Sunday, September 03, 2017

The Tale of Tales

Loosely based upon one of the earliest of all European collections of fairy-tales, Italian film director Matteo Garrone's adaptation of Giambattista Basile's The Tale of Tales is a triumph of cinematography. Starring Salma Hayek and Toby Jones, Garrone's Tale of Tales (2015) is sumptuous in costume, decor and location and exemplary of magical realism in cinema.

Early in the first of three overlapping stories, the childless King and Queen of Longtrellis consult a ghoulish necromancer who mysteriously declares- 

'the equilibrium of the world must be maintained, every desire and action corresponds to another, every life calls for a life, birth is always stained by death, death in turn is simply one element of birth'.  

These philosophical aphorisms alert one to the fact that the fairy tales collected by the Neapolitan courier and poet Giambattista Basile (1566-1632) The Tale of Tales (Lo cunto de li cunti) are far removed from the sentimental fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen (1805-75) and even further removed from the syrup and saccharine servings of modern-day Disney adaptations. 

Taking the advice that the heart of a sea-dragon must be found and cooked by a virgin in order for the Queen to become pregnant, the King of Longtrellis duly embarks upon an aquatic hunt. This first story although deviating from the original plot, nevertheless, like each one of the three overlapping stories of Garrone's  Tale of Tales remains in essence faithful to the moral of Basile's fairy-tale collection. All three stories focus upon the deceptive world of appearances and the fatal consequences which occur when obtaining false desires.

Besides being well-acted, notably in the roles portrayed by Salma Hayek and Toby Jones, the Neapolitan flavour of Basile's tales is conveyed well in costume, decor and location. The Tale of Tales was filmed entirely in Italy, including  at Naples at the Royal Palace, at the Palace of Capodimonte and its gardens, at Apulia's Castel del Monte, Sicily's Donnafugata Castle, Gole dell'Alcantara in Alcantara, Abruzzo's Castello di Roccascalegna, Tuscany's Moorish castle of Sammezzano  and the towns of Sorano and Sovana. All of which are atmospheric backdrops contributing to the film's stylish narrative.
In the second tale of The Tale of Tales, the fatal mistake of misdirected desire is once more focussed upon. The King of Highhills (Toby Jones) is distracted by a flea while listening to his daughter accompanying herself on guitar while singing. He captures the flea and lovingly nurtures it. The pet flea grows to monstrous proportions to become a secret hobby of greater importance to him than the future of his daughter. When the flea dies the King concocts a bizarre challenge for the hand of his daughter in marriage which backfires with fatal consequences when an ogre visits his castle to take up his challenge.   

In the third story featured in The Tale of Tales the dissolute and lustful King of Longtrellis (Vincent Cassell) also hears a woman singing and becomes obsessed with seducing her.  However, unknown to him, the voice he hears belongs to one of two  aged and withered sisters. Unable to see his obsessive love he persuades her to grant him the favour of at least poking a finger through a hole for him to kiss (some quite overt Freudian symbolism going on there). Once obtaining his full desire and disgusted at her true appearance, he orders his guards to commit an act of defenestration upon his rejected lover. Caught mid-flight in the branches of a tree she is suckled by a sorceress and transformed into a beautiful young woman.  

In Basile's fairy stories the staple diet of fairy tales world-wide can be found, seemingly impossible tasks to be performed, humans transformed into animals such as cats, doves, foxes and whales which talk, dramatis personae of dwarves and ogres, cruel step-mothers, magicians and sorceresses, peasants and Kings, true love found and tales of rags to riches. Basile's stories also include moral aphorisms such as, 'Ingratitude is a nail, which, driven into the tree of courtesy, causes it to wither' and, 'One hour in port, the sailor freed from fears, forgets the tempests of a hundred years'. as well as astrological aphorisms one character uttering, 'He is a madman who resists the stars',  another says 'Praised be Sol in Leo !' The pipes of Pan, with their seven reeds one larger than another are also mentioned. 

Such is the sophistication of Basile's tales in their construction that in the 2007 Penguin translation of his tales, the translator observes - 

Each tale is introduced by a rubric that sums up the story and a preamble that includes a summary of the audience's reactions to the previous tale as well as reflections on the teaching of the tale to come (often leading to discussions of favourite Renaissance and Baroque topics such as fortune and virtue, wit, envy), and concludes with a moralizing proverb, often from Basile's Neapolitan wit [1]

'Heaven sends biscuits to him who has no teeth'.

