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The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde, Illustrations by Sandow Birk, Arion Press (2018)

Oscar Wilde (1854-1890) was an Irish poet/writer whose works remain immensely popular today. His best known works are The Picture of Dorian GrayThe Importance of Being EarnestLady Windermere’s FanSalomeDe Profundis and The Ballad of Reading GaolWilde’s wit and humor are legendary, as is the controversy surrounding his life.

Statue of Oscar Wilde in Dublin, Ireland. Photo by Chris Adamson

Wilde was born in Dublin. His parents were successful and quite intellectual in their own right (his mother a poet and Irish nationalist; his father a surgeon and knighted medical advisor, in addition to being an author of archaeology and peasant folklore). Wilde studied at Trinity College in Dublin and at Oxford, from which he graduated from in 1878. By 1882, Wilde was sufficiently successful (and a well-known enough representative of the Aesthetic Movement) to take a tour of America where he was, by most accounts, very well received (except by a very critical press). Wilde married Constance Lloyd in 1894. They had two sons, Cyril (1885) and Vyvyan (1886). Soon after, Wilde seems to have had his first homosexual relationship, which was with Robert Ross. In 1888, Wilde published The Happy Prince and Other Tales and, in 1891, A House of Pomegranates (both of which make up the Arion Press edition reviewed in this article). In between these tales, he also published The Picture of Dorian Gray. This flourish of productivity continued with Lady Windermere’s Fan published in 1893 and Salome, in English, in 1894. On the latter, Lord Alfred Douglas was given credit as the translator on the dedication page.

Wilde and Alfred Douglas in May 1893. Public Domain, British Library Shelfmark: Add MS 81783 A

While Wilde and Douglas had met in 1891, by 1893 they were having an affair. By the time The Importance of Being Earnest opened in 1895, Wilde’s relationship with Douglas had caught the ire of the Marquess of Queensberry, Alfred’s father. Suspecting the nature of his son’s relationship with Wilde, Queensberry publicly insulted Wilde. Against the advice of most of his friends (excepting Douglas), Wilde had Queensberry arrested and charged with criminal libel. Infogalactic saysAccording to libel laws of the time, since his authorship of the charge of sodomy was not in question, Queensberry could avoid conviction only by demonstrating in court not only that the charge he had made was factually true, but that there was also some public interest in having made the charge publicly.” In court, many scandalous details were made known and realizing that even greater scandal would result by continuing the trial, Wilde eventually dropped the libel charge. However, based on the evidence provided, in 1895, Wilde ended up being arrested and convicted for committing criminal sodomy and “gross indecency” (a first trial had ended in a hung jury). Immediately after being released from prison in May of 1897, he left England (never to return), having very little money and poor health from his time in prison. Wilde died of meningitis (with differing opinions to this day on the cause of such) on November 30, 1900 in Paris, just a bit over 46 years of age.

The tomb of Oscar Wilde in Paris, France. Public Domain – Photo from Agateller who mentions that the “glass barrier that has been erected around the tomb to discourage “vandalism” from adoring fans.”

The Arion Press edition of The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde has an introduction by Wilde’s only grandson, Merlin Holland. Mr. Holland is the son of Vyvyan and his second wife, Thelma Besant (Constance had her and her children’s surname changed back to Holland, an older family name, after the events described above). Holland is a biographer/editor that lives in France and has researched and written extensively on Wilde, including books titled The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde, The Real Trial of Oscar Wilde, The Wilde Album, Oscar Wilde: A Life in Letters, Coffee with Oscar Wilde, and A Portrait of Oscar Wilde (this last one was printed at Stamperia Valdoneg in a limited edition of 525 in 2008). Mr. Holland has also worked as a wine writer, which for Books and Vines makes it a special privilege to write about his excellent introduction in this edition!

Holland mentions, in the introduction to the Arion edition being reviewed here, that when it comes to Wilde’s life and his works “if it looks straightforward it almost certainly isn’t and his fairy tales are no exception.” He further says that one of Wilde’s “playful perversities was his habit of treating serious subjects lightly and matters of less import with almost exaggerated seriousness.” Reading these tales with those statements in mind, especially while recognizing Wilde’s “preoccupation with love and death,” allows the reader to better understand the complexities that these ‘simple’ stories convey. The result is stories that have “much to appeal to the adult, though for different reasons and on a different level, as there was to the child.” Holland further drives that point home by quoting Wilde himself, as written in a copy of The Happy Prince that he had sent to a friend:

My fairy tales…are an attempt to mirror modern life in a form remote from reality — to deal with modern problems in a mode that is ideal and not imitative: I hope you will like them: they are, of course, slight and fanciful, and written, not for children, but for childlike people from eighteen to eighty.

With all that happened in Wilde’s life between the publication of The Happy Prince and Other Tales in 1888 and A House of Pomegranates in 1891, it is no surprise, as Holland states, that the works have a:

…radically different style of storytelling and form: in the first, the tales rely on anthropomorphism, irony and lightness of touch; in the second the themes are somber and the outcomes, even when partly redemptive, and tinged with darkness.

