Michael Cunningham‘s A Wild Swan is a collection of short stories that give the classic fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm a grittier, modern twist. I’ve always loved fairy tales, especially the darker ones, and this innocent-looking little white book didn’t disappoint. With prose as stark and disturbing as its illustrations by award-winning illustrator Yuko Shimizu, Cunningham’s stories undercut the simple idealism of such traditional tales as “Rumpelstiltskin” and “Snow White.” Sometimes he places a tale in a contemporary setting, leaving characters like the tin soldier and the ballerina to fend for themselves after marriage in our imperfect world; sometimes he writes from the perspectives of forgotten or villainised characters, fleshing out their complexities to depict them as scarred and lonely beings plagued with existential anxieties.
I especially like the way some of the stories portray love. We’re all used to, and perhaps a bit weary of, the conventional ideas of love as this grand, self-sacrificial thing. But some tales, like his fractured version of “Snow White,” remind me of the flawed and selfish nature of human love, which often requires an ideal image of the other to be sustained. So Snow White must be kept behind glass, still as a corpse and framed with a rose, in order to be beautiful. Rapunzel’s lover must remain blind in order to revel in the locks that were chopped off before his eyes. And the tin soldier loves the ballerina because she had one leg out behind her and he thought she was deformed, just like him. This last story I especially love, because of its realistic optimism: though the couple’s idealised image of each other dissipates and their initial, passionate fairy tale love unravels, over the years this love dulls, or perhaps grows, gradually into a steady acceptance of each other’s distance and differences. Cunningham is careful to remind us that this doesn’t mean complete understanding; yet both of them ultimately arrive at some sort of contented equilibrium. And unlike some preachy old folks I sometimes meet in church, he doesn’t try to paint this latter sort of love as better or stronger in any way, but seems to be merely stating life as it is, how married life is like. It leaves me wondering whether I’d like it.
Cunningham’s Rumpelstiltskin adaptation’s is another one of my favourites from the book; great characterisation, with the dwarf being hideous yet kind-hearted yet lashing out in jealousy, and the queen beautiful and pleasant, feeling some moral obligation yet ultimately acting self-centredly. Same storyline, but suddenly the characters come alive, and because of these depths of character revealed, suddenly there’s no longer a happy ending, just a heartbreakingly plausible one. The dwarf, the Beast, is rejected by Beauty and refused of a child. So refused of love, in bitter rage he breaks in two, and is doomed forever to live with that handicap of self struggling against self. It’s a feeling that not just all who have been rejected can identify with. It’s a feeling of bitter isolation, impairment, and alienation from the self.
I’m hungry for more contemporary fairy tale adaptations. Does anyone have any recommendations?