From the back cover:
A celebrated playwright and poet, Oscar Wilde also penned incomparable nonfiction and fiction—and lovely gem-like fairy tales. Filled with princes and nightingales, mermaids, giants, and kings, his tales carry the mark of his signature irony and subtle eroticism. This volume brings together all the stories found in Wilde’s two collections, The Happy Prince and Other Tales and A House of Pomegranates. Published here alongside their evocative original illustrations, these fairy tales, as Wilde himself explained, were written “partly for children, and partly for those who have kept the childlike faculties of wonder and joy.”
I was first made aware of the fairy tales of Oscar Wilde by Stephen Fry, whose recording of six of the stories is nothing short of delightful. This print edition has its charms, too, including three additional tales as well as illustrations and a great introduction that acquaints readers with not only the tragedies of Wilde’s life but with the fond recollections of his friends. I’d say it’s worthwhile to invest in both.
Wilde published two collections of children’s stories and both, obviously, are included here. On one level, the stories are amusing and imaginative, featuring a bevy of talking animals—whom Wilde often uses for satirical purposes, as with the mother duck in “The Devoted Friend” who frets that her children will never be in “the best society” unless they can stand on their heads—and even a sentient firework with delusions of grandeur. Often, though, a surprising degree of darkness is also present, as various characters die, realize the suffering they have caused others, commit valiant acts of self-sacrifice for ultimately no purpose whatsoever, and persist in their misguided ways despite the best attempts of others to show them the light.
In these stories, Wilde mingles the fantastic with the quotidian and the heartwarming with the bittersweet in a way that really appeals to me. Here are my three favorite examples (spoilers ahead):
In “The Nightingale and the Rose,” a nightingale overhears a student bewailing his plight: the woman he loves has agreed to dance with him at an upcoming event if he brings her a red rose. Alas, there are no red roses in his garden. The bird, believing him to be the very embodiment of true love, which she is always singing about, tries everything in her power to procure such a flower for him, ultimately deciding that it’s worth sacrificing her own life for the sake of love. And what is the recipient’s reaction to the rose when it is presented to her? “I’m afraid it will not go with my dress.” It ends up in the street and is promptly run over by a cart. The end.
A similarly awesome ending can be found in “The Star-Child.” One winter, a pair of poor woodcutters are returning to their homes when they see what appears to be a falling star land nearby. When they get there, they find a baby, and one of the men takes it home. The boy grows up fair and comely and becomes vain and cruel because he is convinced of his own lofty origins. One day, a beggar woman shows up to claim him as her son, but he rejects her. This action renders him ugly, and he spends the next three years in search of the woman to beg her forgiveness, learning mercy and pity along the way and sincerely repenting of his former actions. A happy ending seems imminent when he not only gets his looks back but is revealed to be a prince, but Wilde concludes the story (and A House of Pomegranates as a whole) with the following paragraph:
Yet ruled he not long, so great had been his suffering, and so bitter the fire of his testing, for after the space of three years he died. And he who came after him ruled evilly.
The end. Is that not amazing?
My very, very favorite story, though, is “The Happy Prince.” Once upon a time there was a prince, and he was happy while he lived in his isolated palace and remained ignorant of the world outside. After his death, the townspeople erected a beautiful, gilded statue in his honor and set it on a tall column, from where he can see (with his sapphire eyes) all the misery in the city that he could not see before. One day, a swallow—delayed in departing for warmer climes because of his devotion to a fickle reed (“It is a ridiculous attachment,” twittered the other swallows. “She has no money and far too many relations.”)—lands near his feet and becomes the messenger for the Happy Prince, plucking out his jewels and stripping off his gold and delivering them to the poor and needy.
The swallow eventually succumbs to the cold, but not before sharing a kiss with the statue he loves. The mayor, once he notices how shabby the statue has become, decides that one of himself would do much better and pulls it down. Here, instead of a wholly sad ending, Wilde offers up a sweeter alternative that sees both the statue and the bird rewarded for their benevolence. It’s an immensely satisfying tale that also portrays pure love between two males, though they be not human; I like it immensely.
The one author of whom I was reminded while reading these stories is Neil Gaiman. I’m now convinced he was at least partly inspired by Wilde, so, if you’re a fan of his short stories, you might like these as well!