David Wiesner – The Three Pigs (Clarion Books, 2001)

Fairy tales are among our most popular cultural touchstones. From infancy they are etched into our memory and form the definitive experience of story-telling. We love them for their charm and fantasy, and also because of the shared memories they represent. As recent films like Mirror Mirror, Tangled and Hoodwinked attest, we will never tire of revisiting them.

And few stories are revisited as often as the tale of the three little pigs. Along with a plethora of retellings that have remained faithful to the original are those that have inverted it to great comic effect. Back in 1933, Walt Disney’s take on the story attributed to the three pigs familiar family dynamics, the bossy elder brother and foolish younger siblings. Roald Dahl similarly drew our attention to the porcine imprudence:
Pigs are noble. Pigs are clever.
Pigs are courteous. However,
Now and then, to break this rule,
One meets a pig who is a fool.
What, for example, would you say
If strolling through the woods one day,
Right there in front of you you saw
A pig who’d built his house of STRAW?

Other interpreters have gone further in making the ravenous wolf the object of our sympathy. Delightful picture books like The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig and The True Story of the Three Little Pigs come to mind.

All of these interpretations have in common that they entertain by playing upon our expectations of the story. They mingle the well-known with the unexpected giving us the sense of incongruity which we find so funny. David Wiesner takes this revision of the story one step further, playing not only upon the constructs of the story, but story-telling itself.

As The Three Pigs begins, the reader finds himself in familiar territory. The opening pages follow the traditional telling of the story, using the well-known dialogue and basic illustrations. But from the third page Wiesner begins his project of disequilibrium, inverting our expectations as the story quickly becomes undone.

Amidst all the huffing and puffing the first little pig is sent out into the bare reality that exists beyond the frames of the story. As the wolf seeks to come to grips with this unexpected twist, the pig explores the malleability of a world not controlled by a narrator. He and his porcine companions move in and out of various stories, disrupting the plots and giving Wiesner the chance the employ various styles of illustration.

When outside the story, the little pigs no longer conform to the mores of fairy tale characters. They revert to four feet and their speech moves from rhyme to a mundane vernacular. While the lacklustre dialogue shows Wiesner’s relative weakness as a writer, this is certainly compensated for by the wonderful artwork.

The Three Pigs is an invitation to imagination. It shows how all stories are creations of worlds and we can place our own stories within an existing genre, or we can create a genre with its own limits. Our imaginations can run as wild as the three little pigs do.

But it is also true that this view of the fluidity of reality has a risk of becoming anarchic. We can see this in postmodern thought that claims our language and culture create for us false, or at least subjective, realities in which we live. Like the characters in stories we assume what we experience is absolute only because we never experience anything different. But viewing reality as as blank and meaningless as the space the pigs enter after leaving the story, leads to a grim Nihilism. There is no goodness to value, no explanation for evil and no purpose for our lives. In the case of story-telling, anarchy is also unengaging.

The Three Pigs avoids this end in three ways. Firstly, anchoring it in a familiar tale gives us a sense order. Secondly, by showing that when the pigs leave their story they enter a world that is, in some ways, more tightly bound. They become more like real pigs, walking on four legs and without the use of fingers. Their freedom is still constrained. And, lastly, they quickly lose interest in freedom and choose to return to their own old story (albeit with new means of resisting the wolf). The story ends with the pigs welcoming those enduring, story-book lines, ‘they all lived happily ever after’.