The term “fairy tale” likely conjures images of willowy animated heroines singing sweetly of their prince’s love to the collected fauna, the sort of mass market, saccharine tales in which the Good get their happy ending and the Wicked get soundly punished for their evil deeds.
Oscar Wilde wrote fairy tales, but think of Grimm, not Disney. Indeed, Wilde’s tales, with their sophisticated language and moral ambiguity, are hardly suited for elementary readers.
Wilde’s antiquated syntax is partly to blame for the complexity of The Happy Prince and Other Tales. But the difficulty extends beyond that. Wilde’s knack for capturing character is a well-chosen word or phrase leads to him to use a great range of words. He also seemingly can’t resist those classic Wilde witticisms. For example: “the King gave orders that the Page’s salary was to be doubled. As he received no salary at all this was not of much use to him, but it was considered a great honour.” To fully appreciate Wilde’s tales requires the reader to summon their understanding of subtext and irony. It is sophisticated stuff. And then consider the tales’ content, in which the stories themselves seem straight-forward until the ending reveals complicated or ambiguous lesson.
If you need further proof, the Lexile of The Happy Prince and Other Tales clearly marks the text more advanced than it initially appears. Lexile is a common measure educators use to determine the difficulty of a text. The Happy Prince and Other Tales has a Lexile roughly equivalent to the Harry Potter novels, and significantly higher than early Elementary favorites such as The Magic Tree House series or Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books.
Like with his smash-hit plays, Wilde is playing by the rules and conventions of the form only to thoroughly subvert them. Talking animals and objects play a key role in each of the stories. There are clear Good and Wicked characters. Love is a central theme. But unlike the tales which set our expectations, the talking animals are not always wise and wholesome, the Wicked do not always get their due comeuppance, and romantic love does not naturally result in ‘happily ever after.’
The Happy Princeton and Other Tales are children’s stories not meant for children. They are without a natural audience. Wilde’s stories have been relegated to the “unloved step-child” section of the library, that dusty section in which sits titles you’ve never heard of by authors you probably read in school.
Or, perhaps Wilde knows exactly what he’s doing, suggesting that adults are not so grown up as they profess to be.
Up Next? The Color Purple by Alice Walker (you might’ve noted All The King’s Men didn’t happen this week — 600 is a lot of pages)
Why? I wish I had seen the recent Broadway revival of this novel’s musical adaptation.