'A Wild Swan and Other Tales': A Twist on Fairy Tales for a More Sober Time

Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Cunningham gives a compelling demonstration of how to reimagine magic while retaining a literary legacy.

A Wild Swan and Other Tales

Publisher: Picador
Length: 136 pages
Author: Michael Cunningham
Price: $16.00
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2016-10

American storytelling is drunk on reimagined fairy tales. From Wicked to Once Upon a Time, there's always the insistence that something must be going on behind the scenes of age-old children's stories. Despite the already crowded space, Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Cunningham makes an endearing and satisfying contribution to this new look at the shared stories of a culture's childhood. For a generation brought up to adore Harry Potter, A Wild Swan and Other Tales is a demonstration of how to reimagine magic while retaining a literary legacy.

Brief enough to be read in one sitting, this collection of fairy tales is a handy reminder that these old tales can still be mined for new lessons. Throughout A Wild Swan and Other Tales, he writes with the bare straightforwardness in which fairy tales have ordinarily been narrated, but with the same insightful subtlety he has brought to his previous works. "Steadfast; Tin" and "Poisoned" are two of his most skillful "reimaginings" for the way in which each one's source is immediately recognizable, despite the stark departure from the original material.

Some of the collection's stories begin with realistic misfortune -- not of the fairy tale kind but of the familiar kind -- and only glide gradually into the fantastical ("Crazy Old Lady" and “Steadfast; Tin”), others are immediately familiar up front ("Beasts" and “Little Man”). Some are reimaginings from start to finish of familiar fairy tales, such as Jack and the Beanstalk, or Hansel and Gretel:

And what, exactly, did you expect those young psychopaths, those beaten children, to do, after they'd eaten half your house, without the remotest expression of wonder, or even of simple politeness? ...Were you relieved, maybe just a little, when they lifted you up (you weighed almost nothing by then) and shoved you into the oven? -- "Crazy Old Lady"

Others are barely moments of what might have followed our heroes and heroines after their imaginary adventures are transported back to the everyday world such as, Prince Charming's somnophiliac fetish: “Do you think you could cross your hands just a little lower down? More like directly over your breasts?”

But despite the melancholy tone of many, the stories are warmly enjoyable. Stripped of their childhood treacle, the fairy tales -- many of which have darker tones in their original versions anyway -- are somehow more necessary for a time and a generation too demanding of the perfect ending or the picturesque.

Some of the stories are more fully fleshed out than others, offering beginning-to-end accounts of familiar fairy tales. But in each one, Cunningham takes the reader by the hand as if to draw him back and ask: Didn't you ever ask yourself why? Why would Rumpelstiltskin have asked for the young woman's firstborn? Why is Jack -- who robbed and killed the Giant -- the one we respect and relate to? What if the Beast was trapped in an unlovable body for a good reason?

She's the loveliest and most innocent girl in the world. I offered to buy her anything she wanted, and all she asked for was a rose.

The beast paused over that. She could have had anything, and she asked for a rose?

She's an unusual girl. I love her as I love life itself...

Go home, then. Say goodbye to you daughter. Give her the rose. Then come back here and accept your punishment. -- "Beasts"

With each telling, Cunningham finds a way to remind us that beneath the storybook perfection and easily discernible moral, there are villains who have perfectly rational motivations, who've been wounded and humiliated by life, and upon whom our instincts have been only to heap more scorn. It's a lesson just as important to real life as "Don't make deals with strange little trolls" or "Never trust your stepmother".

Cunningham manages in less than 150 pages to open our eyes as adults to what we couldn't have imagined as children. How are Hansel and Gretel anymore heroic because they vandalized an old woman's home, only to later shove her into an oven and bake her? What exactly would Snow White and Prince Charming have in common as they "lived happily ever after" beyond his strange predilection for kissing sleeping strangers? Is it possible, even just slightly, that a hideously misshapen dwarf might have just wanted to have his own child to raise, and that the child's mother might've appreciated his help in saving her life more than she appreciated her husband's threat to kill her if she couldn't spin gold?

Like every great book of fairy tales, A Wild Swan includes rich illustrations, these by Yuko Shimizu. From the truly terrifying and gruesome image at the end of "A Monkey's Paw" to the beautiful and bittersweet at the end of "Ever/After", Shimizu's images punctuate the stories with the important signature imagery of fairy tales, each given their own original twist.

In the end, the most important lesson that Cunningham teaches us is that we only see what we look for. After all, as Cunningham writes in "Her Hair" regarding the now blind Prince's fondling of Rapunzel's since shorn hair, "It seems he's either forgotten or prefers not to remember. So she never reminds him that the hair is no longer attached ... she never reminds him it's a memory that she keeps intact, that she maintains in the present, for him. Why would he want to know?" After all, for stories that have been since drained of much of their original macabre qualities and re-packaged for a new kind of always-sunny childhood, Cunningham might just offer us -- as adults -- the opportunity to remember that important lessons can be learned even from the dark places.





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