‘A Wild Swan and Other Tales’ by Michael Cunningham (2015) – 135 pages
In ‘A Wild Swan’, Michael Cunningham starts with the circumstances of some of the oldest fairy tales such as ‘Beauty and the Beast’, ‘Snow White’, and ‘Rumpelstiltskin’, and transforms them into something new and different.
Cunningham uses the declarative language of fairy tales to get us into these stories: a thatched-roofed cottage, a prince and a princess, a giant, a miller, a castle, a gnome. However then Cunningham throws us definite curve balls, language that you would never ever find in a fairy tale such lines as “you embarked on a career of harshly jovial sluttishness”. Despite their fairy tale settings, these tales are meant for teenagers or adults, each with a wicked slant to which we big people can relate. These stories wind up being perhaps even more strange and gruesome than the original fairy tale.
In the story simply called ‘Beasts’, which is Cunningham’s take on ‘Beauty and the Beast’, the father is going off to the city on business and asks his three daughters what presents they’d like him to bring back. The two younger daughters ask for silk stockings, for petticoats, for laces and ribbons. However Beauty, the oldest daughter, asked only for a single rose, her reasoning thus:
“Do you really imagine a frock or hair ribbon will help? Do you think it’ll improve the ten or so barely passable village men, or alter the modest hope that I will, at least, not end up marrying Claude the hog butcher, or Henri with the withered arm? Do you believe a petticoat could be compensation for our paucity of chances?
I’d rather just have a rose.”
Does a young lady really require finery to attract Claude the hog butcher? You won’t find such an ironic sensibility in a young maiden in the old fairy tales, and that is what makes Cunningham’s tales so devastating and fun.
Such phrases as “barely passable village men” and “compensation for our paucity of chances” won’t be found in children’s stories. These fairy tales have a sharp sensibility.
These tales remind me of the work of another writer who used folk and other stories as the raw material for his own strange and wonderful novels. I am thinking of the French writer, Michel Tournier. Tournier’s novel ‘Friday’ started with the story of Robinson Crusoe. His novel ‘The Four Wise Men’ was based on the Wise Men who went to see the baby Jesus in the Bible story. Tournier also took his turn at transforming the old fairy tales in ‘The Golden Droplet’.
I consider Michel Tournier to be a ‘do not miss’ writer. In ‘A Wild Swan’, I see Michael Cunningham in his witty and wild retelling of these fairy tales as a worthy successor to Tournier.
With its fine illustrations by Yuko Shimizo, ‘A Wild Swan’ would make an excellent Christmas present for any teenager or an adult, but probably not for little children.