Guest Post: Ida Lichter

by Rachel Baker on January 28, 2011

Recently I moved houses and in the process, handled long forgotten books. Seeing the covers, holding the spines and stroking the pages, evoked chunks of emotional history in remote brain files. One book caught my eye and I knew this one would jerk me into a disturbing space. It fell open where I must have left off.  Were my childish tears still on the page? The writing was tender, crystalline. It could still make me shudder, too.

I wondered how the author, Oscar Wilde, got the idea for “The Happy Prince”. The story had perturbed me throughout childhood after I heard an audio version on the radio and later confronted the poignant written narrative. Rereading the fairytale as an adult, flung me back into a child’s world of undisciplined excitement.

I remembered my raw anguish on visualizing the story of the bejeweled and gilded statue of the Happy Prince, who in life, had lived solely for pleasure. The statue bemoans his past egotism and asks the Swallow to pluck the ruby from his sword, then the sapphires from his eyes, and finally the gold leaves from his body in order to gift them to the poor and needy in the city. Ultimately, the Swallow dies of cold when the winter arrives, and the statue, left in a shabby state, is melted down by order of the local dignitaries.

Reading from an adult perspective, I noticed the incongruity of a ‘happy prince’ who was not really happy, the hidden meanings, and the final redemption, when the noble prince and Swallow are acclaimed on high.

As a psychiatrist, I recognized the therapeutic value of an abstract tale with universal meaning and meditative capacity. Perhaps a story, so mysteriously forceful in childhood, had similar possibilities in adult life, with the added potential of personal transformation if accompanied by sensitive and expert guidance.

The next tale of the same collection really pierced my heart. In The Nightingale and the Rose, a nightingale overhears a student lamenting that his professor’s daughter will not dance with him unless he gives her a red rose. The nightingale visits a red rose tree devoid of flowers, and is informed that she can produce a red rose by singing all night with her breast against a thorn on the tree, but as a result, she will die. The bird is so overcome with pity for the student that she impales herself on a thorn and sings all night. A fresh white rose emerges and as the nightingale sings and dies, it turns ruby crimson, stained by the bird’s blood. However, the professor’s daughter refuses the rose, preferring ‘real’ jewels given to her by another man, and the spurned student throws the rose into the gutter and returns to his books.

Wilde’s poetic language and economy of words had me rereading passages several times. Themes of devotion, rejection and sacrifice, woven with bittersweet irony, resonated from the nineteenth century to the twenty-first. Perhaps some of the issues also related to the author’s struggles with his sexual identity and the mores of Victorian society.

The collection has become a classic but when it was first released, the critics weren’t overly enthusiastic and the book had only limited sales.

My leather-bound volume includes “The Picture of Dorian Gray;” dark, Faustian and psychologically complex, but that’s another story.

Do you see new meanings in fairytales when you reread them as an adult, for example, when reading to children?
Kindle Edition: Works of Oscar Wilde (90+ Works) The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Importance of Being Earnest, An Ideal Husband, Lady Windermere’s Fan, Salome, Vera or The Nihilists & more (mobi)

Complete Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde (Signet Classics) (Paperback)

Ida Lichter is the author of Muslim Women Reformers. She is a clinical and research psychiatrist and contributor to The Huffington Post. She lives in Sydney, Australia. Please join her on Twitter @IdaLichter.

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