Grimm tales


As you did, I found Far Far Away to be a very compelling read. In fact, it drew me in more than just about any book I’ve read this year. I liked the warmth and humor that permeated it, even when it turned truly, well, grim. I just opened the book at random, and found this:

“Yes, yes, all is well in Blixville,” said the baker, who seemed amused not just by the question but by all things, and why not? He was beloved in the town, and his shop was a pocket of warm benignity, as Jeremy could now see for himself. The glass-and-cherrywood cases were filled with a beautiful variety of breads and cakes, two small tables were brightened by vases of flowers, and the rich scents of baked dough, sugar, coffee, and chocolate made me yearn for my mortal sense of taste.” (p. 16)

Now, I admit that this paragraph is particularly poignant when you’ve read the whole book and know that the shop is far from a “pocket of warm benignity,” (and I just love that phrase!) but even so, there’s much to notice here: Ginger’s habit of asking “how are things in [Blixville, Conkville, Jeremyland, etc.]?; Jeremy’s (and Jacob’s)  immediate trust in Blix; Jacob’s position as omniscient but not omnipotent narrator–I thought it was a nice touch that he could smell, but not taste; and Blix’s self-satisfaction.

In many ways, the story is set up much like many of the tales themselves: beginning in the ordinary and everyday, and then moving into the evil and bizarre. Is it Bettelheim or someone else who talks about that fact that although the settings of the tales are “far far away” and exotic to us, they were normal to the original tellers of the tales: villages, cottages, woodcutters, bakers, etc.? Anyway, as you and Lauren mention in the comments, the whole  point of the opening is to build up to Sten Blix and his dungeon and how, to quote Michael Gruber again, Jeremy is “a young person who, by pluck and luck, overcomes malign forces.” So I don’t think your analysis of McNeal’s conception of a fairy tale (good protagonist/evil antagonist/happy ending) is entirely fair. I think he’s trying to do something a little more complicated here in the format of the story.

I do agree that the “Uncommon Knowledge” program was disappointing. I would have loved to have seen them use some of the less common Grimm tales, but, of course, there was no other way that McNeal was going to be able to have Jeremy fail, because Jacob would have known all the answers. And clearly, he had to have Jeremy fail in order to demonstrate his integrity–both for not using the answer that was being fed to him by the producers, and for realizing that even using Jacob’s knowledge was not quite fair play.

Actually, I think my biggest issue with the book is whether it is really a YA book. Even things like focusing on the more familiar Grimm tales says to me that McNeal was thinking of a younger audience. And the use of the Disney allusion was part of that–it was something they would know. Not that teens would necessarily know more about the Grimms and the original tales, but if the book were aimed at a more sophisticated audience, he might have done more hinting and less telling. Admittedly, the last third of the book was a bit intense, but I wouldn’t have any hesitation recommending it to an 11- or 12-year-old, especially one who was a fairy tale fan.

So, as you can see, although I liked the book enormously, I agree that it has flaws (I did give it 4 stars, not 5, on Goodreads!). But I can definitely see why the National Book Award people are considering it, and I think the Newbery Committee might look at it as well as the Printz Committee. I think the flaws are enough to keep it off either of the latter two lists, but who knows?

– Mom



Filed under Books, Children, Teens

3 responses to “Grimm tales

  1. Mark Flowers

    I think I may have been somewhat opaque in my first post, because you seem to have misunderstood me about fairy tales. My point was that McNeal (and Gruber, for that matter) seems to think that all there is to a “fairy tale” is that “young person by pluck or luck overcom[ing] malign forces” and that therefore he (McNeal) is doing “something a little more complicated” by changing things a bit in his own version.

    My belief is that the Grimm tales (I won’t speak to the countless other collections of folk tales) do not at all conform to the pattern that McNeal and others think of when they imagine “fairy tales.” And in my view, many of them are far more thematically sophicated than anything McNeal is attempting. McNeal makes some gestures in that direction (the mention, during “Uncommon Knowledge” of that very strange tale from the first edition which was later expurgated; Sten Blix mentioning that many tales don’t have happy endings), but he doesn’t, to me, seem to take those examples to heart.

    All this, of course, points to precisely your idea that perhaps McNeal’s audience is younger, with a younger understanding of fairy tales, but I still don’t think it is fair (again, especially with Jacob Grimm himself as a narrator) to simplify the tales so much. It was Wilhelm, after all, who shaped many of the tales to be more “family friendly” in later editions, and Jacob who was an actual scholar and linguist (btw, not just “knew a bunch of languages” – he discovered Grimm’s Law for cripes sake) who wanted the tales to stay in their (close to) original forms from the folk sources.

    I know, I’m being incredibly nit-picky. Perhaps I should be on Uncommon Knowledge to talk about my fairy tale obsession 😉

    My objections to the book’s structural deficiencies still stand, though, and I know Karyn over at Someday had issues with the book as well, so I’ll be interested to see what that blog makes of the book. Until then, I think I’ll stop harping on this one.

  2. I don’t have nearly as deep of comments to make as Mark :)…just wanted to say that I totally agree that the book skews younger than most YA. It was in that nether region between middle grade and YA for me. I might have read it as early as 5th grade, and I could see the kids I taught in 9th grade loving it as well.

  3. Pingback: Far, Far Away — Heavy Medal

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