- The Maltese Cinderella and the Women’s Storytelling Tradition by Veronica Veen
This is a book that we expected to like, but about which our feelings are mixed. That a version of “Cinderella,” learned by oral transmission, was still being told by a Maltese woman in the first decade of this century is of inherent interest and proves again that rumors of the demise of Märchen (fairy tale) in European oral tradition are exaggerated. Archaeologist/cultural anthropologist/art historian Veronica Veen recorded the tale of il-Germudija, the Sooty One, from Marija (1913–2008)—she is not further identified—in 1992, with the assistance of Gianna, Marija’s niece, also a storyteller, who appears throughout the book as Veen’s consultant on women’s life and storytelling in Malta. All well and good, except that we learn far less about Marija than we do about Veen, who cannot let go of a fight—never quite explained—that she had with Maltese authorities over an archaeological excavation in the 1980s. Veen’s preoccupation with this dispute becomes an irritation to even a sympathetic [End Page 354] reader: the writer gets in her own way. A book that has many sound ideas, and follows an appropriate ethnographic method, is betrayed by eccentric disregard of scholarly conventions, unsupported assertions, and a stream-of-consciousness writing style, all of which could have been fixed by an editor and peer review.
In chapter 1, Veen discusses storytelling settings in Malta and the background of the “dynasty of tellers” from whom Marija descended. Surprisingly Marija “always mentioned male tellers as sources” (19), a point that Veen might have queried had she been aware of Bengt Holbek’s distinction between male-centered and female-centered tales, and his finding that, while men did not like to tell women’s tales, women would tell tales of both genders (Interpretation of Fairy Tales: Danish Folklore in a European Perspective, 1987, 168). Awareness of Holbek’s concept of tales as projective screens for showing critical conflicts, as between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law, would also have spared her from the error of suggesting that this vexed relationship was a particularly Maltese cultural phenomenon rather than one of the drivers of female-centered fairy tales internationally (28).
Chapter 2 presents several Cinderella tellings by Gianna and, at last after 47 pages, Marija’s version. The tale is translated from Maltese to English by Gianna, and Veen gives a detailed account of the telling situation with sensitive commentary based on discussion with the two narrators. It is to Veen’s credit that she allows us to see these transcripts of her interview with Gianna; her method is to bring the reader into the process of interpreting her encounters with the tales and their tellers. It becomes clear that one of the fascinations of the Cinderella story for Veen is that it bears on her own experience as a step-daughter, as well as that archaeological dispute: “[T]he Cinderella story is also about me!” (59).
These two chapters are the strongest, and most of interest to folklorists and fairy-tale scholars. The book as a whole requires patience with misrepresentations of scholarship. For example, in chapter 3 Veen overestimates the reality of ATU types, not recognizing the incredible variety of actual manifestations, resulting in problematic conclusions like “Though the Maltese Cinderellas are basically Catskins ([AT] 510B), as far as we want to ‘typologize’ them, their assertivity is more in Basile’s common Cinderella/Zezolla-line ([AT] 510A)” (79). Laboring under the misapprehension that the only, or most, “energetic and determined” Cinderellas are from Malta, Veen displays her limited knowledge of the tale type in general, as well as of the freedom tellers may take in narrating the tale as they wish. In fact, she wavers between a literary assumption of some kind of fixed text and the more interesting one of a “huge cloud of motifs” (she intends the digital storage analogy) from which tellers choose whatever elements serve their tastes and needs...