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A couple of months ago I was due to attend a talk on fairy tales involving Philip Pullman and Neil Gaiman. Sadly Philip Pullman couldn’t attend due to illness, so I was happy to discover that the National Theatre was hosting a talk by him on the same subject, to take place on the 2nd of January. I couldn’t think of a better way to start the New Year, so I bought a ticket straight away.

Pullman has recently released Grimm Tales for Young and Old, a selection of the fairy tales originally collected by the Grimms in the nineteenth century. I have the book and I enjoyed reading it: I think Pullman succeeded in his aim to make the tales “as clear as water”, to write them as simply and as straightforwardly as possible. Some of the tales, such as ‘Snow White’ and ‘Rapunzel’, are well-known while others, such as ‘The Three Snake-Leaves’, are not. Even the well-known tales, however, are often different to the current popular versions. For instance, in ‘The Frog Prince’, the princess doesn’t kiss the frog to turn him into a prince; she throws him against a wall! Out of around two hundred tales, fifty were selected for the book (I have the special Waterstone’s edition, which includes an extra three stories).

I enjoyed the talk (facilitated by journalist Nicolette Jones). It was interesting to hear Pullman’s views on the tales, such as the simplicity of the stories, the straightforward sense of justice in them, and the ‘cardboard’ characters who are timeless in their universality. He remarked on the importance of telling stories – not from a book, but from your own mind – for anyone with responsibility for children. At this point I became glad that I do not have any such responsibility. I am sure Pullman is right, but the thought of sitting in front of a bunch of expectant children and making up a story as I go along frankly terrifies me!

I also enjoyed hearing Pullman’s answers to the questions and remarks of the audience. In response to his (understandable) statement that he didn’t like one of the stories – where a father cuts off his daughter’s hands – and is not punished – an audience member said that she found the courage and resilience of the daughter inspiring: a different way of looking at things. Another wondered if teaching children the kind of black and white morality and justice found in the tales was appropriate, given the complexity of real life. Pullman said yes and I’m inclined to agree with him: I think you need to start somewhere, and you can begin with simplicity and go on to more complex ways of thinking later. After all, they teach you when you are small that minus numbers don’t exist, to avoid confusing you, and introduce them later when you are bigger and (hopefully) cleverer.

It turns out that Pullman is a big fan of Neighbours – after writing in the morning he takes a break for lunch and sits down to watch the lunchtime edition. He clearly has good taste in soaps!