Italian Popular Tales | Annotated Tale

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King of Love, The

The most wide-spread and interesting class of Fairy Tales is the one in which a wife endeavors to behold the face of her husband, who comes to her only at night. She succeeds, but her husband disappears, and she is not reunited to him until she has expiated her indiscretion by weary journeys and the performance of difficult tasks. This class, which is evidently the popular form of the classic myth of Cupid and Psyche, may for convenience be divided into four classes. The first turns on the punishment of the wife's curiosity; the second, on the husband's (Melusina); in the third the heroine is married to a monster, is separated from him by her disobedience, but finally is the means of his recovering his human form; the fourth class is a variant of the first and third, the husband being an animal in form, and parted from his wife by the curiosity or disobedience of the latter or of her envious sisters.

               To illustrate the first class, we select, from the large number of stories before us, a Sicilian tale (Pitrè, No. 18) entitled:


ONCE upon a time there was a man with three daughters, who earned his living by gathering wild herbs. One day he took his youngest daughter with him. They came to a garden, and began to gather vegetables. The daughter saw a fine radish, and began to pull it up, when suddenly a Turk appeared, and said: "Why have you opened my master's door? You must come in now, and he will decide on your punishment."

               They went down into the ground, more dead than alive; and when they were seated they saw a green bird come in and bathe in a pan of milk, then dry itself, and become a handsome youth. He said to the Turk: "What do these persons want?" "Your worship, they pulled up a radish, and opened the door of the cave." "How did we know," said the father, "that this was Your Excellency's house? My daughter saw a fine radish; it pleased her, and she pulled it up." "Well, if that's the case," said the master, "your daughter shall stay here as my wife; take this sack of gold and go; when you want to see your daughter, come and make yourself at home." The father took leave of his daughter and went away.

               When the master was alone with her, he said: "You see, Rosella (Rusidda), you are now mistress here," and gave her all the keys. She was perfectly happy (literally, "was happy to the hairs of her head"). One day, while the green bird was away, her sisters took it into their heads to visit her, and asked her about her husband. Rosella said she did not know, for he had made her promise not to try to find out who he was. Her sisters, however, persuaded her, and when the bird returned and became a man, Rosella put on a downcast air. "What is the matter?" asked her husband. "Nothing." "You had better tell me." She let him question her a while, and at last said: "Well, then, if you want to know why I am out of sorts, it is because I wish to know your name." Her husband told her that it would be the worse for her, but she insisted on knowing his name. So he made her put the gold basins on a chair, and began to bathe his feet. "Rosella, do you really want to know my name?" "Yes." And the water came up to his waist, for he had become a bird, and had got into the basin. Then he asked her the same question again, and again she answered yes, and the water was up to his mouth. "Rosella, do you really want to know my name?" "Yes, yes, yes!" "Then know that I am called THE KING OF LOVE!" And saying this he disappeared, and the basins and the palace disappeared likewise, and Rosella found herself alone out in an open plain, without a soul to help her. She called her servants, but no one answered her. Then she said: "Since my husband has disappeared, I must wander about alone and forlorn to seek him!"

               The poor woman, who expected before long to become a mother, began her wanderings, and at night arrived at another lonely plain; then she felt her heart sink, and, not knowing what to do, she cried out:--

"Ah! King of Love,     
You did it, and said it.     
You disappeared from me in a golden basin,     
And who will shelter to-night     
This poor unfortunate one?"

               When she had uttered these words an ogress appeared and said: "Ah! wretch, how dare you go about seeking my nephew?" and was going to eat her up; but she took pity on her miserable state, and gave her shelter for the night. The next morning she gave her a piece of bread, and said: "We are seven sisters, all ogresses, and the worst of all is your mother-in-law; look out for her!"

               To be brief, the poor girl wandered about six days, and met all six of the ogresses, who treated her in the same way. The seventh day, in great distress, she uttered her usual lament, and the sister of the King of Love appeared and said, "Rosella, while my mother is out, come up!" and she lowered the braids of her hair, and pulled her up. Then she gave her something to eat, and told her how to seize and pinch her mother until she cried out: "Let me alone for the sake of my son, the King of Love!"

