Friday, 16 August 2019

Fairy Tale Friday--The She-Bear (Italy, 1634)

Hello and welcome to Fairy Tale Friday. Are you sitting comfortably? Good. Then I’ll begin.

This week we begin looking at tales that are more animal centred. We have previously looked at Donkeyskin by Charles Perrault because it was one of the earliest (and most famous) versions of this story. For the next few weeks we will look at similar versions, with different animals.

The tale of The She-Bear was collected by Italian author Giambattista Basile in his Pentamerone: Lo Cunto de li Cunti, meaning The Tale of Tales in 1634. You may remember Basile from his early version of Cinderella (one of the earliest literary versions of this tale) entitled Cenerentola.

This is an unusual version, told in his typical florid style. There are some unintentionally hilarious descriptions in it.

It begins with the death of the mother who was the “mother of beauty.” She may have beautiful externally, but she was a hot-headed vengeful spitfire internally. On her deathbed she proclaims:

"Give me a promise that you will never marry, unless you meet one beautiful as I have been; and if you will not so promise, I will leave you a curse, and I will hate you even in the other world." 

The father does and then after a bit of over the top gnashing and wailing suddenly realises he only has a daughter and not a son. This prompts him to survey all the women in the land and catalogue their faults. He then realises “why go out for a hamburger when you have steak at home” and realised his daughter Preziosa would be the perfect surrogate for his boy-child.

Obviously, she is distressed at this. The old woman who brings her cosmetics see that her father is being a complete ass and offers her this help:

When your father comes to you this evening -- donkey that he is, wanting to act the stallion -- put this piece of wood into your mouth, and you will at once become a she-bear.

And so she does, frightening her father on their wedding night as he crawls into bed with her which allows her to escape. The son of the king sees a giant bear in the forest but soon realises how tame she is. She walks up to him wagging her tail like a friendly dog and he takes a liking to this furry companion and brings it home.

Later, when she thinks no one is about she takes the wood from her mouth and is seen by the prince. She quickly transforms back but now he knows her secret and pines away raving like a madman about the bear. His mother, thinking the bear has bitten him, asks for the bear to be killed. But like in Snow White, no one can bring themselves to do it because the bear is so kind and gentle and so Preziosa is returned to the woods. The prince goes mental and the bear is brought back.

The prince asks the bear to cook and clean and care for him which she does. Despite her huge bear paws, she manages to do all the housework like a good wife including nipping to the garden to gather roses. He is burning with desire for the bear and begs for a kiss. No one seems to bat an eyelid at this because the bear was so good at housework. He passionately kisses the bear and the piece of wood falls away and her true form is revealed.

I find this tale really interesting because in all the other tales I have ever read, the woman in the animal disguise is considered repulsive and it is only in her true form that she is marriage material. In this, I think he might have married the bear.
Image result for she bear

The She-Bear source

Now it is said that once upon a time there lived a king of Roccaspra, who had a wife who for beauty, grace, and comeliness exceeded all other women. Truly she was the mother of beauty, but this beautiful being, at the full time of her life, fell from the steed of health, and broke the threads of life. But before the candle of life was finally put out, she called her husband, and said, "I know well, that you have loved me with excessive love, therefore show me a proof of your love and give me a promise that you will never marry, unless you meet one beautiful as I have been; and if you will not so promise, I will leave you a curse, and I will hate you even in the other world."

The king, who loved her above all things, hearing this her last will, began to weep and lament, and for a while could not find a word to say; but after his grief subsided, he replied, 

"If I ever think of taking a wife, may the gout seize me, and may I become as gaunt as an asparagus; oh my love, forget it. Do not believe in dreams, nor that I can ever put my affection upon another woman. You will take with you all my joy and desire." And while he was thus speaking, the poor lady, who was at her last, turned up her eyes and stretched her feet.

When the king saw that her soul had taken flight, his eyes became fountains of tears, and he cried with loud cries, buffeted his face, and wept, and wailed, so that all the courtiers ran to his side. He continually called upon the name of that good soul and cursed his fate, which had deprived him of her, and tore his hair, and pulled out his beard, and accused the stars of having sent to him this great misfortune. But he did as others do. A bump on the elbow and the loss of a wife cause much pain, but it does not last. The one pain disappears at one's side, and the other into the grave.

Night had not yet come forth to look about the heavens for the bats, when he began to make count on his fingers, saying "My wife is dead, and I am a widower, and sad hearted without hope of any kind but my only daughter, since she left me. Therefore it will be necessary to find another wife that will bear me a son. But where can I find one? Where can I meet a woman endowed with my wife's beauty, when all other females seem witches in my sight? There is the rub! Where shall I find another like unto her? Where am I to seek her with a bell, if nature formed Nardella (may her soul rest in glory), and then broke the mould? Alas! in what labyrinth am I! What a mistake was the promise I made her! But what? I have not seen the wolf yet, but I am running away already. Let us seek, let us see, and let us understand. Is it possible, that there is no other donkey in the stable except for Nardella? Is it possible that the world will be lost for me? Will there be such a plague that all women will be destroyed and their seed lost?"

And thus saying, he commanded the public crier to proclaim that all the beautiful women in the world should come and undergo the comparison of beauty, that he would take to wife the best looking of all and make her the queen of his realm. This news spread in all parts of the world, and not one of the women in the whole universe failed to come and try this venture. Not even flayed hags stayed behind, they came by the dozen, because, when the point of beauty is touched, there is none who will yield, there is no sea monster who will give herself up as hideous; each and everyone boasts of uncommon beauty.

If a donkey speaks the truth, the mirror is blamed for not reflecting the form as it is naturally; it is the fault of the quicksilver at the back. And now the land was full of women, and the king ordered that they should all stand in file, and he began to walk up and down, like a sultan when he enters his harem, to choose the best Genoa stone to sharpen his damascene blade. He came and went, up and down, like a monkey who is never still, looking and staring at this one and that one. One had a crooked brow, another a long nose, one a large mouth, and another thick lips. This one was too tall and gaunt, that other was short and badly formed, this one was too much dressed, another was too slightly robed. He disliked the Spanish woman because of the hue of her skin; the Neapolitan was not to his taste because of the way in which she walked; the German seemed to him too cold and frozen; the French woman too light of brains; the Venetian a spinning wheel full of flax. At last, for one reason or another, he sent them all about their business with one hand in front and another behind.

Seeing so many beautiful heads of celery turned to hard roots and having resolved to marry nevertheless, he turned to his own daughter, saying, "What am I seeking about these Marys of Ravenna, if my daughter Preziosa is made from the same mould as her mother? I have this beautiful face at home, and yet I should go to the end of the world seeking it?" Thus he explained to his daughter his desire, and was severely reproved and censured by her, as Heaven knows. The king was angry at her rejection, and said to her, "Be quiet and hold your tongue. Make up your mind to tie the matrimonial knot with me this very evening; otherwise when I finish with you there will be nothing left but your ears."

Preziosa, hearing this threat, retired to her room, and wept and lamented her evil fate. And while she lay there in this plight, an old woman, who used to bring her cosmetics, came to her, and finding her in such a plight, looking like one more ready for the other world than for this one, enquired the cause of her distress. When the old woman learned what had happened, she said, "Be of good cheer, my daughter, and despair not, for every evil has a remedy. Death alone has no cure. Now listen to me: When your father comes to you this evening -- donkey that he is, wanting to act the stallion -- put this piece of wood into your mouth, and you will at once become a she-bear. Then you can make your escape, for he will be afraid of you and let you go. Go straight to the forest, for it was written in the book of fate, the day that you were born, that there you should meet your fortune. When you want to turn back into a woman as you are and will ever be, take the bit of wood out of your mouth, and you will return to your pristine form."

Preziosa embraced and thanked the old woman, told the servants to give her an apron full of flour and some slices of ham, and sent her away. When the sun began to change her quarters like a bankrupt strumpet, the king sent for his minister, and had him issue invitations to all the lords and grandees to come to the marriage feast. They all crowded in. After spending five or six hours in high revelry and unrestrained eating, the king made his way to the bed chamber, and called to the bride to come and fulfil his desire. But she put the bit of wood into her mouth, and instantly took the shape of a fierce she-bear, and stood thus before him. He, frightened at the sudden change, rolled himself up in the bedding, and did not put forth a finger or an eye until morning.

Meanwhile Preziosa made her way toward the forest, where the shadows met concocting together how they could annoy the sun. There she lay in good fellowship and at one with the other animals. When the day dawned, it happened by chance that the son of the King of Acquacorrente should come to that forest. He sighted the she-bear and was greatly frightened, but the beast came forward, and wagging her tail, walked around him, and put her head under his hand for him to caress her. He took heart at this strange sight, smoothed its head as he would have done to a dog, and said to it, "Lie down, down, quiet, quiet, there there, good beast." Seeing that the beast was very tame, he took her home with him, commanding his servants to put her in the garden by the side of the royal palace, and there to attend to and feed her well, and treat her as they would his own person, and to take her to a particular spot so that he might see her from the windows of his palace whenever he had a mind to.

Now it so happened that one day all his people were away on some errand, and the prince being left alone, thought about the bear, and looked out of the window to see her. However, at that very moment Preziosa, believing she was utterly alone, had taken the bit of wood from her mouth, and stood combing her golden hair. The prince was amazed at this woman of great beauty, and he descended the stairs and ran to the garden. But Preziosa, perceiving the ambush, at once put the bit of wood into her mouth, and became a she-bear once more. The prince looked about but could not see what he had sighted from above, and not finding what he came to seek, remained very disappointed, and was melancholy and sad hearted, and in a few days became grievously ill. He kept repeating, "Oh my bear, oh my bear."

His mother, hearing this continual cry, imagined that perhaps the bear had bit him or done him some evil, and therefore ordered the servants to kill her. But all the servants loved the beast because it was so very tame, even the stones in the roadway could not help liking her, so they had compassion and could not think of killing her. Therefore they led her to the forest, and returning to the queen, told her that she was dead. When this deed came to the prince's ears, he acted as a madman, and leaving his bed, ill as he was, was about to make mincemeat of the servants. They told him the truth of the affair. He mounted his steed and searched backward and forward until at length he came to a cave and found the bear.

He carried her home with him and put her in a chamber, saying, "Oh you beautiful morsel fit for kings, why do you hide your passing beauty in a bear's hide? Oh light of love, why are you closed in such a hairy lantern? Why have you acted this way toward me, is it so that you may see me die a slow death? I am dying of despair, charmed by your beautiful form, and you can see the witness of my words in my failing health and sickening form. I am become skin and bone, and the fever burns my very marrow, and consumes me with heart-sore pain. Therefore lift the veil from that stinking hide, and let me behold once more your grace and beauty; lift up the leaves from this basket's mouth, and let me take a view of the splendid fruit within; lift the tapestry, and allow my eyes to feast upon the luxury of your charms. Who has enclosed in a dreary prison such a glorious work? Who has enclosed in a leather casket such a priceless treasure? Let me behold your passing grace and take in payment all my desires. Oh my love, only this bear's grease can cure the nervous disease of which I suffer." But perceiving that his words had no effect, and that all was time lost, he took to his bed, and his illness increased daily, until the doctors feared for his life.

The queen, his mother, who had no other love in the world, sat at his bedside, and said to him, "Oh my son, where does your heartsickness come from? What is the cause of all this sadness? You are young, you are rich, you are beloved, you are great. What do you want, my son? Speak, for only a shameful beggar carries an empty pocket. If you desire to take a wife, choose, and I will command; take, and I will pay. Can you not see that your sickness is my sickness and that your pulse beats in unison with my heart? If you burn with fever in your blood, I burn with fever on the brain. I have no other support for my old age but you. Therefore, my son, be cheerful, and cheer my heart, and do not darken this realm, and raze to the ground this house, and bereave your mother."

The prince, hearing these words, said, "Nothing can cheer me, if I may not see the bear; therefore, if you desire to see me in good health again, let her stay in this room, and I do not wish that any other serve me, and make my bed, and cook my meals, if it be not herself, and if what I desire be done, I am sure that I shall be well in a few days." To the queen it seemed folly for her son to ask that a bear should act as cook and housemaid. She believed that the prince must be delirious; nevertheless, to please his fancy, she went for the bear, and when the beast came to the prince's bedside, she lifted her paw and felt the invalid's pulse. The queen smiled at the sight, thinking that by and by the bear would scratch the prince's nose. 

But the prince spoke to the bear, and said, "Oh mischievous mine, will you not cook for me, and feed me, and serve me?" And the bear nodded yes with her head, showing that she would accept the charge. Then the queen sent for some chickens, and had a fire lit in the fireplace in the same chamber and had a kettle with boiling water put on the fire. The bear took hold of a chicken, scalded it, dexterously plucked off its feathers, cleaned it, put half of it on the spit, and stewed the other half. When it was ready, the prince, who could not before eat even sugar, ate it all and licked his fingers. When he had ended his meal, the bear brought him some drink, and handed it so gracefully that the queen kissed her on the head. After this the prince arose, and went to the salon to receive the doctors, and to be directed by their judgement. The bear at once made the bed, ran to the garden and gathered a handful of roses and orange blossoms, which she scattered upon the bed. She fulfilled her various duties so well that the queen said to herself, "This bear is worth a treasure, and my son is quite right in being fond of the beast."

When the prince returned to his chambers and saw how well the bear had fulfilled her duties, it was like adding fuel to the fire. If he had been consumed himself in a slow fire before, he was now burning with intense heat. He said to the queen "Oh my lady mother, if I cannot give a kiss to this bear, I shall give up the ghost." The queen, seeing her son nearly fainting, said to the bear, "Kiss him, kiss him, oh my beautiful bear, do not leave my poor son to die in despair." Then the bear obediently neared the prince, who took her cheeks between his fingers, could not stop kissing her on the lips.

While thus engaged, I do not know how it happened, the bit of wood fell from Preziosa's mouth, and she remained in the prince's embrace, the most beautiful and ravishing being in the world. He strained her to his bosom with tightly clasped arms, and said, "You are caught at last, and you shall not escape so easily without a reason." Preziosa, reddening with the lovely tint of modesty and of shame, the most beautiful of natural beauties, answered, "I am in your hands. I surrender my honour to your loyalty. Do with me what you will." The queen asked who this charming woman was, and what had caused her to live such a wild life. She related to them all her misfortunes, and the queen praised her as a good and honoured child, and said to her son that she was well satisfied that he should marry the princess. The prince, who wanted nothing else, at once announced his betrothal to her. Kneeling before the queen, they both received her blessing, and with great feasting the marriage took place. Thus Preziosa demonstrated the truth of the proverb: "Those who do good may expect good in return."

That’s all for this week. Stay tuned for the tale of an Ass-Skin.

1 comment:

  1. This certainly was an unusual tale. I loved it. My mental picture of the bear doing the cooking and plucking that chicken was great! Would love to see this in an animated film.