The Happy Prince and other stories by Oscar Wilde (1888)

In May 1888, 4 months after the 22 year-old Kipling published Plain Tales from the Hills, the 33 year-old Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde published his first volume, ‘The Happy Prince and other stories’, five fairy tales for children. I’m rereading them in a lovely old illustrated Puffin edition (1973). It cost 25p.

  1. The Happy Prince
  2. The Nightingale and the Rose
  3. The Selfish Giant
  4. The Devoted Friend
  5. The Remarkable Rocket

Wilde takes up Victorian sentimentality about children and poverty where Dickens left it but whereas Tiny Tim or Little Nell were accompanied by the comic, the grotesque and Dickens’s unquenchable verbal energy, Wilde sets his stories in the idealised realm of fairyland where statues and animals and rose bushes talk, and strives for a melodious smoothness, clothing his sweetly weeping tales in fin-de-siecle silver and gold:

Pale poppies were broidered on the silk coverlet of the bed, as though they had fallen from the tired hands of sleep, and tall reeds of fluted ivory bare up the velvet canopy, from which great tufts of ostrich plumes sprang, like white foam, to the pallid silver of the fretted ceiling.

1. The Happy Prince

Actually, maybe more Hans Christian Andersen than Dickens, though both authors took the side of the poor and of poor children in particular, and so does Wilde.

The Swallow flew over the great city, and saw the rich making merry in their beautiful houses, while the beggars were sitting at the gates. He flew into dark lanes, and saw the white faces of starving children looking out listlessly at the black streets. Under the archway of a bridge two little boys were lying in one another’s arms to try and keep themselves warm

The third of the happy prince’s charitable beneficiaries is a poor matchgirl freezing in the snow who, of course, reminds us of Andersen’s little matchgirl dying in the snow (Andersen’s story was published in 1845).

In the story all the swallows fly off to Egypt except one who dallies to woo a reed in the lake. But after some time he realises the reed will never reply and so heads south. He stops en route at a town whose highest point is a column on top of which is a gorgeous statue of the happy prince. The swallow rests at his feet but is woken up by drops of rain which he realises are big tears falling from the happy prince’s eyes. He is crying because when he looks out over the town he sees nothing but suffering and misery.

He tells the swallow that he is only called the happy prince because he did not know what tears were, he lived in the Palace of Sans-Souci, surrounded by a high wall where sorrow was not allowed to enter. It is only after he died, and was made into a statue and set on a pillar high above the town that he has been shocked to learn of the widespread poverty and unhappiness among his people: he finds it not only deeply upsetting but puzzling and strange:

There is no Mystery so great as Misery.

On three successive days he asks the swallow to make three trips to a representative of the poor, taking to them part of the prince’s statue which will relieve them of their poverty. On the first day he asks the swallow to take the ruby embedded in his sword to the poor mother of a boy with fever in a garret. On the second day he asks the swallow to take one of the sapphires which make his eyes to a playwright starving in a draughty garret. On the third day he tells the swallow to take the sapphire which forms his other eye to a poor matchgirl shivering in the snow, if she returns penniless her father will beat her, but the gift of the pretty jewel sends her skipping home with happiness.

Now that he is blind the prince asks the swallow to fly out over the town and bring back report of what he sees and he sees misery and poverty and unhappiness. So the prince tells the swallow to unpeel the gold leaf off his body and go deliver a leaf to each of the poor.

Leaf after leaf of the fine gold he brought to the poor, and the children’s faces grew rosier, and they laughed and played games in the street. “We have bread now!” they cried.

The swallow exhausts himself performing all these good deeds, then the real freezing deep winter comes and it is too late for him to fly south. He kisses the happy prince and falls dead at his feet. Then the lead heart within the prince’s statue breaks in two.

