stith Thompson in 1961 and Hans-Jörg Uther in 2004 (hence, ATU). Here, in a paragraph of two, Pullman gives his own pithy comments about the stories, sometimes as interpreter, but more often as a writer concerned with his craft. These sections are fortunately more entertaining than academic, not least because they often take pokes at attempts to read deep meaning into the tales. I am especially fond of two stingers. One comes at the end of “The Golden Bird,” in which Pullman summarizes a ponderous and interminable Jungian interpretation and then says: “I don’t believe this interpretation for a moment, any more than I believe in most Jungian twaddle, but it’s possible. Such a reading could be sustained. What does that show? That the meaning preceded the story, which was composed to illustrate it like an allegory, or that the story fell accidentally into an interpretable shape?” Of course, neither alternative can be taken seriously, and it’s a good question for any critic to ask when dealing with a narrative that isn’t clearly allegorical. The second occurs at the end of “Iron Hans,” the story which Pullman reminds us was the inspiration for Robert Bly’s dead and buried men’s movement book, Iron John, about the need for “an authentic model of masculinity”: the poor fairytale can’t really bear the weight: “Nothing is more likely to drive listeners away than a ponderous interpretation of what they’ve just marveled at. It’s a very good story, whatever it means.”
Pullman’s position is, don’t worry too much about what these little folk narratives mean. Don’t crunch them under Freud or Jung or some structuralist theory. Just enjoy them and let them do their work. Let them seep into your bones, or, if you are lucky, let them recall how they entered your consciousness through the loving voice of a parent. C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien would applaud.
Craig Bernthal is a professor of English at California State University, Fresno. His books are The Trial of Man: Christianity and Judgment in the World of Shakespeare, and Perfection in Bad Axe, a collection of short stories.
Posted: November 11, 2012
Volume 34, Number 1 (Summer 1994)