Oscar Wilde’s allegory “The Happy Prince” is exquisitely rendered in this golden adaptation by P. Craig Russell, the fifth volume of Russell’s The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde series. Wilde’s story of kindness, generosity, poverty, and selfishness is vividly imaged, brought to life with luminous graphics. The relationship between the little swallow and the very unhappy statue is as relevant today as it was when it was first published. The migratory bird, late to leave for his winter home in Egypt, stops temporarily for shelter at the feet of the prince. By sharing stories of people and places near and far, the two form a bond that, regardless of the transformation of their present concrete forms, is never to be broken. The prince, with the aid of the gentle sparrow, gives away his precious adornments to aid people in poverty and is ultimately melted as the statue no longer pays the proper homage to the rich people of the town. The sparrow, likewise, pays the ultimate price, refusing to leave the statue to seek sanctuary from the bitter winter.
Russell has left Wilde’s prose intact. Additionally, Wilde’s characterizations of both the opposite spectrums of the citizens of San-Souci and the greedy upper mobile middle class are captured with insight, creativity, and precision by Russell. The inanimate but compassionate statue has a strong and vital presence in this adaption although he is, always, a lead statue gilded, for awhile, with gold flakes and jewels. His emotions and thoughts are active; his rooted body is never portrayed as anything but a solid and commanding statue. The swallow, with his love of life, the reed, the promises of the future, and his final dedication to the Happy Prince statue, is depicted as whimsical and dynamic, the polar opposite to his new-found friend. Dark details of hardship and poverty are not glossed over, nor are they over-sensationalized. The cityscape, the natural surroundings, and the near-mythical countries of the swallow’s stories are all persuasively rendered with delicate detail.
Russell’s admiration and respect for this tale shines brilliantly through his illustrations, choice of panel and page layouts and colour palate. The colours are muted but luminous, filled with the blues of the sparrow’s playground, the blacks and greys of poverty, and the yellows and golds reminiscent of hope and bounty. Russell’s style is also evocative of earlier illustrators and illustrative styles, echoing art nouveau styles and the splendour of Arthur Rackham. The story, even with the sentimental Victorian ending, is a treat as well as a treatise for contemporary readers of all ages.