Column: Book Fare

Gratitude for "The Happy Prince" ... and public art?
The author's well-worn copy of "The Happy Prince" by Oscar Wilde.

The author's well-worn, 1965 edition of "The Happy Prince" by Oscar Wilde.

Christmas is over. Was everyone properly grateful?

You know who we’re talking about here, even though there are certainly none of them in your family. We’re talking about that little sugar plum who works up a sweat ripping open loot and caps the frenzy with, “Is this all?” Or the tot, her golden curls still sleep-tousled, who tears enough paper off each present to see if it’s worthy of further attention and, if it disappoints, chucks it aside for the next one.

A woman I know recalls the Christmas her brother visited with his family; the little darlings plowed through the booty in the twinkling of an eye, allowed themselves a few minutes to fight with each other and then demanded to go back to the hotel pool because they were bored. Visions of stuffing them in a coal sack and dumping them into the deep end danced in Auntie’s head.

This time of year always gets me thinking about Oscar Wilde’s “The Happy Prince,” a fairy tale guaranteed to bludgeon a sense of empathy into the most irredeemable of brats.

Here’s the gist: A gilded statue of a prince looks over a city governed by self-satisfied dolts and peopled by a few aristocrats, some merchant types and a whole bunch of people who these days are called “the underserved.” Along comes a swallow who is late migrating to Egypt for the winter because he fell in love with a slender reed and hung around hoping, in vain, that she’d come away with him.

He stops for the night at the feet of the golden statue but is soon disturbed by what he thinks are raindrops; in truth they are tears, falling from the Happy Prince’s sapphire eyes. Turns out the Prince, who enjoyed an opulent, pleasure-filled existence oblivious to the suffering of his subjects, is spending his afterlife with a spectacular view of their misery.

The not-really Happy Prince persuades the swallow to peck the fat ruby out of his sword hilt and carry it to this destitute seamstress who is working late into the night embroidering passionflowers on a ball gown for a snotty maid-in-waiting to the queen. The seamstress’s feverish son is crying for oranges, but all she can afford for his comfort is cold water from the river. (BTW, do you know how many hundreds of dollars can be spent on a set of Legos?)

Then comes the freaky part: the Prince talks the swallow into plucking out his eyes. The swallow balks; he has fallen in love with the Prince, you see (animal on vegetable, animal on mineral: this Wilde bird swings both ways), and can’t bear to blind him. But before long one of the eyes ends up with a poor little match girl and the other with – get this – a struggling playwright, who greets the mysterious appearance of the sapphire thusly: “I am beginning to be appreciated; this is from a great admirer! Now I can finish my play.”

By this time the swallow has bagged Egypt to devote himself to his beloved Prince, and spends his days tearing gold leaf off the statue and raining it on ragged children delirious at the prospect of dinner. Winter comes and, well, you can guess what happens to that swallow. The town’s leading citizens find that the once-gilded Prince has deteriorated into an eyesore where birds go to die, and order it hauled away. As the story ends, the burghers are fighting among themselves over who gets to pose for the new statue and an angel brings the dead swallow and the Prince’s cracked leaden heart up to Heaven, where they belong.

If your kid makes it through this story without crying, you need to lock up the steak knives and find a safe home for the family pet.

“The Happy Prince” also gets you thinking about the uses of public art – a timely local topic that gives me the tissue-thin cover to file this column with The Chronicle.

There’s been some outrage about the money at the disposal of the Ann Arbor Public Art Commission; right now it has about $1.32 million in the bank. More than half of that appears to be earmarked for an outdoor water sculpture by German artist Herbert Dreiseitl, which is being proposed as an installation at the municipal center still under construction next to the Larcom building.

This money, some critics argue, is desperately needed elsewhere in these tough economic times. Others argue that local funds should finance work by local artists (such as my husband, who wishes a sapphire eye would come flying through his window).

It’s a tough choice, always. Public money requires careful stewardship. There are solid arguments for guns and for butter. But shouldn’t any civilized society worthy of the name treat itself to the occasional feather boa? Besides, that water sculpture will be a cool blessing for Ann Arborites who have embraced the myriad benefits of downtown living and can’t afford oranges anymore.

“The Happy Prince and Other Stories” is available at Nicola’s Books in Ann Arbor’s Westgate Shopping Plaza, at the intersection of Jackson and West Stadium. About the writer: Domenica Trevor is a voracious reader who lives in Ann Arbor.


  1. By johnboy
    December 26, 2009 at 4:33 am | permalink

    Yes, some will claim “local funds should finance work by local artists” but before we take up that argument maybe we should take a look and see the country of origin for the cars the “local artist” are driving and how about the clothes they are wearing or the furniture they are using or even the food they are eating. What goes around comes around.

  2. By Rod Johnson
    December 26, 2009 at 11:15 am | permalink

    The “expose your opponents as hypocrites” debating tactic is always easy, but it’s a cheap shot and it doesn’t really speak to the issues. What’s better policy, to use money to support and foster the arts in the community, or to have a big public statement that will hopefully draw outsiders to come here? The answer to that doesn’t really have anything to do with the kind of cars anyone drives. Making wise policy decisions has to be approached more thoughtfully than just playing moral high ground king of the hill.