Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Girl in the Chair: Gathering chicory

Girl in the Chair is a blog series on research for storytellers. You can find the details about it in the opening post here

This request arrived from American storyteller Erin Johnston. She asked me to research an Italian folktale titled "The Three Chicory Gatherers" in Italo Calvino's Italian Folktales.

The story

Three girls go gathering chicory in a field, and in turn all three encounter a dragon. The dragon threatens them, ordering them to eat a human body part (a hand, and arm, a foot) otherwise he will cut off their head. The two elder sisters die, but the youngest tricks the dragon into thinking she'd eaten the foot. He marries her and gives her the keys to his house. The clever girl gets the dragon drunk, finds out the secret of how to kill him, and how to revive all the people he'd killed. She kills the dragon, saves her sisters, and all three girls marry kings and princes she'd rescued.

Step One: End notes

Italo Calvino was one of those marvelous people who included sources and end notes with their tales. In this case, the note tells us where the Italian text was published, and also that the story is from Calabria, told by Annunziata Palermo. Another thing we find out is that this story belongs to the "Bluebeard type."

Step Two: Type number

Calvino names the folktale type, but doesn't give the type number. How do we find it? With well-know tales (Grimm especially), my first stop is usually Wikipedia. In this case we are lucky, the Aarne-Thompson classification is a part of the Wiki entry. Even luckier, it tells us that Calvino was not quite right: Bluebeard's type number is 312, but "the type is closely related to Aarne–Thompson type 311 in which the heroine rescues herself and her sisters" (which does not happen in Bluebeard). So, we have our type number: ATU 311 - Rescue by the sister. To be sure, we can check it in the Multilingual Folktale Database. (Always double check Wikipedia information!)

Step Three: Original text 

Before we move on with the ATU, let's take a look at Calvino's sources. Writing the title of the book he references into Google, we can see if it is available online in the public domain (we get better results if we put the title in quotation marks, because then Google searches for the exact phrase). Sadly, all I can find is book-selling websites and library references. If you are lucky enough to get a copy through inter-library loan, that's great. You can check which libraries carry it on worldcat.org. If you don't have access to the libraries, you might have to buy the book (sadly, it's not cheap). Sometimes I reach out to friends who do have access to a certain library, and ask them to copy the story for me.
If you manage to get your hands on the original text, you can either read it (if you read Italian), or have it translated by a friend or a professional service.
(Sometimes, if you are lucky, you can find the individual folktale text online by typing in the original title - "le tre raccoglitrici di cicoria" - to Google. With this one, I had no such luck, everyone referenced Calvino, not the original source.)

Step Four: Variants

With the use of the ATU number, we can track down variants of this folktale. That means we can find all the stories that folklorists tagged "ATU 311", and see how they are similar or different. MFTD already gives some texts in English, German, and Portuguese (if you don't speak some languages, use Google Translate. It is flawed, but it is enough to get a general idea of what is going on in the story, since you already know the basic structure). You can find more variants two ways:

Step Four.One: Google Books

At this stage, I always use Google Books instead of plain Google. I type "ATU 311" in quotation marks, and see what comes up. Because the Aarne-Thompson index is internationally used, I usually try more than one search term:
"AT 311" (this is for older publications, before Uther's new edition of the index)
"AaTh 311" (Hungarian folklorists prefer this)
"ATU 311"
And then all of these again without the space, and also sometimes by typing "folktales" after the quotation mark. Sometimes there are other things the letters A and T can refer to, hence the specification.

Step Four.Two: ATU

Example page
ATU refers to the Aarne-Thompson-Uther book The types of international folktales (Academia Scientiarum Fennica, 2004). This is your go-to one stop shop for folktales that belong to an internationally recognized type. Most research libraries should have a copy of this, or at least the older Aarne-Thompson edition. If you do research very often, it might be worth it to buy the three volumes, although they are not cheap.
When you look up the type number in the ATU, you find a short summary of the folktale, and a long, detailed bibliography: academic books on the tale type, and books that contain variants of the story, organized by country. At first blink, this one has dozens of variants, from the Faroe Islands all the way to Morocco. Now it's only a matter of library-diving to get the referenced books and read the tales. Heads up, though: Some of them are not in English, and some of them are regional tale type indexes that refer to further books.
Pro tip: Start with the variants from the same country or region (in this case, Italy and Sicily), and circle outwards, to get the closest cultural connections first.

The ATU also references motif numbers, so stay tuned for Step Five.

Step Five: Motifs

Traditional stories, whether or not they fall into a recognized tale type, are built from smaller parts called motifs. There is an internationally recognized system for numbering these as well, known as the Thompson motif index. Say, you are not really interested in Rescue by the Sister (ATU 311) per se, but you want to look into all the folktales that feature a forbidden chamber. The motif number of the Forbidden Chamber, noted in the ATU description of the story, is C611. By going to the Thompson index and looking up this number, you can find references to other stories that feature the same element. The index is online in various versions: I usually use this one, or this one (the latter has a great Search feature, but sadly doesn't search by number). You can also use Google Books once again, and type in "C611" and "folktales."
But what happens if you can't find the number of a certain motif? Well, you can search for it on Storyseeds. Be warned, though, the Thompson index is far from perfect, and sometimes lumps very different stories under the same number.
Motifs in this story might be worth looking into:
C611 - Forbidden chamber
C227 - Tabu: eating human flesh
E712 - Hidden soul

Step Five.One: Regional indexes

Several countries have their own motif indexes that use the same number system as Thompson, but they are not necessarily referenced in the book (sometimes for the simple reason that they were published later). In this case, it might be worth it to look at the Motif-index of Italian novella in prose. Luckily, it is available online on HathiTrust (which is one of the most useful sites for researchers).
If you want to find scholarly articles on a certain motif, you can also use the Google Scholar search option.

Step Five.Two: Storyteller's Sourcebook

The ATU and Thompson generally reference academic publications, but for storytellers it might also be useful to look at some modern adaptations and re-tellings of a story. For that, you can turn Margaret Read MacDonald's wonderful book, The Storyteller's Sourcebook (Gale Group, 2001). This one is also organized by motif numbers, but has a handy list at the end noting the key motifs of the most popular folktale types. For AT 311 it refers you to G561.1 - Girls in ogre's power not to enter forbidden chamber, and lists a few books that feature such a folktale (MacDonald's own Twenty Tellable Tales among them).

Step Six: Cultural context

If you really want to dig into the context of a folktale, you might want to read more stories and folklore from the same area. In this case, we know that we are working with a Calabrian folktale. Since I don't read Italian very well, my first attempt is to locate more Calabrian folktales, by typing "Calabrian folktales" (this time, without quotation marks for broader results) into Google Books. In this case, I came up with one interesting book and also an article. For further information you might want to search academic article databases such as JSTOR and Project Muse.

Step Seven: Details

Boys playing morra
When researching a story, I often go into details about the elements that seem strange to me. In this case, I had to look up what chicory is, and why people might be gathering it. Once again, Wikipedia is a great starting point. When telling a story, I might weave in some information about the culinary uses of chicory, if I think my audience might benefit from it. Since in the story the girls pull up a chicory bush and find the dragon's door underneath, I'm going to assume that they were gathering chicory for the roots.
The story also references a game, morra, which the rescued kings have to play to win the girls' hand in marriage. A quick Google search reveals more information about it.


This tale type has many, many variants around the world. It is one of my favorites since it does not only feature a clever female hero, but she also rescues her less fortunate sisters instead of just letting them die. Her tricks and rescues vary from text to text, so there is a lot the storyteller can pick and choose from.

What do you think? Was this helpful? Do you have lingering questions? Do I need to clarify something? Let me know in the comments!


  1. Wow! Very cool! Thanks for all your work, Csenge!

  2. Very helpful to this writer who uses folklore snippets in modern-ish stories - like the short I'm writing with the Firebird's feather driving the story.