The opening of the Italian fairytale "Prezzemolina" is near-identical to Rapunzel, but then the story takes a totally different direction. It becomes something like a gender-flipped versions of stories like "Master Maid" or "Petrosinella," where the hero is in danger from a villain, but is rescued by the villain's beautiful and magical daughter. In this version, it's a heroine who's rescued by the wicked witch's handsome son. There are two primary versions of the tale, so I'll list them in the order of publication.
The story of "La Prezzemolina" begins just like Rapunzel and the older Italian "Petrosinella," with a pregnant woman craving parsley. Some fairies live next door, so she climbs into their walled garden to steal their parsley. They eventually catch her, and tell her that they will one day take away her child. The woman has her baby, who is named Prezzemolina (Little Parsley). The fairies collect her when she reaches school-age, and she grows up as their servant. They give her impossible tasks and threaten to eat her if she fails. Fortunately Memé, the fairies' cousin, arrives and offers to help in exchange for a kiss. She sharply refuses the kiss, but he helps anyway with a magic wand and mysterious powers. She goes through several tasks, including going to Fata Morgana (Morgan le Fay) to collect the "Handsome Minstrel's" or "Handsome Clown's" box, only to open the box and lose the contents. But Memé is always there to assist, and in the end they destroy all of the fairies and get married.
The tale appeared in Vittorio Imbriani's La Novellaja fiorentina (1871, p. 121). Italo Calvino, who adapted it in his Italian Folktales (1956), called it "one of the best-known folktales, found throughout Italy." He noted the presence of "that cheerful figure of Memé, cousin of the fairies." This could imply that Memé is a popular folk figure.
Imbriani, the original collector, suggested that Memé is Demogorgon, the terrifying lord of the fairies in the 15th-century poem Orlando Innamorato. The name Demogorgon probably came from a misreading of the word “demiurge” in a 4th-century text, and developed to mean either an ancient supreme god or a demon. The biggest similarity I can see is that Fata Morgana plays a villainous role in both “Prezzemolina” and Orlando Innamorato. I’m not sure of Imbriani’s thought process, other than the fact that Orlando vividly describes Demogorgon punishing the fairies.
Imbriani also compared Memé to the fairy cat Mammone, who hands out magical rewards and punishments in the fairytale “La Bella Caterina.” Again, I’m not clear on why, except that Memé sounds kind of like Mammone. I may be missing Italian context.
In both cases, Imbriani implies that Memé holds some kind of power or authority over the fairies. This doesn’t make a lot of sense to me; Memé seems to be on the same level as the fairies, and is apparently the black sheep of the family. The fairies seem automatically suspicious that he might help a human girl. When they see Prezzemolina’s first impossible task completed, they immediately guess (as Calvino puts it), “our cousin Memé came by, didn't he?" They later tell Meme their plans to kill Prezzemolina, perhaps in an attempt to goad him.
Another version, also titled "Prezzemolina," appeared in Canti e racconti del popolo italiano by Isaia Visentini (1879). This version begins with seven-year-old Prezzemolina eating parsley from a garden on her way to school and being kidnapped by the angry witch gardener. Here, the handsome rescuer who only wants a kiss is Bensiabel, the witch's son. This version features different tasks, but one quest still involves retrieving a casket, and in the end Bensiabel kills the witch and Prezzemolina finally agrees to marry him.
Andrew Lang published a translation in The Grey Fairy Book (1900), but changed the plant and the name. The vegetable garden became an orchard, the parsley became a plum, and the heroine's name became Prunella. This resembles early translations of Rapunzel where English writers struggled to render the name and came up with "Violet" or "Letitia." However, in this case the reason may be that Lang had already published The Green Fairy Book (1892) with the German tale "Puddocky," which had a near-identical opening with a heroine named Parsley. Lang did not mention a source, but "Prunella" is clearly drawn from Visentini's story.
Bensiabel's name may come from the Italian "ben" (well) and "bel" (nice). This seems supported by the French translation, Belèbon, in Edouard Laboulaye's 1881 retelling "Fragolette." Belèbon may be from the French "bel" (attractive) and "bon" (good). Like Lang, Laboulaye turned the parsley into a fruit, in this case strawberries (Italian fragola).
Cupid and Psyche
As Calvino implies, there are a number of similar tales.
Charlotte-Rose de la Force - the author who gave us the modern Rapunzel - also wrote a story in 1698 called "Fairer-than-a-Fairy" which followed some of the same motifs as Prezzemolina. The heroine, Fairer-than-a-fairy, is kidnapped by Nabote, Queen of the Fairies. Nabote's son Phratis falls for Fairer and helps her.
Calvino published another tale with similar plot beats, titled "The Little Girl Sold with the Pears" (p. 35), noting that he made numerous edits. The original, "Margheritina," collected by Domenico Comparetti, is even closer to Prezzemolina, with the heroine's unnamed prince being the one to magically aid her.
Aarne-Thompson-Uther Type 425, The Search for the Lost Husband, is a large family of tales with many subtypes. 425C is Beauty and the Beast. In the current breakdown, 425B is "The Son of the Witch." When Hans-Jorg Uther codified this, he wrote "The essential feature of this type is the quest for the casket, which entails the visit to the second witch’s house. Usually the supernatural bridegroom is the witch’s son, and he helps his wife perform the tasks."
In the Pentamerone (1634-1636) is a story titled "Lo Turzo d'Oro" - literally "The Trunk of Gold," but also titled "The Golden Root" in translation. When the heroine Parmetella is completing her tasks to win back her husband Thunder-and-Lightning (Truone-e-llampe), he helps her through each task. This is the bloodiest variant I've read.
Laura Gonzenbach's story "King Cardiddu" also features a male character who's imprisoned by the villain but manages to provide magical help to the heroine.
Giuseppe Pitre collected a Sicilian tale called "Marvizia" (Fiabe, novelle e racconti popolari siciliani, 1875). The heroine is named for her resemblance to a "marva" or mallow plant. The villain is an ogress named Mamma-Draga. It's a long and elaborate tale, but in a section similar to Prezzemolina's quests, Marvizia is assisted in her tasks by a giant named Ali who works for Mamma-Draga. However, he's not the love interest; Marvizia marries a captured prince whom the villainess turned into a bird. (This story features an ogress who eats people "like biscotti," and the hero wishes for a literal bomb with which to blow up her castle. I just felt that was important to note.)
"Cupid and Psyche," recorded in the second century, is the uber-example. Psyche loses her divine husband Cupid and must complete her goddess-mother-in-law Venus's tasks to get him back. Although the tasks are meant to be impossible, Psyche completes each one with help from nearby creatures. Finally she must go to the Underworld and retrieve a box from Persephone, but foolishly opening it, falls into a deep sleep. At this final point, Cupid steps in and rescues her.
Prezzemolina and similar tales are neighbors of the "Cupid and Psyche" tale - related to stories like "East o' the Sun and West o' the Moon." They don't have the beastly transformation, or the scene where the love interest is about to be forced to marry the wrong girl. However, they share the motif of the girl faced with impossible tasks including retrieving a magical box, and being aided by her supernatural lover. Taken to its furthest conclusion, this casts interesting parallels from Prezzemolina to Beauty and the Beast tales. Beauty's father is forced to hand his daughter over because he stole a flower from the Beast's garden - a very Rapunzel moment. Prezzemolina's suitor constantly begs for a kiss, the Beast asks Beauty to marry him, and the Frog Prince requests to sleep on his princess's pillow.
Memé and Bensiabel would then be related to Cupid and the family of beastly bridegrooms. Echoing Cupid, they're benevolent sorcerers or minor deities smitten with a mortal girl, who defy their divine or monstrous mothers to help. Unlike the lost husband figure, the Memé figure is never under a curse, and is right there alongside the heroine for the whole tale. She has no need to pursue him, because he's wooing her the entire time.
With its unique mix of fairytale tropes, I'm not sure whether the Prezzemolina type would be best categorized as 425B, "The Son of the Witch," as 310, "The Maiden in the Tower," or as something else entirely.
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10/9/2021 10:07:14 pm
I once found a version of Prunella, wherein the role of Bensabiel was played by a crow. The crow was exactly like Bensabiel, except that at the last task, he was unable to complete it and started to cry.
5/18/2022 10:41:34 pm
Wow, those were some fairly aggressive fairies. Memé sounded cool until you described that he might be a demon, haha. It's very interesting to see how many varieties there are of this tale. The variation involving wishing for a bomb was most amusing to me.
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Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.