The Happy Prince and Other Tales

The Happy Prince and Other Tales Study Guide

The Happy and Other Tales, a collection of fairy tales that consists of the titular piece, “The Selfish Giant,” “The Devoted Friend,” “The Young King,” “The Nightingale and the Rose,” “The Fisherman and His Soul,” “The Star-Child,” “The Remarkable Rocket, and “The Birthday of the Infanta,” was written by Oscar Wilde and first published in 1888. Wilde was notorious for promoting “art for art’s sake,” but chose to write these tales in the didactic form of the fairy tale. This form allowed Wilde to explore themes of importance to him, such as homosexuality, morality, aestheticism, English socioeconomic realities, and more.

The tales seem to have been modeled after Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales; for example, “The Happy Prince” makes an explicit tribute to “The Little Match Girl.” Andersen’s tales are violent and the characters must suffer a great deal to earn their virtue; Wilde may write whimsically in comparison, but the suffering of his characters is often for nothing. The Nightingale sacrifices herself in vain, the Rocket explodes with no audience, and the statue of the charitable Happy Prince is discarded. Wilde’s fairy tales are beautifully written but undeniably melancholic.

The tales proved very popular with readers and a portion of the critical audience. Yeats found them “charming and amusing” while Auden later said they were works to be read “with great pleasure.” However, many critics at the time were hostile to the fairy tales. One reviewer stated that “Children do not care for satire, and the dominant spirit of these stories is satire—a bitter satire differing widely from that of Hans Anderson, whom Mr. Wilde’s literary manner so constantly recalls to us.” Wilde famously replied to critiques like this with, “[I] had about as much intention of pleasing the British child as [I] had of pleasing the British public.” Wilde declared the tales as “not written for children, but for childlike people from eighteen to eighty!” Excluding children from his implied audience may have been a way for Wilde to shield himself from some of his critics, as none of the tales end with the traditional “and they lived happily ever after.” He was right to provide the disclaimer, but it did not stop some of his critics, who deemed the stories morally corrupt.

Many of the tales have been adapted to radio broadcast, song, ballet, opera, musical, short film, and more.