Next morning the pompous mayor and his counsellors are walking through the town square when they notice how shabby the statue has become, almost like ‘a common beggar’. The mayor orders it to be taken down and the metal melted down and cast into a fine statue of himself! The overseer at the town furnace discovers the broken lead heart won’t melt down so chucks it on the same scrapheap as the dead swallow.

Then God tells one of his angels to fetch the most precious things in the town to him and the angel brings the dead bird and the old lead heart and God says he did right, and gives the swallow immortal life in Paradise and remakes the happy prince to praise him in his city of Gold.

Commentary

The central structure of three days is immensely reassuring. Why are threes in narratives so primal and so comforting?

The opening passage is important because the swallow’s wooing of the reed gives the whole a pleasantly Greek myth feel, referencing the legend of Pan and Syrinx.

You’d expect Wilde’s prose style to be smooth and mellifluous but it’s worth pointing out the importance of dialogue and in particular, the contrast between the hypnotic repetitions and Tennysonian diction of the statue (note the ‘will you not’):

“Swallow, Swallow, little Swallow,” said the Prince, “will you not stay with me one night longer?”

And the swallow who has a much more chirpy, chipper voice (note the demotic, chatty contraction ‘don’t’):

“I don’t think I like boys,” answered the Swallow. “Last summer, when I was staying on the river, there were two rude boys, the miller’s sons, who were always throwing stones at me.

So there’s drama at work in the contrasting roles and voices of statue and swallow. As to what makes Wilde’s text feel so gorgeous (apart from the late Victorian poetic diction) it is that at every opportunity he describes rare and precious things described in striking primary colours, amid repeated references to gold and silver and precious jewels.

He was gilded all over with thin leaves of fine gold, for eyes he had two bright sapphires, and a large red ruby glowed on his sword-hilt…The streets looked as if they were made of silver, they were so bright and glistening; long icicles like crystal daggers hung down from the eaves of the houses, everybody went about in furs, and the little boys wore scarlet caps and skated on the ice…He told him of the red ibises, who stand in long rows on the banks of the Nile, and catch gold-fish in their beaks; of the merchants, who walk slowly by the side of their camels, and carry amber beads in their hands; of the King of the Mountains of the Moon, who is as black as ebony, and worships a large crystal; of the great green snake that sleeps in a palm-tree, and has twenty priests to feed it with honey-cakes…and God said, ‘for in my garden of Paradise this little bird shall sing for evermore, and in my city of gold the Happy Prince shall praise me.’…

Everything is precious and rich and wonderful, designed to make the children the stories are read to gasp in wonder. And discuss the oral: God rewards the kind deeds of those who put others above themselves.

2. The Nightingale and the Rose

Talking birds are immediately magical and take you into the world of legend and fairy tales, in English as old as Chaucer, in the ancient world as old as the oldest legends.

Again the story is structured through a series of miniature odysseys and trials. A nightingale sitting in a holm oak tree overhears a young student lamenting that his beloved, the daughter of his professor, will not accompany him to the ball unless he presents her with a red rose. The nightingale is pleased that this is the Platonic Ideal of the True Lover of which she has sung for her entire life but never met before so she decides to help him and undertakes 3 (the magic number) journeys: flying to the rose tree in the middle of the lawn who tells her his roses are white; then to the rose tree twined round the sun dial, who tells her his roses are yellow; then to the rose tree that grows beneath the student’s window, but it tells her it is worn and blasted by winter winds and will not bloom this year.

And yet there is a way to get the student his rose. The nightingale must sing to the rose tree all night long her sweetest song with her breast pressed hard up against the tree so that its thorns pierce through her feather and flesh and triggers her heart’s blood which will rejuvenate the tree and make it produce a blood red rose.

The nightingale accepts and flies back to the holm oak. He can understand that the student is fickle and unreliable and is sad to hear his favourite bird is going to give her life for him. Oak asks nightingale to sing her one last song.