               Rosella did as she was told, but the ogress was so angry she was going to eat her. But her daughters threatened to abandon her if she did. "Well, then, I will write a letter, and Rosella must carry it to my friend." Poor Rosella was disheartened when she saw the letter, and, descending, found herself in the midst of a plain. She uttered her usual complaint, when the King of Love appeared, and said: "You see your curiosity has brought you to this point!" Poor thing! when she saw him she began to cry, and begged his pardon for what she had done. He took pity on her, and said: "Now listen to what you must do. On your way you will come to a river of blood; you must bend down and take some up in your hands, and say: 'How beautiful is this crystal water! such water as this I have never drunk!' Then you will come to another stream of turbid water, and do the same there. Then you will find yourself in a garden where there is a great quantity of fruit; pick some and eat it, saying: 'What fine pears! I have never eaten such pears as these.' Afterward, you will come to an oven that bakes bread day and night, and no one buys any. When you come there, say: 'Oh, what fine bread! bread like this I have never eaten,' and eat some. Then you will come to an entrance guarded by two hungry dogs; give them a piece of bread to eat. Then you will come to a doorway all dirty and full of cobwebs; take a broom and sweep it clean. Half-way up the stairs you will find two giants, each with a dirty piece of meat by his side; take a brush and clean it for them. When you have entered the house, you will find a razor, a pair of scissors, and a knife; take something and polish them. When you have done this, go in and deliver your letter to my mother's friend. When she wants to make you enter, snatch up a little box on the table, and run away. Take care to do all the things I have told you, or else you will never escape alive."

               Rosella did as she was told, and while the ogress was reading the letter Rosella seized the box and ran for her life. When the ogress had finished reading her letter, she called: "Rosella! Rosella!" When she received no answer, she perceived that she had been betrayed, and cried out: "Razor, Scissors, Knife, cut her in pieces!" They answered: "As long as we have been razor, scissors, and knife, when did you ever deign to polish us? Rosella came and brightened us up." The ogress, enraged, exclaimed: "Stairs, swallow her up!" "As long as I have been stairs, when did you ever deign to sweep me? Rosella came and swept me." The ogress cried in a passion: "Giants, crush her!" "As long as we have been giants, when did you ever deign to clean our food for us? Rosella came and did it."

               Then the furious ogress called on the entrance to bury her alive, the dogs to devour her, the furnace to burn her, the fruit-tree to fall on her, and the rivers to drown her; but they all remembered Rosella's kindness, and refused to injure her.

               Meanwhile Rosella continued her way, and at last became curious to know what was in the box she was carrying. So she opened it, and a great quantity of little puppets came out; some danced, some sang, and some played on musical instruments. She amused herself some time with them; but when she was ready to go on, the little figures would not return to the box. Night approached, and she exclaimed, as she had so often before:--

"Ah! King of Love," etc.

               Then her husband appeared and said, "Oh, your curiosity will be the death of you!" and commanded the puppets to enter the box again. Then Rosella went her way, and arrived safely at her mother-in-law's. When the ogress saw her she exclaimed: "You owe this luck to my son, the King of Love!" and was going to devour poor Rosella, but her daughters said: "Poor child! she has brought you the box; why do you want to eat her?" "Well and good. You want to marry my son, the King of Love; then take these six mattresses, and go and fill them with birds' feathers!" Rosella descended, and began to wander about, uttering her usual lament. When her husband appeared Rosella told him what had happened. He whistled and the King of the Birds appeared, and commanded all the birds to come and drop their feathers, fill the six beds, and carry them back to the ogress, who again said that her son had helped Rosella. However, she went and made up her son's bed with the six mattresses, and that very day she made him marry the daughter of the King of Portugal. Then she called Rosella, and, telling her that her son was married, bade her kneel before the nuptial bed, holding two lighted torches. Rosella obeyed, but soon the King of Love, under the plea that Rosella was not in a condition to hold the torches any longer, persuaded his bride to change places with her. Just as the queen took the torches in her hands, the earth opened and swallowed her up, and the king remained happy with Rosella.

               When the ogress heard what had happened she clasped her hands over her head, and declared that Rosella's child should not be born until she unclasped her hands. Then the King of Love had a catafalque erected, and stretched himself on it as though he were dead, and had all the bells tolled, and made the people cry, "How did the King of Love die?" The ogress heard it, and asked: "What is that noise?" Her daughters told her that their brother was dead from her fault. When the ogress heard this she unclasped her hands, saying, "How did my son die?" At that moment Rosella's child was born. When the ogress heard it she burst a blood-vessel (in her heart) and died. Then the King of Love took his wife and sisters, and they remained happy and contented. [1]

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               There is another version of this story in Pitrè (No. 281) entitled, "The Crystal King," which resembles more closely the classic myth.

