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.