Then night falls, the moon comes out, and the nightingale goes to sing against the rose tree under the student’s window. There are three (magic number) stages:

  • she sang first of the birth of love in the heart of a boy and a girl and that prompts a rose to bud, pale as mist
  • she sang of the birth of passion in the soul of a man and a maid – and a flush of colour comes into the pale rose
  • she sang of the Love that is perfected by Death – and the thorn pierces her heart and the marvellous rose becomes a deep rich crimson

Then the nightingale faints and dies. At dawn the student flings open the window, notices the red rose, plucks it and goes running to present it to the beautiful daughter of his professor. Unfortunately, in the interim the Chamberlain’s nephew has sent her some real jewels so she’s going to the Prince’s ball with him. Infuriated the student flings the rose, created by the ultimate sacrifice of the nightingale, into the street where it is crushed by a common cart, and flounces back to his garret where he resolves to renounce love and dedicate himself to philosophy.

Commentary

As usual the text is as studded with precious gems and jewels as a medieval reliquary.

Surely Love is a wonderful thing. It is more precious than emeralds, and dearer than fine opals. Pearls and pomegranates cannot buy it, nor is it set forth in the marketplace. It may not be purchased of the merchants, nor can it be weighed out in the balance for gold.

And the point of both quests is they move through colour: the white rose and the yellow rose and the red rose; and then the various shades of white, pink and red as the nightingale bleeds out her heart’s blood, with Wilde going to town to elaborate in mellifluous cadences the full possibilities of each of the shades.

These are stories for children. You can see how a parent or teacher could not only read them to a child but then maybe ask some simple questions: so was the nightingale’s sacrifice worth it? even if it didn’t achieve its ultimate goal, was it still a noble and beautiful gesture? is the student right to renounce love just because he’s been rejected by one girl?

3. The Selfish Giant

Every day after school the children stop to play in the giant’s garden. There are twelve peach-trees that in the spring-time broke out into delicate blossoms of pink and pearl. They are able to do this because the giant has been away for a full seven years (seven dwarfs, seven league boots) visiting a friend in Cornwall. On his return he is angry to realise children have been invading his garden and builds a high wall round it and puts up a sign saying Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted.

The children can’t get in to play so the birds don’t sing any more so the trees don’t come into blossom and the flowers in the grass refuse to bloom. Wilde then has fun personifying Snow and Frost and the North Wind and Hail to come and wreak their worst on the barren garden. Spring doesn’t come, nor summer, but a perpetual winter, and the giant is puzzled and upset.

Then one day he hears a bird singing and, looking out the window, finds that the children found a crack in the wall and have snuck back into the garden and are sitting in the boughs of the trees which have all come out in blossom to celebrate which has tempted the birds to return. Except for one corner which is still winter with a blossomless tree covered in snow and a little boy who is too small to climb up into it.

So the giant leaves his bedroom, goes downstairs and into the garden at which all the other children run away screaming but the little boy is blinded by tears and doesn’t realise it is the giant picking him up and putting him into the snowy tree – which promptly bursts into bloom and the birds come and all the children come streaming back and the little boy throws his arms round the giant’s neck and kisses him and then the giant takes a giant hammer and smashes down his wall and passersby are amazed to see lots of children laughing and playing in the most beautiful garden they had ever seen.

But none of them know where the little boy has gone and for years all the children of the neighbourhood play in the garden but never again the little boy. Till one winter, when he is old and creaky, the giant looks out his window and sees the boy standing by one tree which is in blossom. He goes running to see him but is angered when he sees the boy has wounds in his hands and feet. He is the Christ child. These, he explains, are the wounds of Love, and the giant feels a strange awe and kneels before the little boy who tells him, ‘You let me play once in your garden, to-day you shall come with me to my garden, which is Paradise,’ and when the children come to play later that day they find the giant lying dead under the tree, all covered with white blossoms.

That made me cry. If only love was that simple and sweet and all-forgiving.

