22 April 2010

Il Pentamerone

On the second day, the blear-eyed Paola told this eighth tale:

The Young Slave

In days of yore, and in times long gone before, there lived a baron of Serva-scura and his unwedded sister of uncommon beauty. The sister came to be with child and she gave birth secretly to a lovely baby with a face like a moon in its fourteenth night. She named the baby Lisa and sent her to be brought up in secrecy by the fairies.
Each of the fairies gave a charm to the child upon her birth, but one of them twisted her foot on the way and cursed Lisa to die in her seventh year, as a result of a deathy comb left in her hair by her mother. This came to be as foretold. The despairing mother of the dead child ordered seven crystal chests one within the other, and Lisa was placed into the seventh innermost chest. The chests were then placed in the most distant chamber of the palace. Heartbroken, the mother became ill after that. On her deathbed she pleaded with her brother to swear that he would never ever open the forbidden chamber. The brother swore to that and never broke his promise.
Life went on, and as four seasons went by, the baron of Serva-scurva took a wife. When he left her alone in the palace for the first time, the baron begged the baroness not to open the forbidden chamber. But the baroness, once alone, grew more curious by the minute. Then she grew suspicious and finally she grew jealous. And so there was really only one thing for her to do: she opened the chamber. As she stood before the seven crystal chests, her eyes fell upon Lisa. Lisa was then no longer a child of seven. In the intervening years she had grown into a beautiful and shapely girl. The baroness was faint with rage. But just as she pulled Lisa’s hair with all her might, the murderous comb slipped off.
“O mother mine, O mother mine,” cried Lisa as she came to life.
“I'll give thee mama and papa,” thundered the baroness. She cut off Lisa’s hair at once, trashed her for good measure and dressed her in rags. The baroness then made Lisa her slave. The baron was told that the slave girl came as a gift, albeit with the instruction of the donors to treat her harshly for her wickedness and perversion. The mistreatment continued and Lisa grew paler and paler and weaker and weaker by the day.
It so happened one day that a fair came to a nearby town. As the baron was getting ready to go and attend it, he asked every scrub girl in the palace what they would like him to bring them from the fair. When it came to Lisa's turn, she replied that she should like to have a doll, a knife and some pumice-stone. The kind baron heeded her wish and brought her such objects upon return.
As soon as Lisa was all by herself in the kitchen, she put the doll before her and began to weep and wail. For the first time, she relayed her sad story, and then to a static and silent doll. In her despair, Lisa sharpened the knife on the pumice-stone and cried: “If thou wilt not answer me, I shall kill myself, and thus will end the feast.” And so each day the doll came to life anew to listen.
A few days went by in this manner. On the seventh day since the fair the baron stood near the kitchen, admiring his particularly agreeable portrait. It was then that he heard the weeping and the wailing. He bravely put his eye to the key-hole and on the seventh day since the fair Lisa relayed her story to the hidden barron. Just as Lisa threatened the doll, the baron kicked down the door and embraced his tormented niece.
The baron then arranged for Lisa to be nurtured back to a healthy body and a cheerful mind. At her healthiest and cheerfulest, Lisa was wedded Lisa to a handsome and worthy husband.
As for the baroness... The baroness and her shame were sent back to her family. For the baron, a kind and progressive man, took a severe disliking to death penalty.


This story, as here retold by gem, is taken from The Tale of Tales (orig. Lo cunto de li cunti overo lo trattenemiento de peccerille), a collection of fifty Neapolitan fairy tales assembled and rewritten by one Giambattista Basile. The collection was published in two parts in 1634 and in 1636.
It is indeed extremely unfair that we today associate the most notorious fairy tales of Western lore with the Grimms or Perrault. The plots of Cinderella, Rapunzel, Puss in Boots, Sleeping Beauty, Hansel and Gretel and Snow White all come from The Tale of Tales.
Giambattista Basile's collection even had a much more innovative structure than later collections. It is due to its structure that it came to be known as Il Pentamerone: this was a storytelling collection. This is a tale about how these tales came to be, about how the ten selected storytellers performed in total fifty fairy tales, in five days, before Taddeo and the slave-princess. The trickery of the slave-princess is revealed in the ultimate story. Taddeo and the bushy-haired princess, far less progressive than the kind baron and Lisa, condemn the slave-princess to be buried alive up to her neck.

The photograph, titled Snow White, is from a fairy tale photography series by Miwa Yanagi (2004).

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