               A father marries the youngest of his three daughters to a cavalier (the enchanted son of a king) who comes to his wife at night only. The cavalier once permits his wife to visit her sisters, and they learn from her that she has never seen her husband's face. The eldest gives her a wax candle, and tells her to light it when her husband is asleep, and then she can see him and tell them what he is like. She did so, and beheld at her side a handsome youth; but while she was gazing at him some of the melted wax fell on his nose. He awoke, crying, "Treason! treason!" and drove his wife from the house. On her wanderings she meets a hermit, and tells him her story. He advises her to have made a pair of iron shoes, and when she has worn them out in her travels she will come to a palace where they will give her shelter, and where she will find her husband. The remainder of the story is of no interest here. [2]

               In the second class of stories belonging to this myth it is the curiosity of the husband which is punished, the best known example of this class, out of Italy, being the beautiful French legend of Melusina. [3] A Sicilian story in Gonzenbach, No. 16, "The Story of the Merchant's Son Peppino," is a very close counterpart of "The King of Love," above given. Peppino is wrecked on a rock in the sea; the rock opens, fair maidens come out and conduct Peppino to a beautiful castle in the cave. There a maiden visits him at night only. After a time Peppino wishes to see his parents, and his wife allows him to depart, with the promise to return at a certain date. His parents, after hearing his story, give him a candle with which to see his wife. Everything happens as in the first story; the castle disappears, and Peppino finds himself on the top of a snow-covered mountain. He recovers his wife only after the lapse of many years and the accomplishment of many difficult tasks. [4]

               The third class, generally known by the title of "Beauty and the Beast," is best represented by a story from Montale (near Pistoja), called: [Zelinda and the Monster].


[1] This story is a variant of Pitrè, No. 17, Marvizia (the name of the heroine who was as small as a marva, the mallow plant), in which the introduction is wanting. The heroine falls in love with a green bird she sees in her garden, and goes in search of it. After many adventures, she restores the bird to its former human shape and marries it. Other Italian versions of the story in the text are: Sicilian, Pitrè, No. 281, Nuovo Saggio, V.; Gonz., No. 15; Neapolitan, Pent. II. 9, V. 4; Comp., No. 33 (from the Basilicata); Roman, Busk, p. 99; Tuscan, De Gub., Sto. Stefano, No. 14; and Tyrolese, Schneller, No. 13.

               An important trait in the above class is "Tasks set Wife." Besides in the above stories, this trait is also found in those belonging to other classes: see De Gub., Sto. Stefano, No. 2, and Nov. fior. p. 209.

               Another important trait is the following: When after a long search the wife discovers her husband, it is only to find him in the power of a second wife, who, however, by various bribes, is induced to permit the first wife to spend a night in her husband's chamber. She is unable to awaken her husband, who has been drugged by the second wife. The third night she succeeds, makes herself known to him, and they escape. As an example of this trait, we give in full De Gub., Sto. Stefano, No. 14, referred to above.


A WOODMAN had three daughters. Every morning one after the other, in turn, carried him his bread to the wood. The father and the daughters noticed in a thicket a large snake, which one day asked the old man for one of his daughters in marriage, threatening him with death if none of them would accept such an offer. The father told his daughters of the snake's offer, and the first and second immediately refused. If the third had refused too, there would have been no hope of salvation for the father; but for his sake she declared at once that snakes had always pleased her, and she thought the snake proposed by her father very handsome. At this the snake shook his tail in token of great joy, and making his bride mount it, carried her away to the midst of a beautiful meadow, where he caused a splendid palace to arise while he himself became a handsome man, and revealed himself as Sir Fiorante with the red and white stockings. But woe to her if she ever disclosed to any one his existence and name! She would lose him forever, unless, to obtain possession of him again, she wore out a pair of iron shoes, a staff and a hat, and filled with her tears seven bottles. The maiden promised; but she was a woman; she went to visit her sisters; one of them wished to know her husband's name, and was so cunning that at last her sister told her, but when the poor girl went back to see her husband, she found neither husband nor palace. To find him again, she was obliged in despair to do penance. She walked and walked and walked, and wept unceasingly. She had already filled one bottle with tears, when she met an old woman who gave her a fine walnut to crack in time of need, and disappeared. When she had filled four bottles, she met another old woman, who gave her a hazel-nut to crack in time of need, and disappeared. She had filled all seven bottles when a third old woman appeared to her, and left her an almond to be cracked in a third case of need, and she, too, disappeared. At last the young girl reached the castle of Sir Fiorante, who had taken another wife. The girl broke first the walnut, and found in it a beautiful dress which the second wife wanted herself. The young girl said: "You may have it if you will let me sleep with Sir Fiorante." The second wife consented, but meanwhile she gave Sir Fiorante some opium. In the night, the young girl said: "Sir Fiorante with the red and white stockings, I have worn out a pair of iron shoes, the staff and the hat, and filled seven bottles with tears, wherefore you must recognize your first wife."

