The Happy Prince and Other Tales

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The Happy Prince and Other Tales  by Oscar Wilde, book reviewThe Happy Prince and Other Tales is a collection of children’s stories by Oscar Wilde and was published in 1888. The collection contains The Happy Prince, The Nightingale and the Rose, The Selfish Giant, The Devoted Friend and The Remarkable Rocket. The stories are laced with Wilde’s descriptive flourishes of flowers and nature and the first three in particular are wonderful and quite heartbreaking at times. There is often a very obvious religious subtext (with acts of kindness, generosity and sacrifice rewarded in fantastical ways) and some incredibly touching and sad moments but the stories, for the most part, manage to be uplifting too and Wilde’s major theme is always that we should think of others and not just ourselves. The first story, The Happy Prince, is probably the strongest offering here and incredibly touching. In The Happy Prince, a swallow is about to join his friends in Egypt but has fallen in love with a reed and delays his trip. His romantic plans don’t quite work out and the swallow flies back over the city and ends up sleeping at the feet of a much loved statue that dominates the city on top of a column. ‘High above the city, on a tall column, stood the statue of the Happy Prince. 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 swallow is disturbed by the tears of the Happy Prince, who tells him that he is not happy at all. High above the city, he looks out each day into the houses and lives of the population and sees only unhappy things. A poor seamstress who can barely feed her ill son, a threadbare writer trying to finish a play in a freezing cold house with no food, a match-girl who has dropped her matches in the gutter and will have to face her angry father. The swallow postpones his journey to Egypt and serves as a messenger for the Happy Prince. He delivers happiness and hope to the people in the form of the valuable trinkets that make up the statue and performs kind acts, like administering a cooling breeze by flapping his wings over a child with a fever so they can sleep more soundly. This story is justifiably famous and loved and there probably won’t be a dry eye in the house at the conclusion. Only Oscar Wilde could probably make a friendship between a statue and a swallow so poetic and poignant! There are some lovely trademark flights of fancy and flourishes from the author here too that are always enjoyable. ‘I am waited for in Egypt’ says the swallow. ‘The river-horse couches there among the bulrushes, and on a great granite throne sits the God Memnon. All night long he watches the stars, and when the morning star shines he utters one cry of joy, and then he is silent. At noon the yellow lions come down to the water’s edge to drink. They have eyes like green beryls, and their roar is louder than the roar of the cataract.’

The Nightingale and the Rose is another magical and bittersweet story. In this story a nightingale takes pity on a lovelorn student who can’t persuade his professor’s daughter to go to a dance with him because he doesn’t have a red rose to give her. The nightingale decides she will sing her sweetest song to the rose-trees to get hold of a perfect red rose to give to the student but this proves to be far more difficult than she imagined. ‘My roses are yellow. As yellow as the hair of the mermaiden who sits upon an amber throne, and yellower than the daffodil that blooms in the meadow before the mower comes with his scythe. Go to my brother who grows beneath the student’s window and perhaps he will give you what you want.’ Be warned though that this is the saddest story of all here. The third story, The Selfish Giant, is probably the most famous and best known in the collection and another touching tale. On the way home from school, the children love to play in a beautiful garden belonging to a giant. ‘It was a large lovely garden, with soft green grass. Here and there over the grass stood beautiful flowers like stars, and there were twelve peach-trees that in the spring-time broke out into delicate blossoms of pink and pearl, and in the autumn bore rich fruit.’

The giant has been away visiting the ‘Cornish ogre’ (only for seven years says Wilde, for ‘his conversation was limited’!) and isn’t very happy to find children have been larking about on his property. He builds a big wall to keep them out but nature rebels against his selfishness and protests at the absence of the happy children in the garden. Spring arrives but the giant’s garden remains trapped in the depths of winter. ‘The Snow covered up the grass with her great white cloak, and the Frost painted all the trees silver. Then they invited the North Wind to stay with them, and he came. He was wrapped in furs, and he roared all day about the garden, and blew the chimney-pots down. “This is a delightful spot,” he said, “we must ask the Hail on a visit.” So the Hail came. Every day for three hours he rattled on the roof of the castle till he broke most of the slates, and then he ran round and round the garden as fast as he could go. He was dressed in grey, and his breath was like ice.’ Will the giant see the error of his selfish ways?

The Selfish Giant is another charming fable for the collection and was actually woven into the Oscar Wilde film with Stephen Fry to quite nice effect if I remember correctly. I would imagine this is probably the story here that children would be most enchanted by, imagining themselves sneaking into a magical garden owned by a giant and then being told that it was always winter in the garden – no matter if it was summer outside. Like the first two tales, The Selfish Giant is also very touching. The last two stories are not so memorable but pleasant enough. The Devoted Friend is a fable told by an intellectual water-rat about the nature of friendship and The Remarkable Rocket is about a pompous firework who is to be part of a display for the wedding of a prince and princess. The Devoted Friend is the one story here where I found my attention drifting slightly at times when I read this collection again recently. The Remarkable Rocket is not as good as the first three stories but it does have some memorable Wilde flourishes and scenes – like the arrival of the Royal bride. ‘She was a Russian princess, and had driven all the way from Finland in a sledge drawn by six reindeer. The sledge was shaped like a golden swan, and between the swan’s wings lay the little princess herself. Her long ermine cloak reached right down to her feet, on her head was a tiny cap of silver tissue, and she was as pale as the Snow Palace in which she had always lived.’

The Happy Prince and Other Tales
is a wonderful collection on the whole.


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Happy Prince and Other Tales, The
by Oscar Wilde

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