I first encountered Oscar Wilde’s story “The Happy Prince” while working part-time as a tutor on New York’s Upper East Side. Looking for suitable reading material, I came across Wilde’s children’s stories, which I had not known existed. They were perfect—vivid, charming, literary fairy tales with something more besides. Something best described by avid Wilde reader Stephen Fry.
In the promotion of a recent Kickstarter project to fund a 20-minute animation of “The Happy Prince” around Fry’s reading of the story, the actor talks of coming to know Wilde’s fairy tales as a child, before he knew anything else about the 19th century Irish writer. He loved the language, he says, of all of the stories, and “the beauty of thought, the nobility of thought.” But “The Happy Prince” affected him especially, as it affected my young students and me. It is a story, he says, “about the cost of beauty. It is hard for me to read The Happy Prince without crying. I guess because it is also somehow a love story between the swallow and the Prince.”
Fry alludes to the two central characters in the story, but I won’t summarize the plot here. We’ve previously featured a 1974 animated film of “The Happy Prince.” In the video at the top, hear Fry read the entirety of the story, and directly above, watch the video preview for the b good Picture Company’s Kickstarter to bring his reading, and Wilde’s story, to new life. The project has met its minimum goal and now seeks more funding for an original score and a self-published storybook, among other things.
Fry’s relationship to Wilde, whom he calls “Oscar,” has been, according to him, lifelong, capped by his portrayal of the writer in the 1997 biopic Wilde. He has discussed how his reading of Wilde helped him come to terms with his own sexuality. But his love for Wilde’s work exceeds the personal. As he says in the video above, from 2008, he “fell in love with the writing of Oscar Wilde” at the age of 11; after seeing a film version of The Importance of Being Earnest,” he found his “idea of what language could be… completely transformed.” Fry also says above that he was not exposed to Wilde’s fairy tales as a child, in seeming contradiction to his more recent statements. Did he read Oscar as a child or didn’t he? Only Stephen Fry can say for sure. In any case, as an adult, he’s taken on the mantle of Wilde’s popular interpreter, and I think he wears it pretty well.