               He made no answer, for he had taken opium. The next day the girl opened the hazel-nut, and out came a dress more beautiful than the first; Sir Fiorante's second wife wanted this, and obtained it on the same condition as the first, but took care that Sir Fiorante should take some opium before going to bed. The third day, a faithful servant asked Sir Fiorante if he had not heard in the night the cries that were uttered near him. Sir Fiorante replied, No, but was careful not to take any opium the third night, when, having broken the almond and found in it a dress of unapproachable beauty, the young girl obtained the second wife's consent to sleep anew with Sir Fiorante. The latter pretended this time to take the opium, but did not. Then he feigned to be asleep, but remained awake in order to hear the cries of his abandoned wife, which he could not resist, and began to embrace her. The next day they left that palace to the second wife, and departed together and went to live in happiness at another more wonderful castle.

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               This episode is found in the Pent. V. 3, otherwise not belonging to this class; and in Comp., No. 51, and Nov. fior. p. 168, which properly belong to the formula of "Animal Children."

               Hahn's formula No. 6, in which a maiden sells herself for three costly presents, and is obliged to marry the buyer, is sufficiently illustrated by Gonz., No. 18, Pitrè, No. 105, and Nerucci, No. 50. In the last story the person to whom the maiden has sold herself refuses to marry her.

               The wedding torch is found also in Pitrè, No. 17, and is clearly a survival of the classic custom. The episode in which the birth of the child is hindered recalls the myths of Latona and Alcmene, see Köhler's notes to Gonz., No. 12 (II. p. 210). Other cases of malicious arrest of childbirth in popular literature may be found in Child's English and Scottish Pop. Ballads, Part I. p. 84. Pandora's box is also found in Pent. V. 4.

               Copious references to other Europeans versions of our story will be found in Köhler's notes to Gonz., No. 15 (II. 214), and to Bladé, Contes pop. rec. en Agenais, p. 145, to which may be added the notes to the Grimm stories Nos. 88, 113, 127 ("The Soaring Lark," "The Two Kings' Children," and "The Iron Stove"), and Benfey, Pant. I. p. 255.

                [2] The lamp lighted at night to enable the wife to see her husband is found in Pitrè, No. 82, and in a Calabrian story in De Gub., Zoöl. Myth. II. 286-287, where the drop of wax falls on the mirror of the sleeping youth. The same incident occurs in the curious story of "The Enchanted Palace," in Comp., No. 27, which is simply a reversal of the Cupid and Psyche myth, and in which the husband is the curious one, and the drop of wax falls on the sleeping wife, and awakens her.

               The "iron shoes" are found in Comp., No. 51; Pitrè, No. 56; Pent. V. 4; De Gub., Sto. Stefano, No. 14; Gradi, Vigilia, p. 26; and Ortoli, p. 8. See also Hahn, Nos. 73, 102, and Basque Legends, p. 39.

                [3] See Köhler to Gonz., No. 16; Dunlop-Liebrecht, p. 406 (Anmerkung. 475, and Nachtrag, p. 544); Graesse, Sagen-Kreise, p. 380; Benfey, I. 254; and Simrock, D.M. pp. 332, 391, 427.

                [4] Other Italian versions of this story are: Nerucci, Nos. 33, 59; Comparetti, No. 27 (Monferrato), mentioned already in Note 2; and Schneller, No. 13. Pitrè, No. 27, has some points of contact also with our story.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: King of Love, The
Tale Author/Editor: Crane, Thomas
Book Title: Italian Popular Tales
Book Author/Editor: Crane, Thomas Frederick
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin and Company
Publication City: Boston
Year of Publication: 1885
Country of Origin: Italy
Classification: ATU 425A: The Animal as Bridegroom

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