Brain Pickings

Lisbeth Zwerger’s Rare and Soulful 1984 Illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s “The Selfish Giant”

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A bittersweet tale of transformation and self-transcendence through a single act of kindness.

From Austrian artist Lisbeth Zwerger — who also gave us those impossibly imaginative illustrations for Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz — comes a rare 1984 illustrated edition of The Selfish Giant (public library), one of the five short stories in Oscar Wilde’s 1888 collection for children, The Happy Prince and Other Tales.

The story was written at a pivotal time in Wilde’s life: professionally, it was wedged between his foray into professional journalism in 1887 as editor of The Woman’s World and his only novel, the 1890 classic The Picture of Dorian Gray; personally, it was nestled between the peak of his marital troubles and his intense love affair with Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas.

In that turbulent context, it is perhaps befitting that Wilde would gravitate toward something soulful, symbolic, and ultimately bittersweet: When the selfish giant bans the children from playing in his garden, Spring refuses to come and the garden sinks into an unending winter. One day, the giant is awakened to discover that the children have found a way to sneak in through a hole in the wall. He is gripped with regret over his surly behavior and vows to demolish the wall, but as he emerges from his castle to welcome the children, they all run for their lives — except one little boy in the midst of trying to climb a tree. Rather than scold, the giant helps the child climb the tree and gets a hug and a kiss in return, which melts his heart. But then, the giant disappears, only to come back many years later, as an old man returning to die under the tree, covered in white spring blossoms.

It’s a simple yet immeasurably sweet story — the story of transformation and self-transcendence through one’s own single act of kindness, and Zwerger’s subtle yet infinitely expressive illustrations add beautiful dimension to Wilde’s wistful hopefulness.

Zwerger’s The Selfish Giant is long out of print, but surviving copies can still be found online and at some libraries. Complement it with Oscar Wilde on art, then revisit Zwerger’s enchanting reimaginings of Wonderland and Oz.

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