Monday, September 10, 2018

Great female heroes, unexpected plot twists (Following folktales around the world 82. - Italy)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts here, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

Italian Folktales
Italo Calvino
Mariner Books, 1992.

This book is definitely a classic. Calvino was aiming to create an iconic Italian collection, in the vein of what the Grimms have done for Germany. The book contains 200 tales, most of them representing the best, prettiest versions of popular tale types, while some are typically Italian stories. Calvino, as per the Grimm tradition, did not only compile the tales, but also re-told them in great style, and with attention to detail. Each one comes with notes that list the original source, the tale type, and comments on what changes Calvino made (which, by the way, storytellers will thank you for). The author also paid attention to select stories from various parts of Italy, as well as Italian-speaking minorities abroad. Due to how the stories were supposed to represent Italian folklore collected over the centuries, some of them retain shocking details (such as rape, wife-beating, and other kinds of violence), but most of them are very beautiful, colorful, and definitely memorable. One of my favorite folktale collections.


There are many classic stories included in this book than I have been telling for a long time. One of them is the Canary Prince, in which a girl uses a magic book to rescue herself (!) from a tower, and also save the life of a prince. I also adore the Daughter of the Sun, a fiery princess who proves that no one else can do what she does better. I also highly recommend reading The Siren Wife (in which a woman is cast into the sea by her husband, and is taken in by Sirens), and Grattula-Beddattula, my all-time favorite Cinderella variant, in which a fierce Sicilian girl robs a prince blind, and then demands his hand in marriage.
Of course, there are several other extraordinary tales in the collection, many of them with memorable visuals. One of them was the Man Wreathed in Seaweed, in which a good-for-nothing sailor rescued a princess from a giant octopus (Calvino's invention, originally a sea dragon). More in the style of classic crime stories we had the Count's Beard, in which a town called home its smartest son to solve the mystery of a witch stealing cows. The story of the Dead man's arm was definitely screenworthy - our hero spent a night in a crypt, and received a corpse's arm as magic weapon, with which he proceeded to hunt and kill evil sorcerers. As a storyteller, I greatly appreciated the Parrot who told exciting tales to a girl left alone at home, to keep her from being seduced by a creepy king (and the parrot turned out to be a prince, obviously).
The collection is quite full of stories about clever and brave women. One of them was a lady married to a Man who came out only at night; he had been changed into a tortoise, and had to walk around the world to break the curse, while his wife was holding down the fort at home by tricking various lecherous men. The girl who was sold with the pears (also a great image) defeated a witch and won a prince. In The dragon and the enchanted filly, a princess was rescued by her best friend, a horse who did not only save her from the dragon and help her start a new life, but also turned out to be an enchanted princess herself (yay for female friendship!). Some tales had darker themes. In The one-handed murderer, a girl was chased half her life by an evil man, until he cornered her; when there was no one to come to her rescue, she ended up shooting the stalker herself. Misfortune, a girl who was hounded by bad luck, used another tactic: She befriended her own grumpy Fortune, and courted her until she changed for the better. On the other hand, I giggled a lot at A convent of nuns and a monastery of monks that were in a perpetual prank war, and the nuns always won.
Some of the tales came with some surprising morals. In one, a prince proved that Money can do anything. In another, a man only ever prayed to St. Joseph, neglecting all other prayers, so when he got to Heaven, St. Peter did not want to let him in. At that point out came St. Joseph, and threatened that if Peter does not let the man in, he would "take the wife and the kid," and move somewhere else. The wife and the kid being Mary and Jesus, of course.
Among the typically Italian tales was Nick Fish, or Cola Pesce, a legendary Sicilian hero and talented diver, who was lost under the sea when he ventured to discover how deep the water went under Sicily. Another unique and awesome story was the Gift of St. Anthony, who stole fire for the people from Hell, using a very rowdy piglet as a diversion. I could have done this latter one under Connections too, since it resembles so many fire-stealing trickster tales...


It would be too long to list all types in the book, since the entire point was to collect Italian examples of the most popular folktales. However, I was happy to see some less common favorites of mine, such as: Girl who rescues her sisters (two versions! Silver Nose and Chicory Gatherers), Basil Maiden (here with Marjoram), a man who spoke the language of animals (and did not beat his wife in the end!), Little Red (who threw a pastry full of nails to the wolf), the Country of Immortality, Shepherd of Rabbits (who won a princess by providing her with so many figs that she could not eat all), Three Dogs (who helped and rescued their owner), Snow White (who was called Giricoccola, and found refuge in the house of the Moon), Polyphemos (and the Florentine), The Two Hunchbacks, the wizard school of Salamanca, Frau Holle (except she was a cat), the Magical Brothers-in-Law (here the kings of Pigs, Birds, and Death), the Gold-spitting prince (here a Crab with golden eggs), the Robber and his sons (here three merchants telling creepy tales in a contest), and Puss in Boots (one was a Bean Fairy, and one was a female fox). I also encountered a fern flower legend.
Some tales were familiar from other Italian collections, such as the Pentamerone - I once again encountered Sun, Moon, and Talia (aka. Sleeping Beauty Wakes Up Pregnant), and the Handmade King (created by a creative princess from dough and brought to life). There was an almost complete folktale re-telling of the Perseus myth, called The sorcerer's head. Some stories were also familiar from Greek tales I read recently: The Wildwood King (where a wild man raises a princess and helps her find a husband), First Sword and Last Broom (in which two kings make a bet on whose child gets the French crown first, the eldest son or the youngest daughter - daughter wins, obviously), and the Dove Girl (which contained Gemstone Mountain, one of my favorite tale types). Liombruno, the hero helped by the Winds to rescue a princess was familiar from Malta, and I already knew the legend of St. Peter's mother from San Marino.
Trickster in residence, of course, is Giufá, fool and mischief-maker, who had a lot in common with both Jack and Nasreddin.

Where to next?
The Vatican!

1 comment:

  1. What an amazing sounding collection. The notes would add to the fascination. Would audio versions of such collections work?