Fairy Tale Friday: The Happy Prince

July 10, 2009 at 12:00 am 4 comments

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.

Welcome, readers, to Fairy Tale Friday! As this is the first Friday we’re doing this, let me take a minute to explain what’s going on. Every Friday, Corey and I will be posting about fairy tale, either one of the classics or something more modern.

This week, it’s Oscar Wilde’s “The Happy Prince”, first printed in 1888 as the title story of a set of fairy tales Mr. Wilde ostensibly wrote for his children. If you’d like to read it before continuing with this post, go ahead and check it out here.

One of the first things I notice about a fairy tale is if it would sound good when read aloud. After all, kids tend to be the target audience for fairy tales (though that wasn’t the case until the Victorian era, when books for children first took off as a genre) and reading aloud to children always was my favorite part of babysitting.

The Happy Prince, I am thrilled to say, does in fact pass the ‘aloud test.’ The repition of the sparrow’s tasks gives the text a nice flow, and the story has a really clear trajectory that children of a certain age should be able to follow. The contrast Wilde depicts between the sparrow’s beautiful descriptions of Egypt and the squalor the Prince sees in Victorian London is very well done, and I suppose if you wanted to raise a socially responsible child, this might be an excellent fairy tale to share with them.

Or is it? Not to spoil the ending, but the sparrow dies and the Prince is first stripped of his beauty and then melted down (except his broken lead heart, which cracked when the sparrow died). God steps in at the end of the tale to say that the sparrow will sing and the Prince will praise God in heaven, which is ostensibly the goal all good Victorian children were aiming for.

But is this heavenly reward enough? And, perhaps more to the point, did Oscar Wilde think it was enough? At the risk of talking about author intent until your brains explode, Oscar Wilde does not seem like the type of author to stick a nice little moral lesson at the end about giving of oneself and sacrificing unto death in hopes of a reward in heaven. Maybe this is what he wanted his children to believe…but it’s hard to reconcile that Oscar Wilde with the one who taught us The Importance of Being Earnest.

At any rate, no matter how you read it, it’s a nice story, and children always love stories about birds and things that talk that don’t talk in real life. And since the vocabulary is a pretty good level and the story itself is kind of charming, I say forget about the end and don’t worry about reading it to kids — just be ready to explain the irony of typical Wildean sentences like ‘as he is no longer beautiful, he is no longer useful’ or else you might end up giving your little girl a complex.


Entry filed under: Fairy Tale Friday. Tags: , , , .

Lost in Versions of Translations A Medieval Love Story

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Corey  |  July 10, 2009 at 8:05 am

    I love your last sentence! On the bright side, my mom never explained Wilde’s irony and I managed to get away complex-free. : )

    Anyway, great post. It really made me want to re-read this one.

    Utterly random sidenote: Why in god’s name did “Grey’s Anatomy Season 1 epi 8 – Save Me” come up as a related post?! “Possibly” indeed, WordPress!

  • 2. KT  |  July 10, 2009 at 9:56 am

    I am glad you’re complex-free! It is a pretty throw-away line, but as we had a whole discussion about how much children pick up and how The Coral Island is probably turning kids into little imperialists, I tend to be paranoid about this sort of thing.

    No idea about the random related posts! On another note, did you ever notice that if you scroll down to the very bottom of the page, there’s a little smiley face in the lower left-hand corner of the white box? Adorable!

  • 3. Corey  |  July 10, 2009 at 2:59 pm

    I often wonder about that, actually. To us it’s a throw-away line and I’m inclined to assume no three-year-old is going to read it and question their self-worth, but how much do children really pick up? Can it be that subtle and ruin their self image later in life? Not that this will remotely stop me from reading this to little hypothetical Clara, but still!

    I never noticed that smiley! So cute!

  • 4. KT  |  July 10, 2009 at 11:22 pm

    Ah ha, see, you would have done excellently in my class! Our discussions always went like this…

    Topic: The Coral Island and Imperialism

    Discussion: On one hand, it’s nice that Jack teaches the natives it’s not nice to eat other people’s private parts after they are dead. On the other hand, isn’t that a dismissal of important cultural rituals, and who is this little English kid to tell this whole tribe of cannibals that they’re wrong and he’s right? How does this attitude translate to every day life? What will a child take away from this story?

    The problem being, of course, that no one ever knows what kids will or won’t take away from a story so the discussion is basically irresolvable :P


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