Happily ever after (but not really)

The quintessential children’s story.

(Photo from topappreviews101.com)

(Photo from topappreviews101.com)

It didn’t have one of those “And they lived happily ever after” endings so prevalent among children’s books. After hearing my mom read Oscar Wilde’s “The Happy Prince” as my bedtime story, the seven-year old me was crying into a pillow, vowing to save all swallows and statues, and to donate every single Bratz doll I owned.

For those who haven’t read “The Happy Prince” (you really should), it’s the story of a swallow who is left behind during the annual migration to Egypt in a town where many people suffer from financial struggles. The swallow meets the statue of the late “Happy Prince” (who had never truly experienced happiness during his life.) After seeing several instances of the poor in his town suffering, such as a seamstress struggling to keep her sick son alive, the Happy Prince asks the swallow to take the ruby from his hilt, the sapphires from his eyes, and the gold covering his body to give to the poor. The swallow agrees when he sees the tears in the Prince’s eyes, but when winter arrives, the swallow dies since he did not fly away from the cold. The Prince’s lead heart breaks when the swallow dies, and since he no longer retains his former beauty and value, he is taken down and melted, leaving behind his broken heart and the dead swallow. Eventually, they are taken up to heaven by an angel who deemed them the two most precious things in the city.

My initial reaction was shock, mostly from the fact that both the protagonists had died. Up until then, princesses and princes were always rich, beautiful, nice and always perfect, and the people in the town were happily under their rule. The Happy Prince, though, presented a different story. Not only were the people suffering, the prince was not beautiful and perfect. Perhaps other children’s book had skewed the way I viewed the world and its people, but “The Happy Prince” subtly poked me with the realization that not everyone was perfectly content (or at least perfectly content by the end of the story).

The story was cute and sent a strong message, but I felt bad. The way the swallow and the prince sacrificed themselves for the people of the town contradicted sharply with the way I acted. Which seven-year old didn’t want the newest Barbie doll or Neopet? (Not me.) My mother took this chance to insinuate that perhaps I should act more like the swallow and the prince. And to this day, I remember her telling me, “We’re all puzzle pieces, scattered around the world. Don’t you want to help piece up the puzzle?”

Charity. Honesty. Morality. Love. Sacrifice. Care.

In the span of a couple hundred words, this beautifully woven story touches on all of these topics. Wilde managed to capture the quintessential children’s story, and it didn’t even need to say “Happily Ever After.”

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