One of the elements of the fairy tale that gives it lasting and universal appeal is that the events of the story occur within a universe of clearly defined values, in which good always triumphs over evil and virtues are rewarded with material and personal riches. Calvino’s retelling of the Italian folk tale “The Feathered Ogre,” in his 1956 collection, Italian Folk Tales, demonstrates the values of loyalty, self-sacrifice, bravery, courage, generosity, amiability, cleverness, good deeds, and integrity. In the following essay, the ways in which the hero of the story embodies these values, which result in the stamping out of evil forces and the rewarding of good deeds, will be discussed. An allegorical interpretation of the story makes it relevant to the modern reader as a lesson in important values.
As in most fairy tales, this story ends with the triumph of good over evil. The ogre is punished in the end, when he is stuck on the ferry boat. Likewise, the Devil is driven out of the monastery. The virtues of the hero, and the heroine, are abundantly rewarded. When the man and the girl reach the innkeeper, he is so grateful for the return of his daughter that he immediately gives her hand in marriage to the man. The man is then doubly rewarded for bringing the king the feather that cures him of his illness. With the ogre safely stuck on the ferry, unable to do further harm in the world, and the hero assured both marriage to a ”beautiful girl” and abundant monetary wealth, this story closes with the proverbial ”happily ever after” that characterizes the fairy tale ending.
Thus, the values and morals of “The Feathered Ogre” meet the standard expectations a reader (or listener) has of a fairy tale. Yet, to the modern reader, the moral of the story may at first seem outdated and overly simplistic. Unfortunately, evil in the world takes more complex forms than that of an ogre, and monetary wealth is not so easy to come by, nor does it necessarily bring happiness, whereas love and marriage prove greater challenges in real life than is implied by such a story. However, fairy tales, which serve the cultural role of teaching basic values to children, retain their significance in a complex, modern society when interpreted in allegorical terms. An allegory is a tale that is meant to be understood, not literally but in terms of its symbolic significance. For instance, the predicament of the two noblemen is that their fountain, which used to spout gold and silver, is stopped up by a snake sleeping curled around a ball. The snake, based on the story of the Garden of Eden in the Old Testament, is a classic symbol of evil, the Devil in disguise. Therefore, the allegorical implications are that a force of evil (the snake) is the cause of the problem of the noblemen. In order to get their fountain flowing again, they must crush the head of the snake with the ball, an allegory for crushing the forces of evil that have obstructed their lives. Although the result, that their fountain once again flows gold and silver, is in a literal sense fantastical as well as materialistic, it can be interpreted allegorically as a symbol of the less tangible rewards that result from doing good deeds and counteracting the forces of evil in the world. Likewise, the ”evil” embodied by the ogre and the Devil, may be read allegorically as representing a host of more concrete “evils,” or problems facing the world, such as poverty, oppression, and so forth.
The man’s journey to obtain a feather from the ogre takes the form of a quest. Though most people do not have the opportunity to travel through dangerous territory on a heroic mission, the quest may be interpreted allegorically in terms of goals or ambitions. The quest for the ogre’s feather and the hero’s willingness to risk death and to persevere in the face of danger is an allegory for setting and pursuing an ambitious goal that, in order to reach it, requires persistence and the willingness to take risks or to overcome obstacles.
The protagonist of the story, one of the king’s attendants, is notable for his loyalty, bravery, and self-sacrifice in volunteering to seek out the ogre. When the king falls ill and is told by his doctors that he can only be cured by obtaining a feather from the ogre who eats every human being he sees, no one of his subjects is willing to risk death in order to save the king’s life: “the king passed the word on to everybody, but no one was willing to go to the ogre.” The hero, however, described as ”one of the king’s most loyal and courageous attendants,” demonstrates his loyalty and courage by volunteering to seek out the deadly ogre for no other reason than out of allegiance to the king. There is no obvious personal gain to be derived from this deed, and he is promised no reward for his efforts. Nevertheless, his bravery and courage are demonstrated by the simple and straightforward words with which he agrees to the quest: “I will go.”
The hero’s willingness to risk self-sacrifice, as well as his generosity and amiability, are further demonstrated at each of his four stops along the way to the cave of the ogre. Upon his first stop at the inn, the innkeeper asks to be brought back a feather from the ogre, “since they are so beneficial,” but offers the man no reward or compensation in return, although he is well aware that it is a dangerous mission. The man’s simple and amiable response, “I’ll be glad to,” again demonstrates both his courage and his willingness to risk danger for the benefit of others. When the ferry man asks him to bring back a feather, he again answers simply and amiably, “Yes, of course I’ll bring you one.” And, when the well-dressed noblemen, who are obviously men of great wealth, ask to be brought a feather without mention of reward or compensation, the man replies, “I certainly will.”
