19 November 2015


"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 131

Giovanottino dalle labbra d'oro
dammi da bere, se non io mi moro!

Ciao e benvenuti a tutti! Today we begin our dip into Italo Calvino's Fiabe Italiane, starting with L'Amore delle tre melagrane or The Love of Three Pomegranates.

Un figlio di Re mangiava a tavola. Tagliando la ricotta . . .

Oh, I just love the beginning! "The son of a king" is pretty generic, but how many king's sons can you find in all folklore who also happen to be slicing into ricotta?!

It has shades of Schneewittchen, for sure . . . but isn't it just as true to say that Schneewittchen has shades of Tre Melagrane? I can't help having the German faerie tales as my first references, but it's nice to shift my centre of gravity a bit. After all, the (universal) colours came first and the (particular) symbols came later. And the colours would have all come at the same time--though of course I couldn't tell you exactly which time in history that was. I just recall reading that the ancients didn't see the colours as abstractions the way we have learned to: they would have said "wine-coloured" instead of red-violet, for instance, or "fawn-coloured" instead of light brown. So you can't read colours in ancient myths the way you can in medieval folktales. But this is all I can really say about that.

Now that I've brought it up, though, it seems that Tre Melagrane and Schneewittchen are indeed an example of those separated-at-birth identical twins that I've been on the lookout for in my language studies. It's just a bonus that they should both be Shredded Cheddar's favourite faerie tale! It was illuminating to see the YA novels Twilight and The Hunger Games, and the movies Casper and After.Life as Schneewittchen retellings; it opens another layer of understanding to see them also as Tre Melagrane variants. For don't all these modern stories treat death as just another sort of transformation?

Well, we have the white and the red covered. So where is the black? It isn't too comfortable, in this politically-correct age, to point out that this third colour is also represented . . . in the Brutta Saracina or Ugly Saracen. So I'll just mention that this is where we start to have some overlap with Das Gaensemagd!

"Zuppetella a me, penne d'oro da te."

No, our red-and-white girl's next transformation isn't into a goose! A drop of her (red) blood--una goccia di sangue--turns into a little (white) dove--una palombella. Geese and doves don't seem to have much in common . . . and anyway, the Gaensemagd remained human and looked after geese . . . so I don't want to read too much into the bird imagery. But it's clear that both girls' "bird days" are marked by an odd mix of power and helplessness. The Gaensemagd can't tell anyone the truth about herself, but she can command the wind to do her bidding. And the red-and-white girl can't seem to fly directly to the prince, but she can produce golden feathers to pay the royal cook for soup. In the meantime, their respective impostors live it up with the two princes.

For sure, it is only a matter of time before someone with a talking bird or a wind whisperer for a co-worker starts talking about the strange things they see on the job--and the royal cook and the goose boy go straight to the top. But before things can be set right, our heroines have to deal with an old woman's kitchen and with an old iron stove. (This must be the most tangent parallel yet, aye, Bat?)

Focussing on Tre Melagrone now, did you notice how much food has to do with the story? The prince slices ricotta . . . the princess-to-be emerges from a pomegranate . . . the dove dines on soup . . . the pomegranate tree bears fruit with magical properties. I don't know about you, but I find it fitting in an Italian folktale. =P

. . . (perche la ragazza era sempre nuda come mamma l'avave fatta) . . .

By the way, until I read Tre Melagrane, I hadn't known that there was an Italian variant to the English expression "bare as the day she was born"! But I shouldn't have been so surprised to see that it, too, had a twin.

Oh, did anyone else cry out at one point, "You mean she was naked this entire time???" (LOL!)

When I started the story, I thought it would have a male protagonist--a prince on a quest to find the perfect bride. I'm not sure if it reflects well or badly on him that he believes the Brutta Saracena's silly story. Yes, he's awfully gullible . . . but he has both the courtly romance of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle and 1 Corinthians 13:7 on his side. And seriously, he just saw three girls emerge from fruits and the first two die when he didn't fulfill the totally random condition of giving them water immediately: why should he disbelieve anything? But never mind his qualifications, for the true protagonist is the third girl. I don't know if we can call what she does with her limited agency a "quest," but she does seem to want to be a bride.

