14 December 2015


"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 135

Giovannin senza paura, the story which opens Italo Calvino's wonderful collection of Italian folktales, was chosen for that honour because pretty much every child in Italy has grown up with it. What did differ from region to region was what "Dauntless Little John" would have had to face in the haunted palace where he spent the night. (Above is the cover of a retelling by another author who grew up with ghosts.) If you think about it, any dark creature would do without altering the main story much--but when Calvino chose, he sided with whimsy rather than horror. E mi piace tanto.

. . . non aveva paura di niente . . .

The main difference between Italian children and the culturally German rest of us (Ahem!) is that not all of us would have grown up with The Story of the Youth Who Went Forth to Learn Fear, though it is one of the official Grimms Maerchen. Despite being a great tale, it gets "tier two" status only because it doesn't really appeal to an audience with a preference for beautiful princesses in peril and the evil witches who imperil them. But it was certainly good enough to make, under a slightly different title, the "Faerie Four" of my Faerie Tale Theatre Episode Smackdown all those years ago.

As you can see, I was ready to close another case of separated-at-birth foreign-language "twins." So I was surprised to see that Calvino himself thought that the proper Italian partner of the German Maerchen was another of his fiabe: Lo sciocco senza paura or Fearless Simpleton. Naturally, I had to read those two as well: the Italian original and a few (shamefaced) dips into the English (Enter "Fearless Simpleton" into the search box) so I could understand the expressions. It's pretty short, so I threw it in as a bonus for us to discuss at the end of this post. (You're welcome!)

. . . dalla cappa del camino sentí una voce: - Butto?

It's perfectly fitting that Giovannin's nemesis would be a gigantesco--the perfect foil to his littleness, as Goliath was to Davidinn. But as Giovannin is a combination of small stature and great courage, the gigantesco also mixes largeness and littleness in his figure. He cannot make his entrance as impressively as Jack's giant or Puss's ogre, but must enter the story one body part at a time. He is, if you will, "cut down to size." (I wonder what the Italian expression for this is!) Now imagine the effect this would have on a tiny listener who already dreams of being big enough to be a match for the strong adults around him. The gigantesco may be bigger than the biggest grown up the child knows, but he is not someone to cower in front of. Instead, he is someone who can easily be taken down by one of the strongest weapons in a child's arsenal: sheer cheek.

As we see in the stories of Jack, Puss, and yes, even David, riches and a palace are often the reward for the courage to take down a giant. But when the gigantesco uncovers the tre marmitte d'oro and gives them to Giovannin, it feels like an anticlimax. They seem there only for the sake of a conventional happy ending. Even as I find this plot point unsatisfying, I can't really think of a better next step. A sleeping princess whom Giovannin has to kiss awake? That's too far into Grimm territory . . . and besides, the Italian versions have another ending entirely.

. . . voltandosi, vide la sua ombra . . .

The other way that all the versions of Giovannin senza paura differ is in the detail that finally does our little hero in. Not being Italian (YET!!!), I only know two variations: his shadow (which Calvino poetically went with) . . . and his own butt (which is pure ROFLMAO). And now I'm kind of sad that Calvino didn't choose the other possibility. Imagine the sort of backside that could terrify someone who was unimpressed by a giant's scattered limbs!!!

If we are going for a moral, it's interesting to think that everyone is afraid of something--and that we often coexist in peace with what we fear the most, as long as we don't see it. This is obviously true in the simple case of, say, someone with arachnophobia who has no idea that a spider is on his head; but I wonder if it is also true of more dramatic fears which we nonetheless don't see until the media turn our heads around, like terrorism. Are we moderns "Dauntless Johns" who carry our own downfall within behind us?

Now for Calvino's other fiabe about courage and fear . . .

. . . non capiva niente ma non aveva paura di nulla . . .

If you think brave little Giovannin and the unnamed Fearless Simpleton start out as nearly the same character, read more closely. While Giovannin no fear of niente, the Simpleton has no fear of nulla. (Do you like my double negatives, English?) That is, Giovannin fears nothing, while the Simpleton fears no one. And while Giovannin's fatal flaw is insignificant enough to be named only at the end of the story (as shadows and posteriors usually are), we learn of the Simpleton's at once: he understands nothing.

A complete lack of fear and a complete lack of intelligence are not a good combination.