The danger faced by the hero in accepting such a mission is reinforced by the prior of the monastery, who warns him, ”My poor man. . . if you are unmindful of all the danger, you’ll certainly lose your life. This is no laughing matter.” But the hero is undaunted by such warnings and graciously thanks the prior for this information, replying simply, ”How good of you to tell me all these things I didn’t know.” When he reaches the door of the ogre, he is once more warned of the mortal danger he faces, as the ogre’s wife with great alarm exclaims, “You don’t know my husband! He eats every human being he sees!” Yet the hero demonstrates his dedication to his quest, as well as his courage and bravery in the face of death, with the matter-of-fact statement that, ”I came for some feathers. Since I’m already here, I’ll stay and try my luck. If I get eaten, that’s that.”
The hero’s loyalty to his king, his bravery in volunteering to obtain a feather from the deadly ogre, and his courage in facing the challenges of such a quest can be read as symbolic of values relevant to the individual in modern society. Loyalty to the king in accepting his dangerous task may be read in terms of the loyalty one may have to a friend or family member who may be ill or in need of aid. Though few people have the opportunity to go on a quest for the feather of an ogre in order to save the life of an ailing king, the hero’s act of bravery teaches a life lesson in self-sacrifice— whether of time or of money or of life itself—in order to help others in need. His “loyalty” to his king may be an allegory for loyalty to a community in volunteering one’s resources toward some goal for the greater good of society. The hero’s generosity in unquestioningly agreeing to help each party he meets as he makes his journey can be interpreted in modern terms as the willingness to respond with compassion to the needs and problems of other people.
In addition to loyalty, bravery, courage, generosity, self-sacrifice, and dedication, “The Feathered Ogre,” as do many fairy tales, places a high value on cleverness. Protagonists often overcome great odds through their cleverness in devising schemes to trick evil creatures. In this story it is the beautiful girl, the wife of the ogre and daughter of the innkeeper, who possesses the quality of cleverness, which, in effect, results in a happy ending for all of the good characters and a speedy demise for all of the evil characters. Before the hero even meets the girl, the prior at the monastery describes her as “a bright girl.” Indeed, her intelligence is demonstrated by the scheme she devises in order to ensure the safety of the hero, to obtain several of the ogre’s feathers, to draw out answers to each of the four questions, and to flee successfully from the ogre’s cave with both her own life and the hero’s.
The cleverness of the innkeeper’s daughter in tricking the ogre may be translated into the value of well-thought-out solutions to a variety of problems one faces throughout life. While the ogre has the physical ability to devour both the girl and the man, it is her intelligence that triumphs over the ogre’s brute power. Whereas the ogre’s only resource seems to be the threat of eating every human being he sees, the girl and the man enjoy the benefits of intelligent, thoughtful problem-solving skills.
All of the virtues of the hero, as well as of the heroine, are in the service of performing “good deeds” in order to stamp out evil and help others out of their predicaments. The hero’s initial act of volunteering to obtain a feather from the ogre is a good deed in itself, as it is for the purpose of curing the king of his illness. Obtaining the solutions to each of the four problems posed by the innkeeper, the ferry man, the two noblemen, and the friars is a good deed, which benefits each of these characters. The value placed on “good deeds” in this story is further emphasized in the solution to the problem of the friars in the monastery. In order to expose the Devil, who lives among them disguised as a priest, the friars must all do “good deeds” so that the Devil will be found out as the only one not doing good deeds and can then be expelled from the monastery; ”the friars all did one good deed after another until the Devil finally fled.” The message here is that society as a whole can benefit from good deeds on the part of individuals.
Finally, while material wealth and marriage to a “beautiful girl” are oversimplified images of what constitutes happiness in life, the reward from the king and the impending marriage can be read allegorically as representing the rewards of a virtuous life, which, in reality, may come in more abstract, subtle, or complex forms than the concrete rewards of a fairy tale. Thus, while the specific elements of a fairy tale such as “The Feathered Ogre” may on the surface seem to have little relevance to the conditions of modern life, an allegorical perspective allows the reader to take away lessons in basic values, which remain timeless and universal. The function of the allegorical effect of the fairy tale is to provide a concise, shorthand narrative which may have applications to greater, more complex concerns facing the individual in society.
Jennifer Smith – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 12, Italo Calvino, Published by Gale Group, 2001.
Liz Brent, Critical Essay on ”The Feathered Ogre,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.