This recent collection of well-loved tales highlights one thing above all else – the fact that these stories can be enjoyed by everybody, as pointed out in the ‘for young and old’ tag-line. But this truth is more than just a marketing ploy. It hits at the essential narrative power which has led to these folk stories still having an important and immortal role in storytelling today.
One might ask how an author can retell a well-known story and make it simultaneously their own and a part of a long tradition. Philip Pullman has carried out extensive research into the origins of the tales here told, but more importantly he turns his creative eye upon them. Where a narrative seems misplaced or misdirected, he has endeavoured to reshape it in the best way. We can trust to the masterful storytelling of Pullman that his decisions are successful – but part of the fascination of this book is that he includes after each tale a few pages of notes. The notes detail both scholarly history – the origins and type of the tale, and they explain the changes he has made and the reasons behind them.
Pullman’s writing style is engaging and imaginative, but as mentioned above, it is mainly the content of these stories which is the point of interest. At the end of the collection the reader has to answer the question – who are the stories for? Pullman’s answer is on the front cover, but it is an interesting topic to debate. The fates of many characters within these pages are grisly, although usually justly deserved. Despite their dark nature, many of these tales are dismissed as ‘fairy stories for children’, but at their heart lies the deepest elements of humanity, and they ought to be read, or re-read, by both young and old.