Italo Calvino: A Journey Through Folklore

illuminated-letters-3 Letter CThis is an excerpt from the Introduction “A Journey through Foklore” written by Italo Calvino for his book “Italian Folktales.” A friend urged this book on me, and in the usual way things go it took a while for me to respond to the nudging and check it out. When I did I was so taken by Calvino’s discoveries as he made his passage into the fairy tale realm that I knew I, in turn, needed to urge this book on others. I hope you too will pass it along…

“…there was no readable master collection of Italian folktales which would be popular in every sense of the word. Could such a book be assembled now? It was decided that I should do it.

For me, as I knew only too well, it was a leap in the dark, a plunge into an unknown sea into which others before me, over the course of 150 years, had flung themselves, not out of any desire for the unusual, but because of a deep-rooted conviction that some essential, mysterious element lying in the ocean depths must be salvaged to ensure the survival of the race; there was, of course, the risk of disappearing into the deep, as did Cola Fish in the Sicilian and Neapolitan legend. For the Brothers Grimm, the salvaging meant bringing to light the fragments of an ancient religion that had been preserved by the common people and had lain dormant until the glorious day of Napoleon’s defeat had finally awakened the German national consciousness. In the eyes of the “Indianists,” the essential element consisted of the allegories of the first Aryans who, in trying to explain the mystery of the sun and the moon, laid the foundations for religious and civil evolution. To the anthropologists it signified the somber and bloody initiation rites of tribal youths, rites that have been identical from time immemorial, from Paleolithic hunters to today’s primitive peoples. The followers of the Finnish school, in setting up a method for tracing migrations among Buddhist countries, Ireland and the Sahara, applied a system similar to that used for the classification of coleoptera, which in their cataloging process, reduced findings to algebraic sigla of the Type-Index and Motif-Index. What the Freudians salvaged was a repertory of ambiguous dreams common to all men, plucked from the oblivion of awakenings and set down in canonical form to represent the most basic anxieties. And for students of local traditions everywhere, it was a humble faith in an unknown god, rustic and familiar, who found a mouthpiece in the peasantry.

I, however, plunged into that submarine world totally unequipped, without even a tankful of intellectual enthusiasm for anything spontaneous and primitive. I was subjected to all the discomforts of immersion in an almost formless element which, like the sluggish and passive oral tradition, could never be brought under conscious control. (“You’re not even a Southerner!” an uncompromising ethnologist friend said to me.) I could not forget, for even an instant, with what mystifying material I was dealing. Fascinated and perplexed, I considered every hypothesis which opposing schools of thought proposed in this area, being careful not to allow mere theorizing to cloud the esthetic pleasure that I might derive from these texts, and at the same time taking care not to be prematurely charmed by such complex, stratified, and elusive material. One might well ask why I undertook the project, were it not for the one bond I had with folktales – which I shall clarify in due course.

Meanwhile, as I started to work, to take stock of the material available, to classify the stories into a catalog which kept expanding, I was gradually possessed by a kind of mania, an insatiable hunger for more and more versions and variants. Collating, categorizing, comparing became a fever. I could feel myself succumbing to a passion akin to that of entomologists, which I thought characteristic of the scholars of the Folklore Fellows Communications of Helsinki, a passion which rapidly degenerated into a mania, as a result of which I would have given all of Proust in exchange for a new variant of the ‘gold-dung donkey.” I’d quiver with disappointment if I came upon the episode of the bridegroom who loses his memory as he kisses his mother, instead of finding the one with the ugly Saracen woman, and my eye became so discerning – as is the wont with maniacs – that I could distinguish at a glance in the most difficult Apulian or Friulian text a “Pressemolina type” from a “Bellinda” tupe.

I was unexpectedly caught in the spider-like web of my study, not so much by its formal, outward aspect as by its innermost particularities: infinite variety and infinite repetition. At the same time, the side of me that remained lucid, uncorrupted, and merely excited about the progression of the mania, was discovering that this fund of Italian folklore, in its richness, limpidity, variety, and blend of the real and the unreal, is unsurpassed by even the most famous folktales of Germanic, Nordic, and Slavic countries. This is true not only where the story is recorded from the words of an outstanding narrator – more often than not a woman – or when the story is laid in a region noted for brilliant storytelling, but the very essence of the Italian folktale is unparalleled grace, wit, and unity of design. Its composition and genius for synthesizing the essence of a type is unique. Thus, the longer I remained steeped in the material, the fewer became my reservations; I was truly exalted by the expedition, and meanwhile the cataloging passion – maniacal and solitary – was replaced by a desire to describe for others the unsuspected sights I had come upon.

Now my journey through folklore is over, the book is done. As I write this preface I feel aloof, detached. Will it be possible to come down to earth again? For two years I have lived in woodlands and enchanted castles, torn between contemplation and action: on the one hand hoping to catch a glimpse of the face of the beautiful creature of mystery who, each night, lies down beside her knight; on the other, having to choose between the cloak of invisibility or the magical foot, feather, or claw that could metamorphose me into an animal. And during these two years the world about me gradually took on the attributes of fairyland, where everything that happened was a spell or a metamorphosis, where individuals, plucked from the chiaroscuro of a state of mind, were carried away by predestined loves, or were bewitched; where sudden disappearances, monstrous transformations occurred, where right had to be discerned from wrong, where paths bristling with obstacles led to a happiness held captive by dragons. Also in the lives of peoples and nations, which until now had seemed to be at a standstill, anything seemed possible: snake pits opened up and were transformed into rivers of milk; kings who had been thought kindly turned out to be brutal parents; silent, bewitched kingdoms suddenly came back to life. I had the impression that the lost rules which govern the world of folklore were tumbling out of the magic box I had opened.

Now that the book is finished. I know that this was not a hallucination, a sort of professional malady, but the confirmation of something I already suspected – folktales are real.

Taken all together, they offer, in their oft-repeated and constantly varying examinations of human vicissitudes, a general explanation of life; preserved in the slow ripening of rustic consciences; these folk stories are the catalog of the potential destinies of men and women, especially for that stage in life when destiny is formed, i.e., youth, beginning with birth, which itself often foreshadows the future; then the departure from home, and finally, through the trials of growing up, the attainment of maturity and the proof of one’s humanity. This sketch, although summary, encompasses everything: the arbitrary division of humans, albeit in essence equal, into kings and poor people; the persecution of the innocent and their subsequent vindication, which are the terms inherent in every life; love unrecognized when first encountered and then no sooner experienced than lost; the common fate of subjection to spells, or having one’s existence predetermined by complex and unknown forces. This complexity pervades one’s entire existence and forces one to struggle to free oneself, to determine one’s own fate; at the same time we can liberate ourselves only if we liberate other people, for this is a sine qua non of one’s own liberation. There must be fidelity to a goal and purity of heart, values fundamental to salvation and triumph. There must also be beauty, a sign of grace that can be masked by the humble, ugly guise of a frog; and above all, there must be present the infinite possibilities of mutation, the unifying element in everything: men, beasts, plants, things.