Italian Popular Tales | Annotated Tale

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Crab, The

The next story is the Italian version of the tale familiar to the readers of Grimm by the title of "Doctor Knowall." There is a Sicilian version in Pitrè, No. 167, in which our story forms one of several episodes. It is found, however, independently in the Mantuan collection from which we take it, changing the name slightly to suit the conclusion of the story.


THERE was once a king who had lost a valuable ring. He looked for it everywhere, but could not find it. So he issued a proclamation that if any astrologer could tell him where it was he would be richly rewarded. A poor peasant by the name of Crab heard of the proclamation. He could neither read nor write, but took it into his head that he wanted to be the astrologer to find the king's ring. So he went and presented himself to the king, to whom he said: "Your Majesty must know that I am an astrologer, although you see me so poorly dressed. I know that you have lost a ring and I will try by study to find out where it is." "Very well," said the king, "and when you have found it, what reward must I give you?" "That is at your discretion, your Majesty." "Go, then, study, and we shall see what kind of an astrologer you turn out to be."

               He was conducted to a room, in which he was to be shut up to study. It contained only a bed and a table on which were a large book and writing materials. Crab seated himself at the table and did nothing but turn over the leaves of the book and scribble the paper so that the servants who brought him his food thought him a great man. They were the ones who had stolen the ring, and from the severe glances that the peasant cast at them whenever they entered, they began to fear that they would be found out. They made him endless bows and never opened their mouths without calling him "Mr. Astrologer." Crab, who, although illiterate, was, as a peasant, cunning, all at once imagined that the servants must know about the ring, and this is the way his suspicions were confirmed. He had been shut up in his room turning over his big book and scribbling his paper for a month, when his wife came to visit him. He said to her: "Hide yourself under the bed, and when a servant enters, say: 'That is one;' when another comes, say: 'That is two;' and so on." The woman hid herself. The servants came with the dinner, and hardly had the first one entered when a voice from under the bed said: "That is one." The second one entered; the voice said: "That is two;" and so on. The servants were frightened at hearing that voice, for they did not know where it came from, and held a consultation. One of them said: "We are discovered; if the astrologer denounces us to the king as thieves, we are lost." "Do you know what we must do?" said another. "Let us hear." "We must go to the astrologer and tell him frankly that we stole the ring, and ask him not to betray us, and present him with a purse of money. Are you willing?" "Perfectly."

               So they went in harmony to the astrologer, and making him a lower bow than usual, one of them began: "Mr. Astrologer, you have discovered that we stole the ring. We are poor people and if you reveal it to the king, we are undone. So we beg you not to betray us, and accept this purse of money." Crab took the purse and then added: "I will not betray you, but you must do what I tell you, if you wish to save your lives. Take the ring and make that turkey in the court-yard swallow it, and leave the rest to me." The servants were satisfied to do so and departed with a low bow. The next day Crab went to the king and said to him: "Your Majesty must know that after having toiled over a month I have succeeded in discovering where the ring has gone to." "Where is it, then?" asked the king. "A turkey has swallowed it." "A turkey? very well, let us see."

               They went for the turkey, opened it, and found the ring inside. The king, amazed, presented the astrologer with a large purse of money and invited him to a banquet. Among the other dishes, there was brought on the table a plate of crabs. Crabs must then have been very rare, because only the king and a few others knew their name. Turning to the peasant the king said: "You, who are an astrologer, must be able to tell me the name of these things which are in this dish." The poor astrologer was very much puzzled, and, as if speaking to himself, but in such a way that the others heard him, he muttered: "Ah! Crab, Crab, what a plight you are in!" All who did not know that his name was Crab rose and proclaimed him the greatest astrologer in the world. [1]


[1] Fiabe Mantovane, No. 41, "Gàmbara." The Italian for crab is gambero. There is a Tuscan story (Nov. pop. tosc. p. 8), "Il Medico grillo" ("Doctor Cricket"), with reference perhaps to the other meaning of grillo, whim, fancy, which reminds one of the story in the text. The pretended doctor cures a king's daughter by making her laugh so hard that she dislodges a fish-bone that had stuck in her throat. Doctor Cricket becomes so popular that the other doctors starve, and finally ask the king to kill him. The king refuses, but sets him a difficult task to do, namely, to cure all the patients in the hospital; failing to accomplish this, he is to be killed or dismissed. Doctor Cricket has a huge cauldron of water heated, and then goes into the wards and tells the patients that when the water is hot they are all to be put into it, but if any one wishes to depart he can go away then. Of course they all run away in haste, and when the king comes the hospital is empty. The doctor is then richly rewarded, and returns to his home.

                For parallels to our story see Pitrè's notes, vol. IV. p. 442, and to the Tuscan story above-mentioned.

                Another Tuscan version has recently been published in Nov. tosc. No. 60. See also Grimm, No. 98; Asbjørnsen, Ny Sam. No. 82 [Dasent, Tales from the Fjeld, p. 139, "The Charcoal Burner"]; Caballero, Cuentos, p. 68; Orient und Occident, I. 374; and Benfey, Pant. I. 374. There is a story in Straparola (XIII. 6) that recalls the story in our text. A mother sends her stupid son to find "good day" (il buon dì). The youth stretched himself in the road near the city gate where he could observe all those who entered or left the town. Now it happened that three citizens had gone out into the fields to take possession of a treasure that they had discovered. On their return they greeted the youth in the road with "good day." The youth said, when the first one saluted him: "I have one of them," meaning one of the good days, and so on with the other two. The citizens who had found the treasure, believing that they were discovered, and that the youth would inform the magistrates of the find, shared the treasure with him.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Crab, 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 1641: Doctor Know-All

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