Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino


  I was unexpectedly caught in the spiderlike web of my study, not so much by its formal, outward aspect as by its innermost particularities: infinite variety and infinite repetition. At the same time, the side of me that remained lucid, uncorrupted, and merely excited about the progression of the mania, was discovering that this fund of Italian folklore, in its richness, limpidity, variety, and blend of the real and the unreal, is unsurpassed by even the most famous folktales of Germanic, Nordic, and Slavic countries. This is true not only where the story is recorded from the words of an outstanding narrator—more often than not a woman—or when the story is laid in a region noted for brilliant storytelling, but the very essence of the Italian folktale is unparalleled grace, wit, and unity of design. Its composition and genius for synthesizing the essence of a type is unique. Thus, the longer I remained steeped in the material, the fewer became my reservations; I was truly exalted by the expedition, and meanwhile the cataloging passion—maniacal and solitary—was replaced by a desire to describe for others the unsuspected sights I had come upon.

  Now my journey through folklore is over, the book is done. As I write this preface I feel aloof, detached. Will it be possible to come down to earth again? For two years I have lived in woodlands and enchanted castles, torn between contemplation and action: on the one hand hoping to catch a glimpse of the face of the beautiful creature of mystery who, each night, lies down beside her knight; on the other, having to choose between the cloak of invisibility or the magical foot, feather, or claw that could metamorphose me into an animal. And during these two years the world about me gradually took on the attributes of fairyland, where everything that happened was a spell or a metamorphosis, where individuals, plucked from the chiaroscuro of a state of mind, were carried away by predestined loves, or were bewitched; where sudden disappearances, monstrous transformations occurred, where right had to be discerned from wrong, where paths bristling with obstacles led to a happiness held captive by dragons. Also in the lives of peoples and nations, which until now had seemed to be at a standstill, anything seemed possible: snake pits opened up and were transformed into rivers of milk; kings who had been thought kindly turned out to be brutal parents; silent, bewitched kingdoms suddenly came back to life. I had the impression that the lost rules which govern the world of folklore were tumbling out of the magic box I had opened.

  Now that the book is finished, I know that this was not a hallucination, a sort of professional malady, but the confirmation of something I already suspected—folktales are real.

  Taken all together, they offer, in their oft-repeated and constantly varying examinations of human vicissitudes, a general explanation of life preserved in the slow ripening of rustic consciences; these folk stories are the catalog of the potential destinies of men and women, especially for that stage in life when destiny is formed, i.e., youth, beginning with birth, which itself often foreshadows the future; then the departure from home, and, finally, through the trials of growing up, the attainment of maturity and the proof of one’s humanity. This sketch, although summary, encompasses everything: the arbitrary division of humans, albeit in essence equal, into kings and poor people; the persecution of the innocent and their subsequent vindication, which are the terms inherent in every life; love unrecognized when first encountered and then no sooner experienced than lost; the common fate of subjection to spells, or having one’s existence predetermined by complex and unknown forces. This complexity pervades one’s entire existence and forces one to struggle to free oneself, to determine one’s own fate; at the same time we can liberate ourselves only if we liberate other people, for this is a sine qua non of one’s own liberation. There must be fidelity to a goal and purity of heart, values fundamental to salvation and triumph. There must also be beauty, a sign of grace that can be masked by the humble, ugly guise of a frog; and above all, there must be present the infinite possibilities of mutation, the unifying element in everything: men, beasts, plants, things.

  Criteria for My Work

  The method of transcribing folktales “from the mouths of the people” was started by the Brothers Grimm and was gradually developed during the second half of the century into “scientific” canons scrupulously faithful to the dialect of the narrator. The Grimms’ approach was not “scientific” in the modern sense of the word, or only halfway so. A study of their manuscripts confirms what is abundantly plain to an experienced eye perusing Kinder- und Hausmärchen, namely that the Grimms (Wilhelm in particular) had added their own personal touch to the tales told by little old women, not only translating a major part from German dialects, but integrating the variants, recasting the story whenever the original was too crude, touching up expressions and images, giving stylistic unity to the discordant voices.

  The foregoing serves as an introduction and justification (if I may take refuge behind names so famous and remote) for the hybrid nature of my work, which likewise is only halfway “scientific,” or three-quarters so; as for the final quarter, it is the product of my own judgment. The scientific portion is actually the work of others, of those folklorists who, in the span of one century, patiently set down the texts that served as my raw material. What I did with it is comparable to the second part of the Grimms’ project: I selected from mountains of narratives (always basically the same ones and amounting altogether to some fifty types) the most unusual, beautiful, and original texts. I translated them from the dialects in which they were recorded or when, unfortunately, the only version extant was an Italian translation lacking the freshness of authenticity, I assumed the thorny task of recasting it and restoring its lost originality. I enriched the text selected from other versions and whenever possible did so without altering its character or unity, and at the same time filled it out and made it more plastic. I touched up as delicately as possible those portions that were either missing or too sketchy. I preserved, linguistically, a language never too colloquial, yet colorful and as derivative as possible of a dialect, without having recourse to “cultivated” expressions—an Italian sufficiently elastic to incorporate from the dialect images and turns of speech that were the most expressive and unusual.

