Italian Popular Tales | Annotated Tale

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Language of Animals, The

The three following stories are found only in the Western, or European versions of the collection. The first, technically called "Vaticinium" or "The Prophecy," relates that a son who understood the language of birds heard the prediction that his father and mother should come to such want that they would not have bread to eat; but that he, the son, should rise so high that his father should offer him water to wash his hands with. The father, enraged at this prediction, threw his son into the sea. He was rescued, and after many adventures, married the daughter of the king of Sicily. One day, while riding through Messina, he saw his father and mother, meanly dressed, sitting at the door of an inn. He alighted from his horse, entered their house, and asked for food. After his father and mother had brought him water to wash his hands he revealed himself to them and forgave his father for his cruelty.

               The only Italian version, and disfigured by some extraneous details, is in the Mantuan tales (Visentini, No. 50): "Fortune aid me." Here the son does not hear the prophecy from the birds, but an angel tells a king, who has long desired a son, that he shall have one whom he shall one day serve. When the child was ten years old the king was so vexed by the prediction that he exposed his son in a wood. The child was found by a magician, who brought him up, and from whom he afterwards escaped. He went to the court of the king, his father, and won the hand of the princess (his own sister) by leaping his horse over a broad ditch. At the marriage banquet the king handed his son a glass of wine, and the latter recognized him and exclaimed: "Behold, the father serves the son." The marriage was of course given up and the previous aversion of the sister explained. [1]

               Closely connected with the original story in The Seven Wise Masters is the class of stories where the hero is acquainted with the language of animals, and attains by means of it some high position (generally becoming pope) after he has been driven from home by his father. The following version is from Monferrato (Comparetti, No. 56) and is entitled:


A FATHER once had a son who spent ten years in school. At the end of that time, the teacher wrote the father to take away his son because he could not teach him anything more. The father took the boy home and gave a grand banquet in his honor, to which he invited the most noble gentlemen of the country. After many speeches by those gentlemen, one of the guests said to the host's son: "Just tell us some fine thing that you have learned." "I have learned the language of dogs, of frogs, and of birds." There was universal laughter on hearing this, and all went away ridiculing the pride of the father and the foolishness of the son. The former was so ashamed at his son's answer and so angry at him that he gave him up to two servants, with orders to take him into a wood and kill him and to bring back his heart. The two servants did not dare to obey this command, and instead of the lad they killed a dog, and carried its heart to their master. The youth fled from the country and came to a castle a long way off, where lived the treasurer of the prince, who had immense treasures. There he asked for and obtained a lodging, but scarcely had he entered the house when a multitude of dogs collected about the castle. The treasurer asked the young man why so many dogs had come, and as the latter understood their language he answered that it meant that a hundred assassins would attack the castle that very evening, and that the treasurer should take his precautions. The castellan made two hundred soldiers place themselves in ambush about the castle and at night they arrested the assassins. The treasurer was so grateful to the youth that he wished to give him his daughter, but he replied that he could not remain now, but that he would return within a year and three days. After he left that castle he arrived at a city where the king's daughter was very ill because the frogs which were in a fountain near the palace gave her no rest with their croaking. The lad perceived that the frogs croaked because the princess had thrown a cross into the fountain, and as soon as it was removed the girl recovered. The king, too, wished the lad to marry her, but he again said that he would return within a year and three days. After leaving the king he set out for Rome, and on the way met three young men, who became his companions. One day it was very warm and all three lay down to sleep under an oak. Immediately a great flock of birds flew into the oak and awakened the pilgrims by their loud singing. One of them asked: "Why are these birds singing so joyfully?" The youth answered: "They are rejoicing with the new Pope, who is to be one of us."

               And suddenly a dove alighted on his head, and in truth shortly after he was made Pope. Then he sent for his father, the treasurer, and the king. All presented themselves trembling, for they knew that they had committed some sin. But the Pope made them all relate their deeds, and then turned to his father and said: "I am the son whom you sent to be killed because I said I understood the language of birds, of dogs, and of frogs. You have treated me thus, and on the other hand a treasurer and a king have been very grateful for this knowledge of mine." The father, repenting his fault, wept bitterly, and his son pardoned him and kept him with him while he lived. [2]


[1] For the original version in the various forms of the Western Seven Wise Masters, see Loiseleur-Deslongchamps, p. 162; Keller, Romans, p. ccxxix., and Dyocletianus, p. 63; and D'Ancona, Il Libro dei Sette Savi di Roma, p. 121. To the references in D'Ancona may be added: Deux Rédactions du Roman des Sept Sages, G. Paris, Paris, 1876, pp. 47, 162; Benfey, in Orient und Occident, III. 420; Romania, VI. p. 182; Mélusine, p. 384; and Basque Legends, collected by Rev. W. Webster, London, 1879, pp. 136, 137.

[2] See Grimm, No. 33, "The Three Languages;" Hahn, No. 33; Basque Legends, p. 137; and Mélusine, p. 300. There is a verbose version in the Fiabe Mantovane, No. 23, "Bobo."

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Language of Animals, 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 671: The Three Languages

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