Friday, June 17, 2016

Fantasy Literature Rewind: The Fairy Stories of Oscar Wilde.

Oscar Wilde.  The great Irish playwright, novelist, poet, journalist, raconteur and wit.  Author of The Picture of Dorian Gray and “The Importance of Being Earnest”.  One of the most notable minds in Victorian literature.
Oscar Wilde
And also, he wrote some fairy tales.

Really, it’s not uncommon.  Victorian Britain had a big “fairy stories” craze for a while as everyone seemed eager to put their stamp on literature for a new generation of children at the time.  Some writers did it well and some did it not so well.

But anyway, on to Wilde’s stories.  While his fairy stories are not the first works that people usually list in a bibliography of Oscar Wilde’s work, they are notable.  Wilde’s fairy stories are crafted in much the same style as those of Hans Christian Andersen.  They rely on objects and animals to stand in for humans as their trials and tribulations are depicted.  They could often be highly moralistic.  Wilde, also like Andersen, was not afraid of letting his tales end tragically.

There are nine stories in my copy of The Fairy Stories of Oscar Wilde.  If there are any more besides these nine stories, I don’t know of them.  Their titles are as follows: “The Happy Prince”, “The Selfish Giant”, “The Devoted Friend”, “The Remarkable Rocket”, “The Nightingale and the Rose”, “The Young King”, “The Birthday of the Infanta”, “The Star-Child” and “The Fisherman and his Soul”.
"The Happy Prince"
Before I go on, I thought I’d offer a little disclaimer.  These types of fairy tales are not generally my thing.  Not to say they’re not good or well-written.  I just don’t particularly like them.  There’s a reason why I don’t usually write about Andersen stories.  These types of stories usually leave me feeling a little bummed out.  I also frequently feel preached to by these stories, which I’m not crazy about.  But still, though I don’t like it, that’s what these stories were kind of designed to do.  They were supposed to teach lessons to children in a way that made the messages unmistakable.  They were also supposed to show the tragic consequences of things and also maybe remind the reader that sometimes life just isn’t fair.

The messages of these various stories are pretty obvious and the outcomes are often a little disheartening.  Both “The Happy Prince” and “The Selfish Giant” have bittersweet endings on Earth but are rewarded for their good deeds in Heaven.  “The Remarkable Rocket” is boastful and proud but ultimately ends up as little more than garbage.  “The Young King” starts out decadent and selfish but changes his ways.  The Nightingale in “The Nightingale and the Rose” gives his all to help some young lovers but it ultimately amounts to nothing.  “The Birthday of the Infanta” is about a dwarf who sees great love in an action made toward him only for it to turn out to be nothing in the eyes of the person who made that action.

Honestly, add some fiddle and guitar and you could probably fuel an album of old fashioned country songs with the heartbreaks in this book.

Like I said though, that doesn’t necessarily make them bad.  All these stories are written well and none of the outcomes seem contrived so much as just depressing.  Some of them do have important messages in their time.  “The Young King” addresses the plights of miners, weavers and pearl-divers who provide finery for the very rich.  There are also rare bright moments, usually where Wilde’s famous wit shines through.  At one point toward the beginning of “The Star-Child”, a wolf comments on the cold weather and how the government should do something about it.

Though, one story I would like to talk about a bit more in terms of both story and subtext is “The Fisherman and his Soul”.
“The Fisherman and his Soul” is a story about a young man who falls in love with a mermaid.  This is notable as perhaps a companion piece or counterpoint to another story featuring love and mermaids: "The Little Mermaid" by the aforementioned Hans Christian Andersen.

Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” is about a mermaid who falls in love with a human, sacrifices her own voice to be with that human, finds she is too late, is offered a chance to go back to the way things are by killing her love, but ultimately refuses and dies (or gets turned into an airy spirit, depending on which version you read).  The general message given to the mermaid is that she can’t love her prince because she does not have an immortal soul.  In essence, the two are just too fundamentally different and aren’t meant to be.

Many people read a certain subtext into this.  Many scholars and readers believe that the story was written in response to Hans Christian Andersen’s own love for someone he just was not meant to have: another man.
Oscar Wilde’s story, though ultimately tragic, takes a different path.

The Fisherman falls in love with a mermaid but is told that he cannot love her because he possesses an immortal soul and the mermaid does not.  So, he does the one thing that seems logical to him: he seeks a way to cast off his soul.

After an encounter with a witch, he finds out about a knife that can sever a person from his shadow, which is the body of the soul.  He uses the knife and sends his soul off into the world.  However, the soul asks the man to give him his heart before he goes.  The man refuses as his heart now belongs to the mermaid.
The soul/shadow comes back and eventually leads the Fisherman away on an adventure, but the Fisherman soon finds that without a heart to guide it the Soul had become corrupted and learned to do a number of awful things.  Also, the Soul’s proposed adventure was an excuse to lead the Fisherman away from the mermaid who died while they were gone.  It’s also through the Fisherman’s love and his breaking heart that the Soul was able to enter into the Fisherman again.

It’s an interesting thing to think about.  The Fisherman’s love for the mermaid is not depicted as the ultimate wrong in this tale.  The Fisherman himself is unrepentant of it even though it was ultimately tragic.  It was also the way in which the Soul and the Fisherman were ultimately united.  Also, while the Soul is important it isn’t the ultimate good of the story.  The soul itself is easily corrupted.  However, it’s the heart that is most important.  The heart guides the soul and steers it between right and wrong.

Now, I don’t think I’m surprising anyone when I say that Oscar Wilde was gay.  If I am, then you probably slept through English Literature 101.

If the subtext of this story is in any way reflective of his feelings about his homosexual lifestyle, then it says some interesting things.  It says that he was unrepentant of loving who he loved.  It also says at which level he valued the power of love and his own heart.  The heart is the ultimate arbiter of good and the soul is something which is easily led astray and corrupted.  Also, while the soul is cast off, it’s ultimately a thing which finds its way back to you through love.  Ultimately, if this subtext says what I think it’s saying, “The Fisherman and his Soul” conveys the message to not be ashamed of who you love and that matters of the soul can be sorted through matters of the heart.  It’s an interesting idea, in comparison to Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” in which it’s all just doomed from the start.

Or maybe I’m wrong.  Such is often the case with subtext.

Overall though, Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales are tragic and moralistic with touches of wit and some progressive themes for their time.  They’re good stories if you like the type of stories they are.  And if you scratch the surface of some of them, you may find something to think about.


  1. The Selfish Giant was on multiple fairy tale casettes/CDs I had as a kid. I did like the story a lot for its middle bits about the playing children and the winds, but its theological message was lost on me, so I wasn't a fan of the ending. I did get tht the little kid was Jesus, but didn't like that he endeared the Giant to him only to disappear from his life again and only return when he was about to die. For me the story ended when the children returned to the garden.

    I hven't read other stories from Oscar Wilde, so I might look into them. They seem to be quite interesting.

  2. Really interesting comparison! I'm not familiar with Wilde's fairy tales but they seem intriguing