The Tale of Tales: Italian fairytales come to life in recent translation

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The Tale of Tales, by Giambattisto Basile, trans. Nancy L. CanepaThe Tale of Tales by Giambattisto Basile (translated by Nancy L. Canepa)

The Tale of Tales is a book of fifty Italian fairy-tales collected by Giambattista Basile in the 17th century. Like the famous Middle-Eastern tale collection 1001 Nights, which is told by the queen Scheherezade, these stories are all connected by a larger frame story, in this case that of the melancholy princess Zoza. Zoza cannot laugh, so her father concocts a trick to amuse her. However, when she does laugh at an old woman, the woman curses her, saying that she can only marry a certain prince by performing a specific task. When Zoza has almost completed her mission and won her love, a Moorish girl steals the prince from her and marries him herself. Zoza then crafts a story-telling competition that lasts five days, with ten different storytellers recounting tales each day. Zoza disguises herself as one of the storytellers and has the last laugh, winning the heart of her prince back from her rival.

Nancy L. Canepa’s 2007 translation of The Tale of Tales (often also referred to as the Pentamerone, meaning “Five days”) is fun, earthy, and vibrant. The Penguin Audio version, which I listened to, is narrated by something like 13 different narrators for all of the storytellers and other voices featured in the book. The narrators did a wonderful job of bringing the stories–and the personalities of the story-tellers–to life, grounded by a single male narrator reading the framing material.

I don’t know Italian, much less the Neapolitan dialect in which Basile originally wrote, but many reviews of Canepa’s translation focus on how she accurately captures the specific linguistic register of the tales. And I can agree that the blend of whimsy and colloquial speech, highlighted in some of the most inventive and bawdy idioms I’ve ever heard in fairy-tales, was a large part of the charm of these stories.

For instance, as my major fairy-tale familiarity comes to me through 18th and 19th century English translators of French and German fairy-tales (who tended to sanitize tales), I don’t think I’ve ever encountered quite so many references to what I will primly call “bathroom matters” in classic literature, outside of perhaps Chaucer. Fart jokes, poop jokes, ejaculation jokes, etc., abound. Basile’s tales are a rich tapestry of bodily excretions.

Even more astonishing were the extended metaphors Basile used to describe mundane occurrences. There were at least fifty different descriptions of the sun rising: from the sun’s role as “chief physician” who is visiting his patients, the sick flowers; to Night-personified, fleeing the country because the sun’s constables are pursuing him. The sun is a banker, a grocer, a lover, a hunter — each time different, odd, and breathtakingly creative.

But enough about the language; what about the stories in The Tale of Tales themselves? They are just as strange and marvelous (in the literal sense of that word, “full of marvels”) as the lively metaphors Basile employs. In this collection, you’ll meet a king who feeds a flea until it grows to human size and a fairy bride who turns into a little myrtle tree. You’ll also encounter variants on well-known stories from the Grimm tradition like Rapunzel, Snow White, and Diamonds and Toads. But they differ in important ways from the more familiar versions we know.

In “Sun, Moon, and Talia,” a variant of Sleeping Beauty, the slumbering princess doesn’t wake at a kiss from her lover. Instead, the prince — or king, in this version — rapes Talia in her sleep (“overcome by her beauty,” like we haven’t all heard that one before). Still sleeping, she conceives and gives birth to twins and only wakes when her daughter, looking to nurse, sucks the enchanted splinter out of Talia’s finger. From there, the story gets even more gruesome, with the king’s wife, in a fit of jealousy, ordering his bastard children to be cooked and eaten and for Talia herself to be burnt alive. Of course, they aren’t; the evil queen ends up on the flames herself, and Talia lives “happily ever after” with her slumber-brood and royal attacker. This is all explained and justified by the moral at the end of the story: “Lucky people, so ’tis said, Are blessed by Fortune whilst in bed.”

You might have noticed my sardonic tone in recounting the less-palatable aspects of this story. The truth is, the entire The Tale of Tales collection is riddled with racism and misogyny that was probably acceptable, even admirable, to Basile’s audience but to which modern audiences might give a generous helping of side-eye. In these stories, people of color (Moors and Turks, usually) tend to be stupid or savage and their slavery or murder is justified. Women, on the other hand, are often lazy, lustful liars. The framing story is particularly awful in its depiction of the Moorish girl who steals Zoza’s prince. But the idea that black equals ugly permeates many of these stories, as does the more common — and still often uncriticized — fairy-tale ideology that that beauty equals goodness. It probably goes without saying (but I’m going to say it anyways) that these ideas aren’t Canepa’s. And I am glad she hasn’t sanitized these stories, as cringe-worthy as they are. I think confronting and unpacking these ideas can be useful. But, taken alongside the copious amounts of murder (so much death, you guys! George R. R. Martin could learn some stuff from Basile), parents might want to take the book’s subtitle, “Entertainment for Little Ones,” with several grains of non-poisoned salt.

With that said, I don’t think this collection is for the general reader who doesn’t have a specific interest in fairy-tales. However, if you like your fairy-tales weird and murder-y, with lots of fart jokes, The Tale of Tales might be your thing.

This edition published in February 2016. ]Now a major motion picture starring Salma Hayek, John C. Reilly, Toby Jones, and Vincent Cassel: a rollicking, bawdy, fantastical cycle of 50 fairy tales told by 10 storytellers over 5 days. Before the Brothers Grimm, before Charles Perrault, before Hans Christian Andersen, there was Giambattista Basile, a seventeenth-century poet from Naples, Italy, whom the Grimms credit with recording the first national collection of fairy tales. The Tale of Tales—also known as The Pentamerone—opens with Princess Zoza, unable to laugh no matter how funny the joke. Her father, the king, attempts to make her smile; instead he leaves her cursed, whereupon the prince she is destined to marry is snatched up by another woman. To expose this impostor and win back her rightful husband, Zoza contrives a storytelling extravaganza: fifty fairy tales to be told by ten sharp-tongued women (including Zoza in disguise) over five days. Funny and scary, romantic and gruesome—and featuring a childless queen who devours the heart of a sea monster cooked by a virgin, and who then gives birth the very next day; a lecherous king aroused by the voice of a woman, whom he courts unaware of her physical grotesqueness; and a king who raises a flea to monstrous size on his own blood, sparking a contest in which an ogre vies with men for the hand of the king’s daughter—The Tale of Tales is a fairy-tale treasure that prefigures Game of Thrones and other touchstones of worldwide fantasy literature.

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KATE LECHLER, with us since May 2014, resides in Oxford, MS, where she divides her time between teaching early British literature at the University of Mississippi, writing fiction, and throwing the tennis ball for her insatiable terrier, Sam. She loves speculative fiction because of what it tells us about our past, present, and future. She particularly enjoys re-imagined fairy tales and myths, fabulism, magical realism, urban fantasy, and the New Weird. Just as in real life, she has no time for melodramatic protagonists with no sense of humor. The movie she quotes most often is Jurassic Park, and the TV show she obsessively re-watches (much to the chagrin of her husband) is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Her personal blog is The Rediscovered Country and she tweets @katelechler.

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2 comments

  1. Yes, I have to get this one.

  2. This sounds fascinating, especially as a cultural/literary view of the past. Thanks, Kate!

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