On Tuesday, Michael Cunningham’s collection of reimagined fairy tales, A Wild Swan, burst from a magic pumpkin and into the world. (Just kidding on the pumpkin part.) Cunningham is no stranger to short stories (see, notably, “White Angel”), but this marks the first time he’s released a collection in his thirty-year career, and the stories within are not quite like any we’ve seen from him before. With darkly beautiful illustrations by Yuko Shimizu, A Wild Swan offers up eleven stories that complicate the fairy tales we know and love and question the very idea of “happily ever after.”
One thing that immediately stands out about Cunningham’s fairy tales is the tone. It retains that “once upon a time” quality, but is modernized with references to things like health insurance and hastily purchased sofas. Cunningham often uses the juxtaposition for comic relief, like when a queen in one story says, during a tense moment in the throne room, “This is awkward, isn’t it?” Other places, it serves to make the tale more relatable to the modern reader, as in the eponymous story about a prince who develops body image issues when his right arm is turned into a swan’s wing. (Or, more accurately, when the rest of his body is turned back from swan to man, but his arm isn’t. You’ll have to read the story.)
But the most remarkable quality of Cunningham’s fairy tales is how he complicates the too-good-to-be-true heroes and humanizes the previously one-dimensional villains. For instance, Cunningham revises the notoriously evil character of Rumpelstiltskin in “Little Man,” which appeared in the New Yorker back in August. In this version, Rumpelstiltskin isn’t driven by greed as he is in the original, but by the desire to have a child. He’s just a lonely, gnarled, two-hundred-year old gnome who wants to be a father but has no luck with the ladies, due to the aforementioned age and gnarledness. And adoption isn’t really an option, either:
Even less so if you’re a malformed, dwarfish man whose occupation, were you forced to name one, would be… What would you call yourself? A goblin? An imp? Adoption agencies are reluctant about doctors and lawyers if they’re single and over forty. So go ahead. Apply to adopt an infant as a two-hundred-year-old gnome.
When he hears the gossip about the miller’s daughter who can purportedly spin straw into gold, and how the king has locked her in a room and forced her to produce on pain of death, Rumpelstiltskin goes to help her. He does this not out of desire for the gold, but simply because he, descended from a line of wizards, knows he can help her:
It’s instinct, then, that tells you, Help this girl and good may come of it. Maybe simply because you, and you alone, have something to offer her. You who’ve never before had much to offer any of the girls who passed by, leaving traces of perfume in their wake, a quickening of the air they so recently occupied.
This is a new, self-deprecating, lovesick Rumpelstiltskin who quickly earns our sympathies. But even the good-hearted can do awful things. So when the miller’s daughter asks him, on his third night of saving her life by spinning her straw to gold, what she can offer him in return, he demands her first-born child. (But, to give him some credit, he does try to convince her not to marry the king first, seeing as how he threatened to execute her three times. Just doesn’t seem like a good match.)
In the interview that accompanies the story, Cunningham reveals why he was drawn to create this newly sympathetic Rumpelstiltskin:
In Rumpelstiltskin’s case I was attracted to his desire to have a child, when he could have demanded any number of more directly remunerative rewards.
That was partly, I suppose, because we’ve already got the traditional, greedy Rumpelstiltskin—why just offer up another one?—and partly because several people I know are single, and struggling with their own desire to have a child, while a potential mate—the second parent, if you will—fails to turn up.
It makes for a fairy tale much more complex than the original and complicates things for the reader, as well. Even as Rumpelstiltskin is committing a horrible act, demanding a mother hand over her child (and secretly feeling really guilty about it, but not enough to stop), part of us still wants him to succeed. We want the poor, lonely gnome to have his son and raise him in a glade, teach him magic and the names of trees and all the other things Rumpelstiltskin dreamed of.
The stories in A Wild Swan aren’t bedtime fodder for children. The ending Cunningham has in store for his Rumpelstiltskin will surprise you for sure. It’s a kind of happy ending, but a twisted one, and not one you could ever imagine. That’s the third defining quality of Cunningham’s fairy tales: the happily-ever-afters (or lack thereof). Of course, we can’t discuss the endings without spoiling the stories, so we’ll leave you with Cunningham’s own words on the matter, from the above interview:
…I remember that, as a child, I had an ever-so-slightly irritating habit of asking “What happened next?” after my mother or father had finished reading me a story. “And they lived happily ever after” struck me as insufficient, and a bit of a cop-out. Happy all the time? Forever?…
I suppose a significant aspect of what inspired the stories in “A Wild Swan,” then, was that old question of mine, What happens after “happily ever after”?