Thomas Frederick Crane’s Italian Popular Tales

9781576072721-us-300Faith Cormier penned this review.

As is to be expected from Oxford University Press, Italian Popular Tales is no kiddie book, but rather a work of serious scholarship.

Italian Popular Tales, first published in 1885, was the first comprehensive collection of folktales from Italy published in English. It is meticulously organized by subject (fairy tales, tales of Oriental origin, etc.). This is not just a collection of stories, however, as each one is introduced and commented on in the text. The copious endnotes list the origins of each tale and cross-reference their various stock elements. They also include variants on several of the tales, some of them quite long, that were not included in the body of the book for whatever reason.

Crane also included a bibliography and a list of works most frequently referred to in the notes. The index is based around story elements, not characters’ names or story titles, but there is both a table of contents giving chapter headings and a list of individual tales.

Thomas Frederick Crane (1844-1927) was one of the leading folklorists of the 19th century and a founder of the Journal of American Folklore. He was trained as a lawyer, but ended up teaching Italian and Spanish, as well as medieval literature, at Cornell University. He was also a prolific writer. The bibliography of his writings included in Italian Popular Tales has 331 entries, and does not take into account his youthful works of fiction. Despite his contributions to folklore studies, Crane is not well known now, and there is a dearth of information on him.

Jack Zipes is another matter, and very well known indeed. He is a professor of German at the University of Minnesota and has written widely on folklore. Among the many references available on him him, you can find biographical information and interviews.

How much of this volume is Crane’s and how much is Zipes’? The only way to evaluate that would have been through a word-for-word comparison of this edition to the original of 1885. Not having the original available, I can only say that the formality of late-19th-century English has been retained, but that I would not be surprised if the text has been lightened somewhat.

Italian Popular Tales is a work of serious scholarship, but you don’t have to be a serious scholar to find it interesting. Where the scholar will find an excellent introduction to the early collections of Italian folktales, the casual reader will encounter a number of fascinating tales. Some of them will have familiar elements while others will be totally unknown. All are interesting.

Among the familiar tales are versions of Cinderella, Snow White, Bluebeard and Puss in Boots. There are also stories of talking animals, demons, witches, monsters, canny rustics and all the familiar folktale characters. There is also a whole class of religious legends about Christ and the Apostles and their wanderings on earth.

I said that this was no kiddie book, but that does not mean that children (at least older, fairly literate ones) will not enjoy it. The subject matter is no more bizarre or salacious than most fairytales, and less so than many modern retellings. Crane was a Victorian, after all — though I see no evidence of bowdlerization, either. In short, Crane did his best to make Italian folktales accessible to an English-speaking audience, and it is unfortunate that it has taken so long for this book to receive wide distribution.

(Oxford University Press, 2003)

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