Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Tales Retold

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Tales Retold

Article excerpt

BEFORE THE ADVENT OF THE NOVEL AND THE CONCEPT of realism central to its development, writers of fiction-playwrights, poets- found their plots in old stories. The novel most often presented-and presents-itself as a story of unique individuals at a particular time and place, a story that hasn't yet been told. But there is a subgenre of modern fiction that uses previously told tales as its base. Such books write stories in counterpoint, depending upon the reader to have a vivid recollection of the original. Sometimes writers reconceive a well-known novel--Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea and Kamel Daoud's The Meursault Investigation are good examples-bringing out a story in the shadows, often connected with race or class. Sometimes writers imagine sequels -P. D. James's Death Comes to Pemberley. And sometimes they retell legends or fairy tales.

Indeed, it is surprising how many of these retold tales find their source in children's books-perhaps because of the rich opportunities they afford for irony, re-vision through older, less enchanted eyes. Such is the project of Michael Cunningham's A Wild Swan and Other Tales} Cunningham works a rich vein, extending from the fractured fairy tales of Rocky and Bullwinkle to the feminist re-visioning of Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber. Cunningham's preface to this collection of ten tales is titled "Dis. Enchant." It's an apt epigraph, for there is something of dis about these irreverent tales, which play with the meaning of enchantment and disenchantment. Cunningham locates in the fairy tale the impulse to disfigure perfection in a kind of vengeance with which we ordinary folks might empathize. Cunningham offers disenchanted perspectives on familiar fairy tale figures. Hansel and Gretel are pierced, tattooed, greedy, violent teenagers; Jack (of Jack and the beanstalk) is one of those boys "who prefer the crazy promise, the long shot, who insist they're natural-born winners," his mother at "the bottom of her own private lake, with the help of Absolut and Klonopin." Kings, princes, and fathers fare particularly ill. The king in Rumpelstiltskin is greedy and tyrannical, the miller all too ready to gamble his daughter's life away, as is the father in "Beasts," Cunningham's rewriting of "Beauty and the Beast," in which the prince, freed from his beastly disguise, remains feral and rapacious. The maidens can be sharp and unsentimental, already disenchanted with what a room of straw turned into gold or a beast's fidelity can bring. Cunningham's empathy lies with the misfits and the loners-the twelfth brother in "The Wild Swan," whose right arm remains a swan's wing; the witch in "Hansel and Gretel" who, old, unattractive, and lonely, builds a candy house in the hope of attracting visitors; the steadfast tin solider, who has lost a leg in a car accident; Rumpelstiltskin, the malformed dwarf who wants a child to give his life warmth and meaning. Cunningham's characters are often fixed at what I think of as the fairy-tale moment-the emblematic turn of plot that defines its enchantment. The Prince in "Poisoned" wants his Snow White to play dead in a coffin, in a weird bit of erotic foreplay. The blinded Prince in "Her Hair," Cunningham's retelling of "Rapunzel," lies swaddled every night in her braids, no longer attached to her head. Like the best fairy story retellings, Cunningham's tales make you reflect on the human desire that gives shape to their source. The tales are clever and ironic, often using a colloquial style that amuses through its sitcom take on the characters and situations. This style sets up the moments that each of these stories contains where we move back to the level of enchantment-sometimes in mourning for its loss, sometimes in humane recognition of the mixed joys that our middling condition allows. Cunningham gives a different meaning to happy endings, embedding them in the mixed experience of time. A Wild Swan and Other Tales is a brilliant, resonant and haunting small book. …

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