Ruth B. Bottigheimer. Fairy Godfather: Straparola, Venice, and the Fairy Tale Tradition. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.
I first encountered Fairy Godfather: Straparola, Venice, and the Fairy Tale Tradition in a Comparative Literature course on fairy tales and folklore that I took during my last year of undergrad. While I cribbed from it for an essay, I didn’t read it from cover to cover despite the professor structuring the opening sections of the course around Ruth B. Bottigheimer’s ideas. This was mainly because Fairy Godfather was stuck in the Reserve room of Rutherford library and therefore only available for three-hour loan. Now that the more intensive work for my final Master’s paper is finished, it suddenly popped into my head to give it a look—perhaps because I combed through seventeenth-century Polish and English market literature in my research on witchcraft, and the literary fairy tale came to mind.
Fairy Godfather is clearly about fairy tales, or to be more precise, a very specific kind of fairy tale: the “rise tale.” Fairy stories drawn from earlier literary sources populated Zoan Straparola’s collection of stories titled the Pleasant Nights (published in two volumes in 1551 and 1553)—chiefly “restoration tales” where the hero falls from a place of privilege and then regains it by magic—but it also contained something new. While “rags-to-riches tales” like that of Dick Whittington and his cat were already popular by the Italian Renaissance, these involved the hero using wit or simply taking advantage of happenstance to gain in first wealth, then social status. The rise tale seen in the Pleasant Nights involves an external source of magic propelling the hero or heroine into marriage with a social superior, with riches coming as a result—there is nothing that makes the protagonist special other than gaining the interest of or access to supernatural powers. The best-realized example of this template is Constantino Fortunato, a tale that Giambattista Basile would later take up and adapt into its better-known form: Puss in Boots (11-15). We do not find this sort of story in literary sources before the Pleasant Nights, but it became a staple of fairy tale narratives afterwards.
I stress “literary” because Jack Zipes and other prominent scholars on fairy tales claim Straparola only adapted oral stories circulating among lower class Venetians at the time—that is, the “rise” genre of fairy tale had folkloric roots that passed into the newly minted literary fairy tale in an act of opportunistic ethnography. Straparola’s audience was Italian urban elites, and he only “filled out” the frame story of the Pleasant Nights with wonder-tales compiled from classical and contemporary literature and oral tradition. Bottigheimer aims to overturn this idea, and this is probably the most important aspect of her book. “Folk genesis of European fairy tales was a manufactured notion that nineteenth-century nation-builders desperately needed to support their shaky ideological enterprise” (6), Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm explicitly characterizing the stories in their collection as authorless products of the volk. The argument in Fairy Godfather, if we ignored the long emphasis in fairy tale studies on folkloric origins, is almost laughably obvious: that Straparola came up with the rise tale himself to cater to a growing audience of literate artisans in Venice and other major Italian cities alongside those higher up the social scale, thus moving more copies. He inserted tailor-made fantasies for the ambitious literate commoner who could not marry into riches due to strict Venetian laws against intermarriage between social classes. The best-selling Pleasant Nights then became the basis for other authors of tale-collections to adapt the stories for their own works in the usual free-form method of premodern publishing and come up with their own rise tales until these stories became commonplace across Western Europe.
There are ways to corroborate this model of Puss in Boots’ spread. Wealthy urban artisans could afford such books and (at least in Venice and Florence) many were becoming literate in the mid-sixteenth century; indications are that literacy rates in general across early modern Europe were higher than we once thought. At precisely the time Straparola began writing, this new literate class was just emerging as a market for printed material. Straparola appears to have financed the printing cost of the Pleasant Nights himself, which means he had no patron, and so likely undertook the endeavour in the hopes of making money off sales. This also neatly explains his willingness to include stories about the poor coming to riches in a work ostensibly for an elite audience, who would have felt uncomfortable with such stories of social transgression (109). Finally, contemporary complaints that Straparola had copied many of the stories in the second volume from other sources entirely focused on literary ones; such grumblings were more a sign of the Pleasant Nights’ success, since appropriating and adapting other authors’ works into one’s own was common practice—as unattributed retellings of Straparola’s own stories in later years would attest. There is simply no record of these particular stories existing before Straparola wrote them, and while it is notoriously difficult to trace oral culture, especially popular oral culture, there is little indication that literary fairy tales were anything but literary when they appear in written works during sixteenth century. To claim Straparola was unable to come up with his own stories and only compiled things he’d seen and heard strikes me as uncharitable—the first volume of the Pleasant Nights might be loose and breezy in style, but is still well-constructed and highly entertaining, the product of an author with some modicum of skill.
The core argument of Fairy Godfather is a compelling one, so how does the rest of the book hold up? Unfortunately, Bottigheimer devotes a disproportionally large chapter to “A Possible Biography for Zoan Francesco Straparola de Caravaggio” in such a slim book. This is an interesting experiment, an imaginative reconstruction of Straparola’s life based on scanty evidence that takes us through various layers of urban life and print culture in Venice and Caravaggio, using these as contexts for building a hypothetical biography. She characterizes Straparola as “one of the popolani” (66) in Venice, part of the working-class and struggling to find a patron in his later years before inspiration struck for the Pleasant Nights. I can see that Bottigheimer was trying to present a mass of contextual material in an interesting way, but this speculative history comes off as a roundabout non-sequitur, especially when the next chapter dives right in to the composition, prose style and print history of the Pleasant Nights with only one detour into imagining a conversation between Straparola and his bookseller (88-90). I have seen these hypothetical reconstructions work before as frames for interesting analysis that could not really be presented in any other way, but I think a straight examination of contexts would have served the book better. The last two chapters return to more solid scholarly territory. The fifth and final chapter, “Straparola’s Little Books and their Lasting Legacy” gives an especially intriguing look at the literary diffusion of Straparola’s stories until their eventual appearance in the collections of the Brothers Grimm. This section could have used some expansion, since it deals with the very heart of the point Bottigheimer is trying to make: that Straparola’s literary productions had an indelible effect on the fairy tale as a whole, making him, indeed, the fairy godfather of the fantasies we know and love today.
Fairy Godfather, I feel, is valuable for “opening up” the field of fairy tale scholarship, shifting focus away from the psychological and formalist methods that characterized approaches in the twentieth century and moving towards a historicized look at the initial texts, not as covering or recording lost folk traditions, but as literary artifacts worth studying in of themselves. It has certainly inspired others to come at fairy tales at a new angle that appeals to me as a historian-in-training (like Fairy-Tale Science, which I hope to review soon). However, the presentation isn’t as clear as I would have liked, and some of the arguments require background knowledge of early modern print culture to truly reach their full potential, since Bottigheimer simply does not go far enough with them. Still, I tentatively recommend Fairy Godfather with the above reservations in mind to anyone interested in the history of fairy tales as a literary form.
 Jack Zipes elaborates on this argument in “Of Cats and Men: Framing the Civilizing Discourse of the Fairy Tale,” in Out of the Woods: The Origins of the Literary Fairy Tale in Italy and France (1997), pp. 176-193.
 See Robert Black, “Education and the Emergence of a Literate Society,” in Italy in the Age of the Renaissance 1300-1550 (2004), pp. 18-36.
 An outstanding example is T. Cory Brennan and Hing I-tien, “The Eternal City and the City of Eternal Peace,” in China’s Early Empires: A Re-Appraisal (2010), pp. 186-212.