A Wild Swan and Other Tales by Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham’s tiny take on ten fairy tales is filled with wondrous things. Equal to his prose in these re-imagined stories are superb drawings by Yuko Shimizu: reminiscent of Aubrey Beardsley’s best work, they complement and extend Cunningham’s tales in a most extraordinary way.
Fairy tales present winners and losers. Generally, the losers, through some magical intervention or serendipitous event, turn the tables and become benevolent winners while the former are brought down and sink into obscurity. They reinforce our childhood faith that all will be well, that good will triumph over evil. In A Wild Swan and Other Tales, Cunningham presents ten worlds in which our expectations are clouded. In his sure hands, the blood and mayhem of the original tales are replaced with emotional uncertainties that create a depth of character those stories never originally had nor ever aspired to have. His mixture of humor and horror pitch exactly the right tone.
The title story brings the wicked stepmother to the fore. She turns her twelve stepsons into swans, and urges them to fly away while sparing their sister in hopes of bonding with her. Unloved and tolerated, the story’s princess learns that coats of nettles will break the curse. She succeeds in dispelling the stepmother’s magic and reverts all the swans to their human forms except, unfortunately, for the twelfth, whose right arm remains a wing. While the eleven prosper, Cunningham writes, “End of story. ‘Happily ever after’ fell on everyone like a guillotine’s blade. Almost everyone.”
“Jacked” offers a precise analysis and recounting of the story of Jack and the Beanstalk. “This is not a smart boy we’re talking about,” Cunningham writes. The lazy boy still lives at home with his mother. After stealing gold on his first climb up the beanstalk, all goes well but they “still don’t have a black American Express card.” Jack climbs again and captures a hen, and then a final time, in which he steals a magic harp. The giant and giantess are down on their luck while Jack and his mother prosper. “The harp, long mute, dreams of the time when it lived on a cloud and played music too beautiful for anyone but the giant to hear.”
Other stories include a gingerbread house, long hair, and a monkey’s paw. Cunningham’s stories speculate on what follows “they lived happily ever after.” These stories may be his warning that lives can revert to their norm unless care is taken. “Most of us,” he writes, “can be counted on to manage our own undoings.” Therefore, demons and sprites seldom need to work their magic anew. Be warned, however, there are spells and incantations that may be learned and used by any of us. As Walt Kelley’s Pogo once said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”