Bizarre Baroque

Like most Western children, I was reared partly on fairy tales.  Presented in beautifully illustrated Ladybird books, these were as much a part of my early childhood as the house decor, encouraging me to read and arousing inchoate ideas of an ur-Europe of forlorn beauties, wandering princes, vindictive stepmothers, dangerous fruits, fabulous treasures, ravening beasts, warty witches, magnificent chateaux, and thorn-swathed castles lost in trackless forest.  When I encountered the Disney versions I swiftly lost interest in them, boyishly repelled by song-and-dance numbers and twee-ness.  But still the stories stayed, lodged in my image of myself and the civilization to which I felt I belonged.  It was years before I realized that fairy tales were much darker and more interesting than Disney or Hans Christian Andersen had led me to believe—and years more before I heard of Giambattista Basile, the most inventive of all fairy-tale writers, to whom we owe such classic characters as Rapunzel and Cinderella.  This elegantly translated, superbly annotated new translation of his Tale of Tales—which Benedetto Croce called “the most remarkable book of the Baroque period”—should therefore be of abounding interest to anyone who has any proprietorial regard for European culture.

Establishing the origins of traditionary tales is often impossible,...

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