Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino

  Propp, in Historical Roots of Russian Fairy Tales, gives the Cupid and Psyche type of story a suggestive interpretation. Psyche is the girl who lives in a house where youths are segregated during the final phase of their initiation. She comes into contact with young men in the guise of animals, or in the dark, since they must be seen by no one. Hence it is as if only one invisible youth loved her. Once the period of initiation is over, the young men return home and forget the girl who lived segregated with them. They marry and begin new families. The story grows out of this crisis. It describes a love born during the initiation and doomed to destruction by religious laws, and shows how a woman rebels against this law and recovers her young lover. Although the customs of millennia are disregarded, the plot of the story still reflects the spirit of those laws and describes every love thwarted and forbidden by law, convention, or social disparity. That is why it has been possible, from prehistory to the present, to preserve, not as a fixed formula but as a flowing element, the sensuality so often underlying this love, evident in the ecstasy and frenzy of mysterious nocturnal embraces.

  This eroticism of tales that we now consider as a part of children’s literature proves that oral tradition was not intended for any particular age level; it was simply an account of marvels, a full expression of the poetic needs at that cultural stage.

  Folktales especially intended for children exist, to be sure, but as a separate genre, neglected by more ambitious storytellers and carried on in a humbler and more familiar tradition, having the following characteristics: a theme of fear and cruelty, scatological or obscene details, lines of verse interpolated into the prose and slipping into nonsense rhymes (see story no. 37, “Petie Pete versus Witch Bea-Witch”), characteristics of coarseness and cruelty which would be considered wholly unsuitable in children’s books today.

  The tendency to dwell on the wondrous remains dominant, even when closely allied with morality. The moral is always implicit in the folktale in the victory of the simple virtues of the good characters and in the punishment of the equally simple and absolutely perverse wrongdoers: rarely is it sententiously or didactically presented. No doubt the moral function of the tale, in the popular conception, is to be sought not in the subject matter but in the very nature of the folktale, in the mere fact of telling and listening. That too can be interpreted as prudent and practical moralism, such as the tale of “The Parrot” seems to suggest (see no. 15). This is a tale within a tale; Comparetti and Pitrè both published it at the beginning of their anthologies as a kind of prologue. The parrot, by telling an interminable story, manages to save the virtue of a girl. It is a symbolic defense of the narrative art against those who accuse it of being profane and hedonistic. The suspense of the story keeps the fascinated listener from transgression. This is its minimal and conservative justification, but something more profound is revealed in the very narrative construction of “The Parrot”: the art of storytelling which the narrator displays and which is humorously exemplified in the parody of tales that “never end.” Therein lies, for us, its real moral: the storyteller, with a kind of instinctive skillfulness, shies away from the constraint of popular tradition, from the unwritten law that the common people are capable only of repeating trite themes without ever actually “creating”; perhaps the narrator thinks that he is producing only variations on a theme, whereas actually he ends up telling us what is in his heart.

  A regard for conventions and a free inventiveness are equally necessary in constructing a folktale. Once the theme is laid out there are certain steps required to reach a solution; they are interchangeable ingredients—the horse hide carried up in flight by an eagle, the well that leads to the netherworld, dove-maidens whose clothes are stolen while they bathe, magic boots and cloak purloined by thieves, three nuts that must be cracked, the house of the winds where information is given about the path to be followed, and so on. It is up to the narrator to organize these, to pile them up like the bricks in a wall, hurrying over the dull places, all this depending upon the degree of the narrator’s talent and what he puts into his story, mixing his own mortar of local color and personal tribulations and expectations.

  Certainly the greater or lesser ease with which one picks one’s way through a fantasy world has its grounds in one’s actual experience and culture: we notice, for instance, the different ways Sicilian and Tuscan folktales refer to kings. As a rule, the court of kings in popular tales is a general and abstract concept, a vague symbol of power and wealth; in Sicily, however, king, court, and nobility are distinct and concrete institutions, with their hierarchy, protocol, and moral code—a whole world and terminology, mostly invented but with which the illiterate old women narrators are familiar down to the last detail. “There was a king of Spain who had a left-hand squire and a right-hand squire.” It is characteristic of Sicilian folktales that kings never make an important decision without the advice of their counselors: “Gentlemen, what is your advice?” or, more briefly, the king shouts, “Counselors! Counselors!” and they advise him.

  But Tuscany, although more cultivated in many areas, has never had a king; “king” is here a generic term with no institutional implication; it evokes no more than the condition of affluence; storytellers say “that king” just as they would say “that gentleman,” without any royal association or any notion of a court, of an aristocratic hierarchy, or even of a real land. It is thus possible to find one king living next door to another, looking out the window at each other or paying visits to one another, just like two good country burghers.

