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Reviewed by:
  • Fairy Godfather: Straparola, Venice, and the Fairy Tale Tradition
  • Ellan Bethia Otero (bio)
Fairy Godfather: Straparola, Venice, and the Fairy Tale Tradition. By Ruth B. Bottigheimer. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2002

Ruth B. Bottigheimer presents a well-articulated and thorough argument that Giovanfrancesco Straparola da Caravaggio invented the "rise tale," first published in his collection of stories, Pleasant Nights (Piacevoli Notti, 1551). Relying on Straparola's tales and on the social, political, and economic history of Venice of the 1550s, Bottigheimer challenges—successfully in my mind—the assumption that these tales originated with "sturdy German peasant women in or on the edge of Germany's forests" (4). Briefly, rise tales are stories of girls and boys born into abject poverty, but who, through magic, marry into royalty and wealth. The best known example is Straparola's "Costantino and His Cat," today known as "Puss in Boots."

Bottigheimer begins her short, yet pithy, book Fairy Godfather with a discussion of three types of tales: restoration tales, rags-to-riches tales, and rise tales. (Bottigheimer uses the terms "stories," "tales," and "plots" to avoid "terminological problems" [7].) Before proceeding, Bottigheimer disabuses the reader of "three inherited concepts that have hardened into paralyzing orthodoxies": the use of motifs; "the folk" as the author or originator of all fairy tales; and the belief that "the printing press contaminated the folk's stories by editing previously pure oral versions" (6-7). Once these assumptions are dealt with, Bottigheimer lays the foundation for her argument by discussing tales in general, and restoration, rags-to-riches, and rise tales in particular. "Restoration stories' heroes and heroines begin life amid wealth and privilege, are forcefully expelled from luxury into a life of squalor and struggle, and are restored to their initial status at the story's end" (11). "Cinderella" is an example of a restoration tale. In rags-to-riches tales the rise of the hero's or heroine's status "generally hinges on wit or happenstance, which delivers one person's fortune into the hands of another." In contrast to restoration tales and rags-to-riches tales, in rise tales "magic typically precedes marriage. It is magic that makes marriage possible. The marriage is always to royalty. And finally it is marriage that produces money" (14). Bottigheimer has abbreviated the formula for a rise tale as "rags—magic—marriage—riches" (5).

To support her argument, Bottigheimer compares different tales. For example, Bottigheimer differentiates the rags-to-riches tale from the rise tale by contrasting the English tale of Dick Whittingham and his cat (a cat who, without the use of magic, manages to eat all the mice in a sultan's kingdom) with Straparola's "Costantino and His Cat" in which the cat is a fairy in disguise (14). "Costantino and His Cat" is also used to demonstrate Straparola's innovative use of magic in his rise tales. I was delighted to discover that Bottigheimer has provided, in addition to a thorough analysis of "Costantino," the "abbreviated retellings" of five of Straparola's earlier rise tales: "Prince Pig" (night 2, story 1), "Peter the Fool" (night 3, story 1), "Fortunio" (night 3, story 4), "The Magic Doll" (night 5, story 2), and "The Tailor's Apprentice" (night 8, story 4). Indeed, Fairy Godfather abounds with "retellings."

During her discussion of Straparola's rise tales, Bottigheimer places them in their cultural context. Focusing on the theme of poverty, which she states is "openly thematized" in Straparola's tales, Bottigheimer analyzes several tales providing detailed plot and character analysis. Because poverty was an ever present threat, Bottigheimer argues, Straparola wrote his rise tales to appeal to the poor Venetian who struggled in a faltering economy and who had no chance of marrying into wealth, a marriage "that clearly, could only be achieved by magic" (34). Of interest is the fact that the non-rise tales' endings "differed jarringly from the 'happily ever after' endings that characterized rise tales" (30). This plot detail, Bottigheimer maintains, demonstrates another unique aspect of Straparola's rise tales.

Bottigheimer distinguishes the use of magic in Straparola's rise tales from that of restoration tales by comparing the two. Whereas the restoration...


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pp. 180-181
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