Basile's plots often reverse expectations, his language is described as - 'an unusual stylized Baroque version of the Neapolitan dialect, at times mellifluous, at times coarse and provocative; his critical commentary on his era was so far ahead of his time that it still has a bearing on contemporary society'. [2]   

'Basile's tales are inhabited by supernatural creatures and propelled by forms of magic entirely disassociated from any religious system, at a time when the strict orthodoxy of the Counter- Reformation influenced public and private expression. The Tale of Tales is a work that simultaneously  evokes the humus of seventeenth century Naples- its landmarks, customs and daily rituals, family and professional life - and conjures forth a fantastic world whose originality still holds strong attraction today'. [3]

Giambattista Basile (1575-1632)
Another critic describes Basile's tales as -'bawdy and irreverent but also tender and whimsical; acute in psychological characterization and at the same time encyclopaedic in description; full, ultimately, of irregularities and loose ends that somewhat magically manage to merge into a splendid portrait of creatures engaged in the grave and laborious, gratifying and joyful business of learning to live in the world - and to tell about it. '[4]

Basile's dark and baroque fairy-tales are equal in importance to those of Charles Perrault (1697) or the Brothers Grimm (1810); indeed The Tale of Tales contains the earliest literary versions of many celebrated  fairy tales  - Cinderella, sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, and Hansel and Gretel among others. Throughout the past two centuries, in particular, the Brothers Grimm highly influential collection of fairy tales, almost every nation and culture from Russian to Lapp to Aborigine have sought to collate a definitive collection of their own fairy-tales. It was not until the 20th century in Italy that a definitive collection of fairy-tales were collated. Basile was a key influence and source to Italo Calvino's masterly compilation Fiabe Italiane (Italian folktales) of over 200 Italian fairy tales, which  Calvino describes thus-
Taken all together, they offer, in their oft-repeated and constantly varying examinations of human vicissitudes, a general explanation of life preserved in the slow ripening of rustic consciences; folk stories are the catalog of the potential destinies of men and women, especially for that stage in life when destiny is formed i.e. youth, beginning with birth, which itself often foreshadows the future; then the departure from home, and, finally, through the trials of growing up, the attainment of maturity and the proof of one’s humanity. This sketch, although summary, encompasses everything: the arbitrary division of humans, albeit in essence equal, into kings and poor people; the persecution of the innocent and their subsequent vindication, which are the terms  inherent in every life; love unrecognised when first encountered and then no sooner experienced than lost; the common fate of subjection to spells, or having one’s existence predetermined by complex and unknown forces. This complexity pervades one’s entire existence and forces one to struggle to free oneself, to determine one’s own fate; at the same time we can liberate ourselves only if we liberate other people, for this is the sine qua non of one’s own liberation. There must be fidelity to a goal and purity of heart, values fundamental to salvation and triumph. There must also be beauty, a sign of grace that can be masked by the humble, ugly guise of a frog; and above all, there must be present the infinite possibilities of mutation, the unifying element in everything: men, beasts, plants, things. [5]

In contemporary study of the fairy tale, Jack Zipes, the most industrious scholar in the field, has developed a politically committed, cultural materialist perspective which explores the multiple ricochets between historical facts and mentalities (including class and gender values) with fairytale scenarios. His extensive criticism, from Don't Bet on the Prince (1986) to his recent The Irresistible Rise of the Fairy Tale (2007) has simultaneously helped give fairy tales greater stature as literature and led to sharp controversy about their pernicious or liberating influence upon audiences, especially the young.[6] According to Zipes -

'In the fairy tale man is freed from the mystery's obligation of silence by transforming it into enchantment; it is not participation in a cult of knowledge which renders him speechless, but bewitchment. The silence of the mystery is undergone as a rupture, plunging man back into the pure, mute language of nature; but as a spell, silence must eventually be shattered and conquered. This is why, in the fairy tale, man is struck dumb, and animals emerge from the pure language of nature in order to speak'. [7]

Fairy tales have attracted the attention of many great artists, poets, illustrators and composers. Adapted for theatre as the framework for countless Christmas pantomimes and the inspiration for various composers (some of the greatest ballets of all-time are based upon fairy-tales, namely, Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty as well as Stravinsky's ballet The Firebird) the literary genre of the fairy or folk tale continues to be a source of inspiration, entertainment and interpretative discourse throughout the world. 

