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Monday, September 24, 2012
THE HAPPY PRINCE
This story was originally by one of my favorite writers, Oscar Wilde. Though best known for his novel (The Picture of Dorian Gray), or his plays (such as The Importance of Being Earnest), or his tumultous and tragic personal life, he was also adept at writing fairy tales. His best known, The Selfish Giant I have published elsewhere on this blog. This is my personal favorite.
Once upon a time there was a prince who was beloved by all. His servants and subjects alike admired and respected him and he loved them right back. Under his reign, the kingdom knew happiness and that’s why he was always called “the Happy Prince.” When he died, it was decided that he should be comemorated for all time with a great statue in the center of the capitol city. It was twenty feet high, carved in stone and covered in solid gold. Two saphires were put in place of his eyes and he wore a shiny ruby in his lapel.
The years passed and the statue stood in the center of the city where it was admired by all who passed beneath it. But, by and by, a new prince rose to power who was foolish and frivolous and selfish and the country started to decline. Taxes were raised, poverty spread, unemployment hit an all time high. Within a few short years, the country had changed completely, and happiness was nowhere to be found.
Then, one night in autumn, a little swallow was flying over the city on his way south for the winter. Wanting a place to rest for a while before he continued his trip, he found the golden statue and nestled at its feet. But as he lay there, trying to fall asleep, a drop of water struck him on the head. He ignored it, but then there was another drop and another.
“That’s funny,” said the swallow. “It doesn’t look like rain.” And, indeed, it wasn’t rain. On closer investigation, the swallow discovered that the water was actually tears, dripping from the statue’s eyes. “Why are you crying?” asked the swallow.
“When I was alive,” said the statue. “I was very happy. Neither I nor any of my subjects knew tears or sorrow. But that was many, many years ago, and everything has changed. Now that I am so very high up, I can see every corner of my kingdom, and I see the misery and the sadness of my people. And even though my heart is now made of stone, I cannot help but cry.”
The swallow felt very sorry for the statue and asked if there was anything he could do to help.
“Perhaps you can,” said the Happy Prince. “Three streets from here, I can see a small home where a poor mother can barely feed her children, let alone herself. She wants to earn more money, but there is no work to be had anywhere.”
“Well, what can I do about that?” asked the swallow.
“See this ruby in my lapel? If you will take it, fly to her home and give it to her, she can sell it and then she will have money to buy food for her family.”
“You want to give them your ruby? Are you sure?”
“It will do me little good, and it could save her children’s lives. Will you do this for me? I’d do it myself, if I could only move.”
Well, the swallow was sort of anxious to join his friends in Egypt. But, then again, he could not very well turn down such a kind and selfless request, and he pried the ruby from the Happy Prince’s lapel and flew to the home of the poor woman. By the time he got there, the poor woman was weeping with despair, feeling that all hope was lost. The swallow could not help but smile as he landed on the windowsill, lay down the ruby and whistled. The woman looked up and saw the swallow bow politely and fly away, leaving the precious gem on the windowsill.
“Look how happy she is!” said the Happy Prince to the swallow when he had returned. “Oh, thank you, little friend.”
“It’s funny,” said the swallow. “But I was flying south because of how cold it was in this country. But now I feel very warm inside.”
“That’s your heart that’s warm, little friend. That’s how it feels when you do something good for someone else.”
“I like it,” said the swallow. But flying all that way with that big ruby had made him tired, so he nestled again at the feet of the Happy Prince and fell asleep, feeling much warmer on the inside than he did on the outside.
The next morning, the swallow was determined that he would continue his flight and join the other birds in Egypt. He was particularly gratified that he had such a wonderful story to tell them when they asked why he was so late. He flew down to the river and bathed, then he allowed a nice old lady in the park to feed him, then then he went back to see the Happy Prince.
“I just wanted to say goodbye before I left.”
“Must you leave now?” said the Happy Prince. “I was hoping you could do one more thing for me.”
“I’d be happy to, but my friends are waiting for me in Egypt.”
“It won’t take long,” said the Happy Prince. “Just one more quick trip to the far end of town. I can see a clerk in an office. His employer is a hard and cruel man and he works this poor clerk too hard. He’s been working so hard that he has fallen asleep at his desk. And he has a very sick boy at home, and doctors can be very expensive.”
“Well, naturally, I’d like to help. But you seem to be all out of rubies.”
“My eyes are saphires. You can take out one of them and—”
“You want me to take one of your eyes? I couldn’t do that!”
“Please, little friend. I have another eye, so I can still see. And it will be of much greater value to the poor clerk than to me.”
“Okay, I’ll stay a little longer and help you to help that clerk. But then I really have to be going!” So, as gently as he could, the swallow removed one of the Prince’s eyes and flew it to the sleeping clerk. When he awoke, he found the gem in his hand and he was grateful. As he flew back to the statue, the swallow felt very warm inside, despite the chill in the air. “Well, I guess this is goodbye,” he said to the Happy Prince.
“I’ll understand if you refuse,” said the Prince, “but I would like to ask you one more time for your help.”
Anxious though he was to get to Egypt, he had come to like that warm feeling inside that came from helping others. “Perhaps if it doesn’t take too long. What is it?”
“While you were giving my left eye to that poor clerk, I saw with my right eye a brother and sister with no mother or father. These orphans live on the street and must rely on the generosity of strangers to sustain them.”