  As the notes at the end of the book testify, I worked on material already collected and published in books and specialized journals, or else available in unpublished manuscripts in museums and libraries. I did not personally hear the stories told by little old women, not because they were not available, but because, with all the folklore collections of the nineteenth century I already had abundant material to work on. Nor am I sure that attempts on my part to gather any of it from scratch would have appreciably improved my book.

  My work had two objectives: the presentation of every type of folktale, the existence of which is documented in Italian dialects; and the representation of all regions of Italy.

  As for the real and genuine fairy tale (fiaba), that is, the wonderful, magical story that tells of kings of imprecise realms, all its “types” of any significance are represented by one or more versions that struck me as being the most characteristic, the least stereotyped, and the most steeped in local color (a concept I shall clarify presently). The book is also interspersed with religious and local legends, short stories, animal fables, jokes, and anecdotes—in short, popular narrative components of various kinds which I came across in my search and which held me by their beauty or else served to represent regions for which I lacked other material.

  I drew very little on local legends concerning place origins or customs or historical records; this is a field entirely different from that of the folktale: the narratives are short, undeveloped, and their anthologies, with very few exceptions, do not reproduce the speech of the people; they only evoke it in a nostalgic, romantic style: in short, it was material I found unusable.

  As for Italian dialects, I have taken all those that make up the Italian linguistic area, but not all those in Italy as a country. Thus I dealt with folktales from the French coast of Nice, whose dialect is closer to the Ligurian than
to the Provençal, and passed over those from the Italian Aosta valley where a French dialect is spoken: I included some of the Venetian dialects of Jugoslav Dalmatia, and none from the German-speaking South Tyrol province of Italy. I made an exception for the small settlements of Greekspeaking sections of Calabria, two of whose folktales I included (since their narrative folklore is well integrated with that of the rest of Calabria; in any case, I am happy to have them in the book).

  In parentheses at the end of each folktale in the book is the name of a locality or region. In no instance does it signify that the folktale in question originated in that particular area. Folktales are the same the world over. To say “from where” a folktale comes makes little sense; thus, scholars of the “Finnish” or historical-geographic school who seek to determine the zone of origin of each type of folktale come up with rather dubious results, placing them anywhere between Asia and Europe. But international circulation of common tales does not exclude their diversity, which is expressed, according to an Italian scholar, “through the choice or rejection of certain motifs, the preference for certain kinds, the creation of particular characters, the atmosphere suffusing the narration, the stylistic traits that reflect a formal, defined culture.” Folktales are labeled “Italian” insofar as they are narrated by the people of Italy, tales that have come into our narrative folklore via the oral tradition; but we also classify them as Venetian, Tuscan, Sicilian. Since the folktale, regardless of its origin, tends to absorb something of the place where it is narrated—a landscape, a custom, a moral outlook, or else merely a very faint accent or flavor of that locality—the degree to which a tale is imbued with that Venetian, Tuscan, or Sicilian something is what led me to choose it.

  The notes at the end of the volume account for the name of the locality I have assigned to each story, and they also list the versions I read in other Italian dialects. So it will be quite clear that the designation “Monferrato” or “Marche” or “Terra d’Otranto” does not mean that the folktale itself had its origin in Monferrato, Marche, or Terra d’Otranto; but that as I recorded that particular tale I kept foremost in mind the version of it from one of those regions. Because of the various texts at my disposal, this particular one struck me as not only the most beautiful or the richest or the most skillfully narrated, but also as the one which, rooted in its native heath, had drawn from it the most pith, thereby becoming typical of Monferrato, Marche, or Otranto.

  It must be noted that with many of the first folklorists, the urge to collect and publish was stimulated by the “comparatist” passion peculiar to the literary culture of the period, in which similarity rather than diversity was stressed, and when evidence of the universal diffusion of a motif rather than the distinction of a particular place, time, and narrative personality was emphasized. The geographic designations of my book are, in certain cases indisputable (in many of the Sicilian tales, for instance), while in others they will appear arbitrary, justified solely by the bibliographical reference in the note.

  In all this I was guided by the Tuscan proverb dear to Nerucci: “The tale is not beautiful if nothing is added to it”—in other words, its value consists in what is woven and rewoven into it. I too have thought of myself as a link in the anonymous chain without end by which folktales are handed down, links that are never merely instruments or passive transmitters, but—and here the proverb meets Benedetto Croce’s theory about popular poetry—its real “authors.”

  The Folklore Anthologies

  The work of documentation of Italian narrative done over nearly a century by folklorists has a very uneven geographical distribution. For some regions, I found a mine lode of material; for others, almost nothing. There are full, good collections for two regions in particular: Tuscany and Sicily.

  For Sicily my most important source is Giuseppe Pitrè’s Fiabe, novelle e racconti popolari Siciliani (Sicilian Fables, Stories and Popular Tales, 1875). It consists of four volumes containing 300 narratives classified according to type, written in all the dialects of Sicily: it is a scholarly work, painstakingly documented, replete with footnotes of “variants and collations” and lexical comparatist notes.

