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  • Introduction: The European Fairy-Tale Tradition between Orality and Literacy
  • Dan Ben-Amos (bio)

In fairy godfather: straparola, venice, and the fairy tale tradition, Ruth Bottigheimer proposes to correct the historical narrative of the emergence of the fairy tale in Europe and to recognize “Straparola’s role as an originator in the history of modern fairy tale” (Bottigheimer 2002:3). Giovanni Francesco Straparola (c. 1480–c. 1557) is not exactly an unknown figure in folktale history.1 His book, Le piacevoli notti (Pleasant nights), which appeared in English as The Nights of Straparola (Straparola [1551–1553] 1894), was long recognized as a predecessor of Giambattista Basile’s Lo cunto de li cunti (The tale of tales; published 1634–1636; also known in its 1674 edition as Il Pentamerone) and Charles Perrault’s Contes de ma mere l’Oye (Tales of Mother Goose; Perrault [1695–1697] 1956). As Bottigheimer (2002:2) points out, the Grimm brothers considered Straparola as their precursor, admiring him as an author who conscientiously drew upon oral tradition. Selections from Straparola’s tales appeared in volumes published in Vienna in 1791, which included twenty-four tales, and in Berlin in 1817, which included eighteen tales and was accompanied by the copious notes of the editor and translator Friedrich Wilhelm Valentine Schmidt. In the mid-nineteenth century, Theodor Benfey found in the case of Straparola implicit support for his theory of the Indian origin of folktales. For him, the availability of Straparola’s tales was felicitous evidence for the possible historical interdependence of oral and literate tales. Since the idea that oral tradition alone could sustain a global diffusion of tales was unfathomable in his days, he relied on the migration and translation of the Panchatantra, a classic Indian tale collection, as a support for his Indian origin hypothesis (Benfey 1859). The availability of a European tale collection that demonstrated the possibility of such historical interdependence provided him with further support for his theory.

In her book, Bottigheimer rekindles Benfey’s conception of literature as inspiration for oral storytelling, and she proceeds to attribute to Straparola a far greater role in the history of the folktale. She argues that he was not merely a link in the back-andforth transitions between oral storytelling and literature but was an original literary innovator who created a new, previously unknown folktale form—the “rise tale.” Associated with this form, and thematically central to it, is the narrative role of a magical benefactor in human or animal guise; Bottigheimer considers this narrative figure to be Straparola’s literary invention as well. In her view, Straparola acted as an [End Page 373] agent of a newly rising urban middle class and expressed in his “rise tales” its socioeconomic aspirations. While the consideration of folktales as a reflection of social and cultural values has been a staple of folklore research, the proposition that a literary writer originated a folklore form, and created a new narrative role to go along with this form, is revolutionary for the field.

Such a clear, precise, and well-defined proposition, which is limited to a specific literary-historical case, could be tested like a scientific hypothesis. Karl Popper proposed that a scientific system “require[s] that its logical form shall be such that it can be singled out, by means of empirical tests, in a negative sense: it must be possible for an empirical scientific system to be refuted by experience” (1959:41). Although Bottigheimer formulates her hypothesis in descriptive rather than logical terms, in her challenging study she offers a rare opportunity for testing a proposition that concerns a critical period in the history of the folktale: the era of the print revolution (see Baron, Lindquist, and Shevlin 2007; Eisenstein 1979, 1983). This was a period in which chapbooks, pamphlets, broadsides, and other forms of popular printing entered the domains of the marketplace, the family room, and the coffeehouse, as well as the community hall and bar, where oral entertainment previously ruled.

Regarding the European folktale tradition, print also changed the rules of historical evidence and entrapped folktales in a historical paradox. Chronologically, many literary tales pre-date the recordings of their oral counterparts. In fact, it is...


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pp. 373-376
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