There's definitely a takeaway here about the nature of woman, but you just might have to be as old as the story's vecchierello to be able to explain it in anything other than symbols.

La carita di una melagrana

Speaking of symbols, why are we dealing with pomegranates? There's a bit of a Persephone connection in the fruits that can snatch people back from death's door . . . but this twist isn't essential to the story. The most popular variant, with tre melarance (three citrons or oranges), sees our pair reunited after the prince plucks some magical fruits himself and slices them open as he did at the beginning. Before I looked up the answer, my guess was that Calvino simply went for the reddest fruit available in Italy--the logical complement to the prince's wish for a woman who is bianca come il latte e rosa come il sangue. Indeed, the red and white colour scheme streak through the whole story, and citrus fruits would simply clash.

Then I found this little snippet from Calvino's notes at the end of Fiabe Italiane, which (of course) I obstinately refused to run through any translation software . . .

Ho messo le melagrane, come in una versione pisana, perche esse apparivano alla fine di questa vesione abruzzese come metamorfosi della colomba--quest'ultima parte della fiaba, che trovo in diverse versioni meridionali, non e compresa nel cunto di Basile--e ho voluto fare un ciclo di trasformazioni che si chiudesse com'era cominciato.

. . . but did ask an Italian friend to check my understanding of. (She hasn't got back to me yet, so check back in case I update this paragraph!) Calvino says his retelling is a combination of the Pisan variant and the Abruzzan variant: the former is the official "pomegranate version," while the latter, which begins with oranges, has pomegranates as the fruit at the end. And he did this because he thought a string of seemingly random metaphorphoses (e.g., orange to dove to pomegranate) would pale next to a proper cycle of transformation that ends the way it begins.

And perhaps the pomegranates' redness and connection to Persephone (who, come to think of it, was the original Schneewittchen!) had something to do with it, too.

Language Learning Notes:

I sprang into this reading project with all the confidence that comes from thinking that two languages are more similar than they are. Finding myself no worse for wear after my first skirmishes with the German Imperfekt--namely an entire novella (Der Kleine Prinz) and a few chapters of a more complicated novel (Harry Potter und der Stein der Weisen)--I imagined that the Italian imperfetto would be a breeze. Only to learn that the verb tense that Italians use in stories is the passato remoto--one I hadn't even started studying yet! Thank God for all my dusty memories of Latin verbs and all the times mi abuela insisted on speaking Spanish to me although I didn't "understand" . . . 

Totally Optional Discussion Questions for L'Amore delle tre melagrane:

1. Does L'Amore delle tre melagrane remind you of another faerie tale?
2. What do you think of Calvino's creative license? If you could have suggested a different fruit (or nut!) to him, what would it have been?
3. Which food or dish in your area deserves to figure in a local folktale?
4. Do you think this story depicts something of the nature of woman?

Our next story will be Naso d'Argento or Silver Nose. Read Calvino's original Italian or George Martin's English translation.

Image Source: L'Amore delle tre melagrane art


Belfry Bat said...

There is a variety of orange called "blood", very Italian, and very red on the inside... and available-in-notion from the soda company under Saint Peregrine's patronage.

I'm still feeling kind-of awful about the other two original pomegranates (the ones that died without baptism), and, well, thank fable-Heaven that the fable-Prince decided not to wait for the third one to ask. Take thence what you will.

It also seemed to me that up a tree mightn't be the most sensible hiding place for an unclad maiden. On the other hand, it might be exactly right for a pomegranate! Or a dove, come to think of it...

1) ... ??? I'm at a loss.
2) Well, if we count the pomegranate tree as the third metamorphism, that makes a decent Triad, but I almost think I'd prefer a differenter third (or first) even so.
3) Oh, the very-reduced sap of the Maple, of course! And blueberries.
4) Umm... in that it seems part of the nature of woman that in fruitfulness she becomes a blood sacrifice... maybe? But I'm not sure that's what is intended by the fabulators.

Belfry Bat said...

(largely-irrelevant aside: if one blends purée of ripe blueberry into lemonade, the resulting (delicious!) beverage is pink)

Enbrethiliel said...


