Its often strange, and sometimes downright scary, when you start poking around in the old memory bank. Its never quite clear what youre poking nor what may emerge from the past to confront you.
At the moment, Im poking through childhood memories, particularly Christmas memories. Not unexpectedly, the first memory to emerge was of my all-time favorite toy, Marxs classic Fort Apache. Searching the web, I found it must be the favorite toy of a lot of other men, too, because its all over the net. Some people are even willing to pay way too much money for it, as if having the toy will actually bring back the past.
Strangely enough, though, after poking around for awhile I remembered something that I had no conscious memory of, though it turned out in the end to be a much more powerful memory. I started vaguely remembering an old Bing Crosby record my mother used to play until one day it vanished into that great trash heap in the sky, obviously placed next to the Happy Princes lead heart. Without a clue of what it was called, I invoked the magic of Google by searching on Bing Crosby and then grubbed through page after page of listings until I found a few entries that began to jog my memory.
Finally I discovered that the title of the recording was The Happy Prince and featured Bing Crosby and Orson Welles. As I read the online copy of Oscar Wildes tale, phrases and even whole lines jumped out at me. I was strangely moved as I reread the story, moved almost as strongly as I was when I had heard this tale as a child.
[STOP! Read the story at the above link now if you dont want it ruined for you. Its a very short parable.]
The tale begins with the statue of the Happy Prince telling the swallow his predicament.
`When I was alive and had a human heart,’ answered the statue, `I did not know what tears were, for I lived in the palace of Sans-Souci, where sorrow is not allowed to enter. … So I lived, and so I died. And now that I am dead they have set me up here so high that I can see all the ugliness and all the misery of my city, and though my heart is made of lead yet I cannot choose but weep.’ Alhough this seems remarkably similar to Prince Siddarthas encounter with old age, sickness and death after living a protected life of wealth, the Happy Princes reaction to this discovery is quite different.
In short, the statue of the Happy Prince enlists the aid of a reluctant swallow to aid the poor, suffering people of the town. At the command of the statue, the swallow strips the statue of all its beautiful adornments and gives them to the poor.
The tragic ending of the parable is foreshadowed when the Prince commands the swallow to pluck out his last eye and give it to:
a little match-girl. She has let her matches fall in the gutter, and they are all spoiled. Her father will beat her if she does not bring home some money, and she is crying. She has no shoes or stockings, and her little head is bare
Finally, all his jewels gone, the Happy Prince strips himself of any last trappings of wealth. I am covered with fine gold, said the Prince, you must take it off, leaf by leaf, and give it to my poor; the living always think that gold can make them happy.
Although the prince has nothing left to give and the swallow should have long ago left for the south, he refuses to leave the Prince for he loved him too well. Finally,
he kissed the Happy Prince on the lips, and fell down dead at his feet.
At that moment a curious crack sounded inside the statue, as if something had broken. The fact is that the leaden heart had snapped right in two.
The ironic image of the cracked leaden heart, like the Tin Mans missing heart, is a particularly powerful image. In the end, only the heart shall endure. The callous town officials, not realizing the Happy Princes true worth, decide he must destroyed because As he is no longer beautiful he is no longer useful.
Luckily, when the broken lead heart will not melt, it ends up in the ash heap where the sparrow has been discarded. Even more fortunately, God has been watching the proceedings below:
`Bring me the two most precious things in the city,’ said God to one of His Angels; and the Angel brought Him the leaden heart and the dead bird.
`You have rightly chosen,’ said God, `for in my garden of Paradise this little bird shall sing for evermore, and in my city of gold the Happy Prince shall praise me.
Jewels and gold are valued because of their scarcity. Perhaps true love, particularly the unselfish love for our fellow man is, because of its rarity, even more precious.
I wonder what it says about our society that classics like this have disappeared to be replaced by Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman?