In The Tale of Tales Princess Zosa is cursed to marry only Tadeo, the Prince of Round-Field, who is enchanted to sleep forever unless a woman fills a pitcher with tears in three days. Zosa falls alseep before the end of the third day and the remainder of the vessel is filled by a Moorish slave girl who takes the Prince for her own.
In folk-tale fashion Zosa, with magical help, infects the now pregnant Queen with "a burning desire to hear tales". Fifty tales are to to be told over five days by ten sharp-tongued old women. Zosa plans to use these tales to show Tadeo his wife's treachery and win him for herself.
Giambattista Basile collected these folk tales in southern Italy in the early 17th century. Most of them are the earliest known versions of these tales, including Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty and Puss in Boots. While many of these stories ring familiar, they are overwhelmed with rape, greed, murder, theft and diarrhea. These stories make the original Grimm's Fairy Tales look like a picnic, hot iron dancing shoes and all.
It took me over a year to finish this, mostly because the style of fairy tales can get monotonous and because this edition is loaded with academic and translator notes pointing out word play that didn't translate and unpicking the cultural references of 400 years ago. Most of the humor involves poop, but everything else needed explanation.
These is such a wealth of information here. The baroque court of Naples and thriving artistic community comes alive with the high use of metaphor - the sun and the moon are personified in at least sixty different ways, sweeping away stars, depositing daylight, etc. - and the reactions and commentary of the Tales' audience. The stories themselves reveal a complicated world where people live and die at the whims of royalty, and monsters are often your neighbors.
Reflecting a very specific place in the Europe of 400 years ago, there is no cultural sensitivity here. At most there is occasional sympathy given to the impoverished. From story to story families can forgive each other or murder each other without the moral being affected. A king will do many things to please his queen, murdering her to marry the next thing is acceptable. Ogres are Others and, even when they are helpful or completely justified in their anger, no one bats an eye at murdering them. Our villain, the Moorish slave girl turned Queen, is a loathsome caricature but the reader flinches when reading of her ultimate fate.
These are not for the faint of heart, but anyone interested in the evolution of the story in the European tradition or in cultural history should give these stories a go.