Oscar Wilde's Fairy Tales: Stories of a Beautiful Tragedian
Not Well Known
I’ll bet you didn’t know that Oscar Wilde wrote children’s stories.
While it is not a secret, it’s certainly a little known fact. We all know Oscar Wilde from his adult stories like, The Portrait of Dorian Gray, The Importance of Being Earnest, and An Ideal Husband. It’s sad that his children’s stories are not more popular. Those of you who have been following my hubs on other fairy tale authors – like the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson – know that I’m quite critical of them. They are geniuses, but their tales are bent, full of neurosis and an insane amount of psychosis.
Wilde’s tales are merely… touching.
Stephen Fry, who played Oscar Wilde in the 1997 film, Wilde, said Wilde was a tragedian who saw the infinite suffering and the misery that people store for themselves. His tales are beautifully painful and touching, full of rhythms and tones that mark his mandarin style.
Like Anderson and the Grimm brothers, Wilde characteristically spoke in parables with a twist represented by his aesthetic philosophy. An illustration of what he represented happened when he was in America shortly after the Civil War. He was asked why he thought America was so violent.
Wilde answered, “America is so violent because their wallpaper is so ugly.”
While most people thought that this was just a silly answer, you need to take the view of an aesthetic. Oscar Wilde wrote an interior decorating book called The House Beautiful. Which, incidentally, is quite rare. An aesthetic does not view the world primarily in terms of good or bad but whether things are beautiful or ugly. As Americans look out their windows and see such beauty in nature, they look back into their rooms and they see ugly wallpaper. We see beauty everywhere except where man has intervened. If you surround yourself with ugliness, you will see the world as ugly.
It’s a deep answer.
The three tales that I want to share with you are representative of his work: The Selfish Giant, The Happy Prince, and The Nightingale and The Rose. In many ways they are tragedies. They are filled with death and in some ways are not unlike those of Hans Christian Anderson – but without all the neurosis.
The Selfish Giant
Wilde wrote this story for his kids and it is actually representative of him as he was spending more and more time away from his home.
There was a selfish giant that lived in a castle surrounded by a beautiful garden. In the spring children would sneak into his garden and play. He didn’t want the children there so he built a wall around his property with a big “KEEP OUT” sign. In doing this he also blocked out the spring and was kept in winter for many years as the castle grew more and more cold.
One day, he’s awoken by a bird and discovers that spring has returned to his castle along with some children.
The giant has seen the error of his ways and as he emerges from his castle all the children run away – except one child who was trying to climb a tree. The giant helps the child up the tree and the boy gives the giant a kiss. He knocks down the wall and allows the children to play in his garden again. He discovered that the boy he helped has not returned and he is heartbroken.
Many years pass and the giant becomes old and feeble. The children have continued to play in his garden.
On one winter morning, he sees the trees are in full bloom. And waiting by the trees is the boy. The boy is wounded on his hands (as a stigmata). The giant is infuriated and demands to know who has hurt him. The boy (a symbol for the Christ child) has said that they were wounds of love. With that the child invites the old dying giant to play in his garden in paradise as he let the boy play in his.
An innocent tale about retribution and redemption.
The Nightingale and The Rose
A nightingale hears a student whining about the trials of his infatuation with the daughter of one of his professors. All he wants is for the daughter to dance with him but he needs a blood red rose to give her. The bird hearing this sympathizes and decides that she’s going to help the boy.
The nightingale visits all the roses bushes in the garden asking each of them to give him a blood red rose. None are the right color. The bird goes to the red rose bush who tells her that the only way for him to make the rose is for the bird to sing sweetly to the bush all night while impaling herself against one of his thorns.
The nightingale sings to the bush while pushing herself to the thorn. As the rose starts to grow and fill with the color of the nightingale’s blood she keeps singing her beautiful songs to the rose bush until the sun comes up and she dies with the thorn through her heart.
The student finds the rose and offers it to the professor’s daughter who turns the boy down because another boy has given her jewelry. He decides that he’s going to study metaphysics instead and not believe in true love anymore.
The Happy Prince
This is the story of a swallow and a statue.
The statue, a jeweled representative of a former prince, is housing the soul of the prince. All through the summer season the birds would nestle near the prince’s head and live there during the rains. Among the birds that stay with the statue, there is a swallow who longs to see the world and want to migrate to all of the wonderful sites in Egypt.
We discover that the prince had never experienced happiness. As he looks out over the city, he sees that people are suffering because they have no money. Once a night, as winter starts to come, the prince statue persuades the swallow to take one of the jewels in his eyes to a poor family in the city.
The bird is reluctant to do any of these errands as he wants to go on migration to see the world. The window of opportunity is quickly shrinking to when the swallow can fly off safely to warmer lands. However, each night, he does as the prince statue asks.
When the prince is down to his last jewel, it is the last night that the swallow can go off to the warmer lands. The swallow is persuaded by the prince to stay with him. The swallow does this last deed and finds that it is now too late to go and dies in the winter cold. In dying while helping the poor, the prince’s heart breaks.
An angel has determined that the most valuable treasures on earth were the prince’s heart and the dead swallow.
Wilde in Amazon
I admit I have a soft spot for Oscar Wilde.
Okay, these aren’t happy tales for the kids.
What we find with these stories is Wilde’s talent as a wonderful and prolific writer. Not summarized here is the story of the Star Childe. It is the story of a boy who was abandoned and raised by other parents. He grows up a beautiful, but cruel child. When his mother, a beggar comes to his village, he denies her. In turn he is cursed and turned into a reptilian and ugly creature. It is only when he has redeemed himself by taking the higher road to help others and sacrificing his own health that he finds out his mother was actually a queen. She then restores his good looks with his redemption. He lives to rule fairly and dies after a three year reign.
Remember, this is Oscar Wilde.
I think the thing about these tales is that they are NOT well known. They are rarely told to children and I think they were meant to be uncovered by more mature adults. I had only heard of The Selfish Giant when I was a teen and the animated presentation held back nothing.
There are no real lessons learned with these tales. Like Grimms Fairy Tales, there is a nebulous piece of BS saying that if you sacrifice yourself for the greater good, your reward will be in heaven. We also see that nastiness in the protagonist is punishable. Nastiness in the supporting characters is just fine.
I have to say that while I did not agree with any of the moralistic views for any of the tales, I found that the tales themselves had emotional resonance.
Would I tell any of these to my child? No way.
Would I have him read them when he was an adolescent? Absolutely.
© 2012 Christopher Peruzzi