Monday, January 5, 2015

The Literary Fairy Tale in Italy

While names like the Grimms, Hans Christian Andersen, and Charles Perrault may be household names associated with the fairy tale genre, many people are unaware that the literary fairy tale tradition started much earlier in Italy with two main men; Giovan Francesco Straparola and Giambattista Basile. They wrote tales in fairy tale tradition, including predecessors to some of our most famous fairy tales, "Puss in Boots," "Beauty and the Beast," (Straparola's "The Pig King") "Sleeping Beauty" (Basile's "Sun, Moon, and Talia") "Snow White," (Basile's "The Young Slave"), "Rapunzel" (Basile's "Petrisonella") and "Cinderella" (Basile's "Cat Cinderella").
Warwick Goble, Basile's "Petrisonella" ("Parsley")

Yet despite their immense influence on the fairy tales we know and love today, the stories these men wrote were not widely accepted when they were published. At the time (16th century for Straparola, 17th for Basile,) the literary world was much concerned with the debate about what kind of fantastic fiction was acceptable to read. Fairy tales were widely looked down on as being fit only for crazy old women or simple young women.
Jules Garnier-frontspiece to Straparola's The Facetious Nights

Both collections of stories were organized in frame narratives, with each of the tales being told by narrators. In Straparola's collection, there were male and female narrators, but the fairy tales were only told by the women; the men told more realistic stories. Basile's stories were narrated by ten old women, each with some kind of deformity-limping, hunchbacked, large-nosed, drooling, etc.-which Bottigheimer says is a "grotesque parody" of Straparola's elegent women. Interestingly, when a later Italian reviewer defends the genre of fairy tales, he does is by comparing them to the epics and classics written by men that were held to be "good" literature, therefore masulinizing them.
Warwick Goble, Basile's "Sun, Moon, and Talia"

These Italian stories are shocking to most modern audiences; they are lewd, violent, and sexual and were not necessarily meant for children. It was common not only for the peasants to tell each other tales while they did their chores, but it was a custom for Neopolitan nobles to call on courtiers to entertain them by reading or reciting some sort of amusement. The type of story the courtier chose would then reveal his character, or how refined his tastes were. The ultimate story was thought to have some sort of allegory or meaning to it; fairy tales were seen as frivolous because there was no deeper meaning. Those who defended fairy tales claimed that they had deeper allegorical moral lessons as well, but no one seemed to be arguing for a fantasy story to have value for the sake of entertainment and imagination itself (many other epics and legends of the day had morals inserted into them, which made them more acceptable, rather like the fairy tales themselves as they entered the Victorian era...)

Fairy tale writer Carlo Gozzi (1720-1808) actually wrote his fairy tales precisely because he did NOT approve of them-he chose what he viewed a "lowly" form of story as the basis for a play simply to prove that audiences would watch anything and were not discerning. Yet in doing so, he ironically produced popular versions of fairy tales that did, indeed, have political and aesthetic points of view. The fairy tale as a genre would not be acceptable in high society until the French started writing and telling them.

*Information taken from Ruth Bottigheimer's Fairy Tales Framed: Early Forewords, Afterwords, and Critical Words (I got this book for Christmas, as well as the Baba Yaga book by Andreas Johns, so there will be more posts from each of these!)


  1. I've read only a little bit of Basile and probably no Straparola, but this just reminds me of how complicated it is to try and understand the roots of fairy tales. Tales we think of as folklore can have inspirations that are literary which in turn may be inspired by something in folklore. Some versions are dark or violent or sexual while others may be more tame. Yet, it's not necessarily a simple case of everything moving in one direction. People regard the Grimms as dark but they have a tamer version of Red Riding Hood than Perrault and a tamer Sleeping Beauty than either Perrault or Basile. Yet, their Cinderella is definitely darker than Perrault's. Sorry if I've gone off on a tangent, this sparked with something else I've been thinking about.

    1. Absolutely-the more I learn the more I realize that fairy tale origins are a mystery, and there are lots of complex things to consider. Oral and literary tales most definitely influence each other, going back and forth throughout the years.

      And you're right, although you can point out certain shifts and patterns-such as fairy tales getting more sanitized and made "child-friendly" over time, there are definitely exceptions-lots of them. We live in a weird time where dark fairy tale retellings are very popular, and yet the cheery children's fairy tale world still predominates not only children's culture but our ideas of what a "real" fairy tale is.

      No worries about a tangent! Looking at the big picture of fairy tale history is always fascinating and relevant!

    2. Well, the dark fairy tale retellings are generally a result of nostalgia and a desire to "grow-up" the material with people. You'll notice that people aren't going after dark tales like "The Juniper Tree" or "The Singing Bone" for movies. Instead, they're trying to hook adults with dark versions of stories they knew when they were young like "Cinderella" and "Sleeping Beauty".

    3. That's definitely true-of course familiarity is a huge pull for people when choosing entertainment, hence why it seems every detective show is now called "Sherlock." Although if they marketed a story as "Grimms' The Juniper Tree" I think that would definitely have pull, but that would require filmmakers with knowledge of fairy tales beyond the Disney ones as well...but isn't it interesting that, even with the sanitized versions, we still have a deep connection with them and desire to keep recreating them throughout adulthood?

    4. Using the Grimm name as marketing is actually kind of a brilliant idea. People have done it but no one's used it like you suggested. There is something about those old tales. Maybe it's the way they use the fantastical but on a small, almost domestic scale. Or maybe it's something about the conflicts that the main characters are faced with. Many of the ones that became popular are about characters whose life gets turned around for the better. They're about girls who get to escape from toxic family situations or poor boys who manage to gain great fortune and stuff like that.