There is an endless fascination to fairy and folk tales. As a child, I remember listening to them at my great-aunt’s knee: she was a great storyteller, and often embellished and modified tales, so that cruel and sad parts were left out. The same tales were restored to their original form when told by my mother, who was adamant that a child should not be shielded from cruelties and horror. Needless to say, I preferred my great-aunt.
Later on, I came to read and love the Classics Junior series of comics (sadly out of print now, alas) which introduced me to the Brothers Grimm (Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Beauty and the Beast et al), and I was hooked for life on the magic of fairy tales, and the world of make-believe and fantasy. My fascination only increased when I discovered that underneath the beauty there lay a morass of dark desires and fears, and these tales are only the tips of the icebergs of darkest human nature.
So when I was able to grab Italo Calvino’s famous compendium of Italian folktales at relatively reasonable price, I was ecstatic. And the famous novelist did not let me down: here is a collection, neatly compiled and docketted, of stories collected from all over Italy. Calvino provides informative footnotes to all tales, pointing out the similarities, sometimes giving detailed information on the teller (mostly old ladies) and pointing out the influence of Grimm and the later romantic legends. In many an instance, he has combined different versions of the same story (adding his own poetic embellishments) to create what he deems the best version.
It would be a Herculean task to analyse the stories in detail: rather, I would like to give general impressions.
- These pagan tales have been Christianised to a certain extent. The devil makes frequent appearances, but usually behaves more like the inept ogre or giant of the traditional fairy tale than the arch-fiend. There is especially a Lame Devil who is almost lovable in his bumbling inefficiency.
- Even though God himself does not make an appearance, there are a number of stories where angels and saints play an active part. There is a whole cycle of stories with Jesus and Peter playing the roles of the wise master and the foolish disciple.
- Kings and queens are plentiful – they can be found in almost all neighbourhoods, living across the street from you. And when the poor servant-girl is rescued by a prince or king, the kingdom is specifically mentioned (i.e. “King of Portugal”, “Prince of Spain” etc.). I was surprised to find that the “King of India” makes his appearance in one story.
- Some of these tales are romances, as pointed out by Calvino: for example, the tale of the Slave Mother, kidnapped by Turkish pirates. It (and the Christian references) indicate that the stories have come some way from their pagan origins.
A very satisfying read overall. Only a word of statutory caution: weighing in at seven hundred and fifty plus pages and two hundred stories, this is a ponderous tome, best taken in small doses. Reading at a stretch would tire one out and jade the palate due to a surfeit of magic and wizardry.