Fairy tales are, by their very nature, magical things. But something rather extraordinary happens to them after they’ve been re-imagined by Gregory Maguire: they get a loyal following. Best known as the author of the wildly popular Wicked (adapted into a Broadway musical) and its sequels, as well as books for both children (Leaping Beauty, What-the-Dickens) and adults (Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, Mirror Mirror), Maguire has lent his witty, sophisticated storytelling to some of the most beloved tales in our collective consciousness, often altering our long-held and deeply felt reactions to notorious characters and infamous plotlines. While never contradicting or poking fun at the original tale, he always adds a new dimension to our interpretations.
All of which makes Maguire’s work perfectly suited to adaptation for stage, screen and, most recently, radio. Each year, NPR asks a well-known writer to create a Christmas story for broadcast, and in 2008, Maguire was tapped. The result was Matchless, inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s classic story “The Little Match Girl.” In the original work, translated from Danish in the mid-19th century, a poor young girl dies alone in the night, freezing to death in the bitter cold. At the time, her dying visions were widely interpreted as religious metaphors. In Matchless, Maguire gently shifts the focus to illuminate a seldom-considered character. Young Frederik, living through desperate times with his mother, is the nameless boy from Andersen’s tale who absconds with the match girl’s shoe just before her death. The shoe is quite a find for Frederik, who has very little in the way of material possessions. But his intention for the shoe is unexpected. He returns home with his prize and quickly retreats to the attic where he has been meticulously constructing a miniature island town, made from bits and pieces he’d collected at the docks.
“Andersen left me a little thread to pull,” Maguire says in a telephone interview. “Frederik is the only other child and he has a line: ‘Here’s a cradle for my babies.’ Therefore I felt invited to follow that. I began to realize who the boy was and what his particular hardships were. As sad as it is, it’s a beautiful story. There’s this little bit of domestic magic that re-illuminates the possibility of connection between the living and the dead.”
While “The Little Match Girl” was adored by generations past, it hasn’t reached as many 21st-century readers as Andersen’s other tales, which include “The Little Mermaid” and “The Ugly Duckling.” That’s one of the reasons Maguire selected it for the NPR project. “It struck me as being perfect,” he explains. “Though people of a certain age will remember the story, it has been gradually slipping away.” But writing a story—with very little lead time—intended to be read aloud before being published was a new experience for the author.
“When you’re doing a radio story, you have to let your characters have individual-sounding voices,” Maguire notes. “You have to roll the story out very quickly with just enough, but not too much, description so that the listeners can learn about the environment as well as the conditions. So it was very different for me. Sometimes I’ll have the story idea on my desk for five years before I feel like I have caught the particular cadence of how it should go.”
Published for the first time this fall in a beautifully designed gift edition, Matchless contains Maguire’s own finely detailed black-and-white drawings. These vignettes, each contained in a small circle as if viewed through a lens, show such scenes as a carriage on a cobblestone street and a cozy attic room accessed by a ladder.
Maguire’s story has the weight and solidity of a treasured folk tale, something to be handed down and retold. It’s for children at bedtime but also for their grandparents. That’s one of Maguire’s obvious strengths: the ability to write on several different levels to personally address the interests of his entire audience. He credits Andersen with a similar talent: “He had the capacity to start the story in the first sentence. He dispensed with many of the conventions of storytelling—the once-upon-a-times—and spoke colloquially.”
In Matchless, Maguire leaves open the possibility of an optimistic ending, as Frederik’s family joins together with the poor match girl’s. And with this retelling comes the possibility of renewed interest in the original story. But perhaps, too, the reading of Matchless will become a new holiday tradition for many families. “It’s something that all artists hope,” says the author, “that their work will live beyond the length of their days.”
Ellen Trachtenberg is the author of The Best Children’s Literature: A Parent’s Guide. She writes from Philadelphia.