The folktales that Calvino has selected do not generally offer advice to the audience; instead, their fantastical nature and witty presentation are intended to provide entertainment. Nevertheless, folktales often help establish proper social behavior and reveal the trials of mature life; that is, many contain a certain practical wisdom, and their preoccupation with important events and rituals of life (and indeed death) nourish a wide range of emotions.
As such, folktales often concern oppositions: wealth versus poverty, beauty versus ugliness, stupidity versus cleverness. They do not necessarily favor one attitude over the other; specific tales may reveal the benefits and dangers of either side and thereby offer partial praise and partial condemnation for certain actions. In some cases, an overly clever life may be as troublesome as one of bumbling stupidity; in others, a life of ignorance may be blessed with complementary fortune. Perhaps the best example of the latter is the irascible fool Giufà, whose misfortunes almost always turn a lucky profit and whose own mother dupes him for her personal gain. Giufà is an interesting character—he appears in six folktales form Sicily—and represents a fascination for life’s inconsistences inherent in many Italian folktales.
Consequently, satire contributes significantly to these folktales. “The Science of Laziness” encapsulates this idea. Therein, an unproductive child is send to a “professor” of the art of laziness. This child quickly outdoes his mentor and graduates with highest honors. While the folktale does not advocate sloth, the humorous heroism of the protagonist undermines the opposite, expected code of behavior, which the reader easily appreciates.
On the other hand, some folktales address the disastrous results that regularly afflict the transgressor of social mores. The little girl in “Uncle Wolf” is eaten as a consequence of her own greed. Her counterpart in “Buffalo Head” bears a curse for her impolite and insensitive actions. A parent’s foolishness or rashness can bring suffering to a child, as “The Cloven Youth” and “Nick Fish” readily testify. Thus, folktales regularly suggest acceptable conduct.
Coming-of-age is a pivotal theme,...
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Although Italo Calvino notes that Italian folktales do not linger on life’s more grim aspects, nevertheless many may be inappropriate for younger children. The dark humor, suggestive language, sexual innuendo, and frank eruptions of bodily functions all contribute to masterfully retold folktales, but they also confirm that these stories were not composed solely for children. Amputations and other grisly fates await many characters, witches are burned at the stake, parents often abandon their children, and, unlike the boy in “Animal Speech,” not all children forgive their parents’ misgivings. In fact, family relationships are often compromised, if not antagonistic: In “The Widow and the Brigand,” the son of a treacherous mother subsequently puts her to death. While these melancholic aspects almost always yield to a successful ending for the young protagonist, their portrayal of humanity’s darker aspects may be unsettling to the unsuspecting reader.
The seeming lack of logical plot may be confusing at first, but once embraced it provides a rewarding experience into the imagination and creative wisdom of Italian folk traditions. Calvino is not overly concerned with the anthropological significance of these folktales, nor does he force interpretations from them; rather, he successfully aims to entertain with wondrous Italian fantasies. In this way, his work is an important literary rendering of traditional stories in their Italian versions, and he introduces a compelling cast of characters. Giufà, Bella Venezia, Nick Fish, and Giricoccola survive because they and their misadventures address human emotions, aspirations, and troubles; ultimately, they celebrate the ways in which the human spirit triumphs over the trials of human existence.