Monday, February 20, 2017

Culture and Crudeness: A surprising plus for The Tale of Tales.

I’m going to say something and I’m pretty sure a lot of you folks will be able to relate to it: Sometimes, it’s easy to have more books than there is time to read them.

The act of buying a book takes just a moment, but the act of reading it takes far longer.  So, books that you bought long ago or books that may have been released to tie into certain other real world events may not get read until much later.

That’s the reason why, though this book was released to coincide with the movie release of The Tale of Tales, I didn’t read it until much later and I’m only getting around to writing about it now.
Okay, so The Tale of Tales is a collection of tales collected by writer Giambattista Basile and set within a frame story that was published in two volumes in 1634 and 1636 by his sister Adriana.  I’ve actually read two different versions of this book.  One is this one, which attempts to translate rather faithfully from the Neapolitan language.  The other was a simplified and highly bowdlerized version that I downloaded for free off of the internet and which was published under the title The Pentamerone (a name inspired by another popular anthology The Decameron).
Now, of the two, I will say that I like the version pictured better.  It’s just a much richer, if more challenging, text.  The stories are full of references to local customs, games, news of the time and other such things.  Footnotes abound to explain it all.  Though, none of it really gets in the way of understanding the plots of the stories.

But I must admit that it wasn’t the historical references that caught my attention.  It was the bathroom humor (warning: there might be some examples of coarse language following).

Hey, I’m not saying I’m the hugest fan of it all, but not only the presence of it but the level of use it receives definitely make this book stand out.  The crudeness is often delivered with such casualness that you wonder if it was just a regular pattern of speech in 17th Century Naples (and there’s a pretty good chance it was).  Birth is often described in this book as a child being “shat into the world”.  If that child is a girl, they may be referred to as “a little fart of a girl”.  And when they go all out with crude insults, it’s a thing to behold.  In the framing story, there’s an argument between an old woman and a young boy.  During this fight, the boy lets loose calling the old woman “bogeyman’s grandmother, blood-sucking witch, baby drowner, rag shitter, fart gatherer.” (which begs the question: how does one gather farts?).  There’s also one tale entitled “The Cockroach, the Mouse and the Cricket” which involves those three animals doing some rather crude things to a human being while they’re sleeping.

Beyond that, this collection actually hosts variants of a number of popular tales.  Some are darker than the ones that have become popular.  “The Cinderella Cat” and “Sun, Moon and Talia” are darker versions of “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty” respectively.  Yet, the book also includes “Petrosinella”, which is a decidedly more liberated version of “Rapunzel”.  There’s also “Cagliuso”, which is a version of “Puss in Boots” that’s mostly the same as Perrault’s version when it comes to story beats.
So, it’s a collection of largely popular tales told in a way that utilizes some of the crudest humor around.

And you know what?  That’s fine.  It’s not just fine.  It’s actually kind of awesome in its way.
Truthfully, I can’t help thinking that this sort of telling might be closer to the traditional peasant stories than folks like the Grimms would lead us to believe.  I mean, the European peasant probably had a cruder sensibility than your average nobleman or scholar.  And the Grimms, despite being German, were essentially Victorians.  Victorians were not known for engaging in such base humor.

But what’s really great about Basile’s approach is that it gives us another avenue to approach the fairy tale.  The truth is that we tend to get kind of hung up on what those previously mentioned Victorians wrote.  And we also get hung up on what animation studios adapt fairy tales into (especially the internet.  Remember my post on clickbait lists?).

We get so hung up on what the fairy tale is or is not, but very few think about what it could also be or might have also been in the past.

Sure, fairy tales can be bright and kid-friendly.  They can also be dark and scary.  They can also be crude and kind of dirty.  On top of that, they can also be grand and opulent like the French salon writers wrote them.  And they can be a million other things if we choose to tell them  that way.  The fairy tales now belong to everyone and they can be told in a million different ways.

So, that’s my take on it.  One more book from the “to read” pile has been finished.  Now, if I’ll be able to get around to the Tale of Tales movie sometime this year is yet to be seen.


  1. Well, the Grimms got their stories from nice middle-class young women, including the girl next door, who became Mrs Wilhelm Grimm. I think they would have got them from nurses, so eventually it would go back to peasants, but still...

    1. The Grimms' stated goals and their results didn't necessarily match up.

  2. A fart of a girl! Just wait till I see my daughter again. She is going to hate me.

    1. Well, they do say that every girl wants a fairy tale life. So . . .

  3. Normally I'm not really a fan of physical humor, but there are ways to do it that are more or less intelligent. Just throwing in a fart sound, to me, is a cheap way to get laughs, but the idea of calling someone a "fart gatherer" is creative and funny! Plus, now as I anticipate going into labor any day now/reading lots of books and advice on it, many childbirth experts are upset that our culture refuses to acknowledge some of these bodily functions, because it ends up creating fear in women who have no idea what to expect or what our bodies are really capable of, because images and discussion of giving birth are so taboo. I think this whole experience is changing my opinions on what I think is "appropriate" to expose children to...the way our bodies work, from processing food to creating new life, is beautiful and wonderful and not shameful.