In his beautiful collection of fables, The Happy Prince and Other Stories, Oscar Wilde strikingly contrasts self-sacrificing love with selfishness. “The Devoted Friend” and “The Remarkable Rocket” highlight not only the ugliness of a self-centered life but the way in which our selfishness blinds us to the reality of our condition. “I hate people who talk about themselves, as you do,” says the remarkable rocket, “when one wants to talk about oneself, as I do. It is what I call selfishness, and selfishness is a most detestable thing, especially to anyone of my temperament, for I am well known for my sympathetic nature.”
Selfishness is not only blinding, but self-defeating. In “The Selfish Giant”, Wilde portrays the effects of a giant’s refusal to let local schoolchildren play in his magnificent garden. His selfishness makes it a permanent winter in the garden, “and the north wind and the hail, and the frost and the snow danced about through the trees.” In seeking to hoard treasures, we loose them.
In “The Happy Prince” and “The Nightingale and the Rose”, on the other hand, we see what it means to love and to give, even to the point of giving your own life.
“Death is a great price to pay for a red rose,” thinks the nightingale, when she learns that this is what she must do in order to provide the student with the rose he wishes to give his intended, “and life is very dear to all. It is pleasant to sit in the green wood, and to watch the sun in his chariot of gold, and the moon in her chariot of pearl. Sweet is the scent of the hawthorn, and sweet are the bluebells that hide in the valley, and the heather that blows on the hill. Yet love is better than life, and what is the heart of a bird compared to the heart of a man?'”
In both stories, the love offered goes unrecognised. The student’s lady love disdains the rose the nightingale has given her heart blood for, and the student in turn dismisses love as “not half as useful as logic” and “quite unpractical”. The recipients of the Happy Prince’s jewellery do not know to whom they owe their gratitude, and the town councillors simply notice that the statue has lost its lustre, and have it melted, while the leaden heart that will not melt is consigned to the rubbish heap where the prince’s companion the swallow lies dead.
But while their sacrifices go unnoticed on earth, heaven takes note, and in “The Happy Prince”, God accounts the broken lead heart of the Happy Prince, and the dead body of the swallow, as “the two most precious things in the city”, and His angel brings them home to Him.
It is in “The Selfish Giant”, however, that we get a glimpse of the love behind all self-sacrificing love in the wounded hands and the wounded feet of of the little boy who melted the giant’s heart.
“‘Who hath dared to wound thee?’ cried the giant; ‘tell me, that I may take my big sword and slay him.’
‘Nay!’ answered the child, ‘but these are the wounds of love.'”
For it is only the love wounds of the Son of God Himself that can make us–selfish giants and self-centered rockets that we are–into nightingales who give our life blood for another, or golden statues who give their jeweled eyes for those in need.