The art that displays art

10th March 1995 at 00:00
THE FAIRY TALES OF OSCAR WILDE, Illustrated by Isabelle Brent Edited by Neil Philip, Little, Brown Pounds 15, 0 316 90987 4. The Happy Prince, Adapted by Jane Ray, Orchard Books Pounds 8.99, 1 85213 619 7.

At the end of Oscar Wilde's classic story, "The Selfish Giant", the reformed ogre reacts with anger to the wounded body of the child who first reclaimed his wintry spirit. "For on the palms of the child's hands were the prints of two nails, and the prints of two nails were on the little feet". The mutilated boy is the Christ child, and the story commands reverence for acts of sacrificial love. As with content, so with form and style. In a number of Wilde's stories it is impossible to draw a line between fairy tale and parable, while the closing paragraphs of "The Fisherman and His Soul" are only the strongest of many echoes of the phrasing and cadences of the King James Bible. All the stories reveal the ornate and sumptuous phrasing and immaculate design that admirers of Wilde the dramatist would expect, but placed unexpectedly at the service of a Christian outlook and unsparing moral rigour.

Isabelle Brent's illustrations are appropriately matched to Wilde's mannered artifice and severe teaching. They are modelled on medieval illuminated manuscripts, each consisting of a central illustrative panel set in an elaborate decorative surround. Wilde's prose is the art that displays art, but is used in the stories for a deeply serious purpose, and if the illustrations sometimes go over the top as Wilde himself does, they are mostly a beautiful and fitting response to the tales.

Wilde wrote nine fairy tales, all of which are included in Neil Philip's collection. None was written exclusively for children, but the first five, including "The Happy Prince", were certainly written with children as part of their intended readership. Strongly influenced by Hans Andersen, they push the term "fairy tale" to its limit. "The Devoted Friend", for example, is not a fairy tale in any useful sense but a modern fable - angry, bitter, and uncompromising - about the use and abuse of friendship. The last four tales, which Wilde published later, are more complex, but they extend the recurrent pattern of a human society which treats its ideal self with cruelty or indifference. The rejected Christ is implicit in a number of the stories. They are classic works of a disillusioned visionary, and this attractive book does them full justice.

Jane Ray's picture-book version of "The Happy Prince" is a delight. Built skilfully around fragments of Wilde's prose, it lays pictorial emphasis on the contrast between Europe, where the swallow is, and the Nile valley, where he should be. The prancing crocodiles are a joy to behold, and the pictures partly mitigate the sadness of the story.

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