Friday, April 1, 2016

As he is no longer beautiful, he is no longer useful, said the Art Professor - Oscar Wilde's fairy tales

Simpler Pastimes runs her Classic Children’s Literature event in April.  That’s today!

I have read or am reading several books that could count.  The two I will poke at today are Oscar Wilde’s two little books of fairy tales, The Happy Prince and Other Tales (1888) and A House of Pomegranates (1891).

The earlier book is shorter, sweeter, and written at a lower reading level.  The model for the fairy tales is Hans Christian Andersen, not the Grimms or other folklorists, so the tone is light but sad, oh so sad.  “The Happy Prince,” in particular, about a statue – it’s really a statue of a prince – and a swallow who sacrifice themselves for others hits the Andersen model perfectly.

The stories are mostly about selfishness and sacrifice.  They are perhaps a little monotonous.  Do good for others (“The Happy Prince,” “The Selfish Giant”), but be careful about, for example, committing suicide in the name of beauty (“The Nightingale and the Rose”) or being selfless in the service of a blowhard parasite (“The Devoted Friend”).  The final story, “The Remarkable Rocket,” is also about a blowhard, who is ironically a firework who fizzles.  Two stories  in a row about chatty blowhards – maybe one too many, although Wilde’s pompous asses are funny, as if Wilde is practicing towards his greater works, which he is.

“Idleness is a great sin, and I certainly don’t like any of my friends to be idle or sluggish...  Anybody can say charming things and try to please and to flatter, but a true friend always says unpleasant things, and does not mind giving pain.”  (“The Devoted Friend,” 75)

Both lines could be dropped into The Importance of Being Earnest without much work.  Similarly, from the Rocket:

“What right have you to be happy?  You should be thinking about others.  in fact, you should be thinking about me.  I am always thinking about myself, and I expect everybody else to do the same.  That is what is called sympathy.  It is a beautiful virtue, and I possess it in a high degree.”  (“The Remarkable Rocket,” 98-9)

Good stuff, but “The Happy Prince” doesn’t need it to succeed as a fairy tale.

The later book, A House of Pomegranates, is a stranger, darker thing.  Wilde seems to have decided that what fairy tales mostly lacked was long, elaborate descriptions.  I am a fan of such things, and Wilde’s are mostly quite good, but structurally, boy is he wrong.  The longest story, “The Fisherman and His Soul,” particularly suffers from a too-muchness, plus it is just a hodgepodge of other stories – “The Little Mermaid” mashed with Peter Schlemihl and other stories.

“The Birthday of the Infanta” is more successful in this regard.  The long descriptions of the princess’s birthday party, or rooms and gardens  in the Spanish palace, or a woodland idyll, are part of the beauty / ugliness contrast that is the heart of the story.

The purple butterflies fluttered about with gold dust on their wings, visiting each flower in turn; the little lizards crept out of the crevices of the wall, and lay basking in the white glare, and the pomegranates split and cracked with the heat, and showed their bleeding red hearts.  Even the pale yellow lemons, that hung in such profusion from the mouldering trellis and along the dim arcades, seemed to have caught a richer colour form the wonderful sunlight, and the magnolia trees opened their great globe-like blossoms of folded ivory, and filled the air with a sweet heavy perfume.  (“The Birthday of the Infanta,” 31-2).

Imagine more of this, more colors, more perfumes, a lot more.  Maybe too much.  It’s like the much-loathed Chapter 11 of The Picture of Dorian Gray, the Huysmans parody, compressed into a fairy tale.

Both this story and “The Young King” surprised me by their critique of beauty along social and ethical grounds, some of which I believe is borrowed from William Morris, although there is plenty of that in the earlier book, too.  “’As he is no longer beautiful, he is no longer useful,’ said the Art Professor at the University” (“The Happy Prince,” 23).  Both books of fairy tales are moral books, and also well written.


  1. Trust you to know the sophisticated and intellectual side to children's literature, while I was mulling over my Beatrix Potter collection. ;)

    I read the original Pinocchio to my class a few years ago, and it was their favorite book of the year. They're not stupid, those children.

    I haven't decided what to read yet, enmeshed as I am in the Man Booker International Prize long list, but I look forward to participating with you and others.

  2. Someone gave me a collection of these tales way back when, and I've passed them on to godchildren and friends' children. They seem to hold up pretty well for adults, too.

  3. "The Selfish Giant" is the only one of these I'm familiar with; it was included in a collection I had when I was little. But I am very intrigued--by the idea of Anderson-like fairy tales, by the descriptions of the second set (not usually a description fan, but the one you quote is lovely), just by the idea of Wilde writing these. I don't know that I'll have time to get to any Wilde this month, buy maybe later this year, with the addition of some of his later work. That could be fun.

  4. Great review....I have this book on my list!

  5. Kids will enjoy the socialism and attack on egotism; adults will enjoy the aesthetic theorizing. Something for everyone!

    Very easy to recommend.

    The connections to other Wilde writings are striking, and fun to see. But of course reading widely in Wilde is fun.

  6. Your posting reminds me of the beautiful and dreadful ironies of Wilde's life v. his art. I'll leave it at that: a curious paradox.

  7. Replies
    1. Cryptic? Does life imitate art, or does art imitate life? In Wilde's case, that becomes a cryptic puzzle. Moreover, his singularity in his personal life, especially his defiance of "rules," cost him dearly without any comic or fairy tale ending. He has remained for me one of the saddest but funniest people in the history of literature.

  8. I still can't solve your riddle! Rather than give me more clues, feel free to just say what you mean. "Singularity"?

    The endings of Wilde's fairy tales almost always include the unmourned death of the protagonist.

    "The third doctrine is that Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life," or so writes a Wilde-like character in "The Decay of Lying" (1889), a piece itself so cryptic that I have no idea which character or position represents Wilde, if any. Maybe you are riffing on "The Decay of Lying."

    1. Yes, I am being lazy, vague, and imprecise. For example, strike the word "singularity." More specifically, limiting the discussion, I think of Wilde's imprisonment as society's horrible, unjust criticism of his life (and the subsequent scandals that derailed the "popularity" of his art). The trajectory of his life is so sad.

  9. Yes, very sad. These fairy tales were written during happier times, Wilde's trajectory on its way up.