Celebrating the power of the imagination the fairy story is a literary genre which may be considered as exemplary of magical realism. In the modern-era, Cinema with its combination of sound and moving image is another medium through which magical realism can be convincingly experienced.

In the Mexican film-director Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth (2006) the worlds of fascist Spain and the dark fantasy world his adopted daughter Ofelia explores are juxtaposed to eventually collide, with tragic, yet redeeming consequences. Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth, along with The Tin Drum (Schlöndorff 1979) The City of Lost Children (Caro and Jeunet 1995) Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly, 2001) Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze 1999) AmĂ©lie ( Jeunet 2001) The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes (Brothers Quay 2005) The Science of Sleep (Michel Gondry 2006) and many of the films by Terry Gilliam are among my personal favourites. There is however nowadays an increasingly amorphous and mushrooming of the term 'magical realism' and an ever-lengthening list of films which critics claim are exemplary of the generic term, thus rendering the label near meaningless.   

The psychologists Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung occupied themselves with the inner meaning of fairy tales and folk motifs, and both had disciples who dedicated full-length studies to the analysis of fairy tales. The Swiss psychologist C.G.Jung (1875-1961) wrote two major studies on fairy-stories, 'The Phenomenology of the Spirit in Fairytales' and 'The Spirit  Mercurius' which analyzes the Brothers Grimm's 'The Spirit in the Bottle'. Jung interpreted fairytales, along with alchemy and dreams, as conduits to the unconscious psyche, noting-  

'Fairytales seem to be the myths of childhood and they therefore contain among other things the mythology which children weave for themselves concerning sexual processes. The poetry of the fairytale, whose magic is felt even by the adult, rests not least upon the fact that some of the old theories are still alive in our unconscious. We experience a strange and mysterious feeling whenever a fragment of our remotest youth stirs into life again, not actually reaching consciousness, but merely shedding a reflection of its emotional intensity on the conscious mind'. [8] 

According to Jung, 'As in alchemy, the fairytale describes the unconscious processes that compensate the conscious, Christian situation...the fairytale makes it clear that it is possible for a man to attain totality, to become whole, only with the spirit of darkness, indeed that the latter is actually a causa instrumentalis of redemption and individuation'. [9] 

'Myths and fairytales give expression to unconscious processes, and their retelling causes these processes to come alive again and be recollected, thereby re-establishing the connection between conscious and unconscious'.  [10] 

C.G. Jung believed that - 'It is extremely important to tell children fairy tales and legends, and to inculcate religious ideas into grown-ups, because these things are instrumental symbols with whose help unconscious contents can be canalized into consciousness, interpreted and integrated'. [11] 

The function of the fairy-tale according to Jung is - 'to tell us how to proceed if we want to overcome the power of darkness: we must turn his own weapons against him, which naturally cannot be done if the magical underworld of the hunter remains unconscious'. [12] 

It was however Jung's disciple, Marie-Louis von Franz (1915-1998) who took fairy-tales seriously enough to devote many years of her life exploring their psychological symbolism. von Franz's books remain fruitful reading for those wishing to study fairy-tales from a Jungian perspective in  greater depth. [13]

In conclusion, returning our attention to  Basile's fairy-tales  - In an interview at the Cannes film festival in 2016 the Italian film director Matteo Garrone quoted Calvino's description of Basile as a kind of 'deformed Neapolitan Shakespeare' and described his own film adaptation of Basile's tale as being fantasy with horror. In what must surely have been a labour of love, i.e. to restore a neglected work of Italian literature, Garrone's film is to be applauded for raising the profile of Basile's little-known collection.


[1] Giambattista  Basile  The Tale of Tales Penguin Books Wayne State University Press 2007
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Italo Calvino  - Italian Folktales  pub. 1956 trans. 1980
[6] Once Upon a Time - A short history of fairy tale - Marina Warner OUP 2014
[7] Ibid.
[8] C.G.Jung Collected Works Vol.  17 para 43
[9]  CW vol. 9 i: 453 'The Phenomenology of the Spirit in Fairytales' (1945/48)
[10]  CW 9 ii: 280
[11] CW 9 ii: 259
[12] CW 9 i: 453 'The Phenomenology of the Spirit in Fairytales' (1945/48)
[13] The Feminine in Fairytales - M.L. von Franz - Spring Publications 1972
The Psychological Meaning of Redemption Myths in Fairytales - M.L. von Franz Inner City books 1980.