"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.
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