The Folk Tale
“The Feathered Ogre” was originally published in Calvino’s book, Italian Folktales, in which he transcribed stories from the oral tradition in Italian culture. However, even read out of this context, this story clearly resembles the familiar folk or fairy tales children are often told. Because they originate in an oral tradition, folk tales are generally not attributable to any particular author but have been passed down through generations of storytellers. Because of this, there are often several versions of any one folk tale, and the writer who chooses to transcribe them must decide which elements of the various versions of the story to include in the written text. Thus, although Calvino gathered this story from other sources, it is also in part his own creation and bears the mark of his own personal writing style in re-telling these traditional tales.
Magic and Fantasy
Fairy tales often include elements of magic and fantasy, which require the reader’s “suspension of disbelief,” in order to accept the premise of the story. While everyone knows there is no such thing as an ogre, the ogre is a standard character in fairy tales that most readers can imagine with only minimal description. The only feature of this ogre that the narrator specifically describes is that he has feathers. Based only on this one physical aspect, the reader is invited to use her or his imagination in picturing what such a creature would look like. Furthermore, the ogre’s feathers have the magical properties to bring people luck and cure the king of his illness. The character of the ferry man also implies that some magical forces are at work in this story, as the ferry boat seems to cast a spell on those so unlucky as to get stuck on it at the wrong juncture. The ferryman is unable to leave the ferry until he tricks the ogre into falling under this spell and getting stuck on the boat instead of the man. Another element of fantasy is the fountain that spews silver and gold; only in the realm of fantasy could such a fountain exist. These elements of magic and fantasy are accepted by the reader in the context of the fairy tale.
As do many folk tales, ”The Feathered Ogre” tells the story of a courageous man who must go on a journey in order to seek out some type of monster or dragon or ogre, obtain some item or items guarded by the evil beast, and return in order to receive a reward, and, usually, a beautiful girl or princess to marry. This type of story is in the form of a quest or journey, requiring bravery, and, often the help of various advisors along the way.
In his essay “Quickness,” from Six Memos for the Next Millenium, Calvino explains that the oral tradition of storytelling “stresses repetition.” The predictable repetitions in folk tales create a “rhythm,” which structures the entire story: “Just as in poems and songs the rhymes help to create rhythm, so in prose narrative there are events that rhyme.” This predictability and repetition, Calvino points out, is part of the pleasure of folk tales: “A child’s pleasure in listening to stories lies partly in waiting for things he expects to be repeated: situations, phrases, formulas.” “The Feathered Ogre” contains many repetitions, or “events that rhyme.” For example, the protagonist makes four stops on his way to find the ogre; at each stop, the people he meets ask if he will bring them one of the ogre’s feathers, and if he will ask the ogre a question. These questions are repeated when the ogre’s wife tricks him into explaining the solution to each of the four questions by awakening him four times during the night. On their way home, after fleeing the ogre’s cave, the man and the girl stop at each of the four places to repeat to the people there the solution to their problem.
In recording Italian folk tales, Calvino, as stated in his essay ‘ ‘Quickness,” was especially interested in “the economy, rhythm, and hard logic with which they are told.” He states that,’ ‘The very first characteristic of a folktale is economy of expression,” and that he himself “found most enjoyment when the original text was extremely laconic.” “The Feathered Ogre” is narrated in this type of “laconic” style, which does not dwell on “unnecessary details.” For example, in the opening of the story, “Not a word is said about what illness the king was suffering from, or why on earth an ogre should have feathers, or what those caves were like. But everything mentioned has a necessary function to the plot.”
The Happy Ending
Part of the pleasure of folk tales is the predictability of the happy ending. In this story, the protagonist is rewarded for his efforts, both by receiving the hand in marriage of the beautiful girl and by the king’s reward, which is doubled. The details of the relationship between the man and the girl are unnecessary in a folk tale, as the elements of the story are reduced to the most basic plot points, implying that the reader (or listener) will assume the “happily ever after” status of the romantic couple.
Like most folk tales, this story is set in an unnamed country during an unspecified period in history, although one can generally assume that it takes place long ago. The non-specificity of the setting is in part what allows for the suspension of disbelief required of the reader in order to accept the unlikely, magical, and unrealistic elements of the story.
None of the characters in this story has a specific or proper name. Because it is a folk tale, each character represents a familiar type. This adds to the brevity of the story, as the reader (or listener) is expected to be able to fill in the details based on having heard many such tales before. The characters are named only by their status and occupation, rather than by any indication of individuality or developed character. Note that the characters in the story include the following: the king, the king’s attendant, an innkeeper, an ogre, two noblemen, a group of priests, a “beautiful girl,” and so on.
Jennifer Smith – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 12, Italo Calvino, Published by Gale Group, 2001.