There’s a shared belief in many cultures, from ancient Europe to China, that a person’s fortunes and misfortunes in life are preordained. In ancient Greece and Rome, philosophy was the study of wisdom, and joy was synonymous with virtue.
A good life came from being a good person, while struggling and fighting to get ahead was seen in many cultures as only a path to short-term gain and long-term suffering.
These concepts are also embodied in some of the old Italian folktales. And before we go on, let me say briefly that folk and fairy tales weren’t always for kids. As author Hans Wilhelm said in his Life Explained video series, these stories, which existed in oral traditions, were only written down around 300 years ago by Charles Perrault, and close to 100 years after by the Brothers Grimm.
“Originally, all these stories were shared amongst adults only,” he said.
Yet, what makes these stories so enduring, that over hundreds of years we can still turn to them and find value? Wilhelm said that fairy tales “are metaphors for the growth of our soul,” that “reflect our personal journey through life.” They tie to the deeper concept that “everything that we encounter is arranged for our benefit, and the final goal of freedom. And the wonderful fairy tales keep reminding us of this fact, over and over again.”
On a similar note, author J.R.R. Tolkien explained in his 1939 lecture, “On Fairy-Stories,” that the human mind has great capabilities to visualize, and stories that go beyond the physical world help our minds transcend the limits placed around us.
Tolkien said fairy tales aren’t contrary to reason. Instead, “the keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make. If men were ever in a state in which they did not want to know or could not perceive truth, then Fantasy would languish until they were cured. If they ever get into that state, Fantasy will perish, and become Morbid Delusion.”
“If men really could not distinguish between frogs and men, fairy-stories about frog-kings would not have arisen,” he wrote.
With this in mind, let’s now discuss two stories: “The Man Wreathed in Seaweed,” and “The Ship with Three Decks.” Both can be found in “Italian Folktales,” published in 1959 by Italo Calvino, who collected 200 folktales in Italy—and which The Folio Society recently republished in a collector’s form.
In “The Man Wreathed in Seaweed,” a king’s daughter is kidnapped, and a group of men set off on a sea voyage to find her. Standing on the deck looking to join this voyage is a well-known vagrant and tippler named Samphire Starboard. The captain can’t stand him, and after setting sail, and seeing how Starboard doesn’t pull his weight on the ship, the captain decides to trick him into getting into the lifeboat, then abandons him at sea near an island.
After finding himself betrayed, Starboard doesn’t seem to mind, and finds a nearby cove where the princess is being held by a giant, shapeshifting octopus which, through her advice, he’s able to defeat. They leave together, only to be picked up by the same captain who abandoned Starboard at sea.
This time, however, the captain is jealous. He wanted to be the one to rescue the princess—not the bum he tried marooning. So, he has Starboard thrown overboard, makes it back to the kingdom, and is set to wed the princess. Yet, just before the processions begin, Starboard comes out of the sea, wreathed in seaweed. The princess tells the king what happened, the captain is thrown in prison for his crimes, and Starboard and the princess get married.
A similar story is told in “The Ship With Three Decks,” in which a boy is made the godson of the King of England, and when he reaches maturity, is told to bring a letter to the king to become his heir. He’s warned, however, to be wary of three unscrupulous fellows along the way. He manages to evade two of them, but the third tricks him, steals the letter for himself, takes the young man’s place, and tells everyone the young man is his servant.
Now, the young man doesn’t seem to make much fuss. And when it turns out the king’s daughter gets kidnapped, who else gets sent to rescue her but the young man. At the docks, he meets an old man who advises him on how to pass the trials ahead, and fills one deck of a boat with cheese rinds, another with bread crumbs, and another with stinking carrion. These end up being gifts to an island of mice, an island of ants, and an island of vultures, respectively, who end up helping the young boy pass three tests needed to rescue the princess.
Yet, when he returns, wouldn’t you guess it? The evil man, guessing the young man will tell everyone the truth of how their roles were switched, pays two thugs to abduct and murder the young man. And they do. Yet, having saved some magic water from one of the tests on the island, the old man manages to revive the young man—who in his revived state appears more handsome than ever.
The evil man, seeing this, asks what the liquid is. He’s told it’s boiling oil. And in a failed attempt to replicate the miraculous effects, the man stabs himself, then jumps into a bin of boiling oil. The evil man is destroyed, and the young man gets the girl.
Now, both of these stories are unbelievable. Yet, both of these stories are also valuable. Yes, the trials are fantastic—involving elements that go beyond any sense of normal reality. But the tests of faith and of character are little different than anything many of us will also face in life. The shape-shifting octopus may be any seeming insurmountable trial we overcome. The princess in need of rescue can be any goal we aim to achieve.
The real questions are: How do we go about facing these trials, and how can we achieve our goals in life? The common answer from folk tales, or these tales in particular, is that we should go about our trials without fear and with our hearts at ease.
The main characters in these stories don’t seem to be especially bright. They’re Forrest Gump-like figures, who are made out to be simple and gullible. But that’s also part of their charm. And they run into men who are cunning, deceptive, and very much out for their own gain—but these qualities are shown as their downfall. And therein lies an important lesson. The world is filled with people who think personal gain is the highest pursuit in life, and these people are often the architects of their own misery.
Life doesn’t always grant awards to the smartest or most cunning of us either. Yet, when facing situations like this, do we keep a light heart, or do we become like the villains out to backstab and sabotage the gentle-hearted heroes?
I’d argue the latter choice would be to the detriment of a person’s basic happiness—finding contentment with what you have will always be better than looking for contentment in what you don’t have. And it’s in lessons like this that we can appreciate the value of folk tales.