The Rabelais of Naples

The Tale of Tales, or Entertainment for Little Ones

by Giambattista Basile, translated from the Neapolitan and with an introduction by Nancy L. Canepa, with illustrations by Carmelo Lettere and a foreword by Jack Zipes
Penguin, 475 pp., $20.00 (paper); 1,088 minutes, $27.50 (audiobook)

Tale of Tales

a film directed by Matteo Garrone
Salma Hayek eating the heart of a sea dragon in Tale of Tales
IFC Films
Salma Hayek as a queen eating the heart of a sea dragon in Matteo Garrone’s film Tale of Tales (2015), adapted from a set of stories by Giambattista Basile

It starts with an act of indecent exposure. An old woman, maltreated and insulted outside the king’s palace, lifts her dress to reveal “a woodsy scene.” A series of events is set in motion that ultimately induces the king to call together the best storytellers of the realm to tell ten stories a day for five consecutive days to keep his pregnant wife happy. So we have the so-called pentameron, a backward nod to Boccaccio’s Decameron; written by Giambattista Basile (1575–1632) and published posthumously in 1634 under the title Lo cunto de li cunti (The Tale of Tales) and with the subtitle “Entertainment for Little Ones,” it is the first authored collection of literary fairy tales in Western Europe.

But “entertainment for little ones” it most certainly is not. I first came across Basile’s work in Matteo Garrone’s film Tale of Tales (2015) and was struck by the focus on questions of family and belonging, still so essential to Italian life. Garrone intertwines three stories, all centered on kings, queens, princes, and princesses—emblematic families. Panoramic shots of the Italian landscape show walled towns topped by moated castles perched on lonely hilltops. None of the drama involves conflict or commerce between these distant, spectacularly segregated communities, or even within them; rather we have the drama of the passage from inside to outside, or outside to inside: leaving home to become a stranger, a wife perhaps; or inviting a daughter-in-law or son-in-law into one’s own small world. The self-sufficient family is the ideal: but to perpetuate themselves families must produce children, and that means looking outside to find a spouse, who is not one of them, hence potentially dangerous.

In one of the stories Garrone adapts, a handsome king on the battlements of his castle hears a beautiful female voice from the houses of the poor below. She sings so sweetly that he knows he must have this woman. But the door to the house where the singing came from is bolted against him. Inside are two ancient and unspeakably ugly sisters. However, the king doesn’t know that. What would he know about people outside his castle?

Fired up by the seductive voice, he declares his love. After eight days, one of the women pokes a finger through a keyhole for him to caress, a finger she has spent hours sucking and smoothing. The king is ecstatic. In her tiniest voice, one of the hags says she will come to his bed if he will agree to have her in complete darkness. He agrees. When, in the middle of the night, he discovers what she looks like,…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.