4. The Devoted Friend

This is a sarcastic or ironic story, the longest in the set. It’s a story within a story, starting with an argument between a selfish water rat and a mother duck who is trying to teach her ducklings the important skill of turning upside down in the water. A linnet flies down and announces she will tell the selfish water rat a story intended to demonstrate what true friendship is:

Little Hans is a nice little man with an innocent face who keeps a lovely garden full of flowers which he sells at market as his only income. He is bullied and over-awed by his neighbour, the big miller named Hugh. This self-important bully persuades himself, his fawning wife and innocent little Hans that he is Hans’s ‘best friend’. He does this by offering Hans his knackered old wheelbarrow (Hugh has just bought himself a new one) and uses the promise of this dubious gift to then extort all manner of favours from Hans: taking the only spare plank of wood Hans has to repair his barn; taking a big bunch of his best flowers off Hans; carrying a heavy sack of flour to market; repairing the miller’s barn roof for him; driving his sheep up into the mountain pasture.

Because of this endless list of impositions Hans rarely has the time or energy to cultivate his own garden or water his own flowers, the sale of which he relies on for his food, while the fat miller enjoys wine and cakes with his wife all the time accusing Hans of being lazy and not appreciating ‘real friendship’ such as he is showing.

Things come to a climax when the miller comes knocking in the middle of a dark and stormy night to tell Hans his son has fallen off the roof and hurt himself and would Hans please walk the three miles through pelting rain across the marsh to the doctors. Hans asks to borrow Hugh’s lantern but Hugh points out that it is far too valuable to give to him.

So, with his usual reluctance overcome by his usual commitment to Hugh’s idea of ‘true friendship’, Hans sets off and after walking through the rain for hours arrives at the doctors and tells him about Hugh’s son’s accident, So the doctor saddles up and rides off leaving Hans to make his way back by night in pelting rain across the marsh and, somewhat inevitably, he wanders off the path and is drowned in a deep pool.

At Hans’s funeral Hugh bullies his way into pride of place as Hans’s ‘best friend’ though he complains that he doesn’t think Hans really appreciated his friendship and, now he’s dead, who the devil is he going to give his knackered, broken down old wheelbarrow to? Really, very selfish of Hans!

So the miller remains utterly ignorant of the nature of true friendship and completely self-involved and self-justifying right to the end:

‘A true friend always says unpleasant things, and does not mind giving pain. Indeed, if he is a really true friend he prefers it, for he knows that then he is doing good.’

And the water rat is his avatar; when the linnet declares the story over and that it had a moral the water-rat is outraged at this imposition on his good nature and scuttles back into his hole.

Commentary

The story is beautifully paced and balanced. It unfolds in the right order at just the right speed.

The miller reminds us of the miller in Chaucer, maybe, but probably more, along with the Germanic name Hans, of a Grimm’s Fairy Tale.

5. The Remarkable Rocket

The night before the king’s son is scheduled to marry the Russian Princess the fireworks intended for a grand pyrotechnic display get talking. This is very funny as Wilde gives all the different types of fireworks appropriate characters (the sentimental catherine wheel, the Roman candle, the sceptical Bengal light, the airy fire balloon, the rowdy crackers and the chippy little squibs), leading up to the immense, unbearably self-satisfied superiority of the rocket, who comes, he tells the other fireworks, from a really most remarkable lineage, is immensely sensitive and demands respect:

‘The only thing that sustains one through life is the consciousness of the immense inferiority of everybody else, and this is a feeling that I have always cultivated.’

While all the other fireworks are pleased to be let off to celebrate the nuptials of such a beautiful couple, the remarkable rocket insists what an honour it is for them to be married on the great day of his Letting Off. And he weeps to show off his superior sensibility.

Unfortunately, this means that the next evening, after the wedding and at the climax of the party, all the other fireworks perform excellently but the remarkable rocket fails to even light. After the display is over the workmen dismantle the firework board and one of them simply throws the dud rocket over the wall into a ditch.