Expanding on that thought, Holland refers to the first story published in A House of Pomegranates, that being The Young King, as still having a “Christian redemptive quality to it,” where “the future king discovers, like the Happy Prince, the transforming power of sympathy with suffering.” Yet, by The Fisherman and His Soul and The Star-Child,

…the whole mood has changed subtly to what one can only describe as a move from a Christian to something akin to a pagan world where the powers of good and evil remain in conflict rather than the more usual triumph of the first over the second.

If you have not read Oscar Wilde before, these stories are an excellent starting point. If you have read Wilde, but not these stories, they will serve as an excellent expansion in understanding Wilde’s other works. I had not read these ‘Fairy Tales’ in a couple decades, since which time I have read pretty much all of his works. I was decidedly rewarded by the effort, enjoying the complexities within these tales in which I am sure the younger me had completely missed.

Holland praises the illustrations in the Arion edition, done as drawings by artist Sandow Birk. While referring to Wilde’s statement in his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray that “All art is at once surface and symbol,” Holland says that, in these drawings, Birk “dared to take us beneath the surface and look for the symbol.” Birk is a Los Angeles based artist whose work “typically explores social issues” and often is, according to Arion Press, “Frequently developed as expansive, multi-media projects…“. He has received many awards over the years: a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1996, a Fulbright Fellowship in 1997, a Getty Fellowship in 1999, a City of Los Angeles (COLA) Fellowship in 2001, and a USArtsts Fellowship in 2014. In 2007, he was awarded an Artist in Residence Fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American Art. When he received the invitation to illustrate this edition for Arion Press, he was just embarking on a third residency at the Ballinglen Arts Foundation in rural County Mayo, Ireland. The Arion Press prospectus for this edition mentions that “Birk was inspired by the landscape and quiet life of rural Ireland. With a crackling fire and a nip of Jameson…,” with Birk himself finishing the thought in saying he “attempted to make his (Wilde’s) moral visions relevant to our own troubled times…to create not just an illustrated book, but something more thought provoking and endearing.

Long time readers of Books and Vines know that I have a preference for more traditional/classical illustrations and those that are time-apropos of the writing itself, especially when it comes to classic works of literature. Arion Press illustrative choices often push me outside of that preference zone, sometimes more successfully than others. In this case, quite successfully as the artwork captures the stylistically classic flavor I prefer allowing the illustrations to be complementary reflections of Wilde’s stories themselves. It would not be an Arion Press work without some nod to the modern, and Birk’s work here does successfully give a nod to such. As the Arion Press website mentions, his “images deftly extract messages from the stories and capture them in the light of modern-day.” The prospectus continues this thought saying that:

Birk’s artworks capture both the contradiction and the complexity of the stories, illuminating their timeless themes through imagery that bears a startling and immediate familiarity to today’s reader. The stark lines and style might at first trick an unsuspecting viewer into believing they do hail from Victorian times, but the content is very much of the now.

An excellent example of this is his drawing for The Happy Prince where the Statue of Liberty replaces the prince.

Arion Press – The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde, Illustration by Sandow Birk (from ‘The Happy Prince’); compare to a Walter Crane illustration from the first edition.

This example nicely shows the juxtaposition of classical styling with a modern day inclusion that keeps the theme remaining true to The Happy Prince while asking the reader to contemplate if we the people are similarly blinded to the downtrodden and poor as to those in the story.

In short, the choice of publishing The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde was a good one as the tales remain entertaining and relevant. The inclusion of an excellent introduction by Wilde’s only grandson and plethora of classical-looking yet thought-provoking, modern content of the illustrations gives the edition a special feel. The presswork, overall design, and sizing are all quite satisfactory and I really enjoy the understated cover design with the foiled butterfly inlay which imply beauty and simplicity of what is between the covers, even if complexity is what one joyfully finds instead.

About the Edition

Pictures of the Edition

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The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde, Arion Press, Slipcase
The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde, Arion Press, Cover
The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde, Arion Press, Macro of Cover
The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde, Arion Press, Frontispiece and Title Page
The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde, Arion Press, Contents
The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde, Arion Press, Sample Text #1 – Introduction
The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde, Arion Press, Title Page for The Happy Prince (each tale has similar title page)
The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde, Sample Text #2
The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde, Macro of Initial Lettering in Sample Text #2
The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde, Arion Press, Sample Illustration #1 with Text
The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde, Arion Press, Sample Illustration #2 with Text
The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde, Sample Text #3
The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde, Arion Press, Sample Illustration #3 with Text
The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde, Arion Press, Title Page for The Fisherman and His Soul
The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde, Arion Press, Sample Illustration #4 with Text
The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde, Sample Text #4
The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde, Colophon

Note that Arion Press has a full list of illustrations from this work here. Also, the prospectus can be downloaded here:

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