The Happy Prince and Other Tales is a of five fairy tales written by Oscar Wilde, first published in 1888 with original illustrations by Walter Crane, but we'll present it with pictures of another remarkable artist - Charles Robinson. This version was published by Brentano's, New York in 1920.
As we can see the book is dedicated to Carlos Blacker (1859-1928), one of the dearest friends of Oscar and his wife Constance and one of the rare people who stayed loyal to him even after Oscar's fall with imprisonment and bankruptcy. Carlos Blacker was an interesting figure in literary circles, a friend to many writers and other artists, co-investor in several stage productions, and a figure with an unclear role in the Dreyfus affair, who was apparently writing all his life yet never published anything. The friendship between Oscar and Carlos ended soon after Constance's death.
While we have already mentioned Oscar's wife, we shall add her role in the next fairy tales was definitely very important although she is not credited for it. After the birth of their two sons, Constance and Oscar both believed fairy tales on the market are not good enough for children. So Constance rewrote a few classics and published them in There was Once and Oscar wrote a few originals (with already popular and well-known motifs). According to the preserved documents Constance very actively worked on Oscar's fairy tales, being their first critic and creative editor. More about her: https://hubpages.com/art/Constance-Lloyd
And now finally the fairy tales!
The Happy Prince
The Happy Prince is a story of contrasts in the city. We have a mayor and councilors who are so occupied with themselves that they can't see the problems of the people they represent. We also have a statue, made of precious stones and gold, The Happy Prince, who is so tall and sensitive he can feel the pain of people in town. He can't solve anything by himself but can send his own body parts with a help of a swallow.
They both did what they could, sacrificing their time, resources, and health until the statue loses all elements of any value and the swallow misses the right time for the flight to South. The bird dies and the statue of the Prince will be replaced by the statue of the mayor or one of the Councillors. But the body of the swallow and the heart of the Prince are carried by angels directly to heaven.
The Nightingale and the Rose
There are two pairs of characters in the story. The student who is in love with a young lady, which demands a red rose from him, and a nightingale who is so enchanted by student's love it decided to color one of the white roses in the garden by pressing its heart to its thorn. So the nightingale sacrifices its life for an ideal represented in the relationship between a student and his love. But when a perfect red rose is created and the bird dies, the student still fails to convince the girl to accept his invitation to dance.
Why? The girl had already got a more attractive gift from another man. The student throws the red rose away, white roses are still there and the nightingale's sacrifice was futile. The criticism of Victorian double standards is obvious. There are also several similarities with H. C. Andersen's fairy tale The Nightingale, but Andersen wrote his story with a different message, although still criticizing the society, but with an optimistic ending.
The Selfish Giant
The Selfish Giant is another story about the power of love. A giant has a garden and the kids come to play in it while the giant is away. When he returns from the long visit, he banishes the kids and builds the wall around his beautiful garden. But without children, spring and summer don't want to come to the garden either. One day he discovers the spring is back. He realizes the kids found a new way to come in and declares they should come always from then on.
At the end of the story the giant, already a very old man discovers that one of the children wasn't an ordinary kid. He was Jesus and he promises he'll accept the giant in his garden - Paradise. The religious tones, already present at The Happy Prince, are clear.
The Devoted Friend
This is a tale about two friends - a miller and a gardener. But their friendship is not real, the gardener only gives and the miller only takes. When a gardener needs some help, a miller offers him a wheelbarrow in exchange for numerous favors. He demands so much the gardener simply can't do everything he should to improve his situation to normal again. Finally, he dies in an accident which could be prevented if the miller hasn't denied help again.
The criticism of such one-way relationships is beautifully summarized in the last part where the miller uses the funeral of his friend to complain about the bad shape of the wheelbarrow and is determined to never be generous again.
The Remarkable Rocket
This story, the last in the book, is about a rocket who has so high opinion of itself it can't see or hear anything else in the world. Everybody who surrounds it is there just to admire the rocket's exceptionality, yet it fails to explode when it should and is thrown away just to be used as a stick on the fire. When it finally explodes, there is nobody who saw it, and even with an audience, there would be not much to see because it was daylight.
The Remarkable Rocket is probably the most typical representation of Wilde's literary style with numerous witty one-liners which are fun to read even out of the context.
Charles Robinson (1870-1937) did impressive work with the illustrations of Oscar Wilde's Happy Prince and Other Tales. There are twelve full-page color plates and close to one hundred vignettes, details, silhouettes and decorative capitals and borders in Art Nouveau style made in pen and ink line technique. We didn't include all of them, because they are effectively incorporated in the text, where they make the most possible impact and won't look so great as standalone graphics. You can still in them in the online version of the book which is in Public Domain: