14 February 2016


"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 140

Who knew that ten fiabe would take so long to read? When I settled on the number last November, I thought I'd be done before the end of December! Perhaps I would have, had I been willing to read Italo Calvino's stories in English . . . but I wouldn't say Italian is the culprit here. As you may have noticed, I've been going through a bit of a blogging slump. If you're still reading, Amy, Brandon, Itinerante, LTG, Mrs. Darwin, Sheila: thanks a lot for reading along!

Bat, I know that you are still reading, so you get a special thank you all your own! =)

Now for our last fiaba so that we can get St. Valentine's Day over with and properly settle into Lent: Fantaghiro, persona bella or Beautiful Fantaghiro.

Ai tempi antichi visse un Re che non aveva figli maschi, ma soltanto tre belle ragazze . . .

At the end of the last meeting, I mentioned that Fantaghiro was an old friend from childhood, though this was the first time I actually had a chance to read her story. And it turned out that the story I heard and the story Calvino wrote are so different that I'll need to write a whole other post to tell you all about it. (Here I am cleverly committing myself to writing at least one more post for the blog this month.)

The king in our story isn't the only one in folklore to have all daughters and no sons, but he is probably the only one whose daughters set out to prove that they are as good as any son. When the kingdom is threatened by a neighbouring king and their father is too ill to lead his soldiers into battle, the three sisters each volunteer for the job in turn. And the king gives in, on one unusual condition . . .

- . . . se lungo la via ti comporti da femmina, tornerai indietro senza protestare. -

If a woman wants to do a man's job, then she has no business behaving like a woman. But is this something the king truly believes about women and work or just his sneaky way of making sure his own girls never see combat? The first two daughters have their dreams of military glory dashed on the rocks of their father's decree when things they see along the march make them muse aloud about that unforgivably feminine task of spinning. Perhaps it's just as well.

It is his youngest daughter, the only one of the three to dress like a warrior, with sword and pistol, so that she appears to be un bel dragone valoroso, who passes the test and finds herself face to face with the enemy king. He happens to be un bel giovanotto. (Are we so surprised? LOL!)

At first sight, the giovanotto is willing to swear that the warrior prince in front of him is actually a girl . . . but he also wants to be absolutely sure. And now we see there may have been a third reason the king imposed that odd condition on his daughters: victory over the enemy depends on not being unmasked as a woman.

By the way, it seems that heroines who must disguise themselves as men are a strong tradition in Italian storytelling. Which puts William Shakespeare, who undoubtedly had Italian influences, in more interesting context. 

- Se prende il pane e l’appoggia al petto per tagliarlo, e sicuramente una donna. -

Are there "tells" that a woman disguised as a man cannot help revealing? The enemy king's mother isn't a very creative vecchia if most of her traps are the blatant sort, like having her son invite Fantaghiro for a swim. (That's Peeping Tom level laziness.) But one trap gets to be worthy of the Sarah Mary Williams fiasco in Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. Give the -principe- some bread, the enemy king's mother says, and watch how it is handled: men hold bread away from themselves to slice it, while women hold it close to their chests. But Fantaghiro stays in character better than Huck Finn. (As for my own personal bread handling etiquette, it has a long way to go! =P)

Since the only English version of Fantaghiro persona bella that I could find was clearly a different story from the first paragraph, I didn't bother "to cheat" with it. So if there is a strategic reason why Fantaghiro insists on keeping her secret from the increasingly besotted enemy king, I really wouldn't know what it is. (Would you?) I imagine that she was initially worried he would refuse to meet her in battle, thus ruining her chances of a military victory. But as the tests get more and more compromising, she seems determined to win a whole other sort of conflict with him. I was strongly reminded of Queen Esther's deft handling of King Xerxes. That was something no man could have done--and it tops another use of the female-warrior-in-disguise trope in J.R.R. Tolkien. But I say this because women pulling off epic victories with all the supposed limitations of being female fascinate me a lot more than women competing as equals in what may be considered a male sphere.

It is the differences between the sexes that drives Fantaghiro persona bella and leads us to an odd moral. I don't think anyone minds the bait-and-switch of a physical battle with a battle of wits . . . and there is some humour in a man's job turning out to be a woman's job after all. But it's arguable that if our heroine had ridden out to meet the enemy king as a woman, she wouldn't have had the same effect on him, however much of a persona bella she might have been. It was the winning blend of a persona bella dressed as dragone valoroso that made all the difference.

I really cannot think of another story in which the protagonist has to prove he can pass as one sort of person in order to do something that only a very different sort of person can do! (But perhaps I can write one: and of course it would be an allegory about language learning . . .) Is there a takeaway here for children--especially girl children? I do like the story, but I can see why this version is just weird enough not to have gone mainstream.

Language Learning Notes

Do you know those characters in Adventure stories who studied Latin or Ancient Greek in school, forgot all about it, and then suddenly had to translate some old writing they stumbled upon during some quest? Or characters who had a grandparent or nanny from another country who talked to them as toddlers and made them semi-bilingual? I've always envied them, as my own Latin (from uni) and Spanish (from my grandmother) have not proven to be as facile. So imagine my surprise to learn that I could do a little bit of what they do . . . just in Italian! Apparently, the best foundation for smooth, enjoyable Italian learning is an Latin course at school (combined with Traditional Latin Mass attendance, if possible) and Television Espanol on 24/7 on some TV at home. An Italian crush who occasionally sings and gives interviews in Spanish is, like our discussion questions, totally optional.

Totally Optional Discussion Questions about Fantaghiro persona bella:

1. What do you think of stories in which girls must disguise themselves as boys in order to pull off heroic feats?
2. What test would you have devised for the enemy king, "to out" Fantaghiro as a woman? (What about a test to prove that a a "woman" is really a man in disguise?)
3. Why does it seem wrong when beauty in either a man or a woman is used as a tool or means to an end, although intelligence often is?
4. How do you slice your bread? =)

Image Source: Fantaghiro screen cap


Brandon said...

The bread-slicing test makes a certain amount of sense, I think; it's one of the first things I learned in Boy Scouts -- you always cut well away from yourself for power, control, and safety, and the bigger and sharper the knife, the more important that is. But in a lot of situations (like cutting soft bread) it might not be an obvious way to do it if you are used to knives as cutlery rather than as survival tools.

I think we can see a progression in the king's mother's tests: she starts out with the assumption that men and women just have plainly different interests; when that doesn't work, she moves to the assumption that men and women have very different experiences; and when it turns out that Fantaghiro can plainly have the same interests and have learned the same things as men, she finally has to fall back on the fact that men and women are physically different.

I was somewhat reminded of Joan of Arc. St. Joan didn't disguise herself, of course, but she did dress up as a man. And her reason was to make very clear what her role was.

Enbrethiliel said...


Your Boy Scout story reminds me of one of my first jobs, working as a kitchen aide. The chef taught me to peel potatoes with "away" movements so that I would never stab myself in the chest . . . then teasingly said the last step of every peeling session is checking to see whether you still have all your fingers!

That's a good point about the enemy king's mother's tests. A (more modern) test I would recommend is observing how someone takes off a t-shirt. My experience has been that women cross their arms in front, take hold of the shirt's hem, and them pull it up over their heads with their arms still crossed; and men tend to reach over their shoulders and pull their shirts forward over their heads! Granted, I haven't had the chance to observe a very large sample: just the people in my family and actors in movies. (LOL!)

I was reminded of St. Joan of Arc as well. =) Had I been on the top of my blogging game, there would have been a short paragraph about her in the post.

Belfry Bat said...

Having, incidentally, watched (not sure why) all the available Orphan Black, I can tell you that the one thing Tatiana Maslany can't yet pull off is to convince us that she believes she is a man. Somehow she manages to portray being lots of different people very well, and even being one of them pretending to be another, but Fantaghiro she is not. I've certainly known actual women who were more boyish (but, you'll note, I'm still sure they were women...). Cate Blanchette had an interesting vignette as Bob Dylan, but (curiously) culminating in being Bob Dylan at his most vulnerable and unguarded...

BUT, I rather think that a young girl could pull off the needed play-acting with particular advantage over older siblings, especially if it could be that all the folk involved were expected to be young. Play is such a serious thing when one is younger that the needed focus comes more easily, for one thing.


Since you knew of the story by name, I suppose you weren't thinking of the story I know of as "Kay", which is similar in that a young princess seeks to convince a warlike enemy that she is a Knight To Be Feared; it is different in that the enemy is an ogre or giant and not at all a Romantic Interest. I can't find any clues about this book in the usual catalogues; it might have pretended to be an Irish fairy tale, but I don't think it really is.


Said Bart Simpson, "Roman Numerals? They never even TRIED to teach us that in school!" which just goes to show something. "Where have I seen these before? 'Rocky Vee'! ..." (episode "Lemon of Troy")


I'll come back when I'm more capable of thoughtful contributions; but I should like to let everyone know that I'd like to let you know I've been having fun with this serial! A gracious and engaging hostess is both invitation and reward enough. If I have helped at all, well... Bonus, as someone says.

Enbrethiliel said...


Have you seen The Year of Living Dangerously? Linda Hunt really deserved that Oscar for playing Billy Kwan.

Fantaghiro persona bella is the only children's story I can think of in which a girl disguises herself as a boy. I'm afraid I haven't heard of Kay.

Roman numerals are super easy! I had that lesson several times in elementary school and I've never forgotten how to read them. Many years later, in uni, I met a whole generation of my peers who hadn't studied them and who found certain editions of classical novels, with Roman numerals for the chapters, downright impossible to navigate. They were extremely impressed at how quickly I could figure out that, say, XLVIII was 48! (I wonder if casually introducing foreign languages in same grades, not with the intent to make one fluent but as conjugation or code-breaking exercises, would have similar payoffs.)

Bat, I'm glad that you've been enjoying the readalong. =) I've felt a bit hampered by how difficult it has been to find Italo Calvino's retellings online: there were some stories that I really wanted to discuss but (following my own rules) I could not--and I don't really feel I've properly toured the landscape of Italian folklore, much less been the best tour guide for those whom I enticed to come along with me. Hearing that one person had a great time makes a difference. Thanks!

Belfry Bat said...

Well, no, I haven't seen that... I wonder if I could. I see now it's by my favourite Aussie director... but getting hold of it might be tricky.

Thinking on the Orphan Black example a bit longer, the main reason Maslany's attempt doesn't work is because she is trying to portray a particular stereotype of "man"; her acting is more like what ordinary men are like when she is playing Sarah-impersonating-Beth. ... it's an odd show, generally.


back to 2)

A bit more seriously, I've heard that men's vs. women's elbows and shoulders are jointed differently, in a way that rules out different postures... I don't quite understand, and it might have been an over-generalizing --- as it happens, Kay was finally betrayed by her undeveloped Adam's Apple.

But if Queen Mother and King Youth were intent on their own subterfuge, how's about: "We're currently suffering a strange contagion, and so our Court Physician here will insist on examining you before you go"? Not that I think it would work... today we'd call it Unethical, too, I think. Unless there really were a strange contagion going around; ... which might have been why the neighbourly Nemicos were in such defensive posture? That might make for a thrilling story! hmmm...

Or: "We're having a Ball tonight, you are cordially invited; come in your best doublet and stockings".



I generally use a toothy knife, on a wood board or, for want of a board, a plate. Unless it's a good occasion for just tearing the loaf apart. That happens sometimes.


An Unrelated Question that has frequently been in my mind throughout this read-along is: Why is the Italian for "Youth" SO LIKE the Italian for "John"?

Enbrethiliel said...


My brother gave me two of his old t-shirts to sleep in and I was shocked at how odd they felt around the shoulders. Men and women being differently jointed makes sense!

It's a little disappointing to me that the ultimate giveaway that someone is actually a disguised member of the opposite sex is something physiological . . . though, if you think about it, that would be the ultimate giveaway, wouldn't it? I would have liked something a little more clever--a way to catch people that they themselves could catch while putting the subterfuge together. (You may remember that the goal of my language learning is to be able to pass myself off as a native of another country.)

Sheila said...

I eventually read most everything you post ... emphasis on the eventually. Since Google got rid of Google Reader, I have no simple way to keep track of blog reading so I mostly don't anymore, which is sad. So periodically I hop over here and just read everything.

I think if I had to figure out someone's gender, I'd dare them to do something stupid. It would be something obviously dangerous that any reasonable person wouldn't agree to - but I'd call them a coward if they didn't. Most men under 25 would fall for it, most women wouldn't unless they were REALLY dedicated to the ruse ... and really aware of how young men are.

But, of course, physical signs are the only *really* certain thing, because the only thing 100% of women have in common is a female body. The fact that you can't always tell otherwise says something about gender that you might not like.....

Americans seem to be pretty good with Roman numerals ... because of the Superbowl. It's always in Roman numerals, until this year. It was the 50th Superbowl, but no one wanted to wear hats with a big L on the forehead. LOL!

Belfry Bat said...

In fact the Controversy of the Age is the very question of whether our physiological differences, and the differing natural capacities they entail, have any import for morality, whether in public or private life. There's a moddish slogan among those who disagree with you and me on that question: "gender is performative", proposing that anyone who can act in a few things like a woman might as well be a woman in all things (and complementarily); and they take scandal at the ideas that women should be protected from combat, or that they are not called to the work of the Altar.

(never mind that bearing, birthing, and nursing a child are performances both humbling and beyond my nature)

But everyone in Fantaghiro takes those unpopular propositions as Good and Holy things: the purpose of each Princess's embassy is to avoid combat.


It seems to me that we don't need to suppose that King Handsome is actually trying to sneak a peep at the persona bella! Were Fantaghiro a boy, the boy could join in the swimming and no harm done; Fantaghiro being really a girl can simply relent and say, "it wouldn't be proper, because..." --- the awkward invitation can be taken as excuse to relax the charade, no-one losing face. It's fun to imagine that she understands that, and is simply enjoying her play to the last drop --- and how else will she get him to leave his castle and meet her father?

Enbrethiliel said...


Sheila -- I never used Google Reader . . . but you'd think that by now there'd be a decent substitute. I recently talked to another friend who said he had tried others that appeared on the blogosphere before or since Google Reader's disappearance and none of them are half as functional.

There's more than one way to be familiar with Roman numerals, I guess! My fellow students who were baffled by them were obviously not Americans. ;-)

The fact that you can't always tell otherwise says something about gender that you might not like.....

Don't be a tease! Put out if you're going to put out! Honestly, Sheila, you occasionally drop hints that you've divined my deepest, darkest thoughts about something, when I have no idea what you're talking about.

Bat -- Now you've got me wondering whether Fantaghiro persona bella would be considered highly "triggering" for some people these days!

I don't know if the first two princesses intended to avoid combat. Those comments about spinning seemed to slip out by accident; and only equally stereotypical behaviour from them, had they actually reached the battlefield, would have given us the same outcome. As for Fantaghiro, she seemed pretty gung-ho, didn't she? Had the prince not become so intrigued with her, there might have been a battle! Or are you saying that you think the king their father was the one intending to prevent all martial conflict and that everything was part of his master plan.

As for the little game between Fantaghiro and the Enemy King . . . I compared her to Queen Esther because I think she was more aware of what was going on than he was. (He wanted proof almost as much as he wanted a peep!) Then again . . . why shouldn't King Xerxes have known that Queen Esther was leading him on a merry chase? Sometimes it's not sneaky manipulation; sometimes it's a dance!

Sheila said...

Wasn't my reference obvious? I meant that while sex is physical, obviously, gender (the emotional/social side of it) is, to some degree, a construct. It's a set of expectations based on what *most* men or women like and do, rather than something universal which can be said of all women. Can *you* think of a non-physical thing that can be said of all women and no men? I can't. There are always exceptions, even while most of us find "performing" the appropriate gender comes pretty naturally.

And it seems to me that you're more of a gender essentialist -- saying that all women are a certain way, *and if they're not, they should be.* That's the sticking point between the conservative and the liberal view of gender -- whether, in cases where people don't naturally gravitate to the things of their own gender, they should be encouraged or even forced to do so, or if it's equally virtuous for them to do what comes naturally to them.

Enbrethiliel said...


It really wasn't obvious to me, so thank you for explaining.

You and I don't seem to speak the same language on this, so I don't know if I can discuss "constructs" with you and be on the same page. ("Constructs" is in quotation marks because if you asked me to explain what I think it means, you'd probably say I have it all wrong. Ditto for "essentialism." And "gender." LOL!) I also think you're trying to continue another conversation we had that I wouldn't say is relevant to interpreting this particular fiaba.

Anyway, using terms I'm confident we both understand in the same way: I think that generalisations about types of people have a basis in reality. I also think that there are obvious exceptions to every rule. But I wouldn't say that the lesson of Fantaghiro persona bella is that generalisations are bunk because of the existence of exceptions.

Finally, to answer your accusation: while I do think that all women are a certain way in general, if an individual woman truly isn't, I wouldn't say she should be. But I also think quite a number of women fancy they are like Fantaghiro when they are more like her sisters. Yet there's really nothing wrong with that--and I don't say that in a condescending way. Being a perfectly ordinary woman is wonderful.

Enbrethiliel said...


Sheila, I should also thank you for suggesting a new angle from which to read this fiaba. Is Fantaghiro playing a role to perfection or is she actually revealing her true self?

The Khatzumoto school of language learning would say that it's not either-or, because the former led to the latter and the latter made the former possible. That is, by "faking it," she also "made it," drawing out natural aspects of her personality that would have remained buried otherwise. She didn't do this with a second language, however, but with a second wardrobe. My own experience supports the idea that changing the way you dress will eventually change your personality as well; but this is my first time thinking along these lines and I don't know if anyone else has observed and written about the same thing.

I also find it interesting that at the end of the story, Fantaghiro becomes the queen of two kingdoms--patently symbolising her "mastery" (for lack of a better word) of what is traditionally considered the greatest virtue of a woman (i.e., chastity) and what is traditionally considered the greatest virtue of a man (i.e., courage). (This is not to say, of course, that an ordinary woman cannot be courageous or that an ordinary man cannot be chaste!)