I’ve recently seen `The Selfish Giant’, a British film about excluded children by Clio Barnard. Set in a junkyard, this grim but moving film is very loosely based on a short story by the brilliant Anglo-Irish author, Oscar Wilde. He may now be most famous for the tragic end to his dazzling career but Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde (to give him his splendid full name) remains a very entertaining writer. This week I’m recommending his distinctive fairy tales. Wilde published two short collections of these `The Happy Prince and Other Tales’ , which came out in 1888, and `A House of Pomegranates’ which followed in 1891. Inexpensive editions of `The Happy Prince’, with pretty illustrations by Charles Robinson, are quite easy to find. `A House of Pomegranates’ is much more scarce and some editions cost thousands of pounds, but don’t worry, you can download all the stories for free via Project Gutenberg or get them in a cheap ebook or POD paperback called `The Complete Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde’. Alternatively, go for `The Complete Short Stories of Oscar Wilde’ published by Oxford World Classics, which has the bonus of including his charming ghost-story `The Canterville Ghost’.

Wilde’s fairy tales are sometimes referred to as his `children’s stories’ but that only applies to the first of the two collections, and even then the cynical humour of some of the these pieces is more likely to appeal to adults than children. `The Happy Prince and Other Tales’ contains five stories. The best known are `The Happy Prince’ and `The Selfish Giant’ which both deal with that quality which is sometimes translated as Charity and sometimes as Love. In `The Happy Prince’, a ghost trapped in a golden statue weeps for `all the ugliness and all the misery’ he can now see in the city he once ruled. `The Selfish Giant’ is a about a giant who only finds happiness when he shares his beautiful garden with children and it is the most overtly Christian of all Wilde’s stories. `The Devoted Friend’, which is told by a Linnet to a selfish Water-Rat, is almost a negative version of `The Selfish Giant’. It describes a rich miller who cruelly exploits a poor friend and fails to mend his means ways. The Water-Rat is outraged to learn that this story has a moral which he is expected to apply to his own life. `Well, really,’ he says, “I think you should have told me that before you began. If you had done so, I certainly would not have listened to you.” `The Remarkable Rocket’ features a firework who has the unshakable delusion that the whole world revolves around him, while `The Nightingale and the Rose’ tells of a bird who chooses to make a terrible sacrifice to help a young lover.

`A House of Pomegranates’ , which Wilde dedicated to his long-suffering wife, Constance, consists of four longer tales written in a lush and poetic style. In an impressive piece of name-dropping each individual story has a dedication to a particular royal or aristocratic lady. I’d like to know what the Ranee of Sarawak made of the story of `The Young King’, in which a ruler on the eve of his coronation learns about the true cost of the royal treasures he adores. `The Birthday of the Infanta’ is like a Velasquez picture come to life and centres on an ugly court dwarf who falls in love with a princess. It is one of the saddest stories ever written. `The Fisherman and his Soul’ is about a young fisherman who falls in love with a mermaid and is willing to give up everything to be with her, while `The Star Child’ is the story of a beautiful boy who cruelly rejects his true mother but eventually redeems himself.

Wilde’s melancholy tales have a lot in common with the haunting fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen (see my January 2013 post on `The Snow Queen’).  Both authors turn animals, plants and even objects into memorable speaking characters and both rarely give their stories conventional happy endings. In `The Star Child’ for example, the hopeful mood is shattered in the last sentence. Wilde is  less influenced by traditional folk-tales than Andersen and his prose is more polished. As you would expect from the author of comic masterpieces such as `The Importance of Being Earnest’, there is a lot of sharp humour in Wilde’s fairy tales, which saves them from being too sentimental for modern readers. Then there are his gorgeous evocative descriptions, whether he is writing about palaces or forests (see `The Birthday of the Infanta). In `The Happy Prince’, Wilde satirizes the selfish and heartless behaviour of the ruling classes in short snatches of dialogue, which contrast with the long lyrical speeches of the little swallow who is the Prince’s companion as he describes his winter-home in Egypt – `In Egypt the sun is warm on the green palm-trees, and the crocodiles look lazily about  them. My companions are building a nest in the Temple of Baalbec, and the pink and white doves are watching them…’ The Prince believes that the marvels of Egypt are as nothing compared to the mystery of human suffering and sends the swallow out into the cruel city where he sees `the white faces of starving children looking out listlessly at the black streets’. `The Happy Prince’ is a story I loved as a child and I still can’t read it without crying – I know because I was in tears last night when I re-read it before writing this post.

One of the most appealing things about Wilde is that he had the mind of a cynic and the heart of romantic. He was a famous admirer of beauty in art but his social conscience made him deeply uneasy about the exploitation of the workers who created beautiful objects for the rich. These contradictions in his nature come out clearly in his fairy tales. Most of the tales are about beauty or love but Wilde knew from bitter experience that beauty and goodness don’t always go together and that people with loving hearts don’t always find happiness in this world. You don’t have to know anything about Wilde’s life to appreciate his writing, but if you do it gives the stories an extra layer of meaning. It becomes hard not to see `The Fisherman and his Soul’ as a plea for tolerance of `forbidden love’. Within the story, the forbidden love is between the Christian and human fisherman and what his priest calls one of `the vile and pagan things God suffers to wander through His world’. The fisherman gives up his soul to be with his mermaid. Then, in a reversal of normal roles, it is the soul who tries to tempt the fisherman from the path of true love with offers of worldly riches and power. If, like Wilde’s Water-Rat, you can’t stand a story with a moral, ignore this aspect and just enjoy the exotic cities which the soul visits during its wanderings, with their gates of red bronze carved with sea-dragons, bazaars strung with paper lanterns that flutter like butterflies and gardens of tulip-trees where peacocks spread their tails to the sun. Wilde’s is an imaginative world worth lingering in. Until next week…