“You can’t ask me to give them your other eye. You will be blind.”
“I know. But I’m only a statue, and they are living. Their need is greater than mine. Please, my friend?”
The swallow could not refuse and so, though it pained him to do it, he blinded the Happy Prince and delivered the saphire to the children.
“Are you there, my little friend?” he asked as the swallow landed on his shoulder.
“Yes, yes, it’s me.”
“I want to thank you for all you’ve done for me. And now I know you are anxious to go to Egypt, so I will say goodbye.”
“Are you serious? I blind you and you think I’m going to leave you just like that? No, I’ll stay with you for another night or two, so you won’t feel too lonely.”
“I appreciate that, but you’ve done enough for me already. You should go rejoin your friends.”
“My friends can wait a few more days. Besides, you are my friend too. And I don’t want to leave you alone in the dark.”
So, the swallow stayed a little longer with the Happy Prince. Every night, he would tell the Prince stories of the wonderful things he’d seen in his travels. During the day, he would fly throughout the city and come back and tell the Prince all he had seen, in great detail, which made the Prince very happy indeed. But, then again, sometimes what the swallow saw made him very sad and he didn’t want to tell the Prince.
“Please,” said the Prince on one such occasion. “Tell me what you are trying to keep from me.”
“Well, I saw a woman weeping in the streets today. She is with child but the father has passed away and she is alone. She cannot work in her condition, but she cannot feed her baby when it comes unless she works. I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want to make you sad. And it’s not as if you could do anything to help. You have no more gems to offer.”
“That’s true,” said the Happy Prince. “But you forget: Every last inch of me is covered in gold. With your claws and your beak you could scrape off some of the gold and give it to her. In fact, you could scrape off enough gold to give some to all the poor of this land.”
“Are you sure that’s what you want? You will be nothing but stone if I do.”
“Little friend, if they had asked me before my death if I wanted a golden statue built of me, I would have said no. It was nice of them to want to honor me like this, but it’s not very practical. Gold is only valuable if it is used. If it stays where it is, it’s worthless. But if you give it to the poor, it can help a lot of people. So if you really want to honor my memory, you know what you must do.”
The swallow agreed and began scraping off some of the gold plating and delivering it among the poor of the kingdom. This, of course, took a very long time, and several times the Prince asked “Are you sure you don’t need to be leaving for Egypt?” and every time the swallow would say, “No, no, I can leave any time. I’ll just take a little more gold for the poor then I’ll go.” But the swallow was lying to protect his friend’s feelings. You see, unbeknowst to the blind Prince, winter had fallen. The swallow would never be able to go to Egypt now. And every day the food became scarcer, and the swallow grew weaker and collecting and distrubitng the gold became a harder and harder task. But he would never allow his friend, the Happy Prince, to know how sick and weak he had become. And at night, though his body shivered, his heart was warmed by the knowledge of all the good he was doing.
But one night, the swallow landed on the Prince’s shoulder and whispered into his ear. “My friend, it is time for me to say goodbye.”
“Oh, are you going to Egypt at last? I am glad. Without being able to see the sunrises and sunsets, I haven’t been able to keep track of the days, but I know it must be getting very cold, so I am glad that you’re finally going when you’ve wanted to for so long.”
“I’m not going to Egypt,” said the swallow.
“You’re not? Then where are you…”
“Goodbye, my Happy Prince. I love you.” And with that, the little swallow shut his eyes for the last time. And if you’d been walking under the statue at that moment, you would’ve heard a loud crack when the stone heart of the Happy Prince broke in two.
The very next morning, the new prince was walking through the city with a few of his closest advisors when they saw the statue of the Happy Prince. “Ugh!” said the prince. “Look at how rundown this thing is! The gold is all peeled off, there’s a big crack in the chest, all the precious stones have been stolen and…is that a dead bird? How disgusting! Make a note: We must have this hideous eyesore torn down. We’ll erect a new statue. Of…well, how about a statue of me?” Of course, his advisors quickly agreed that this was the best thing to do. “Yes, of course. But let’s not make it so cheap as that old one. Solid gold, diamond eyes, emeralds for buttons…”
And just like that, the Happy Prince was forgotten. His statue was torn down and broken up into rubble which was used to pave a private road for the prince’s home. As for the swallow, his body was thrown into the garbage where it burned along with the refuse of the rich and powerful, most of which could’ve been used to feed the poor and destitute.
But, listen, I don’t want you to feel too sad or angry about all this. Because even though the statue was torn down, the Prince himself had already been dead for many years. And the statue is really just stone when you think about it. Of course, the passing of the swallow is tragic, but think of the good he did in his life and how noble and selfless his sacrifices were. And it wasn’t in vain, either. Because the people of that city couldn’t help but notice the gifts of gold and jewels that seemed to come from out of nowhere and though they never fully understood what happened, they never forgot it and the people started to look out for one another and they learned the meaning of charity and kindness. I mean, there were still some selfish jerks out there who were only thinking of themselves, but for the most part the kingdom was full of happiness just as it had been when the Happy Prince had sat on the throne.
And you can take it from me that the Happy Prince and the noble sparrow met again, in a world beyond our understanding, where you can bet they are living very happily to this day.
More Great Stories HERE
More Great Stories HERE