Thoughts on “Brother & Sister”

by crfricke

In the notes to his beautiful translation of this story, Philip Pullman calls “Brother and Sister” one of the few ‘ghost stories’ of the Grimms’, a distinction which makes me think, once again, about how closely fairy tales and horror stories are intertwined.

“Brother and Sister” begins similarly to “Hansel and Gretel”—two siblings escape a wicked stepmother and make their way into the woods. The brother, who is more foolhardy than his sister, drinks from an enchanted stream and transforms into a young deer. He is one day pursued by the king and his hunters, and through this encounter, the sister and the king meet and marry. But the stepmother—the very witch who cursed the stream—is jealous of their good fortune. Together with her one-eyed daughter, she waits until the young queen is weakened from childbirth, then kills her and puts the ugly daughter in her place. The ghost of the young queen comes at night into the nursery, where the nurse sees her and tells the king. When the king discovers his wife’s ghost, the spell is broken—the evil woman and her daughter are exposed, and the young queen is magically restored to life.

And I’ll just add that although here on A Grimm Project we’re deferring to Jack Zipes’ translation when it comes to titles and direct quotes, but Philip Pullman’s recent translations are truly something special. Pullman takes more than a little creative authorial license with many of the tales in his Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, with the aim of smoothing fractured narrative lines and weaving characters and themes in consistently throughout the stories, rather than relying on the Grimms’ jarring illogicality. In “Brother and Sister,” Pullman introduces the witch’s one-eyed daughter in the very first paragraph, and explains how the witch was able to hide the murdered queen’s body. He also makes significant edits to the ending of the tale, and the reveal of the queen’s murder.

One change Pullman makes that strays from the original Grimms also works to bolster the tale’s “ghost story” nature: instead of appearing each time as whole and healthy as she was when she was alive, the queen’s ghost first appears to be wet “as if she’d just come from the bath”; the second time, she appears “to be covered in little flames”, and the third and final time, she is “wreathed in thick black smoke.”

Many beautiful images and moving moments occur in the first half of the tale, when the focus is placed more on the brother and sister and their perils—the transformation of the brother, his eagerness to join the hunt despite his sister’s pleading, her insistence that she will never forsake him, no matter what form he takes. But despite Pullman’s notion that the story becomes less well-constructed in the second half (thus his many edits), I think the “ghost story” portion of the tale is where so many interesting questions lie, and offer opportunities to jump in and unfold even more of the story.

Read my writing response here, and feel free to add your own freewrite in the comments. And read the full tale as translated by D. L. Ashliman, available at

illustration by Maurice Sendak

illustration by Maurice Sendak