20 January 2016


"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 139

Today's fiaba is a bit of a repeat--which is inevitable, I guess, when the biggest factor in the story selection process is luck. We first encountered this type of tale with I Due Gobbi of Meeting 134; but I first read this specific one (but from a French source) and a version of the same from Andrew Lang as a child. They were probably already very obscure then, too, and I was lucky to run into it. But I do think we're a bit poorer for our ignorance, as if our vocabulary has lost several words. (And now I wonder how many we've totally forgotten that I will never know about . . .)

La madre voleva bene alla sua e all'altra no . . .

One reason I remember both stories so well is that there was an allusion to the French version in an old article about Diana, Princess of Wales and Sarah, Duchess of York. (Royals are characters in gossip columns more often than in faerie tales!) If you remember the 80s, you know that the former was hugely popular, while the latter was almost universally derided. The article compared Diana to the stepdaughter, who had a flower and a jewel come out of her mouth whenever she spoke, and Sarah to the daughter whose mouth yielded only snakes and toads. For it didn't matter what either of them was actually saying (and the faerie tale itself doesn't give the girls much dialogue after they get their gifts/curses); the reality was that one was simply lucky and the other simply unlucky.

Italo Calvino takes a different tack: in L'acqua nel cestello, one girl is deserving of good fortune and the other isn't. The same is true for the two stories from my childhood: the poor stepdaughter is shown to be very kind even to strangers, while the favoured daughter is rude and hurtful--and not even smart enough to be a decent opportunist. (Personally, I would have forgiven everything except her lack of what Filipinos call diskarte--letting a higher end direct even those actions that don't seem to have anything to do with it . . . because you never know if they might!)

Another difference is that the perle e diamante don't come out of the deserving girl's mouth, but are brushed out of her hair. It's an interesting twist: don't we all know people who look great no matter what they wear? But I think the crueler version is a little closer to the reality of things.

Per non mortificare la vecchia . . .

Note that the stepdaughter isn't driven by diskarte; she's really just kind. And modest. And considerate of others. Seemingly habitually so. I don't think anyone minds the stepdaughter being rewarded. It's the punishment of the daughter that makes this story a little uncomfortable--and I don't think I'm merely projecting.

Exactly what does the daughter do wrong here? She tells the truth about the pulci and the scabbia, and about what she wants between two choices offered to her. Now, first off, my sharp-tongued self wishes to point out that if you do have pulci e scabbia, it's better to know it so that you can do something about it than to labour under the illusion that what you have are perle e diamanti. Or if you're the sort who prefers the former, you can hardly blame other people for saying you have them when you ask them directly, "Cos'ho?"

Secondly, I know I'm betraying my modern roots here, but is it very wrong to be direct about what you want? Granted, the Christian directive is to choose the humbler option each time, that you may be rewarded by a higher place at the table--and we definitely see this in the stepdaughter's reason for her choice between the vestito di seta and the vestito di percalle: - Io sono povera . . . - But when the daughter gets to make the same choice, is it so bad that she chooses the seta?

Now I betray other influences on my thought when I say it also bothers me a bit that a woman who "goes after what she wants" has things blow up in her face so badly. It's not even as if the daughter is playing a zero-sum game and taking everything for herself while others go without. Her stepsister has already been rewarded and she just wants something like that for herself. But maybe this is where her story is revealed as a tragedy: her fatal flaw was wanting what someone else had, to the point that she could no longer be happy with what she had.  

And now it's not enough to say, "But we all do that!" We all do a lot of things that miss the mark; we're just lucky that we don't immediately reap everything we sow. (What is the punishment for a clumsy mixed metaphor, I wonder?) 

-Quando senti ragliare l'asino non ti voltare . . .-

What all versions of this story have in common is the donkey and the rooster. Don't turn at the sound of the donkey's braying. Do turn at the sound of the rooster crowing. Isn't that interesting?

Without thinking very deeply about what these two animals mean (although it was fun to do for asini/cuico during our previous meeting), I think we can draw a moral here about what to pay attention to. Rumours and detraction are like a donkey's braying, while praise of others and admonitions to virtue are like a rooster crowing. But that's really just off the top of my head! I'm sure there have been better readings.

Totally Optional Discussion Questions about L'acqua nel cestello

1. If something revealing of character fell out of your hair whenever you brushed it, what would it be?
2. Can you name any other real-life figures who have either perle e diamante or pulci e scabbia dropping off them no matter what they do?
3. What do you think the braying donkey and the crowing rooster symbolise?
4. Would you remember another obscure faerie tale that you came across in childhood but have not seen around since?

Our next and last story is the only one I didn't randomly select, though I do consider myself lucky to have found it again without even looking for it. Or without even remembering it from my childhood . . . until reading Fanta-Ghiro, persona bella (Beautiful Fantaghiro) in the list of stories jogged my memory. Unfortunately, what I haven't found is an English translation of Calvino's retelling. While that would normally be enough to disqualify it, I'm so happy about running into Fanta-Ghiro again that I DON'T CARE. ***tosses confetti . . . delights that "confetti" is an Italian word*** Struggle with me through Calvino's Italian text in this handy PDF or settle for the questionable English version that pops up in several places as if it were official or something. (And who knows? It might be!)

Image Source: L'acqua nel cestello, disegno di Ciara Costantino


MrsDarwin said...

I never brush my hair!

I've read several versions of this story, all with an old woman who gives the kinder daughter (usually the younger, or a stepdaughter) gifts because of a) her kindness, and b) her ability to follow the old woman's directions. (It always comes back to following directions in fairy tales!) The other daughter is punished not because of her directness, but her greed. I think that the stepdaughter is not just being kind, though there's a lot of that, but also can successfully follow the formula, as you pointed out. There's a pattern, she's learned it, she uses it. The other daughter is so caught up in her greed that she doesn't even pay attention to the patterns. Or maybe she doesn't read fairy tales, the most damning thing of all!

Here's a version of this story that I've heard: The Talking Eggs.
It's kind of a cross between this story and Baba Yaga, but it's set in the Louisiana Bayou, so you can git yer Cajun on while you listen. (There's a fair amount of the story if you click on "hear sample".) The good sister is Blanchette and the other one is Ruby Rouge, and the old lady is called Conjure Woman.

Enbrethiliel said...


I don't brush mine, either! =D I probably should, though, to get the most out of my #nopoo regimen.

After I listened to the sample you linked, I looked up the rest of the story. The Cajun twin of L'acqua nel cestello! Which manages to top the Andrew Lang version The Colony of Cats! It's definitely all about following instructions!

Calvino's story isn't about getting the directions right, though. The main thing that the stepdaughter does differently from her sister is be tactless to the vecchia. Then again, as you point out, no well-read girl would be so careless as to insult a strange old woman whom she knows has the power to magic up her hair!

Brandon said...

That story struck me as a rather amoral one. One thing I thought was that the daughter seemed a little dense, as if she wasn't actually considering what the old woman was telling her -- she certainly had plenty of chances to change the way she was answering when the old woman kept telling her she was going to get bad things. And I suppose that's why I had much less sympathy for her than for the second hunchback in I due gobbi. But what they share is the notion that you can force things to go your way, as if there were a magic method for this kind of external success rather than just a need to be the right kind of person at the right time and place.

Enbrethiliel said...


Hmmmmm. That may be why I felt less sympathy for her, too. ("Less sympathy" is an understatement: the fate of the second hunchback nearly did me in!)

I was thinking about being "the right kind of person at the right time and place" just the other night, after I saw the new Star Wars movie. Before it started, I worried that I wouldn't like Rey very much--that she'd be too obviously a concession to feminist demands on storytelling. Then she turned out to be as organic a character as Luke Skywalker--and even the token "kickass" moment of toughness got me to wink at it indulgently. But Rey is believable not because she is exactly what any girl would be if she grew up without social conditioning, gender bias, or whatever the bugaboo is these days, but because she is an extraordinary individual whom just any other girl would not be able to imitate with similar results. That is, Rey works as a character precisely because she is the right kind of person at the right time and place!

That there is no method that will work for everyone seems a little unfair, but it's closer to reality than pretending that everyone is absolutely equal.

Belfry Bat said...

As a curious contrast to Due Gobbi, this is an Evil-Stepmother Story, and it seems to be so in an essential way: the meeting of the tactful girl only happens because she is using (by Stepmother's fiat) the wrong tool for the job. And more: she gives her own daughter first poor example and then sloppy instructions, not asking the stepdaughter for more details about the strange old lady.

Enbrethiliel said...


Good point! I'd add that a rarely overlooked point is that it's actually worse to be an Evil Stepmother's daughter than to be her stepdaughter.