Author: Talairach-Vielmas, Laurence
Date published: July 1, 2011
A Giant's Garden: Special "Fairy Tales" Issue. Edited by Naomi Wood. The Oscholars, Spring 2009. www.oscholars.com/TO/Specials/Tales/ToC.htm.
Apart from Jarlath Killeen's recent work The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde (2007), the two volumes of the fairy tales by Oscar Wilde, The Happy Prince and Other Tales and The House of Pomegranates, published respectively in 1888 and 1891, have rarely been studied on their own. And no wonder. This special issue of the online journal The Oscholars, edited by Naomi Wood, addresses the difficulty of framing and defining Wilde's tales. Presenting nine articles that look at Wilde's fairy tales, in an attempt to situate them both in the canon of Wilde's works and in that of fairy tales more generally, the editors are keeping the issue open, which allows them to add new articles to the collection at any time. As Wood underlines in her introduction, Wilde's fairy tales are shifty narratives, complex stories concealed beneath the mask of a supposedly naïve and sometimes conservative form. Addressed to a dual audience, they both challenge and reinforce bourgeois ideology, subvert and advocate the ideals of Victorian Christianity, and function as very good reflections of Wilde's writing. The apt motif of the garden is used by Wood to encapsulate the ambivalence of Wilde's tales, simultaneously pure and innocent but also depicting the violence of man's control over nature and the artificiality of beauty. Wood's introduction sets the tone of this collection of articles that probe Wilde's fairy tales through multiple perspectives and approaches.
The question of audience raised by Wood underlies several of the articles in the collection. It may be connected, as a few essays suggest, to the religious imagery that informs Wilde's fairy tales, though the viewpoints on the meaning of religious motifs vary considerably from one article to the other. For Michelle Beissel Heath, the issue of Wilde's dual audience may be addressed through focusing on the tales' tragic endings, for instance, which underline how the issue of self-sacrifice (as in "The Soul of Man under Socialism," "The Happy Prince," "The Young King," or "The Star-Child") and the prevalence of Christ figures or Christlike martyrs typify Wilde's belief that the need for such sacrifices has passed. Unlike Heath (or Amelia A. Rutledge), Heather Kirkpatrick, following in the footsteps of Joseph Peace (The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde, 2000), contends that Wilde's sacrificial figures and his stress on the transformative power of love confirm the idea that the tales must be read as Christian allegories or "parables." The question of audience lies as well at the root of Anna Orhanen's essay, which deals with the interplay between aesthetics and ethics in such tales as "The Star Child" and Wilde's paradoxical discourse on the differences between "inner" (moral) and "outer" (aesthetic) beauty.
Inevitably, the idea that Wilde's fairy tales may have been written with a child audience in mind conjures up the question of form. If Wilde's narratives frequently point out the significance of orality and betray the writer's links with Irish culture, the fairy tale, as several critics argue, may have enabled Wilde to bridge the gap between oral and textual/literary culture. Helen Davies, looking at the representation of "voice" in Wilde's work, examines the account of feminine vocality, specifically singing, in Wilde's fairy tales. Her essay focuses on "The Fisherman and His Soul" in order to point out Wilde's simultaneous adherence to and challenge of accepted images of feminine vocality.
Other essays offer more psychological approaches to Wilde's fairy tales, from Neelima Luthra's Lacanian approach to the issue of subjectivity in "The Selfish Giant," "The Young King," or "The Star Child," to Heather Marcovitch's examination of "The Fisherman and His Soul," arguing that Wilde's tale proposes "an aestheticized map of the unconscious psyche" - the Soul's journey paralleling a descent into the unconscious.
Critics have often noted the presence of motifs from Wagner's opera Tannhaüser, but Amelia A. Rutledge further develops the study of the relationships between the works of Richard Wagner and Oscar Wilde, particularly highlighting links between "The Nightingale and the Rose" and Wagner's music drama Tristan and Isolde.
The symbolism of Wilde's tales is also tackled through his interest in occult and mystical knowledge and his involvement with Freemasonry and the Theosophical Society. In her essay, Jacqueline Wiegard looks at "The Happy Prince" and "The Young King" through the motif of royal raiment, which she associates with various approaches to alchemy, to map out Wilde's play between the material and the spiritual.
The collection also features a Spanish adaptation of The Devoted Friend, by Tatiana Flores Infante, performed in April 2008 in San Domingo (added to the issue in December 2009); a bibliography of criticism of Wilde's fairy tales; and a discography of musical adaptations and readings of Wilde's tales in various languages by Tine Englebert.
Though many of the articles do not aim to classify or define Wilde's fairy tales per se, they nevertheless point out issues that often lie at the heart of fairy tales, from debates concerning audience to discourses related to morality and bourgeois ideology. If we may praise the dynamic dialogue between articles that look at the fairy tales from various perspectives, as well as the idea that essays may be added at any time to enrich the collection, we may perhaps regret the sometimes too loose definition of the fairy tale; some oversimplifications concerning folktales and the oral tradition; or the use of psychoanalytical theory secondhand and the intermingling of Lacan, Freud, and Bettelheim. In addition, if the multiple interpretations of Wilde's fairy tales bring to light the tales' complexity, they may give a sense of disorientation to a few readers, perhaps most particularly those who are not very familiar with Oscar Wilde. Still, to many others this open collection will be of interest precisely for its variety and for the dynamic interaction between the contributions - qualities that certainly pay homage to Wilde's writing more generally. Last but not least, this collection is undoubtedly an excellent illustration of The Oscholars' vigorous perspective on art, literature, and Wilde's writing.
University of Toulouse (UTM)
Laurence Talairach-Vielmas is professor of English at the University of Toulouse (UTM), France. She is the author of Moulding the Female Body in Victorian Fairy Tales and Sensation Novels (2007) and Wilkie Collins, Medicine, and the Gothic (2009). She has also edited Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Thou Art the Man (2008).