Pinocchio: Fairy tale, Folklore, and Myth

For looking at the relationship of literature and myth, I chose to focus on Carlo Collodi’s classic Italian story, Pinocchio. Collodi created a story that doesn’t neatly fit into any one genre. It has the feeling of a fairy tale, the buffoonish peasant hero of folklore, and the structure of a myth. In his essay on Pinocchio, Jack Zipes makes the argument that the story is a tragic-comic fairy tale, a “combination of the folklore and literary fairy-tale traditions to reflect upon the situation of illiterate playful poor boys during the latter half of the nineteenth century in Italy” (146). I agree with Zipes that Pinocchio is a fusion of folklore and fairy tale but I will argue that Pinocchio also contains the elements of myth. The story is all three of these genres but because it contains elements of the other genres, it does not fit so easily in any of these genres. The story could be considered a parody of the genres. Zipes states that the purpose of blending genres and flipping real world situations is to “question the social norms of his times and to interrogate the notion of boyhood” (145). This suggests that Collodi consciously flipped the genres which is what I believe as well.

Pinocchio was an unintentional masterpiece. It is often important to think not just about the piece of literature but the author’s experiences and intent when writing the piece. Carlo Lorenzini wrote the series of stories under the pseudonym Carlo Collodi at the request of the editors of the children’s magazine, Il Giornale per I bambini between the years 1881 and 1883. The stories were then gathered and published by Felice Paggi under the title The Adventures of Pinocchio. He originally ended the series in 1881 at chapter fifteen but resumed the stories the following year due to public protest. To think of all that would have been lost had Collodi ended his story at the fifteenth chapter with Pinocchio hanging from a tree, the victim of the harsh world, taken advantage of, robbed, and murdered. The story would have been entirely different but instead, Collodi had to continue his story by introducing the blue fairy to save Pinocchio from the tree. She becomes the symbol for Pinocchio’s goddess, savior, sister, and later, his mother. In a way, even though Carlo Lorenzini was the one who wrote Pinocchio, he was not the sole author; the public that demanded the story continue and author that compiled the pieces into a book were also responsible for making the story more than just a tragic tale of a poor, uneducated boy that falls victim to the harsh world. The public fell in love with Pinocchio and they sent him on his hero’s journey. This twist of story line enhanced the story’s genre to become more than a folklore or fairy tale, it also became mythical as it contains every element of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. I say it became mythical, not a myth because it doesn’t quite fit into the myth genre just like it doesn’t quite fit into the genres of fairy tale or folklore.

“There was once upon a time …

“A King!” my little readers will instantly exclaim.

No, children, you are wrong. There was once upon a time a piece of wood” (Collodi, 12).

These opening lines for Pinocchio key the reader in to the merging of folklore and fairy tale. With his knowledge of literature, I would contend that Collodi was very deliberate when choosing these words. The opening has the feel of folklore by starting with a dialogue but Collodi doesn’t write that his little “listeners” respond as it would be if he were mimicking folklore; he is pointing out that this story is to be read. Also, by using the phrase “once upon a time,” Collodi introduces the fairy tale genre to the story but by adding “there was” in front indicates that although the story may feel like a fairy tale, it will be something different than the traditional fairy tales Collodi had been translating from the major French writers. Finally, by introducing the character in comparison to a king emphasizes for the readers that Pinocchio is of low status. While popular in folklore, stories with peasant heroes were not as popular in the literary fairy tales that were only read by the upper members of society that were literate. Collodi wanted to make sure the readers knew his stories would be stories for the people even though “the people,” for the most part were, like Pinocchio, illiterate. There seems to be little doubt that the story contains elements of fairy tale and folklore.

Pinocchio is a story by the people for the people but is it a myth? In differentiating between fairy tale and myth, Marie Von Franz writes, “if one studies the psychological implications of myths, one sees that they very much express the national character of the civilization in which they originated and have been kept alive” (26). This is most certainly the case with Pinocchio, I believe Collodi, a serious writer and political activist, intended his stories to hold a mirror to the society and comment on issues that existed in his time. Von Franz continues this thought to show how this nationalization of the narrative distinguishes a piece as a myth rather than a fairy tale. She writes, “by lifting such an archetypal motif to a cultural and national level and by linking it with religious traditions and poetic forms, it more specifically expresses the problems of that nation in that cultural period, but loses some of its generally human character” (27). Using this differentiation of fairy tale and myth, Pinocchio would fall with myth.

This brings me to the heart of the paper, how is Pinocchio a myth and how is it also not a myth? Pinocchio contains all of the elements of Joseph Campbell’s hero journey cycle except Pinocchio is not a hero. Unlike many of the heroes from myth, Pinocchio is neither soldier nor knight. He is a lowly puppet that is created by a woodcarver that is so poor, he has to sell his own jacket to buy Pinocchio his book for school. Not only is Pinocchio not a traditional hero, he’s not really even a very good guy. He is an antihero. All the trials he faces are because of his own selfish impulses. All through the novel, Pinocchio knows what he should do but he continues to make the wrong choices. In other myths, it may be the hero’s bad choices that lead to bad situations but Pinocchio doesn’t have heroic moments to redeem his bad choices. Like the main character in the popular folklore stories from Collodi’s time, “Jack tales,” Pinocchio survives all his trials through good luck and not through good deeds. He does not rescue but is in constant need of being rescued. The only time that he helps to rescue someone is when he helps his father, Geppetto from the belly of the whale and this is as much an act of self-preservation as heroism. Even with this small act of heroism, Pinocchio’s strength fails and once again in need of rescue, they are carried to safety by a tuna.

So, Pinocchio is folklore, except it is in written form. It is a fairy tale, except it holds a mirror to the society from which it was created. It is also a myth, except the main character is no hero. So, when it comes back to my original question – to what genre does Pinocchio belong? Is it folklore, fairy tale, or myth? It is all of these and none of them, it is something new – it is a mythic fairy tale in the tradition of folklore.   The story Pinocchio is like the puppet Pinocchio. Pinocchio lives, he talks, he thinks – in almost all ways, he is a real boy, except he isn’t. He is made of wood so he doesn’t age, he remains a wooden boy until the fairy with the blue hair again comes to his aid and gives him the transformation he has longed for through the story, to become a real and good. The story has the fairy tale ending of living happily ever after, Pinocchio becomes real, Geppetto’s youth is restored, and they are given a great fortune. The story Pinocchio also has a happily ever after, it went from a series of stories, to a book, to a movie, and to the minds of many throughout the world. It may not be a real myth, a real fairy tale, or a real folk tale but it is a real story that contains elements of all three.



Works Cited

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1972. Print.

Collodi, Carlo, and Cooper Edens. Pinocchio. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2001. Print.

Von Franz, Marie-Louise. The Interpretation of Fairy Tales. Boston: Shambhala, 1996. Print.

Zipes, Jack. When Dreams Came True: Classical Fairy Tales and Their Tradition. New York: Routledge, 1999. Print.

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