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Oscar Wilde and the Literary Fairy Tale

Irish writer Oscar Wilde is known for many things: his acerbic wit (Be yourself,” he quips, “everyone else is already taken”; “No good deed goes unpunished”; and “You can never be overdressed or overeducated”); his plays (i.e. The Importance of Being Earnest); his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray; his essays; and, sadly, his imprisonment for loving someone of the same sex. While Oscar Wilde is a name that most people recognize, chances are many do not realize Wilde also wrote several beautiful, heartrending fairy tales.

Oscar Wilde was a devoted father to his two sons, and while they were still small, he wrote two volumes of stories: The Happy Prince and Other Tales (1888) and The House of Pomegranates (1892). His tales are literary fairy tales which means he is not collecting or reimagining stories from the oral tradition but creating new tales from his own imagination. Inspired by Hans Christian Andersen, Wilde’s tales are exquisitely crafted and full of magic, melancholy, and desire. Like Andersen’s “The Little Matchgirl” and “The Little Mermaid,” Wilde’s tales often end sadly, which is contrary to the traditional “happily ever after” ending. As Maria Tatar points out in her introduction to Oscar Wilde in The Classic Fairy Tales, “That Wilde deeply respected the Danish writer becomes evident from ‘The Fisherman and His Soul’ (clearly inspired by ‘The Little Mermaid’) and by the unmistakable tribute to ‘The Little Match Girl’ in one of the many visions of human misery in ‘The Happy Prince’” (327).

Ironically, "The Happy Prince" is a meditation on misery and centers on a beautiful statue of a dead prince which stands atop a tall column in the middle of a city. From his perch, the prince can see the agony endured by people in his city who live in poverty--something the prince was oblivious to while he was alive. As his friend the swallow tells the prince about the wonderful things he has seen during his travels, the prince states, "[Y]ou tell me of marvellous things, but more marvellous than anything is the suffering of men and of women. There is no Mystery so great as Misery. Fly over my city, little Swallow, and tell me what you see there." To alleviate the city's suffering, the prince decides to sacrifice the jewels and gold that adorn him, which, in turn, causes the town councillors to take the statue down, stating, "As he is no longer beautiful he is no longer useful."

While Wilde’s fairy tales include scenes of sacrifice and suffering, they also contain moments of transcendent beauty. In "The Happy Prince," for example, the statue of the prince views the suffering of his city through bejeweled eyes of "two bright sapphires," and at the end of Wilde’s most religious tale “The Selfish Giant,” the giant’s dead body is discovered “all covered with white blossoms.” Wilde understands that anguish and yearning are part of the human condition, but it also contains flashes of wonder and grace. To quote one of Wilde’s most bittersweet statements, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

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