02 December 2015


"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 133

- Che bel granchio, che bel granchio! -

If you've been reading the Italian texts, did you notice that they use dashes instead of quotation marks? =)

I'm sorry for being a bit behind schedule. It feels good to get this post up at last. This week's Italo Calvino retelling is Il principe granchio. In English: The Crab Prince.

Un granchio cosi grosso che non bastavano due occhi per vederlo tutto

Il principe granchio kept me guessing. I can usually figure out how a faerie tale will work itself out as soon as I read the first paragraph or so, but this one just showed me that I didn't know the conventions as well as I thought I did. For my guess was that the fisherman would try to eat the crab and that the crab would make a magical bargain for his life. Then again, perhaps I just didn't know fishermen. Since they do sell most of what they catch, why did I assume he wouldn't try to get prime price for his latest one? It would have been worth more to his family as a novelty he could sell to the king than as the main course for their next few meals. Besides, fishermen and their families must enjoy variety as much as the rest of us: an all-seafood diet can get old fast.

Something else I would have guessed was that the vagabond whom the princess gives alms to would try to get more money out of her after he discovers the underground cavern. And now I must apologise to all vagabonds for assuming that they are not as ready as the rest of us to return kindness for kindness!

The quirky princess herself was a surprise . . .

Alla Principessa, se il granchio gia le piaceva, il giovane uscito dal granchio le piaceva ancora di piu . . .

LOL! It's perfectly fitting, for sure, but also hilarious to me that a princess who is so fascinated by marine life would "find her prince" among them in such a literal way. For sure she would fall in love at first sight: the guy couldn't be more perfect if he had been made to order!

(Note: When Calvino was compiling his folktales, he found a variant in which the prince was not a crab, but a shrimp. Apparently, it's all about the exoskeleton.)

The princess turns out to be perfect for the prince, too: he can only be released from the enchantment by a girl who is willing to die for him. It's a lot to ask of someone whom you haven't even spoken to before then (though the two aren't total strangers)--but if that's the nature of the curse, then it's the nature of the curse. The Fata designed her spell very carefully, probably never imagining that somewhere in the world was a girl who would do anything for a crab.

The cynical voice in my head is now pointing out that we now have many girls like that, thanks to an environmental movement that places the good of the earth over the good of those who were given dominion over it. Apparently, there are good reasons to die for a crab and bad reasons to die for a crab. (Or a shrimp.)

- Si che suono, basta che lei mi dia quel fiore che ha in testa -

I suppose the weakest link in the story is that the reason behind the crab prince's enchantment is never explained. The fantastic nature of his bondage--from the daily meetings with the Fata to his life being tied to a flower she wears on her head (Oooh! A Naso d'Argento connection?!)--demand a bit more credulity from us without a history to tie them together. We know from other faerie tales (e.g., The Frog Prince, Beauty and the Beast and Snow White and Rose Red) that when a prince is trapped in some animal form, it is because he offended a faerie in some way. Perhaps this was also the case for the crab prince--but we can't be very sure.

Now that I've mentioned Naso d'Argento, I have to say that the prince's means of escape here is much better than the third sister's in the previous story! It is based on both the design of the curse and some insight into the character of the Fata, which he would have been able to gather during all those enchanted dinners. Granted, it's less a plan than a built-in escape clause . . . but I like the idea that malicious forces can't totally trap us. That there is, if you will, a deeper magic from before the dawn of time.

And may I say that the Italian "Fata" strikes me as superior to the English "faerie"? It gives us a connection to fate--il fato--worth thinking about. Maybe what was holding the prince down was a destiny that he could not escape. And by "destiny," I don't necessarily mean supernatural forces; perfectly natural circumstances can often hold us down in ways that don't seem very fair.

But there is also an element of what we might call "dumb luck" in the prince's rescue. The princess cannot reach the flower by her own power. She gets it only when a wave sweeps it into her hand.The odds, friends, the odds . . .

- Questo e il mio sposo, questo e il mio sposo! - -

The ending mirrors the beginning. Or is it that the beginning foreshadows the ending? But for sure we shouldn't forget the middle! Indeed, now that we are ending, let's start with the middle.

When the princess tells the king that she wants to play her violin on a cliff by the sea, it is enough for him to say, "Sei matta?" ("Are you crazy?"), and to insist that she be accompanied before letting her do what she likes. How easily he can be swayed by this crazy daughter he loves! We saw it for the first time when the fisherman brought the crab to the palace, and we see it again when the prince returns by his own power. It's really the princess who makes this story, through her affections, her confidence, her virtue, her willingness to do what needs to be done, and her hold on the hearts of others.

Totally Optional Discussion Questions for Il principe granchio:

1. How does making the prince a crustacean--rather than a frog, a bear or simply a "beast"--change this type of story?
2. If the love of your life were trapped in an animal's body by an enchantment, which animal would be most fitting?
3. Does well-played music being the key to the prince's liberation seem a little random or does it make perfect sense?

