"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 131
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.
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!
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
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.
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.
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