March 31, 2014

The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde, by Christina Ruth Johnson, Vintage Fairy Tale Sleuth

The stories from Oscar Wilde’s two published collections of fairy tales are by turns sad and uplifting, idealistic and cynical, and often include political, social, and religious themes. They are all written with elegance, eloquence, and wit (would we expect any less?); unfortunately, they are not well known to those with only a passing interest in this great Victorian writer.

Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde (1854-1900) is perhaps most famous today for his (only) novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, as well as for his plays, which include The Importance of Being Ernest and An Ideal Husband. Wilde was also a poet and, as I present to you here, an author of fairy tales. His life was not an easy one -- he died at an early age, penniless, with a poor social reputation -- and these hardships seem to be reflected in the depressing elements within his stories. And yet, the stories are not without their kernels of hope.

Wilde’s first fairy tale collection, The Happy Prince and Other Stories, was published in 1888. It includes five tales: “The Happy Prince,” “The Nightingale and the Rose,” “The Selfish Giant,” “The Devoted Friend,” and “The Remarkable Rocket.” Walter Crane lent his illustrative talents to the first edition of this publication.

Wilde's The Happy Prince, book cover, 1888
"The Happy Prince," Walter Crane, 1888
The story of “The Nightingale and the Rose” exemplifies the depressing-with-a-kernel-of-hope motif found in these works. Overhearing a young man exclaim sadly (even histrionically) over his lack of a red rose to bestow upon the woman he loves, a nightingale gives her heart’s blood for the sake of Love, an ideal she deems more worthy than her own life, to create the most beautiful red rose ever seen. The young man casually plucks the bloom, inches away from the body of the little bird, and takes it to the woman he loves. She spurns his advances, and he discards the rose, which is crushed in the street. At first the utter futility of the nightingale’s death outweighs any other thought, but then the absolute beauty of her uncomplicated self-sacrifice outweighs even the sorrow of the tale.

Wilde’s second collection, A House of Pomegranates, was published in 1891 as a companion to The Happy Prince. It includes “The Young King,” “The Birthday of the Infanta,” “The Fisherman and His Soul,” and “The Star-Child.” A lovely 1915 edition features illustrations by the Scottish artist Jessie M. King.
From "The Young King,"
illustration by Jessie M. King, 1915
By Jessie King, from
"The Fisherman and His Soul, 1915
Elements of religion and philosophy are especially prevalent in the first tale of this collection, “The Young King,” which deals explicitly with ideas of aestheticism, a philosophy that Wilde ascribed to vociferously during his lifetime. Awaiting his coronation, a young king is entranced by the beautiful and costly things around him and demands that his coronation regalia be the most beautiful objects ever seen. That night, three dreams come to him in succession, showing him how poverty, slavery, disease, greed, and death all had a hand in the creation of this regalia. Immediately, the prince rejects the items and proceeds to his coronation dressed in rags. Although many try to convince him to take up the regalia, he refuses, and is thereby gifted by God with holy regalia not made by man.

Upon the publication of The Happy Prince, a reviewer asked why Wilde used the template of a children’s fairy tale to deal with the adult themes in these stories. Wilde responded that he wrote the tales “not for children, but for childlike people from eighteen to eighty.” The language and style of these stories was certainly aimed at an older audience. Wilde later stated, in reference to Pomegranates, that he “had about as much intention of pleasing the British child as [he] had of pleasing the British public.” Confusion about Wilde’s intended audience continues to baffle (and compel) scholars to this day. (Heath, “Lessons not learned,” 1)

One last bit of “eye-candy”: the great Charles Robinson’s illustrations of stories from The Happy Prince from 1913.
Illustration by Charles Robinson, from
"The Nightingale and the Rose," 1913

Robinson, from
"The Remarkable Rocket, 1913

You can find all of Wilde’s “fairy tales,” as well as many more illustrations by Robinson and King, here:
A question to ponder: If his stories were not intended for children, why do you think he wrote them as fairy tales?
Christina Ruth Johnson recently received her Masters in Art History with a focus on the ancient Mediterranean and a side interest in the 18th and 19th centuries. Her other great love is fantasy literature from ancient times to present day.




  1. I have fond memories of Wilde's fairy tales as a child, I loved 'The Selfish Giant'.

    Maybe he didn't write them for children because he thought adults would get more from them, or because fairy tales never used to be specifically for children. When I was studying English lit at uni, trying to figure Wilde out was mostly an exercise in futility, though it was always fun ;)

  2. Thank you for a trip down memory lane for me! I read Wilde's fairy tale collection in my early teens (and there was some animated special of The Selfish Giant...might be from the BBC since it was on Canadian TV (thought I don't remember exactly since it was in the mid-late 1970s)...that I absolutely loved).

    I'm going to see if I can get this from the library and re-read it. :)

  3. I've read some of Wilde's fairy tales and really liked them. I didn't know he had written so many, though. I'm going to have to look them up and read them now.

  4. I think The Selfish Giant is my favorite of Wilde's fairy rales. Fairy tales appeal to all ages.