Laura Gonzenbach’s nineteenth-century collection of Sicilian folktales was remarkable for several things. It was the first collection of folk tales from Sicilian sources, it was first published in German rather than Italian or Sicilian, and it was produced by a woman when folklore, at least the published variety, was the province of men.
Jack Zipes, in his introduction to this collection, remarks on Gonzenbach’s success in collecting these stories, told mainly by women, and the freshness and immediacy of her rendering. Gonzenbach also did something in her collecting more in keeping with contemporary standards of recording folklore than with those of the nineteenth century: she herself claimed to have written them down exactly as they were told to her (within certain obvious limits: they were told in Sicilian dialect, while Gonzenbach translated them into a more literary form of German), which is much more the goal of contemporary folklore collectors than it was that of the Brothers Grimm and their contemporaries. These stories were not moderated or sweetened to make suitable bedtime reading for bourgeois children. While Zipes points out the differences in Gonzenbach’s approach and those of modern folklorists in the field, one must keep in mind that folklore as a discipline was in its infancy in the nineteenth century, without the resources or methodology of the contemporary practitioner. Gonzenbach’s renderings, therefore, without the use of tape recorders and notation systems to indicate gestures and changes in voice, do give a surprising sense of authenticity.
I’ve been calling them “folktales,” which in a broad sense is true. Zipes points out that the stories contain legends, fairy tales, fables, and anecdotes. They do fall into recognizable categories: “Beautiful Angiola,” for example, is of the same pattern as the better-known “Rapunzel.” There are several variations on the “Hansel and Gretel” story, and several of a form new to me, in which the brother and sister (or captives-become-sweethearts) flee the wicked witch and transform themselves into a garden and gardener, a church and sacristan, and a river and fish to throw off pursuit.
Zipes comments extensively on the class animosity revealed in these tales, but I don’t really find it any more marked than in any other group of folk or fairy tales. Clever peasants and tradesmen often figure prominently in folklore, and in these stories are as much likely to prove themselves superior to kings and princes as they are in those from any other source. One thing that is interesting, in contrast to the stories of, for example, Hans Christian Andersen: women and girls are just as brave and resourceful as their male counterparts, and often wind up victorious over wayward lovers and husbands.
It is no doubt of great benefit to have Gonzenbach’s collection at last translated into English, and I can understand the desire to present the work as much as possible in the form that it was first published. It would have been interesting, I think, to have more commentary and cross-referencing throughout the book, and more germane, perhaps, to have related the stories to others of similar type from different sources — as Joseph W. Campbell has pointed out, folklore is a largely international effort, tales having little respect for boundaries, and what is often most interesting about the stories from a particular region is the specific variations they introduce into a much more widespread original. It is, however, in light of John Ruskin’s ideas of the role of woman as the means of cultural transmission, intriguing to see these stories as told largely by women to a woman. Zipes notes that it would be a mistake to characterize the collection as subversive or “feminist,” but it does illustrate beautifully the subversion of gender roles that begins to make itself known in nineteenth-century European thought.
On the whole, I have to consider the book of more value as source material for the folklorist than as general reading, although the tales themselves are well told and the translation is fluent and engaging.