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Reviewed by:
  • Italian Popular Tales
  • Nancy Canepa (bio)
Italian Popular Tales. By Thomas Frederick Crane . Edited and introduced by Jack Zipes . New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. 317 pp.

A deteriorating copy of Thomas F. Crane's Italian Popular Tales (1885) had long sat on my bookshelf when, happily, Jack Zipes's edition of this classic work recently came out. Crane's volume is an eclectic compendium—the first of its kind published in English—that is just as delightful to read straight through as it is useful for examining Italian tale types and their variants, and Zipes has done Italianists and folklorists alike a precious service by making it available again.

Italian Popular Tales is divided into six chapters dedicated primarily to "the stories that are handed down by word of mouth from one generation to another of the illiterate people, serving exclusively to amuse and seldom to instruct" (xlix). The principal sources for the fairy tales, stories of oriental origin, legends and ghost stories, nursery tales, and stories and jests were oral, as Crane indicates in the introduction, and derived from Laura Gonzenbach, Vittorio Imbriani, Domenico Comparetti, Gherardo Nerucci, Domenico Bernoni, and, above all, Giuseppe Pitrè, all prolific collectors and folklorists of the second half of the nineteenth century (a good number of Crane's tales will be familiar to readers of Italo Calvino's Italian Folk Tales, for Calvino used many of these same sources). Crane's notes, over 50 pages in this edition, contain upward of a dozen more tales as well as details on the development and variants of many tale types across time and space.

As Zipes notes in his preface, Crane "offers a much more complex and rich selection of oral and literary tales" (vii) than can be found in the Grimms or Afanasyev. Although he excludes "authored" tales from the collection, he does frequently cite the robust literary tradition of the preceding centuries (e.g., Straparola and Basile) and is most attentive to the give-and-take between oral and literary storytelling that became particularly intense in the nineteenth century. Crane also tends to "touch up" his tales less than others, even when they deal with violent or disturbing topics and offer morals along the lines of "crime pays, might makes right, and cunning is necessary to survive in a dog-eat-dog world" (vii).

Crane's unusual academic iter, along with the importance of his folklore studies, is outlined in Zipes's excellent introduction. Born in New York in [End Page 309] 1844, he attended Princeton, started off his professional life practicing law, acquired proficiency in German, French, Spanish, and Italian largely on his own, and by 1869 was teaching in the Department of Romance Languages at Cornell. In the course of his life he published, besides Italian Popular Tales, major monographs and anthologies on French history, society, and folklore, and Italian social customs. Crane was, in the words of Zipes, "a pioneer in America of the comparative method . . . with a strong emphasis on sociocultural contexts and history" (xiii); his interest lay in discovering "the universal in the particular" (xxi) by providing an ample corpus of tales whose variants could be traced both in and outside of Italy.

In the first of two chapters devoted to fairy tales (nearly half of the book) we find versions of well-known stories organized by types such as the mysterious husband, the jealous relative who steals away children or the mother who promises her offspring to a witch or other antagonists, the virtuous child harmed by jealous siblings, other forms of interfamilial treachery, false and forgotten brides, and the defeat of supernatural foes by mortals. The second chapter includes tales outside of the "extensive classes" of the first section, which feature, for example, fairies (relatively rare in the Italian tradition), dolls or puppets, numskull protagonists, helpful animals, or the grateful dead.

The tales may be familiar, but in their details they often deviate from more canonical versions in the direction of greater psychological realism, an attenuated taste for cruelty, and comic sparkle. This is due in part to the difference between oral and literary traditions, but it might also be argued (as Calvino did...


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pp. 309-312
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