The Happy Prince and Other Confusing Tales

Despite having spent a lot of time with The Happy Prince and Other Tales, I freely admit that each of the tales still puzzles me. The sort of irresolution we ended our class on them with feels maybe predictive of the irresolution I imagine I’ll feel even at the close of my thesis — almost more questions than answers. And I guess that’s some of their charm, that, like Wilde, they are a little elusive, seemingly random, but undeniably charming (I’m sure that’s a bit of a bold claim to make, but bear with me).  It’s difficult too to identify what exactly gives them that quality, if it’s the abundance of small details such that it’s hard to know what to focus on, or perhaps their less-than-satisfying ends. It’s just hard to make something tangible of them — hard, but not impossible.  

One element of “The Happy Prince” I’m still trying to understand are the religious details that come in at the very end.  God asks his angels to bring him “‘the two most precious things in the city’” (277) and he is brought the Happy Prince’s heart and the dead Swallow.  The Swallow is conferred into Paradise to sing eternally and the Happy Prince is restored to a city of gold.  They are clearly rewarded for their love, as they are brought together to God. The question is why God must bestow this reward, when for the rest of the story all that seemed to matter was the relationship between the Prince and the Swallow and the value they found in each other. This sort of religious quirk at the end of a tale happens again in “the Selfish Giant” when the Giant is brought into Paradise by a child Christ: “You let me play once in your garden, today you shall come with me to my garden which is Paradise” (285). This line in “the Selfish Giant” however, allows a much more direct explanation of why the Giant is going to Heaven compared to that in “The Happy Prince” — the children can now play in his garden because he has learned not to be selfish.  This direct line of reasoning doesn’t seem as critical in “The Happy Prince.” Perhaps it has something to do with the sacrifice of both the Happy Prince and the Swallow. While I don’t read their relationship to be wholly mutualistic, there is a sense in which they both died in the service of others — the Swallow to the Happy Prince and the Prince to his city and perhaps that granted them a place in Paradise. 

What is most curious about these religious elements to me is not that they simply exist, or even puzzling out why they exist. Instead what feels most key about them to me is that, though they are abrupt, they are not out of joint with the rest of the story.  While it is narratively confusing that God and his Angels appear at the end, it somehow doesn’t also feel wrong. It is as if on some level those elements just fit the story. I don’t have an explanation for why they fit, they just seem to, and it’s something I’m going to keep trying to explain as we keep thinking about Wilde this semester.

What Makes a Fairytale?

As we discussed The Happy Prince and Other Tales on Wednesday, I found myself drawn to the question “what makes a fairytale?” It’s a question I had not thought of before, mostly because I think that we learn fairytale stories when we are young and accept that the stories that we learned are fairytales. But as I thought about it further, I found that that explanation is unhelpful. For example, if asked whether Disney princess movies are fairytales, I would say no but many people would say yes. I would insist that they are adaptations of fairytales, not fairytales themselves, but if pushed I could only say that when I was a kid my parents read to me books of fairytales that told many of the traditional stories Disney used as inspiration for their films, so I consider those stories to be “true” fairytales, while someone who only watched Disney movies and did not read fairytales might say that the Disney films themselves are fairytales. “This is what I learned when I was a kid” is not a good enough justification for how to define a fairytale.

As I pondered this question, I came up with a variety of potential definitions. A fairytale has to have a Happily Ever After? Anyone who has read the Brothers Grimm know that’s not the case. A fairytale has a princess in it? Jack and the Beanstalk, the Three Little Pigs, and Little Red Riding Hood are only a few examples that show that’s not true. Perhaps a fairytale is simply a fantastical short story intended for young audiences. That is the most satisfactory definition I could find after trying to classify books I read as a kid into different categories and looking in various dictionaries to see what they had to say.

With that definition in mind, in order determine whether “The Happy Prince” is a fairytale, we must reflect on whether Wilde intended for children to read the collection. I think it is fair to say that they are short, fantastical stories. Birds and statues speak to one another; rockets are personified; giants exist. It is more difficult to determine whether the stories are directed towards children. We talked in class about how critics are divided on this question. Vyvyan Holland said that the stories are more poetry than they are fairytales, but other people have argued that Wilde wrote these stories for his own children. Ultimately, I think that stories can work on multiple levels. These stories are entertaining for children to read, and they can also appeal to adults, regardless of which group was meant to appreciate the tales. With that in mind, I think that it is fair to categorize The Happy Prince and Other Tales as a collection of fairytales.