When seeking to understand a foreign culture, the importance of knowing the folktales and lore of the land cannot be underestimated. Storytelling is intrinsically linked both with a nation’s history as well as its present identity. Because Italy’s traditional tales largely lack a written history, Italo Calvino was commissioned in the 1950s to gather the stories that have shaped its heritage from every corner of the country.
In the newly released Folio Society edition, Guillermo del Toro, director of Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water, writes in the preface that Calvino curated and then edited these 200 regional tales “so as to distill and display the essence of the Italian soul” and that they are “suffused with a sensual Mediterranean connection to land, air, and the fruits of the earth.”
Like the traditional tales of many cultures, the usual whimsical suspects of princes, princesses, evil stepmothers, witches, talking animals, and otherworldly phenomena take center stage in addition to the region’s own unique and repeated idiosyncrasies and curious fixations, such as the threat of poverty, petty wealth, and (of course!) pasta. For instance, The Love of the Three Pomegranates begins with a prince cutting his finger while slicing the ricotta. Another features Emperor Nero in a leading role. But the collection also includes the Italian renditions of universal favorites, such as Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and Beauty and the Beast.
Full of omens, instruction, and warnings, many of these stories seem to have been intended to frighten children into obedience, to ward off evil, or to show the consequences of the deadly sins, such as gluttony, avarice, or pride. Yet, they also herald bravery, strength, and savvy acuity in their heroes and heroines, as well as offer a glimpse into the culture’s sense of humor. There is an abundance of farcical situations and seemingly impossible quests — a commentary on life’s absurdities that transcend centuries. Heavily influenced in his own works by the mythic and fantastical, del Toro writes of the folktales, “They lend both solace and understanding of the mysteries within us all.”
The illustrations by Gérard DuBois in this beautiful two-volume edition draw on Francisco de Goya’s Los Caprichos prints and perfectly match the traditional Mediterranean atmosphere of the stories; plus, printed map endpapers show each story’s provenance. This lovely set is a wonderful way to explore a unique component of Italy from the armchair.