  In contrast to this world of kings is that of the peasants. The “realistic” foundation of many folktales, the point of departure spurred by dire need, hunger, or unemployment is typical of a large number of Italian popular narratives. I have already noted as a prime motif of numerous and particularly southern folktales that of the cavoliccidaru (cabbage picker): the cupboard is bare, so father or mother, along with daughters, scour the countryside for plants with which to make soup; pulling up a cabbage larger than the others, they come upon a passage into an underground world where a supernatural husband waits; or there may be a witch who will hold the girl prisoner, or a Bluebeard who feeds upon human flesh. Or else, especially in seaside localities, in place of the farmer who has neither land nor work, there is a hapless fisherman, who one day nets a big talking fish.

  But the “realistic” state of destitution is not merely a starting point for the folktale, a sort of springboard into wonderland, a foil for the regal and the supernatural. There are folktales that deal with peasants from start to finish, with an agricultural laborer as hero, whose magic powers are merely complements to natural human strength and persistence. These folktales appear like fragments of an epic of laborers that never took shape and which on occasion borrows its themes from episodes of chivalry, replacing deeds and tournaments to win princesses with mounds of earth to be moved by plow or spade. Examples of these are the remarkable Sicilian tale, “Out in the World” and the Abruzzi “Joseph Ciufolo, Tiller-Flutist,” or “The North Wind’s Gift” from Tuscany, and “Fourteen” from Le Marche; and on the subject of women’s work and tribulations, “Misfortune” and “The Two Cousins” (both Sicilian).

  Those who know how rare it is in popular (and nonpopular) poetry to fashion a dream without resorting to escapism, will appreciate these instances of a self-awareness that does not deny the invention of a destiny, or the force of reality which bursts forth into fantasy. Folklore could teach us no better lesson, poetic or moral.

  I. C.

  Translated by Catherine Hill


  Dauntless Little John

  There was once a lad whom everyone called Dauntless Little John, since he was afraid of nothing. Traveling about the world, he came to an inn, where he asked for lodgings. “We have no room here,” said the innkeeper, “but if you’re not afraid, I will direct you to a certain palace where you can stay.”

  “Why should I be afraid?”

  “People shudder a
t the thought of that palace, since nobody who’s gone in has come out alive. In the morning the friars go up with the bier for anyone brave enough to spend the night inside.”

  So what did Little John do but pick up a lamp, a bottle, and a sausage, and march straight to the palace.

  At midnight he was sitting at the table eating, when he heard a voice in the chimney. “Shall I throw it down?”

  “Go ahead!” replied Little John.

  Down the chimney into the fireplace fell a man’s leg. Little John drank a glass of wine.

  Then the voice spoke again. “Shall I throw it down?”

  “Go ahead!” So another leg dropped into the fireplace. Little John bit into the sausage.

  “Shall I throw it down?”

  “Go ahead!” So down came an arm. Little John began whistling a tune.

  “Shall I throw it down?”

  “By all means!” And there was another arm.

  “Shall I throw it down?”


  Then came the trunk of a body, and the arms and legs stuck onto it, and there stood a man without a head.

  “Shall I throw it down?”

  “Throw it down!”

  Down came the head and sprang into place atop the trunk. He was truly a giant, and Little John raised his glass and said, “To your health!”

  The giant said, “Take the lamp and come with me.”

  Little John picked up the lamp, but didn’t budge.

  “You go first!” said the giant.

  “No, after you,” insisted Little John.

  “After you!” thundered the giant.

  “You lead the way!” yelled Little John.

  So the giant went first, with Little John behind him lighting the way, and they went through room after room until they had walked the whole length of the palace. Beneath one of the staircases was a small door.

  “Open it!” ordered the giant.

  “You open it!” replied Little John.

  So the giant shoved it open with his shoulder. There was a spiral staircase.

  “Go on down,” directed the giant.

  “After you,” answered Little John.

  They went down the steps into a cellar, and the giant pointed to a stone slab on the ground. “Raise that!”

  “You raise it!” replied Little John, and the giant lifted it as though it were a mere pebble.

  Beneath the slab were three pots of gold. “Carry those upstairs!” ordered the giant.

  “You carry them up!” answered Little John. And the giant carried them up one by one.

  When they were back in the hall where the great fireplace was, the giant said, “Little John, the spell has been broken!” At that, one of his legs came off and kicked its way up the chimney. “One of these pots of gold is for you.” An arm came loose and climbed up the chimney. “The second pot of gold is for the friars who come to carry away your body, believing you perished.” The other arm came off and followed the first. “The third pot of gold is for the first poor man who comes by.” Then the other leg dropped off, leaving the giant seated on the floor. “Keep the palace for yourself.” The trunk separated from the head and vanished. “The owners of the palace and their children are now gone forever.” At that, the head disappeared up the chimney.

  As soon as it was light, a dirge arose: “Miserere met, miserere met.” The friars had come with the bier to carry off Little John’s body. But there he stood, at the window, smoking his pipe!

  Dauntless Little John was a wealthy youth indeed with all those gold pieces, and he lived happily in his palace. Then one day what should he do but look behind him and see his shadow: he was so frightened he died.