When I was looking up the Italian words for different fruits, I did notice that melarancia and arancia seemed to be two different sorts of oranges. Is the former the blood orange that you mean?

In faerie tales, it's awful to be the first two of a group of three! It's almost like being a cop in a Horror movie. =P I like your reading of the water very much.

Not to mention your observation about the tree!

So is there a folktale in which maple syrup figures prominently?

Belfry Bat said...

I don't quite know how or when the locals started tapping maples, but they've cooked with it for a long while... aparently, though, one can derive useful food from under the bark of white pine, and if one is really hungry he'll try anything... or maybe there were years when it froze, but there wasn't much snow? Anyway.

It is said that one day (before the Christians came) a hunter's wife forgot about the meal she was cooking, which included maple sap, and it boiled nearly dry. The tale goes that she was terribly nervous and afraid he would scold her for burning the food, but he ate it up so quickly and asked if there was any more... and the rest is equally mysterious.

I don't know whether that is a folk tale (it doesn't feel like the local fairytales, either); it might even be a genuine oral tradition from an actual event.

Belfry Bat said...

Thinking more about the prefix mel-... there is the greek μέλας which is "black" or "dark", so it could be for "dark" orange... but there is also the Latin "malum", yet another word for "apple". And melagrana for "seed-apple" would make good sense, as much as "pomme-grenade"... but I am making this up as I go along, so it might all be nonsense!

Or it might, as a prefix, do what the English "-fruit" suffix does?

Brandon said...

One of the things I liked about the story was the red-and-white girl coming out of the pomegranate every time the old woman went to Mass in order to do her housecleaning for her. And that the old woman got advice from her confessor about the matter!

Pomegranates are also fitting because they are a common symbol of love -- they show up in a lot of Renaissance paintings in that role. I think it's definitely an improvement of the story.

Native foods around here tend to be quite down-home -- Texas barbecue and chicken fried steak, while an excellent dinner, are not exactly poetic foods. But I suppose an obvious candidate would be pecans -- a bit Texas staple. And lo and behold there is at least one folktale about Texas pecans -- a very charming one, too.

Enbrethiliel said...


Bat -- That's interesting! What does maple sap do for a dish if it isn't syrup? Or was it just there because the maple bark was there? And has someone tried to recreate the dish that the hunter's wife would most likely have been preparing?

If you type "melarancia" into Google Images, you'll see many digital images of fruit that are apples on the outside and oranges on the inside, so you're not the only one who has had that impression!

Brandon -- I was also pleasantly surprised when the Church made an appearance. =) I just hope that the woman was able to go to a later Mass that Sunday! (Did anyone else wonder about that?)

And now I want to eat a pomegranate! There were many of them in Thailand, when I recently visited, but they don't seem to be a popular fruit in the Philippines. =( What do you, as a philosopher under the jurisdiction of Hades, think of this fruit?

That's a very sweetly told story about the pecan trees and the orioles! =)

Filipino folktales about food tend to focus on their origins rather than to make them supporting characters in a greater story. The most famous are about the pineapple, the durian, and the papaya. And I've actually retold one of them on this blog: Ang Alamat ng Papaya.

Brandon said...

I think the old woman was going to Mass every day, so perhaps she skipped a weekday Mass.

I like pomegranates myself, although I rarely have an opportunity to eat any.

I hereby officially designate the pomegranate one of the Official Symbols of History of Philosophy as a Discipline. It's a good one, too -- endlessly many seeds making up one fruit. If Hades is the god of the History of Philosophy, I wonder what part of philosophy the Maiden would be goddess of? It's one I didn't consider at the time, and I'm not sure what the answer would be. Perhaps popular reading in the history of philosophy, as opposed to the formal study.

Apparently one of the Italian titles of the the Virgin Mary is Madonna del Granato.

Itinérante said...

I read not the story but I hope I am allowed to comment (maybe the lamest comment here) I LOVE pomegranate (and it's their season now! total happiness!) The fist picture is so so beautiful!!!

I believe balila chickpeas deserve to be in a local folktale!! Now I'm hungry!

And I will read the nest story! (:

Enbrethiliel said...


Brandon -- I've just read that part again. She must be a daily Mass goer, since she stays home from Mass the morning after she speaks to her confessor.