  Giuseppe Pitrè (1841–1916) was a medical doctor dedicated to the study of folklore, who had a large team of collectors working for him.

  The secret of Pitrè’s work is that it gets us away from the abstract notion of “people” talking; instead, we come into contact with narrators having distinct personalities, who are identified by name, age, occupation. This makes it possible to uncover through the strata of timeless and faceless stories and through crude stereotyped expressions, traces of a personal world of more sensitive imagination, whose inner rhythm, passion, and hope are expressed through the tone of the narrator.

  Pitrè’s collection dates from 1875; in 1881, Verga wrote I Malavoglia (The House by the Medlar Tree). Contemporaneously, two Sicilians, the novelist and the scholar, listened, each with a different purpose, to the fishermen and gossips, so as to transcribe their speech. We may compare the ideal catalog of voices, proverbs, and customs which each of them sought to put together, the novelist coordinating it with his own inner lyrical and choral rhythm, the folklorist with a carefully labeled museum which can be inspected in the twenty-five volumes of the Biblioteca delle tradizioni popolari siciliane (1871–1913), the twenty-four years of his journal, Archivio per lo studio delle tradizioni popolari, 1882–1906 (“Archives for the Study of Popular Traditions” ), the sixteen volumes of the series, Curiosità popolari tradizionali (“Popular Traditional Oddities”), and even in his collection of folk art and craftsmanship now housed in the Pitrè Museum in Palermo. Pitrè did in folklore what Verga had done in literature; he was the first folklorist to transcribe not only traditional motifs or linguistic usages, but the inner poetry of the stories.

  With the advent of Pitrè, the folklore movement began taking into account, in the very existence of a storytelling tradition, the part played by poetic creativity. This is entirely different from the field of folksong, where the song is forever fixed by its lines and rhymes, anonymously repeated in its choruses and with a very limited possible range of individual variations. The folktale must be re-created each time. At the core of the narrative is the storyteller, a prominent figure in every village or hamlet, who has his or her own style and appeal. And it is through this individual that the timeless folktale is linked with the world of its listeners and with history.

  The protagonist of Pitrè’s collection is an illiterate old woman, Agatuzza Messia, a former domestic of Pitrè’s, a quilt maker in Borgo (a section of Palermo) living at 8 Largo Celso Nero. She is the narrator for a number of Pitrè’s best tales and I have freely chosen among them (see stories 148 through 158). This is how Pitrè, in the preface to his anthology, describes his model narrator:

  She is far from beautiful, but is glib and eloquent; she has an appealing way of speaking, which makes one aware of her extraordinary memory and talent. Messia is in her seventies, is a mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother; as a little girl she heard stories from her grandmother, whose own mother had told them, having herself heard countless stories from one of her grandfathers. She had a good memory so never forgot them. There are women who hear hundreds of stories and never remember one; there are others who remember them but haven’t the knack of storytelling. Her friends in Borgo thought her a born storyteller; the more she talked, the more they wanted to listen.

  Messia can’t read, but she knows lots of things others don’t, and talks about them so picturesquely that one cannot help but appreciate her. I call my readers’ attention to this picturesqueness of speech. If the setting of the story is aboard a ship due to sail, she speaks, apparently unconsciously, with nautical terms and turns of phrase characteristic of sailors or seafaring people. If the heroine of a story turns up penniless and woebegone at the house of a baker, Messia’s language adapts itself so well to that situation that one can see her kneading the dough and baking the bread—which in Palermo i
s done only by professional bakers. No need to mention domestic situations, for this is where Messia is in her element; inevitably, for a woman who, like all her neighbors, has brought up her children and the children of her children “to serve the home and the Lord,” as they say.

  Messia saw me come into the world and held me in her arms; this is how I heard from her lips the many beautiful stories that bear her imprint. She repeated to the young man the tales she had told the child thirty years before; nor has her narration lost one whit of its original purity, ease and grace.

  Messia, like a typical Sicilian storyteller, fills her narrative with color, nature, objects; she conjures up magic, but frequently bases it on realism, on a picture of the condition of the common people; hence her imaginative language, but a language firmly rooted in commonsensical speech and sayings. She is always ready to bring to life feminine characters who are active, enterprising, and courageous, in contrast to the traditional concept of the Sicilian woman as a passive and withdrawn creature. (This strikes me as a personal, conscious choice.) She passes completely over what I should say was the dominant element in the majority of Sicilian tales: amorous longing, a predilection for the theme of love as exemplified in the lost husband or wife motif, so widespread in Mediterranean folklore and dating back to the oldest written example, the Hellenistic tale of Amor and Psyche told in Apuleius’ Metamorphosis (second century A.D.) and repeated through the ages in hundreds and hundreds of stories about encounters and separations, mysterious bridegrooms from the nether regions, invisible brides, and horse- or serpent-kings who turn into handsome young men at night. Or else the fragile, delicate genre that is neither myth, short story, nor ballad, epitomized by that sigh of melancholy, sensual joy, La sorella del Conte (“The Count’s Sister”).

 
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