Laura Gonzenbach. The Robber with a Witch’s Head: More Stories from the Great Treasury of Sicilian Folk and Fairy Tales.

Laura Gonzenbach. The Robber with a Witch’s Head: More Stories from the Great Treasury of Sicilian Folk and Fairy Tales. Trans. Jack Zipes. New York: Routledge, 2004. Pp. xxxii+230. Illus., notes, bibliography.

David Elton Gay
Indiana University

The Robber with a Witch’s Head is the second volume of Jack Zipes’s translation of Laura Gonzenbach’s nineteenth-century collection of Sicilian folk narrative. While this volume completes the translation of Gonzenbach’s work, the introduction to the volume is a slight revision of the introduction to the first volume, and thus it could easily stand alone as a translation of Italian folk narrative.

Gonzenbach, of a Swiss family that lived in Messina, created one of the classic nineteenth-century collections of regional Italian folk narrative. But, because Gonzenbach’s collection was available only in German, it has been somewhat slighted in studies of Italian folklore. It is a curious work in many respects. Zipes proposes many questions one would like to have answered about it, such as: “Did Gonzenbach sit there with pen in hand and immediately translate the dialect tales she heard into High German? Did she just listen and then return home and write them down from memory…. How intimate was her relationship to the peasant women…? Did she make slight changes to make the tales more emancipatory, or were most of the tales truly recorded as they were told?” (pp. xxv-xxvi) As the questions indicate, we know almost nothing about the situations in which Gonzenbach collected her stories, nor what relationships, if any, she had with her informants. While this is common in many nineteenth-century folklore collections, it is likely that the situation was made worse in Gonzenbach’s case because her family papers were destroyed in a fire. Any notes concerning her collection or earlier versions of her work were thus lost.

There are some aspects of her tales that may indicate a literary reworking, though it is not possible to tell how much in her versions was from the oral tradition and how much was her rewriting. Some of these characteristics might also be gender related: her collection came from Sicilian women, whereas most other collectors got their tales from men. Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing. Even if we don’t know the precise process through which Gonzenbach created her collection and translation, the tales, as Zipes notes (pp. xxvi-xxvii, for instance), nonetheless read quite well. When compared to other Sicilian tales which we know came from the oral tradition, the similarity suggests that she stayed relatively close to the stories as she heard them.

The original German edition was arranged according to tale types, but Zipes has organized his translation to bring out the similarity of the tales to those “that one finds in the classical collections of Charles Perrault, Mme d’Aulnoy, the Brothers Grimm, and Ludwig Bechstein, so that the reader familiar with the literary fairy-tale tradition, may readily compare the so-called classics with the ‘deviant,’ if not devious, Sicilian analogues” (p. xxix). As can be seen, Zipes here, as elsewhere in his introduction, collapses the literary and oral folk tale tradition. In fact, he is somewhat careless in his use of the terms he applies to the narratives. Perhaps, since Zipes has worked mostly on literary versions of folk tales, this is to be expected. His introduction is otherwise a good general introduction to the tales. He has also included the AT numbers for the stories in his notes to the tales.

What, then, to make of this translation of a translation of nineteenth-century Sicilian tales? While there are some minor blemishes that will annoy folklorists, it is, simply put, a welcome addition to the very limited sources in English for Italian folk narrative. As with so many of the nineteenth-century collectors, Laura Gonzenbach assembled an impressive collection of folk narrative, one that deserves to be widely known and used.

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