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REVIEW: Oscar Wilde: The Happy Prince and Other Stories
8.6.2002 by Julian, every Tuesday.

Oscar Wilde was what, in the Victorian period, they called a “dandy”. A dandy was a cultured gentleman who prided himself on his charm, elegance, wit and flamboyant manners. In other words he was flamingly gay. Be that as it may, Wilde was also married and had children, and it was for his two boys (who had the misfortune of being named Cyril and Viviane), that he wrote The Happy Prince and Other Stories.

Wilde is best known for his light and comical plays and he is quoted as saying, “Life is far too important to be taken seriously.” But in these stories he combines his dazzling wit with heart-wrenching sadness. It’s a horribly clichéd thing to say, but these stories will make you want to laugh and cry at the same time.

There is the story of the Nightingale, who gives up her life to make a rose grow, so that a young student might bring it to his lover. There is the Selfish Giant, who mends his ways, and dies happily as children play in his garden. There is the Happy Prince and the Swallow, who give up everything to help the city’s poor.
These are stories of suffering and salvation, and there are Christian undertones to every one, but they are too beautifully written to ever come across as corny or clichéd.

Wilde’s descriptions are magical. In a single paragraph he tells of “red ibises, who stand in long rows on the banks of the Nile, and catch goldfish in their beaks; of the Sphinx, who is as old as the world itself, and lives in the desert, and knows everything; of the merchants who walk slowly by the side of their camels and carry amber beads in their hands; of the King of the Moon, who is as black as ebony, and worships a large crystal; of the great green snake that sleeps in a palm-tree, and has twenty priests to feed it with honey-cakes; and of pygmies who sail over a big lake on large flat leaves, and are always at war with the butterflies.”

“The Fisherman and His Soul,” the longest story in the collection, is a virtuoso display of this kind of description, and includes a witches’ Sabbath, journeys to exotic lands, mermaids, magic mirrors, kings, emperors, elephants, opium, love and death. It is utterly captivating.

These stories were written in 1888, and as a result are not always politically correct — for instance, Libya is a place from which evil magicians come, and at one point an emperor casually kills his Negro slave. In fact, not all the stories are suitable for children. If you’re reading these stories to kids, read them yourself first. Some would make wonderful bedtime stories, but others are much better appreciated as an adult.

These are some of the most beautiful stories I have ever read. They are vastly underrated, overshadowed as they are by Wilde’s better-known plays and poetry, and they deserve more recognition. Read them.

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