Now I've got to find some pomegranates . . .

Itinerante -- I love chickpeas, but I don't think I've had them balila style yet. Comment any time! =)

love the girls said...

I can't find the second story, only the first with the red maiden who wont stay dead.

As to Brandon's wondering : the branch of philosophy would be that pertaining to music because it dies at the end of each song while living forever in memory.

Enbrethiliel said...


LOL! LTG, I'm surprised you didn't describe her as "the vulnerable red maiden who needed to be rescued by the prince"!

This is the link I found to the second story: Silver Nose. Having actually looked at it, however, I don't think it's a translation of Calvino's own retelling, although his name is in the URL. =( Either that, or I'm the one who doesn't have Calvino's text!

I just found the George Martin translation. (Scroll down; it's Chapter 9.) And it's still a little different from what I have! =P If I can verify that I do have the Calvino, I'll include something about Traduttori Traditori in the next post!

Enbrethiliel said...


SCRATCH EVERYTHING I JUST SAID ABOUT THE ENGLISH TRANSLATION! It is right. It was I who didn't understand the Italian well enough to tell. =P

Belfry Bat said...

Hm. Having struggled through the the italian already (with plenty of help, of course, from autotravestators for short phrases...) ... do I want to read the Martin? What if my pride is bruised by his clear correctness?

Enbrethiliel said...


If it helps you at all to make a decision, Bat, I'm not going to read any more of the Martin translation than I've already read. When I'm practicing Italian, I like to act as if it is the only language I know. So whatever would I do with an English version I couldn't possibly read! ;-P

MrsDarwin said...

Late to the party! Again! You'll be pleased to know, however, that the kids' play went nicely, and that I've no more rehearsals to suck up afternoon blog time.

One thing I always wonder about when I read a story on this template is the curious sexual dynamic of the prince actually marrying the false bride, then having her killed off (yeah, "condemn yourself to death", sure -- and that turns up in this same template -- The Little Goose Girl springs to mind) so he can marry the beautiful innocent virgin originally intended for him. Perhaps this is part of the historical fact of male virginity not being nearly as significant as female virginity, but I tell you what, if I were the maiden, it would weigh unhappily on my mind that he actually married the Ugly Saracen, thinking she was me, and slept with her too.

Enbrethiliel said...


I think the versions of Gaensemagd that children are told these days are very clear that the prince and the impostor haven't married yet and are still preparing for the wedding. (At least that's what I remember from my childhood!) By the time the real princess is revealed, all the preparations are done and the prince and princess can marry immediately.

On the other hand, the royal cook's answer to the little dove's question of what the prince is doing with the Ugly Saracen--"Mangia, beve, e dorme"--doesn't give him an easy out. And this may answer my question of why the little dove doesn't just say who she was as soon as she gets to the palace, or try to see the prince to tell him herself: she thinks that the best she can hope for is a little soup. =( Later in the story, she probably thinks she'll be living with the old woman for the rest of her life. And then the price recognises her at church, learns the truth, and reveals that "if he had only known" . . .

I had asked whether the story revealed something about woman's nature, but now I see I should have been asking about men's nature. For I can recall a couple of articles written by men who say that if they had only known how they would feel about sex after they fell in love, they would have waited to have it.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed the story. I was surprised by the nobility of the prince who married the old woman even though she had 'hit the wall' in such a short time.
I was struck by the ugly woman's vanity- how easily she was deceived and beleived that she was beautiful! And how spiteful in her envy.
Women are like pomegranates. It takes patience get to know one... But I must needs get back to housework.
The girl was like an unplanned pregngncy after the womans husband died- a comfort to her in his absence. And it was through the kings kindness in sharing the pomegranat that his stolen bride is found.

Enbrethiliel said...


Come to think of it, the Brutta Saracena is not just deceived about her own beauty, but also about the value of beauty. She returns to her mistress with her chore left undone, and says it's because she's too beautiful to work!

Contrast her to the true pomegranate girl, who exchanges a gold feather for a bowl of soup and then cleans the old woman's house for free.

PS -- Since I read this story, I've been trying to taste pomegranates through flavoured teas and other drinks I come across. No real fruit yet, though. =(