Having seen the other reviews, I was wary of this CD & thought it may prove to be a flat note in Stephen Fry's/ Oscar Wilde's repertoire. Happily both were on top form with Oscar Wilde writing some devilishly clever stories, with his protegee Stephen Fry giving just the right voice to do them justice.
All in all, there are 6 stories (including a story-within-a-story) at 15- 30 minutes a piece, so they are manageable in a long car journey/ walk.
1) THE DEVOTED FRIEND
This story is the 'story-within-a-story' mentioned above. The main story is truly unique to Oscar Wilde's Victorian wit - a Duck with several duckling being reproached by a genteel Water-Rat for their lack of decorum!
A Green Linney overhears the conversation & tells them a story about two friends called Little Hans & the Miller. It turns out to be a very one sided friendship & the Miller manipulates Little Hans to do all manner of tasks in the name of friendship & the promise of a wheelbarrow.
I was expecting this story to be difficult & boring, but was surprised, as always, by Wilde's brilliance.
2) THE HAPPY PRINCE
I'd read this story before & found it almost poetic the second time. It is the sad, soulful tale of a Swallow & the gold-plated statue of a Prince. The Swallow wants to go off to Egypt, but is persuaded by the statue to distribute his gems & finery to the poor & needy at winter-time.
It struck me that this tale would make a great Christmas story alongside The Christmas Books: A Christmas Carol; The Chimes; The Cricket on the Hearth
& why it is not more popular is a mystery to me...
3) THE NIGHTINGALE & THE ROSE
"Love is better than life"
This wonderful story is about a young lady being courted by a Philosophy student who says at the outset "all the secrets of philosophy are mine, yet for want of a red rose is my life made wretched".
The tale then consists of a Nightingale searching for a red rose only to find that such a thing demands his sweetest song & every drop of blood from his heart.
Like all Wilde's stories, it combines poetic romance with the dark wit of a realist.
4) THE REMARKABLE ROCKET
"The only thing that sustains one through life is the consciousness of the immense inferiority of everybody else, and this is a feeling that I have always cultivated."
Onto CD 2 & the first tale sounds very much like the proud Oscar Wilde that fell so suddenly from Grace. The Rocket in the story is part of a talking fireworks display for a Royal marriage. A Bengal Light & a Roman Candle have a long conversation with an incredibly Proud & Boastful Rocket who is certain he'll be star of the show. Things, however, do not turn out as planned...
5) THE SELFISH GIANT
The most Fairytale-like of all the stories, it seemed very much in the mold of C.S. Lewis in two senses.
First, it is the story of a Giant who keeps a walled garden where he forbids any children. Just as the cruelty of the Snow Queen leads to a cold land, so the coldness of the Giant leads to permanent winter in the Garden.
Second, there is a little boy who melts the Giants cold heart (similar to Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
) only to show up later with nails in his hands.
Methinks that C.S. Lewis was an Oscar Wilde fan!
6) THE YOUNG KING
"Shall joy wear what grief has fashioned?"
The last story is the longest (at 35 minutes) & has a similar feel to 'The Happy Prince' in seeming like a Christmas tale.
A Young soon-to-be-crowned King has three dreams & learns a lesson from each about where his fine apparel comes from. He has an epiphany and realises how callous he's been to his subjects (Scrooge, anyone?)
Although this story is a bit slow to start & has a hint of Deja Vu, it still works well as a tale & is carried well by Wilde's poetic ability.
With all the stories I was expecting them to be either old fashioned or babyish. Fortunately they are neither & you can see why Fry says on the back cover that "I do not mind admitting that at the recording some passages were hard to read out loud without choking".
Like the Stephen Fry Presents - Short Stories by Anton Chekhov
, though, I have the same nagging grievance - why is it only 6 stories & 2 hours 14 minutes of material? Fair enough that Wilde wrote few short stories, but a double album with the Chekhov stuff (or better still with some of Wilde's under-rated poetry) would have made a much more desirable product.
That said, I can think of few instances where a great narrator has been so perfectly matched with an author. Wilde & Fry are very much cut from the same cloth & Fry has even made a film playing his doupelganger.
The only thing I can think of comparable to this pairing is that of Dawkins reading Darwin on On The Origin of Species
& I wonder why it is not done more often.
Can anyone imagine The Queen reading Queen Victoria's Journals
, or Terry Pratchett reading The Lord of the Rings
? It would give a whole new meaning to the phrase "bringing a book to life"...