Ten Italian Folktales – Italo Calvino

20191022 Italian Folktales

As the title states there are ten tales included here and they are a wide mix so the best way to review the book is to look at each one in turn. Please note there will be the occasional spoiler but as these are folk tales it is entirely possible that you have come across the stories already or at least variants of them and it is those variants that I will mainly be referring to. The first story is Crack and Crook, this is one of the shortest tales and also one of the oddest included. It tells the story of two thieves who decide to team up to pull off a major robbery by tunnelling into the King’s treasury. They succeed in the attempt but this is where the story gets weird as the King, advised by another thief come up with stranger and stranger ways to identify the culprits. Story two is The Land Where One Never Dies which is basically a morality tale, the protagonist wishes to live forever but eventually discovers that he misses his family and local village.  Pome and Peel is another weird one as the title refers to two boys who were born after their mothers ate parts of a magic apple (one the flesh and the other the peel) and were inseparable throughout their lives until one wishes to marry a wizard’s daughter who puts a curse upon her when she runs away with the two men.

The Sleeping Queen is a strange variant of the classic Sleeping Beauty tale as it really seems to be two stories merged into one with the Sleeping Beauty part sandwiched between a morality tale. The middle bit has the castle surrounded by a motionless populace and in the castle is the Queen in her bed, however unlike the Perrault and Brothers Grimm versions of the story where she is awakened by a kiss, the Prince in this version gets into bed with her and she is awakened nine months later when she gives birth with everyone else starting to move again at the same time. This is much truer to the original version of the story from the fourteenth century where a princess gives birth to twins after her ‘rescuer’ leaves nine months earlier. But there is also the interwoven morality story in this tale about a blind King and his three sons who go off one after the other to find a cure for his blindness; but the two eldest abandon their quests when they find beautiful women that they fall in love with and decide to marry and forget all about the reason for their journeys. This leaves the youngest to complete the quest but he also gets betrayed by his feckless elder siblings before they get their comeuppance in their turn.

The next tale is The Enchanted Palace and this time a Prince gets lost in a forest whilst out hunting and finds a strange apparently deserted palace until a veiled lady with twelve maidservants suddenly appears, she dines and indeed sleeps with him all without saying a thing or removing her veil. It turns out she is under a curse and when he unwittingly breaks the terms of the spell she has of all things to go to Peterborough and be given as a prize in a jousting competition even though she is in fact the Queen of Portugal. That was a definite twist I hadn’t seen coming. After that is The King of Portugal’s Son so as the Italians clearly think the Portuguese Royal family are strange I was expecting something odd and wasn’t disappointed. It is difficult to summarise the plot of this one without giving too much away but yet again the twist in the end is well worth the reading of the story.

The two stories that follow are both very short, Apple Girl tells of a Queen who gives birth to an apple but inside the apple is a beautiful girl who escapes each day to bathe and do her hair before returning to the fruit until the spell is eventually broken. Joseph Ciufolo, Tiller-flautist is another short morality tale and is probably the weakest of the stories included.  There then follows Misfortune which is the tale of the youngest daughter of the Queen of Spain who is desperately unlucky and is cast out from her family to try to restore the luck of the rest of them. Eventually she meets and improves the temper of the grumpy witch who is controlling her fate thereby reviving her own fortune and that of her estranged family.

The final story in this selection is Jump into My Sack and this definitely felt familiar although I cannot place where I first heard it. It tells of a magic sack which will fill with anything the owner wishes and a stick which will do anything it is commanded to. Using these the hero of the story manages to have great wealth and use the powers for the betterment of others and even defeat the Devil.

Italo Calvino was born in Cuba in 1923 to Italian parents but grew up in Italy after they returned to their home country before he was two years old. After WWII he became a journalist on a Communist newspaper and also started to write novels and short stories. These folk tales are a selection from the two hundred that Calvino collated in 1956 from collections of folklorists across Italy. Having read this book, which was published in 1995 as part of a set marking the 60th anniversary of the founding of Penguin Books, I definitely need to get hold of the full collection to be able to enjoy the others but for now this is the only work by Calvino on my shelves.

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