Offhand Review of Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince

High above the city, on a tall column, stood the statue of the Happy Prince. He was gilded all over with thin leaves of fine gold, for his eyes he had two bright sapphires, and a large red ruby glowed on his sword-hilt.

Wilde begins his narration with a description of a statue the townsfolk have deemed to name “The Happy Prince”. Unfortunately, it seems the young prince is anything but. The daily activity of the village allows many to take both pride and liberty with the beauty of the statue; the councilman remarking of its artistry only to quickly point out its frivolity, the mother wishing to quell her son’s ceaseless wishes adding that “the Happy Prince would never make such a request”, the self-pitying lament of the disappointed man, the ‘charity’ child’s exclamation of deity and the teacher’s abrupt rebuttal and admonishment for daring to dream.

A swallow’s infatuation with a reed and subsequent failed courtship leads him to delay his migration to Egypt. Fatigued, the swallow was forced to rest and chose the feet of the Happy Prince as its resting perch. Just as the bird began to doze, a large drop of water startled him. As he was pummeled with more drops, the swallow looked for their origin and found them to be the tears of the Happy Prince. The prince was lamenting the ugliness and misery far to apparent from his high vantage point.

The bereaved prince pleaded for the little swallow to remain an extra night and be his messenger of mercy. And though friends in Egypt expected him, and though the swallow knew the window for his departure was growing ever smaller, he took pity on the prince and relented. The prince told him of a deathly ill young lad whose seamstress mother, to poor to offer the lad anything but river water, was forced to let the youngster’s cries go unheeded. The prince asked the swallow to remove the ruby from his sword-hilt and take it to the family. With some reluctance, the swallow agreed and was rewarded with a feeling of warmth that cut the chill of the night air, which the prince attributed to his good deed. The swallow awoke the next day announcing his plans to depart for Egypt later that evening. Once again the prince persuaded the little swallow to remain and perform yet another mission of mercy. He asked the swallow to remove one of his sapphire eyes and convey it to a unfortunate playwright that he may find warmth and comfort and thus be able to finish his play. On the next eve, the swallow came to the prince to bid him farewell. The prince was able to convince him to delay his migration once again and do his bidding. The prince wished to make a gift of his remaining eye to the match girl in an effort to prevent her impending punishment for returning home empty-handed. The swallow at first refused, not wishing to blind the happy prince, but surrendered and did as the prince wished. Upon his return, the prince bid the swallow farewell and hastened him to Egypt. The swallow would not leave, however, for now the prince was indeed blind, and pledged his unwavering loyalty.

The following day, the swallow perched upon the prince’s shoulder and told him of all the wonder and splendor he had seen in faraway lands. Though comforted by the swallow’s stories, the prince was unable to forget the suffering of the villagers. He convinced the swallow to become his eyes unto the city. Upon hearing the many tales of woe, the prince commanded the swallow to peck away his veneer of gold leaf and distribute it among the poor. As the ravages of winter came pouring in, the swallow knew his time for this world grew short. He flew up and kissed the prince upon his lips and then fell dead at his feet. With a loud crack the prince’s leaden heart split into, for he had dearly loved the sparrow.

The next morning, the Mayor and Town Council were walking in the square, and they noticed the shabby appearance of the Happy Prince, his dull gray color and lack of adornments. "Little better than a beggar," commented a councilman. The Mayor was disgusted at the sight of a dead bird at the Prince's feet and suggested that a proclamation be made to ensure birds would not be allowed to die here. The statue of the Happy Prince was pulled down as he was no longer beautiful, he was no longer needed”. The statue was taken to the foundry and placed in the furnace. However, the leaden heart of the Happy Prince could not be melted in the furnace, and so it was discarded on a dust-heap where a dead swallow was also lying.

God instructed one of His Angels to bring Him the two most precious things in the city. Upon scouring the village, the Angel brought to Him the leaden heart of the Happy Prince and the body of the swallow. God praised the Angel and proclaimed that in His garden of Paradise the swallow would "sing forever more," and in His city of gold, the Happy Prince "shall praise me."

Part social comment, part fairy tale, Oscar Wilde’s bittersweet tale, The Happy Prince, appeals to audiences of all ages and is as relevant and significant today as it was some one hundred twenty years ago.

--Alex D. Dunn