On the discovery of Shaun Tan in a cyberspace sinkhole

In which I recount hitting a new level of procrastination, feel bewildered by Philip Pullman’s Grimm Tales, and do a bit of squealing.

You know those really long internet searches where one thing leads to another and another and before you know it three hours have slipped by? I fell into one of those cyberspace sinkholes one thundery Thursday (aptly enough) a few weeks back when I really should have been busy packing up all my stuff from uni. But instead of emerging from that sinkhole with only a spinning head and a sense of guilt and mild panic at the amount of time spent staring at arrays of pixels, I also surfaced with an excited determination to go out and buy The Bird King and other sketches by Shaun Tan.

I’d started my procrastination by looking for a nice edition of the Grimms’ fairy tales in their original German. I study German at uni and thought it would be a) extremely interesting and b) linguistically beneficial to read the original versions, but I stubbornly insist on finding a beautifully illustrated edition instead of just looking up the texts online (so really this internet search was an unprecedented level of meta-procrastination, which is still ongoing because I am yet to actually choose an edition). Anyway, a copy with an awesomely creepy looking frog on the front caught my eye and a quick image search of the illustrator’s name – Shaun Tan – confirmed to me that this was exactly the kind of thing I was looking for. I wouldn’t particularly describe myself as an art-fanatic, but Shaun Tan’s illustrations ‘hit the spot’ somehow; I have a gut reaction to them.

Illustration by Shaun Tan for 'Grimms Märchen'

The only problem with the edition was that the text is not a collection of the original tales as recorded by the Brothers Grimm, but a translation into German of Philip Pullman’s Grimm Tales. I can’t really get my head around what these ‘retellings’ by Philip Pullman are: they’re not reinterpretations or modernisations, and I can’t see anywhere that they are new translations (Pullman says in his introduction that he worked from the original tales, but whether he means in German or in translation is not clear). Philip Pullman is a fantastic author and so I’m sure they are brilliant reads, but I’m just unsure what he has actually done to them. Maybe I’m missing the point completely: if anyone can enlighten me, I’d be very grateful! Otherwise I should probably just read the damn thing instead of speculating about it. It then seems completely bizarre to translate these retellings into German, the language in which the stories were originally written down – especially if Pullman did actually translate them straight from the German! It makes my brain go all wobbly trying to make sense of it all…

To add yet another level of strangeness, it turns out that Shaun Tan’s amazing illustrations – photographs of clay figurines – are only available in the German edition of Grimm Tales. But then I discovered via his website that he’d enjoyed doing the pictures so much that he’d produced a whole book of further illustrations in the same style called The Singing Bones, which Philip Pullman had written an introduction to. That book turned out to be an Australia-only edition, at which point I was getting quite frustrated. AND THEN I found out that a UK edition is going to be released in September with an introduction by NEIL GAIMAN! This set me off squealing for a while.

Seeing as I couldn’t rush out and buy it straight away, I did a bit more digging and decided that I would first buy The Bird King and other sketches. This post started out as a review of that collection, but as you can see it morphed into quite a ramble, so I’ll post the review separately here. In short, I love it and I’m definitely going to check out Shaun Tan’s other books – he has written and illustrated an eclectic range for both children and adults, some of which have also been adapted into animations or theatre performances. And, after writing this post, I think I might try and get hold of the German translation of Philip Pullman’s Grimm Tales, after all.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *