We Are All in the Gutter, But Some of Us are Looking at “The Star-Child,”
Updated: Jan 8, 2020
A Fairy Tale by Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde wrote fairy tales? That is the usual response I get when I happen to call attention to this fact, which I happen to do on a regular basis, being both a devotee and teacher of the fairy tale. Of those persons I do encounter who have knowledge of or interest in this slice of Oscar’s oeuvre (a not-insignificant slice if you were to quantify it) there is a tendency to dismiss the tales as either (a) written for children and thus not worthy of study, or (b) not written for children and...still not worthy of study. I take issue, as you might imagine, with the point of agreement in this binary: the disregard of unique pieces of short fiction that can offer windows, if one peers closely enough through stained glass, into the complicated life of a literary icon. I don’t take issue, however, with the inherent disagreement—the question of audience—as debate over any particular body of tales’ suitability for children has ever been a hallmark of the genre. And it’s as good a signpost as any to lead us into the Wildean wood in search of “The Star-Child.”
When Oscar Wilde was crafting his first manuscript of fairy tales, it was his friend Walter Crane he sought out to be an illustrator. Crane, having recently provided the art for a collection of Grimms’ tales, was well established in the newly flourishing children’s literary market. When Oscar sought a publisher for the project, his first stop was MacMillan, the biggest children’s publisher of the time. Though the book would be published by a different house, the point here is that Oscar must have had a young audience in mind, given these choices on his part. And when it hit the shelves in 1888 as The Happy Prince and Other Tales, reviewers generally felt the same way, including one at The Irish Times who recommended it alongside another fairy tale collection, that one written by a person particularly close to Oscar himself. The review opened in this way: “Mr and Mrs Wilde possess charming children of their own and they have utilized their acquaintance with the infant world in giving to it some delightful fairytales…” (qtd in Fitzsimons 156).
Wait, what? Oscar Wilde had a wife? And children? (Those are pretty much the responses I get when I call attention to those facts.) He did. Oscar married Constance Lloyd in 1884, for love and with mutual admiration, judging by extant letters and other clues, such as the birth of a son the following year and a second son the year after that. They lived in London, in a house the couple, both adherents to the Aesthetic movement, decorated as one would a Palace of Art. Tennysonian allusion aside, indications are that these early years were good ones for the family, something that is borne out by an autobiography written by the youngest member, Vyvyan, late in his life. In it he reflects on the sudden loss of father and home that he and his brother, Cyril, experienced before reaching age ten. Here is a sampler of his memories:
Most small boys adore their father, and we adored ours; and as all good fathers are, he was a hero to us both. He was tall and distinguished and, to our uncritical eyes, so handsome. There was nothing about him of the monster that some people who never knew him and never even saw him have tried to make him out to be.
He was a real companion to us. Most parents in those days were far too solemn or pompous with their children, [but] my own father was quite different; he had so much of the child in his own nature that he delighted in playing our games. He would go down on all fours on the nursery floor, being in turn a lion, a wolf, a horse, caring nothing for his usually immaculate appearance.
When he grew tired of playing he would [tell] us fairy stories, or tales of adventure, of which he had a never-ending supply. He told us all his own written fairy stories suitably adapted for our young minds, and a great many others as well. Cyril once asked him why he had tears in his eyes when he told us the story of The Selfish Giant, and he replied that really beautiful things always made him cry. (Holland 41-42)
That story, “The Selfish Giant,” was part of The Happy Prince and Other Tales, which The Irish Times reviewer went on to call “one of the happiest works which Mr. Oscar Wilde ha[d] ever produced” (qtd in Fitzsimons 156). This is not to say that there isn’t any sadness in the stories—Oscar is probably not the only one who has shed a tear for that giant—but the poignancy is on a par with, say, Hans Christian Andersen’s tales. So, yes, children definitely enjoyed that first collection, and it serves as a neat little window into a nursery where life was experienced with no worries, sans souci (the name of the very kingdom the titular Happy Prince ruled over). But if we pull back the curtains on Oscar’s second collection of fairy tales and look through the pane, we sense a nursery on the eve of disaster; its toys soon to be bundled and sold at auction for thirty shillings to pay legal bills (Holland 50). A House of Pomegranates came out in 1891, at a time when Oscar’s celebrity was at its peak and his precipitous fall was but a few short years away. And while he likely told the stories within its covers to his children—”suitably adapted,” as Vyvyan put it—he clearly approached the creation of this literary work with adult readers in mind, decorating it as such and dedicating each of its stories to prominent patrons of the arts, all women. (The book itself he dedicated to Constance.) The stories were, and are, considered too elaborate for children, the characters too tormented or lost in limina--which is where we find “The Star-Child.”
In this fairy tale, a baby boy who has seemed to drop from the night sky is found on the forest floor by a woodcutter. Though poor, he takes the infant home and he and his wife care for the child as they do their own. In spite of being raised with kindness and humility, the boy grows to be mean-spirited and vain. One day a beggar woman arrives at the woodcutter’s cottage and claims that she is the child’s mother and has long been wandering the world in search of him. But the boy cruelly rejects her because he thinks her ugly. After she leaves, he discovers that his own good looks have turned toad-like, and when he is faced with being treated cruelly because of his appearance, he changes his ways and sets out on a quest to find his mother and ask for her forgiveness. After lengthy, brutal trials, he is reunited with her and his father, who actually are a queen and king who wish to offer him the throne. He takes it and is a good ruler, but he dies young. No happily ever after.
Okay, now that we're in this dark wood, let’s connect stars—that is, find nexus points between the Star-Child’s story and his real-life creator’s. My students always like this game because it produces such interesting fruit. Think…
Pomegranates. Unlike Oscar’s first collection, which contains a tale called “The Happy Prince,” there is no tale in the second that goes by the title of the book. So why A House of Pomegranates? A likely answer, given that Oscar was a passionate student of the Greeks, is that he was evoking Persephone, the daughter of Demeter who, due to eating some pomegranate seeds in the underworld, had to live her mythical life divided between two existences: one in which she is miserably married to Hades, and one in which she is carefree and it is spring. The lines between her plight and Oscar’s existence during the years he was writing these stories are easy enough to draw: he remained in a marriage after losing sexual interest in his wife and divided his time between the house of Wilde and places where he found some personal joy. Though pomegranate-as-symbol can be interpreted in other ways, this is the one my students generally favor. As to any pomegranates of a literal nature in “The Star-Child,” there are a few, on a tree that grows at the threshold of a dungeon. Which leads us to…
Imprisonment. The following connections—just a smattering of what can be gleaned from this terrible episode of the story—are always met with wide-eyed wonder, because the only way Oscar could have meant to tie the Star-Child’s captivity in a magician’s dungeon to his own prison experience is if he were a magician himself. At the time of publication, Oscar was still four years from his arrest and his sentence of hard labor. He didn’t yet know that, like his Star-Child, he would have his eyes bound so he couldn’t look upon the faces of others; he didn’t know he would be eating nothing but “mouldy bread” and “brackish water” (A House of Pomegranates 147), a description that is almost identical to what he would later write in his Ballad of Reading Gaol. The very idea of a child behind bars became all too real, too, and, in fact, the first subject that would engage Oscar’s pen post-incarceration. In a letter published in the British Daily Chronicle just nine days after his release—and later distributed as a pamphlet that would be part of a successful reform effort—he shone a light into dim cells: “I need not say how utterly distressed I was to see these children at Reading, for I knew the treatment in store for them. The cruelty that is practiced by day and night on children in English prisons is incredible, except to those who have witnessed it and are aware of the brutality of the system” (Children in Prison and Other Cruelties of Prison Life 5-6). But if these strange revelations are boggling to my students, what really blows their minds is…
The End. Oscar’s, first: The hard labor and deprivation he endured in prison compromised his health to such an extent that he would never fully recover. Of greatest consequence was an injury he sustained early on, a ruptured eardrum from a fall due to weakness. He would not get any real medical treatment until he completed his sentence and regained his freedom in 1897. He would die in 1900, three years later, from meningitis after an unsuccessful surgery. The Star-child’s now: He was released from his dungeon, forgiven his trespasses, and he took the throne. “Yet ruled he not long, so great had been his suffering, and so bitter the fire of his testing, for after the space of three years he died” (A House of Pomegranates 158). Those his author’s words, from the last paragraph of the last story in the last collection of fairy tales that Oscar Wilde would publish.
Before the sun rises on this star-gazing session, I’ll briefly shift the scope to a more current piece of short fiction, a work by my own hand that I’m honored to have, eh, looking up from the gutters of this fine journal. “The Wandering the World” is inspired by “The Star-Child,” constructed as a prequel. This was a trickier effort than any retellings I’ve crafted. Most fairy tales are retellings, after all, when you consider their roots in oral culture and the scads of multiforms written over the centuries. In other words, there are no rules to follow in reimagining a fairy tale. But to be an effective prequel, one story must lead logically into another. This narrows the creative options, especially for a Wildean tale, since those generally have no ancestral archetypes and few, if any, published versions to play around with. Adding to the challenge, a companion piece of this type should also respect the original author’s style. So, I did my best to convey some measure of Oscar’s aesthetic, to mimic his syntactical breeziness, his sense of whimsy. But what I didn’t do is what I just spent the last few pages doing; I didn’t connect the story itself to Oscar, to his struggles. Because I had my own: a lost boy in our family. That is why I was writing in the first place, why I was drawn to the Star-Child and his mother. I was scratching my way out of a bleak place, using story to see through my pain. But that’s a kind of mimesis, too, and I think it’s a good bet Oscar was doing just that with his own pen. And why, maybe, his fairy tales are worth studying.
Fitzsimons, Eleanor. Wilde’s Women: How Oscar Wilde Was Shaped by the Women He Knew. Overlook Duckworth, 2015.
Holland, Vyvyan. Son of Oscar Wilde. Dutton, 1954.
Wilde, Oscar. Children in Prison and Other Cruelties of Prison Life. Murdoch, 1898. PDF.
—. A House of Pomegranates. Osgood & McIlvaine, 1891. Internet Archive. Web. 1 Nov. 2019.