The Happy Prince

My mother was the main influence in my life, at least for the time I lived at home, but I don’t think that she introduced me to many books or practical life skills, which may be why I didn’t read much as an adolescent.

But I still remember a quirky reading list I did get from her, including: “Colonel Fawcett”, a biography by the son of the explorer–to whom Mom said we were related—who disappeared in the Amazon while searching for a “red haired, pale-skinned” tribe reported to have been glimpsed deep in the jungle. This is interesting because Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a friend of Fawcett’s in England, based his “Lost Continent” on this exploration and Thor Heyerdahl launched his Kontiki expedition in search of the route that such a tribe could have taken to reach South America, using only prevailing trade winds and currents.

And I also remember a thin, leather-bound volume of Oscar Wilde’s children’s stories. Those stories remain in my mind, as do some of Aesop’s Fables, as parables of the moral dilemmas that life presents.

There is one story in particular, “The Happy Prince”, which telescopes what it means to be an individual and to be confronted with a choice between being part of the community and of following a golden note that draws you away from the campfire, deep into the forest.

In my memory of “The Happy Prince”, the story gets underway in a public square where there’s a statue covered in gold leaf. A flock of sparrows, on their way south, has just landed to rest and to refuel. One of the sparrows spends the night on the shoulder of the statue.

Apparently this sparrow finds it quite natural when the statue starts talking to him but feels some conflict when he is asked to peel off one of the pieces of gold leaf that adorns the Prince’s body, in order to carry it to someone across the city who has fallen on hard times. “The Happy Prince”, like any clairvoyant, heart-center being, has a compelling and poetic way of talking. And the swallow does his bidding.

The following morning, the flock wheels off as one and continues its journey south. But the prince persuades the swallow to stay a little longer:

“Little Swallow, Little Swallow, stay one more night.

And the swallow agrees to stay and to deliver another gold leaf–to a woman whose fingers are numb with the cold as she tries to finish sewing the buttons on a fine gown by morning so that she can earn a few pennies to buy coal for her grate.

And for many nights, like a refrain in an epic poem or a love song, the Happy Prince implores the swallow to remain by his side:

“Little Swallow, Little Swallow, stay one more night.”

And the swallow does stay, each evening bringing another gold leaf to someone whose suffering the Happy Prince sees, until all the gold leaf has been removed, leaving only the gems in the hilt of his sword and his two eyes.

At some point, as the days grow shorter and colder, the relationship shifts and it is the Happy Prince who says, “Perhaps you should go now and catch up with your flock, Little Swallow.” And it is the swallow who says, “I couldn’t find them now, I might as well stay.”

Finally there are the prince’s eyes. And when those two gems have been dropped through the open windows of garrets where someone is in need of heat or food or medicine, only the empty, wind-swept park, with snow blowing across the benches and cold stone, remains.

The following spring, the town’s mayor is conducting a tour for visiting dignitaries and naturally the “Happy Prince”, pride of the city, is included on the tour.

When the mayor sees the deplorable condition of the statue with a dead swallow at its feet, he tells his assistant to clean everything up and dispose of the remains.

There is a final passage, a report from another realm, a couple of sentences from foundry workers—that they had been unable to melt the Happy Prince’s heart in their furnaces.

One comment to “The Happy Prince”
  1. “Beyond the beliefs of any religion, there is the truth of the human spirit. Beyond the power of nations, there is the power of the human heart. Beyond the ordinary mind, the power of wisdom, love and healing energy are at work in the universe. When we can find peace within our hearts, we contact these universal powers. This is our only hope.” –Tarthang Tulku at Body Gaya.

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