The Star Child by Oscar Wilde.
|The Star Child |
from A House of Pomegranates by Oscar Wilde, illustrated by Ben Kutcher (1918).
Because I have hay fever I have a particularly good reason for looking forward to autumn and winter, but reading the opening pages of Oscar Wilde's The Star Child (from A House of Pomegranates, 1891) was enough to make me doubt myself. Truly it brings to life the bitterness of mid-winter, I could almost feel it. So good it is, I'll quote it in full:
Once upon a time two poor Woodcutters were making their way home through a great pine-forest. It was winter, and a night of bitter cold. The snow lay thick upon the ground, and upon the branches of the trees: the frost kept snapping the little twigs on either side of them, as they passed: and when they came to the Mountain-Torrent she was hanging motionless in air, for the Ice-King had kissed her.
So cold was it that even the animals and the birds did not know what to make of it.
‘Ugh!’ snarled the Wolf, as he limped through the brushwood with his tail between his legs, ‘this is perfectly monstrous weather. Why doesn’t the Government look to it?’
‘Weet! weet! weet!’ twittered the green Linnets, ‘the old Earth is dead and they have laid her out in her white shroud.’
‘The Earth is going to be married, and this is her bridal dress,’ whispered the Turtle-doves to each other. Their little pink feet were quite frost-bitten, but they felt that it was their duty to take a romantic view of the situation.
‘Nonsense!’ growled the Wolf. ‘I tell you that it is all the fault of the Government, and if you don’t believe me I shall eat you.’ The Wolf had a thoroughly practical mind, and was never at a loss for a good argument.
‘Well, for my own part,’ said the Woodpecker, who was a born philosopher, ‘I don’t care an atomic theory for explanations. If a thing is so, it is so, and at present it is terribly cold.’
Terribly cold it certainly was. The little Squirrels, who lived inside the tall fir-tree, kept rubbing each other’s noses to keep themselves warm, and the Rabbits curled themselves up in their holes, and did not venture even to look out of doors. The only people who seemed to enjoy it were the great horned Owls. Their feathers were quite stiff with rime, but they did not mind, and they rolled their large yellow eyes, and called out to each other across the forest, ‘Tu-whit! Tu-whoo! Tu-whit! Tu-whoo! what delightful weather we are having!’
On and on went the two Woodcutters, blowing lustily upon their fingers, and stamping with their huge iron-shod boots upon the caked snow. Once they sank into a deep drift, and came out as white as millers are, when the stones are grinding; and once they slipped on the hard smooth ice where the marsh-water was frozen, and their faggots fell out of their bundles, and they had to pick them up and bind them together again; and once they thought that they had lost their way, and a great terror seized on them, for they knew that the Snow is cruel to those who sleep in her arms. But they put their trust in the good Saint Martin, who watches over all travellers, and retraced their steps, and went warily, and at last they reached the outskirts of the forest, and saw, far down in the valley beneath them, the lights of the village in which they dwelt.
That is one of my favourite openings! Wilde continues to describe the coming of the star child -
There fell from heaven a very bright and beautiful star. It slipped down the side of the sky, passing by the other stars in its course, and, as they watched it wondering, it seemed to them to sink behind a clump of willow-trees that stood hard by a little sheepfold no more than a stone’s-throw away.
The child's cape is gold, "golden tissue, curiously wrought with stars". One of the poor woodcutters takes the child home where he is brought up along with the woodcutter's other children. The child, quite frankly, is obnoxious. Believing himself to be a star child he is arrogant, vain, and cruel, and one day when an old beggar woman arrives he is exceedingly wicked, even when he learns that she is in fact his mother. Following the denying of his mother, he is punished - transformed into an ugly child and later enslaved by a cruel master who tortures him.
As with some of Wilde's other shorter fiction there is, happily for the star child, a theme of redemption. When the child sees the errors of his way and is helped by a guide (a rabbit) he is eventually redeemed. Curiously though, it's not an altogether happy ending - the final paragraph of the story seems to be quite a bitter twist from Wilde, and honestly I wasn't sure what to make of it. Despite that, though, it's a beautifully told tale and I think one of Wilde's best.
And that was my 29th title for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week - A Vision by Samuel Coleridge.