Off the Shelf: The Selfish Giant

I have a B.A. in English Literature, but I don’t pretend to be an Oscar Wilde scholar. I’ve read “Dorian Gray” and his wickedly funny plays and some of his essays, but I’m no pro.

So, it’s no surprise that I was totally unprepared to see his name on a children’s book.


Apparently, Wilde published a book of children’s stories (self-made fairy tales, if you will) in 1888 called “The Happy Prince and Other Tales.” “The Selfish Giant” is part of the compilation. This 1995 book focuses only on the one story, and the wonderful illustrations are by S. Saelig Gallagher.

It all starts with a deserted garden. The garden belongs to a Giant, but he’s away visiting a Cornish Ogre. Since the Giant isn’t home, the town children play in the garden. One day, the Giant returns and is displeased to see all the kids on his property. He builds a wall to keep them out.


Because of the Giant’s selfishness, the garden reverts to a perpetual state of winter. Aren’t Snow, Frost, and the North Wind perfectly personified here?


The Giant can’t figure out why spring hasn’t come.


One day, the children find a way to creep through the wall and get back inside. The Giant sees that, with the children, spring has returned.


The snow had melted from nearly the entire garden, except a small patch where a young boy stood, unable to climb a tree to play.


The Giant saw the boy from his window, and he rushed down to help. The children hid when they saw the Giant approaching.


The Giant helped the young boy into the tree, and the other children knew it was OK to resume play. From then on, the Giant delighted in the children. Look at his supremely satisfied face.


The only child who never returns to the garden is the young boy the Giant had helped, and he always wondered about him. One day, when the Giant is very old, he sees the boy again. He rushes down to the garden and sees the young boy, unchanged after so many years, except for nail prints in his hands and feet. At first the Giant is alarmed, but then the boy tells him they are the “wounds of Love.” A “strange awe” falls on the Giant and he kneels before the child, who invites the Giant to his garden, Paradise.

The children later find the dead Giant lying under a tree.


This is, of course, a Christian allegory, and it really surprised me to learn that several of Wilde’s other stories in “The Happy Prince” have similar themes. “The Happy Prince” and “The Nightingale and the Rose” both deal with ultimate sacrifice. While I believe that the Christian messages are a little muddled, here, the story still has some strong messages for kids.

First, it personifies Jesus Christ as a child rather than an in-charge adult, someone the children reading the story can relate to.

Second, it shows how your life grows cold and barren when you don’t share what you have with others.

Third, it shows that when you demonstrate kindness to even the smallest, most insignificant person, you’re showing kindness to God.

This story has all the allure and mystique of a fairy tale, but it does provide a fairly cohesive message for little minds. What do you think? Is it appropriate for kids?


Do you know of any other famous authors who wrote for both adults and children? (Besides C.S. Lewis?)


One thought on “Off the Shelf: The Selfish Giant

  1. how bizarre. I was researching Oscar Wilde to costume him for a play and came across your article. I have that book! So I dug it out of my library – the 1940 edition of ‘the happy prince and other tales”. who knew that the stories I read as a child were by oscar wilde. thanks for bringing it to my attention.

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