  The Man Wreathed in Seaweed

  A king had his crier announce in the town squares that whoever found his missing daughter would be rewarded with a fortune. But the announcement brought no results, since no one had any idea of the girl’s whereabouts. She had been kidnapped one night, and they had already looked the world over for her.

  A sea captain suddenly had the thought that since she wasn’t on land she might well be on the sea, so he got a ship ready to go out in search of her. But when the time came to sign up the crew, not one sailor stepped forward, since no one wanted to go on a dangerous expedition that would last no telling how long.

  The captain waited on the pier, but fearful of being the first to embark, no one approached his ship. Also on the pier was Samphire Starboard, a reputed tramp and tippler, whom no ship captain was ever willing to sign on.

  “Listen,” said our captain, “how would you like to sail with me?”

  “I’d like to very much.”

  “Come aboard, then.”

  So Samphire Starboard was the first to embark. After that, other sailors took heart and boarded the ship.

  Once he was on the ship, Samphire Starboard did nothing but stand around all day long with his hands in his pockets and dream about the taverns he had left behind. The other sailors cursed him because there was no knowing when the voyage would end, provisions were scarce, and he did nothing to earn his keep. The captain decided to get rid of him. “See that little island?” he asked, pointing to an isolated reef in the middle of the sea. “Get into a rowboat and go explore it. We’ll be cruising right around here.”

  Samphire Starboard stepped into the rowboat, and the ship sailed away at full speed, leaving him stranded in the middle of the sea. He approached the reef, spied a cave, and went in. Tied up inside was a very beautiful maiden, who was none other than the king’s daughter.

  “How did you manage to find me?” she asked.

  “I was fishing for octopi,” explained Samphire.

  “I was kidnapped by a huge octopus, whose prisoner I now am,” said the king’s daughter. “Flee before it returns. But note that for three hours a day it changes into a red mullet and can be caught. But you have to kill the mullet at once, or it will change into a sea gull and fly away.”

  Samphire Starboard hid his boat and waited out of sight on the reef. From the sea emerged the octopus, which was so large that it could reach clear around the island with its tentacles. All its suckers shook, having smelled a man on the reef. But the hour arrived when it had to change into a fish, and suddenly it became a red mullet and disappeared into the sea. Samphire Starboard lowered fishing nets and pulled them back up full of gurnard, sturgeon, and dentex. The last haul produced the red mullet, shaking like a leaf. Samphire raised his oar to kill it, but instead of the red mullet he struck the sea gull flying out of the net and broke its wing. The gull then changed back into an octopus, whose wounded tentacles spurted dark red blood. Samphire was upon it instantly and beat it to death with the oar. The king’s daughter gave him a diamond ring as a token of the gratitude she would always feel toward him.

  “Come and I’ll take you to your father,” he said, showing her into his boat. But the boat was tiny and they were out in the middle of the sea. After rowing and rowing they spied a ship in the distance. Samphire signaled to it with an oar draped with the king’s daughter’s gown. The ship spotted them and took them aboard. It was the same ship that had earlier discharged and abandoned Samphire. Seeing him back with the king’s daughter, the captain said, “Poor Samphire Starboard! Here we thought you were lost and now, after looking all over for you, we see you return with the king’s daughter! That calls for a real celebration!” To Samphire Starboard, who’d not touched a drop of wine for months on end, that seemed too good to be true.

  They were almost in sight of their home port when the captain led Samphire to a table and placed several bottles of wine before him. Samphire drank and drank until he fell unconscious to the floor. Then the captain said to the king’s daughter, “Don’t dare tell your father that drunkard freed you. Tell him I freed you myself, since I’m the captain of the ship and ordered him to rescue you.”

  The king’s daughter neither agreed nor disagreed. “I know what I’ll tell him,” she answered.

To be on the safe side, the captain decided to do away with Samphire Starboard once and for all. That night, they picked him up, still as drunk as could be, and threw him into the sea. At dawn the ship was in sight of port. With flags they signaled they were bringing home the king’s daughter safe and sound. A band played on the pier, where the king waited with the entire court.

  A date was chosen for the king’s daughter to wed the captain. On the day of the wedding, the mariners in port saw a man emerge from the water. He was covered from head to foot with seaweed, and out of his pockets and the holes in his clothes swam fish and shrimps. It was none other than Samphire Starboard. He climbed out of the water and went ambling through the city streets, with seaweed draping his head and body and dragging along behind him. At that very moment the wedding procession was moving through the street and came face to face with the man wreathed in seaweed. Everyone stopped. “Who is this?” asked the king. “Seize him!” The guards came up, but Samphire Starboard raised a hand and the diamond on his finger sparkled in the sunlight.

  “My daughter’s ring!” exclaimed the king.

  “Yes,” said the daughter, “this man was my rescuer and will be my bridegroom.”

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