Our next story will be I due gobbi or The Two Hunchbacks. Read it in Italian (LINK FIXED!) or in English . . . or you know, in any language you can find a translation. =)

Image Source: Il Principe Granchio drawing


Belfry Bat said...

As for the choice of an arthropod, there is the practical necessity of hiding two of them inside a mobile semblance; you could hide prince and princess inside a clam shell, but it would be impractical for the clam shell to carry the fairy out for lunch every day. On the other hand, hiding a second figure, a romantic figure, under a bear pelt... might be a bit too hot blooded for a children's story.


I wonder, actually, if perhaps this story is inspired by how you can find empty crab moults (and shrimp) washing up on shore at times.


Just for silly, here's another tale in which a prince is liberated by the catching of something from his keeper's hair; in that case, though, it's plainly set out that raw difficulty is the ordering principal of the required task, so I wonder if the whole set-up isn't simply to make sure prince marries a suitable princess --- to make sure she takes an interest in something like natural philosophy and the arts and is brave and courageous to boot...

Enbrethiliel said...


I think that the prince and princess conspiring in the crab shell is the most charming part of the story! I don't think I would have drawn quite the same conclusion if he had had a bear pelt instead, though.

Probably the earliest prince of this sort that we know of is Eros. And even Pysche had to do several seemingly-impossible tasks in order to free him to be with her--though none of them really involved Aphrodite's hair.

And now that that has come up . . . it's interesting to think of the Fata and all the other spiteful faeries as types of the pagan goddess of love. Or rather, to think of the pagan goddess of love as just another spiteful faerie. But as you point out, the set-up actually benefits the prince in the long run, buy making sure only a really virtuous woman becomes his bride. So perhaps these love faeries are a little more benign than we give them credit for! Unless, of course, it is the "deeper magic from before the dawn of time" that is actually at work.

Brandon said...

I thought it nice that the thing that starts the process of eliminating the curse is the princess's generosity with the poor. I was also surprised at how important to the story the shell ends up being; it's not like The Frog Prince, where the frog could be just about anything else that you wouldn't want to kiss -- the shell ends up being quite central to the story.

The first Fata I ever came across was from Ariosto; and she, if I am not misremembering, represented Time. So one thing I was thinking while reading this is how it might be interpreted in terms of the prince being freed from the curse of time by someone willing to die for him. Which actually fits, in different ways, with both your destiny point in the post and your "deeper magic from before the dawn of time" point in the previous comment.

Belfry Bat said...

I would also like to say that the feel of this story is very much as if a very young child made up a short fairy story out loud, and some loving parent tended it a while 'till it had some flowers or berries on its branches. If some stories are like sculpted shrubs (the Tre Melagrane feels like that) or hedge mazes, this one is smaller and more like a wild type.

Enbrethiliel said...


Brandon -- The princess really is something else! The more I think about this story, the more I like her! And I'm sure some real-life princesses can relate to having to find a way to sneak into a shy man's shell. ;-)

Bat -- Il principe granchio is certainly less polished--and dare I say, less Grimm-like--than the major faerie tales that have been translated into English. The princess protagonist is more three-dimensional than her better-known cousins, who are mostly dream types.

MrsDarwin said...

Allow me to say how delighted I am to read a story in which the hero(ine) receives instructions and FOLLOWS them, to the letter! I know that you can get a lot of story from the protagonist immediately throwing out the good advice he gets and thus getting in trouble and messing everything up, but it always drives me nuts. I love the princess for having the good sense to listen and act accordingly, and thus reserve the hardships of the trials for herself alone instead of bringing down consequences on everyone else's heads.

Now I'm trying to think of other examples of the protagonist following all the instructions instead of his or her own whims. Tam Lin comes to mind. He tells Janet how she needs to stand at the crossroads, which rider to grab, and how to hold on to him despite appearances, and she does just that.

Also, I like how the tramp is just a guy who falls into this strange story. He's not a hidden prince, he's not a new love interest. He's just a guy who does the right thing, and ends up handsomely rewarded. When he pops out of the pond and the princess isn't there, he doesn't go running to the king or start spreading the story. He just waits a bit, and she shows up. It's all so... so rational and commonsense, except that they're using commonsense to deal with enchanted princes in crabshells roomy enough for two.

Enbrethiliel said...


It's hard to imagine how Cinderella might have worked out if our heroine had managed to leave the ball well ahead of time . . . or would the prince still have chased her, causing her to lose her shoe? Rapunzel is an easier case: they would have escaped in good time and the witch would never have been able to track them.

That's a good point about one effect of not following instructions: we make others bear the consequences with us, even if they don't deserve it.

Anonymous said...

just a note to say how much I am enjoying these fairytales! I would love to have a whole book of these (in english) to share with my children.
- Amy

Enbrethiliel said...


I'm glad, Amy! The only thing better than discovering new delights is sharing them with others who find that they like them, too. I hope you can find a book for your children. =)