Like the supporting characters in The Youth Who Went Forth, those in Il sciocco senza paura can't resist trying to be the ones to scare the title character at last. And they pay for it even more dearly than their German counterparts. I'd say that their fatal flaw is having the wrong focus. Why try to make someone scared when you can make him smart? Seriously, people! And now I'd like to suggest Lo sciocco senza paura as required reading for all the teachers, school administrators, and (I haven't been here in a while) single mothers who put dauntless, cheeky little boys on Ritalin . . . but the ironic question is whether these "giants" themselves would be smart enough to understand it.

Totally Optional Discussion Questions for Giovannin senza paura:

1. What do you think of the storytelling conceit of letting villains be vanquished by perfect (or near perfect) foils? Do you think you make a good foil for whatever would come down the chimney for you?
2. Apart from a wife, a shadow, and a rear end (It is so hard not to make a joke right now . . .), what would you suggest as Everyman's ultimate source of fear?
3. What is your favourite faerie tale, folk tale, or fable about courage?

We've had two short, fairly simple stories in a row (three, if you count Lo sciocco senza paura), so let's get lengthy and complex again with the next one. Read Bella fronte in Italian or Fair Brow in English. (Again, just enter the title in the search box. The whole thing shows up for me, so if some pages are missing for you, let me know and I'll do something!)

PS -- Today is the memorial of San Juan de la Cruz, someone else whom we could justly call Dauntless Little John! (What? He was short.) He might say that the secret behind his courage in reforming the Carmelite Order (and by extension, the entire Catholic Church) lay in holy detachment from this world.

Image Source: Giovannin senza paura di D. Giromini


Belfry Bat said...

"Whimsy" souds about right. If I didn't know better, I'd have said this story was a joke. It feels more joke than Aesop, anyways. Therefore, joke away at #2!

But let us try to take Calvino's whimsy just a bit more seriously than necessary: if seeing his shadow is what does in our Giovannin, that entails that he's been almost uniformly facing some bright light all his life, and in particular that almost everyone and everything he has ever dealt with has been back-lit, and therefore not seen particularly well by him. Makes one wonder, in the light of dim Sciocco, what exactly his senza paura is made of, no?

1) On the one hand, it does nicely highlight how vilainy contains its own downfall ... on the other hand, it misses the point Uncle Gil makes about the well-known Dragons being mysteriously defeasible, in that it seems to take someone intrinsically special to defeat a Dragon, rather than a real person (aided by grace of course).

2) er... Responsability?

3) Peter and the Wolf comes to mind, but the tale of the Girl who Escaped from Baba Yaga ... it feels even more courageous, if you know what I mean. (Also: another heroine of agency!)

Enbrethiliel said...


It may be that I'm taking some of the lighter stories more seriously than they ought to be taken. Perhaps it is "just" a joke! ("Just" is in quotation marks because I don't want to suggest that a story's being a joke makes it less of a story.)

I only vaguely remember reading that bit from Chesterton. Where is it from, please?

My own one-word answer to #2 would be: the truth. Particularly the truth about your own self--not because it's bad to learn, but because it's painful to learn. And come to think of it, something about a person that can he himself can easily avoid seeing is his butt! (I'm obviously a bigger fan of the butt versions than the shadow versions, God help me! But the shadow versions are a big more Jungian than I like to get.)

Belfry Bat said...

Hm. This seems to be the original of what I was thinking of. (So, it's from Tremendous Trifles). And for an idea of how muddled my remembering was, we got there via a rancorous discussion of a Neil Gaiman riff on that idea and whether Chesterton wrote it first or what.

Which, when it comes to discussion of fairy tales qua folk-tales may or may not be thoroghly appropriate. (b.t.w, do you know an Italian parallel for the germanic "folk"? "famiglia" is too narrow, and "paesan" too something else... I really don't know enough Italian)

On the other hand... Chesterton seems to emphasize St. George, a hero as a saint; which may or may not agree with the gloss re. real people I'd hoped for earlier.

It's a good thing I'm studying maths and not literature eh?

Brandon said...

It's interesting that Calvino thinks this one of the most beautiful Italian folktales. I suppose there is a bit of poetic balance in the fact that Dauntless John can only be frightened by himself.

Enbrethiliel said...


"Beautiful" is not the word I would have used . . . but if we recall that symmetry/balance is a form of beauty, then I must admit Calvino chose a good word.

Brandon said...

I wonder if his choice of the shadow version over the butt version makes a difference for Calvino's judgment of its beauty!