Here he has a series of comic encounters where he tries to maintain his lofty superiority over a succession of talking animals who are not at all impressed, namely a frog who is very proud of the racket he and his chorus make, a dragonfly who tells him not to worry about the frog, then a big white duck who is given the character of a fussy, middle-class suburbanite before paddling off quack quack quack.

Finally two schoolboys come along with some wood and a kettle planning to light a fire and boil water for tea. They think the rocket is just a stick and shove him in the fire before having a nap. Thus there is nobody at all to see him as he does, eventually, dry out, ignite and shoot high into the midday sky, utterly invisible and insignificant, before feeling a funny tingling sensation and then exploding in a series of impressive bangs which nobody sees or hears.

Then all that remains of this self-important personage, a singed stick, falls out of the sky and lands on the back of a goose who happened to be walking along beside the ditch.

‘Good heavens!’ cried the Goose. ‘It is going to rain sticks,’ and she rushed into the water.
‘I knew I should create a great sensation,’ gasped the Rocket, and he went out.

Commentary

In his vast and comic loftiness the rocket is given a barrage of characteristically paradoxical Wilde witticisms (notably absent from most of the other stories), which look forward to his mature writings:

‘It is a very dangerous thing to know one’s friends.’

‘You have talked the whole time yourself. That is not conversation.’
‘Somebody must listen,’ answered the Frog, ‘and I like to do all the talking myself. It saves time, and prevents arguments.’

‘You are a very irritating person,’ said the Rocket, ‘and very ill-bred. I hate people who talk about themselves, as you do, when one wants to talk about oneself, as I do. It is what I call selfishness.’

‘I like hearing myself talk. It is one of my greatest pleasures. I often have long conversations all by myself, and I am so clever that sometimes I don’t understand a single word of what I am saying.’

‘It would be unfair to expect other people to be as remarkable as oneself.’

‘My good creature,’ cried the Rocket in a very haughty tone of voice, ‘I see that you belong to the lower orders. A person of my position is never useful. We have certain accomplishments, and that is more than sufficient. I have no sympathy myself with industry of any kind, least of all with such industries as you seem to recommend. Indeed, I have always been of opinion that hard work is simply the refuge of people who have nothing whatever to do.’

And some simple but breath-taking effects:

Then the moon rose like a wonderful silver shield.


Related links

Essays, stories and novel

  • The Happy Prince and Other Tales (May 1888)
    1. The Happy Prince
    2. The Nightingale and the Rose
    3. The Selfish Giant
    4. The Devoted Friend
    5. The Remarkable Rocket
  • The Portrait of Mr. W. H. (1889)
  • The Soul of Man under Socialism (1891)
  • A House of Pomegranates (4 fairy tales: 1891)
    1. The Young King
    2. The Birthday of the Infanta
    3. The Fisherman and his Soul
    4. The Star-Child
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray (April 1891)
  • Intentions (4 critical essays: May 1891)
    1. The Decay of Lying: A Dialogue
    2. Pen, Pencil and Poison
    3. The Critic As Artist
    4. The Truth Of Masks: A note on illusion
  • Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories (1891)
    1. Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime
    2. The Canterville Ghost
    3. The Sphinx Without a Secret
    4. The Model Millionaire
  • Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young (1894)
  • A Few Maxims For The Instruction Of The Over-Educated (1894)

Poetry

  • The Sphinx (long poem: 1894)
  • Poems in Prose (1894)
    1. The Artist
    2. The Doer of Good
    3. The Disciple
    4. The Master
    5. The House of Judgement
    6. The Teacher of Wisdom

The plays

  • Lady Windermere’s Fan (premiered February 1892)
  • Salome (published 1893)
  • A Woman of No Importance (premiered April 1893)
  • An Ideal Husband (premiered January 1895)
  • The Importance of Being Earnest (premiered February 1895)

After prison

  • The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1897)
  • De Profundis (1897)
Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: