Giambattista Basile’s The Tale of Tales

Giambattista Basile.  The Pentamerone. [Translated by Benedetto Croce.] London:  John Lane the Bodley Head Ltd, 1932.

Giambattista Basile’s Lo cunto de li cunti, or The Tale of Tales, is a key text in the development of the European fairy tale tradition because it contains some of the earliest versions of what are now classic tale types.  Basile’s “Sun, Moon, and Talia” is a sleeping beauty tale and his “Cinderella Cat” tells of a girl named Zezolla’s struggles with her evil stepmother and stepsisters who wish to keep her away from a prince.  With the help of a fairy, Zezolla is able to dress elegantly and wins the heart of the prince.

Although we can see in Basile’s stories the basic plot structure of fairy tales still popular today, Basile’s tales are vastly different from contemporary versions.  For example, his sleeping beauty, Talia, falls asleep after having her finger pricked by a sliver of flax.  Left sleeping in an abandoned castle by her distraught father, she is found one day by a king who is in the wood hunting.  Struck by her beauty, he sleeps with her and nine months later Talia, without ever waking, gives birth to twins, Sun and Moon. Fairies carry the infants to her breast to nurse each day. One day, one of the twins sucks the sliver out of Talia’s finger and she awakes.  The King returns and is delighted to find Talia and the two children; however, when he tells his wife the Queen the news of Talia his offspring, she is enraged and begins to plot against them. First, she has the children sent to the royal palace and orders the cook to kill them and then use their bodies to prepare dainty dishes.  The cook, however, takes pity on the children and hides them.  Next, the Queen calls Talia to the royal palace and plans to burn her alive.  Talia begs the queen to be able to remove her clothing and the queen grants her permission to do so.   With each piece of clothing Talia removes, she screams. The king arrives just in time to save Talia and throw the evil queen into the fire.  The cook reveals that he has not killed the children and so the king, Talia, Sun, and Moon live happily ever after.

Born in 1575, Basile served at various courts mainly in and around his native city Naples.  He divided his time between his courtly duties and his literary pursuits. Although during his lifetime he was known as a gifted poet of standard Italian, he wrote his masterpiece, The Tale of Tales, in Neapolitan dialect. Perhaps on account of this linguistic choice, his collection of tales, although reprinted a number of times, never achieved the success of Straparola’s The Pleasant Nights.  Basile died in 1632 leaving his fairy tales unpublished.  The Tale of Tales would be published in Naples in five volumes between 1634 and 1636.

Straparola and Basile in English:
WG Waters’ The Facetious Nights

[Giovanni Francesco Straparola.]  The Italian Novelists: Now First Translated into English by W. G. Waters.  London: Privately Printed for Members of the Society of Bibliophiles, 1901.

During the nineteenth century, Straparola’s and Basile’s tales found new reading publics through their English translations.

Surprisingly, the first complete English translation of Straparola’s The Pleasant Nights appeared only in 1894.  Translated by William George Waters and titled The Facetious Nights, the multi-volume set was privately printed by the Society of Bibliophiles and sold by subscription only, in print runs numbering from 300 to 1000. Featuring high quality Venetian paper and richly illustrated with both color and black and white plates by Edward R. Hughes and Jules Garnier, this translation was clearly intended for a well-to-do, adult readership.

For Waters’ Victorian readers, some Straparola’s fairy tales and riddles tested the limits of propriety, while other more realistic tales were judged to be scandalously lascivious. For this reason, Waters chose to translate the most licentious passages of the latter into French, rather than English.  Tellingly, Waters’ translation would be re-published in 1906 by one of the most infamous pornographers of the early 20th-century, Charles Carrington, who openly marketed the tales as erotica.

Although Basile subtitled his collection of tales, “Entertainment for the Little Ones,” his fairy tales were never intended for children.  He wrote the tales as an amusement for his fellow courtiers in Naples.  The complex metaphors and myriad references to classical and learned culture are ill suited for young readers.  Basile’s fairy tales truly became “entertainment for the little ones” through John E. Taylor’s translation, The Pentameron, or the Story of Stories (1848), which included drawings by the celebrated children’s illustrator George Cruikshank.

Text by Associate Professor Suzanne Manganini


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