It’s something of a surprise to be reminded that Oscar Wilde — the author of The Picture of Dorian Gray and the subject of a scandalous 1895 trial over consensual homosexual acts — wrote stories for children. But, then again, these aren’t your usual stories for children.
As Michele Mendelssohn notes in her sparkling introduction to the new edition of The Happy Prince & Other Tales, Wilde said the pieces were “meant partly for children, and partly for those who have kept the childlike faculties of wonder and joy.”
Like classic fables, Wilde’s five tales, originally published in 1888, use fantastic characters and settings to look at age-old questions, such as: What is love? What is the right way to live?
Unlike those fables, however, Wilde doesn’t offer clear-cut morals. His tales are suggestive rather than prescriptive. They are comfortable in ambiguity. They don’t employ a lesson to close the door on thinking but throw it wide open with questions that are likely to itch at the reader long afterwards. Indeed, in this way, they are subversive — invitations, according to Mendelssohn, to critical thinking.
In other words, perfect for the open minds of children and for anyone else with “the childlike faculties of wonder and joy.”
“A smiling giant”
This new edition, a lavish and beautifully crafted hardcover, has been published by the famed Bodleian Library and is being distributed in the United States by University of Chicago Press. It features 12 expressive and enigmatic watercolor illustrations by Charles Robinson from 1913.
Mendelssohn, the author of the well-received 2018 biography Making Oscar Wilde, opens her 23-page introduction with a surprisingly heartwarming scene:
Picture Oscar Wilde — imposing, sophisticated, elegantly dressed in a tailored suit — on all fours. He is down on the nursery floor, all six feet four inches of him. Two excited little children named Vyvyan and Cyril sit astride his back…He has put all two hundred pounds of himself at their service. He will become any animal they wish; he roars like a lion for them, then howls like a wolf and neighs like a horse.
The two boys were his sons, and Mendelssohn reports they would remember this scene for as long as they lived. Much later in life, Vyvyan wrote that he recalled his father as “a smiling giant” who “told us all his own written fairy stories.” He was two and his brother was three when The Happy Prince & Other Tales was published.
Playful and pointed
There is a playfulness to the five stories, averaging about 14 pages, and pointedness. Whoever is in authority or acts as an authority comes across as a fool. To a readership in a highly structured class society, Wilde offers stories in which the poor are quiet heroes — or, at least, can be. They are tales that seem simple but aren’t.
Consider The Remarkable Rocket, the last story in the collection. The king’s son is getting married, and the Royal Pyrotechnist has prepared a spectacular fireworks display for the end of the wedding evening. As they wait, the fireworks — a Roman Candle, a Catherine Wheel, a Squib and so on — are talking among themselves, anticipating their big moment.
Soon, though, the conversation is dominated by the Rocket who explains to all the others his exceptionalness:
I am a very remarkable Rocket, and come from remarkable parents. My mother was the most celebrated Catherine Wheel of her day, and was renowned for her graceful dancing…My father was a Rocket like myself, and of French extraction.
Other thoughts may push in
For another ten pages, the Rocket bullies and badgers and brags, showing at every turn his ignorance. He’s a type that children are familiar with. For adults, he’s a blowhard, and critics have described him as a satire on aristocratic vanity.
So, at the end, when he lets his gunpowder get wet and he’s thrown in the mud, the reader might be tempted to look for a moral — such as keep your powder dry or don’t brag. However, as glad as the reader may be that the Rocket got what was coming to him, other thoughts may push their way in.
Such as: Isn’t it tragic that the Rocket made this mistake and could not fulfill his role in life? Yes, the Rocket was irritating, but his vanity made him blind. It was a personality weakness. Was the Rocket a victim of his flaw? Should he be pitied?
And, beyond that, think about the characters in this story. They are all fireworks. They live in order to explode for the entertainment of others. Is this a commentary by Wilde on the human experience?
“Timeless existential problems”
Or consider the first story in the collection, The Happy Prince.
The Happy Prince is a statue, high above the city, “gilded all over with thin leaves of fine gold,” with two bright sapphires for eyes and a large red ruby, glowing on his sword-hilt. A swallow, left behind by the others who have fled south for the winter, decides to make “a golden bedroom” between the statue’s feet.
But the swallow discovers that the Happy Prince is crying because, from his height, “I can see all the ugliness and all the misery of my city.” Soon, the two are working together to help the city’s poor.
On orders from the Happy Prince, the swallow pries the ruby out of the sword-hilt and takes it to the mother of a sick boy. And, on the following nights, he takes each of the sapphires to other suffering people, and then he strips each gold leaf off the Happy Prince and takes them to others who are needy.
And, then, exhausted, the swallow kisses the now-undecorated statue and falls dead at his feet. And the leaders of the city decide the statue looks ugly, “little better than a beggar,” so they pull it down and melt it in a furnace: “As he is no longer beautiful, he is no longer useful.”
The swallow and the Happy Prince end up in heaven, and you could say the moral of the story is that you should do good works. Which, of course, is true. But questions remain.
What about all those city leaders who only see the statue as having value if it is pretty? Does the story indicate that their attitude toward the statue is the same they have toward the poor and needy? That the poor and the needy have no value if they aren’t useful?
And, if the right thing to do is to do good works, why are there so many poor and needy people? Why aren’t the city leaders doing good similar works?
And what does it say about the city that the two who are doing good works — the swallow and the Happy Prince — die in the effort? And why do they seem so alone in trying to help the needy?
Wilde’s stories, Mendelssohn writes, “address timeless existential problems…[and] go to the heart of the human experience.”
They are far from simple, rich in complexity. And Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince & Other Tales is a good book to be reading today.
Patrick T. Reardon
This review originally appeared at Third Coast Review on 8.24.23.