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Commentary: The Happy Prince

I have regular internet access again. This makes me happy. I'm sorry for the delay in posting; moreover, if you're expecting an email or other response from me, I'm on it.

Now that my fairy tale birthday celebration is over, I'm returning to regular fairy tales and commentaries. I hadn't thought to write much up for The Happy Prince—usually I do a bit of reading, then follow my interest. This past week I've read a fair bit about The Happy Prince, but nothing has truly fascinated me (rare, as I'm quite easily amused—did you know that a single shaft of light holds well over one hundred dust motes per centimetre?).

In an act of surprising foresight, I did a little research before I set up this page. I considered my options: fairy tale analyses; fairy tale studies; fairy tale commentaries; and fairy tale scholarship, to name a few. Then I paged through my OED to get a feel for the idea behind each word. I eventually settled—I put a couple of days thought into this, yes—on commentaries because, as the OED puts it, a commentary

is the expression of opinions or explanations about an event or situation
• opinion, either written or spoken.
• a descriptive spoken account (esp. on radio or television) of an event or a performance as it happens.
• a set of explanatory or critical notes on a text [1].

This rang true for me, most particularly this week, when I could not think of anything to write, yet had many ever-so-slightly niggling thoughts I could not put names to. So I sat down at my keyboard and let my fingers wander, for it's in writing that I do my best thinking. And along came a meandering stream of commentary: the expression of opinions, written down.

Most people know Oscar Wilde as a comic and satirist—recent years have seen both An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest turned into feature films. His work as a fairy tale writer, though somewhat known, is largely forgotten in the present day. Yet, Wilde's gift for making us think is at its best used in his fairy tales, and of all his works, it is these that are perhaps the most lasting.

Over the years, many scholars have criticised Wilde's fairy tales, calling them overly sophisticated, while others have simply dismissed them. Even the BBC biography[2] calls them "fairy stories", suggesting that the works are rather more trite than meaningful. (This has long been the bane of the fairy tale writer.) Either way, it is easy to suppose that Wilde's fairy tales make us uncomfortable in some way or another—and I cannot help but wonder why.

Like many of Wilde's tales, The Happy Prince contains certain themes, most notably selflessness, selfishness, indifference, love for one's fellows, and vanity; his most popular plays, too, work upon some of these themes. But while the comic plays (and I say comic, for there are other works, like Salome, of a serious nature) poke and prod at both human folly and virtue, they make us laugh while reminding us, in the end, of our better nature. His fairy tales, on the other hand, emphasise our flaws and follies in such a way that even the presence of, or growth of, virtue cannot compensate for what I think is best called "moral discomfort".

The Happy Prince depicts abject poverty to such an extent that, for some, it may recall the mid-nineteenth century Great Potato Famine—remember that Wilde, although born to well-to-do parents after the famine lived in an Ireland still greatly affected by it. The Nightingale shows us vanity and sacrifice in turn—moreover, a sacrifice for the love of love and beauty, a theme particularly fitting for Wilde as an Aestheticism[2] spokesperson. The Selfish Giant visits ideas of loneliness, love, kindness, and redemption, going so far as to suggest the presence of Christ in the giant's garden. The Birthday of the Infanta (to me Wilde's most saddening tale) shows us joy and kindness, but pity, and cruelty also. Each fairy tale—true to type, really—paints a picture of humanity both good and bad. And each of these ideas, in and of themselves, are not unusual to the modern reader; they are on crime shows, reality shows, medical dramas. They are in movies and plays. They are in books meant for adult and child alike. The news covers poverty, famine, and war at home and half a world away. We are inured to the worst that is in Wilde's fairy tales already—and yet there is something so poignant in his depictions that we exclaim over them while letting the news, worse for its reality, flow overhead and away.

In the beginning of The Happy Prince, we see the Swallow's shallow flirtation with the Reed and his wonder at the Happy Prince being gilded with gold rather than solid gold; in the middle, we see the Swallow help the Happy Prince in his good works; at the end we see his dedication to the living statue, and his willngness to give all simply to remain with him. The beginning is simple. The middle is simple. The end is challenging. Stories invite us to be at our best. Stories remind us when we are not.


[1] Oxford English Dictionary, Electronic Version 1.0.2, 2005.
[2] "Oscar Wilde (1854 - 1900)" BBC Historic Figures. BBC. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/wilde_oscar.shtml
[3] a popular movement in 1880s England devoted to "art for art's sake". Max Beerbohm and Aubrey Beardsley are other figures noted for supporting it.


( 1 written — write... )
May. 9th, 2008 09:05 am (UTC)
I think Wilde's fairy tales are certainly much better appreciated now among literary scholars. I do agree wholeheartedly with you that the discomfort (and profound sadness) these tales impart did somehow influence their acceptance. I also believe that aside from his aesthetic sensibilities, some of these tales reflect his own tumultuous relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas in their themes of love and selfishness.

How I'd love to illustrate Wilde's fairy tales some day...
( 1 written — write... )

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