Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

Foils and Fakes: The Hydra in Giambattista Basile's Dragon-Slayer Tale, "Lo Mercante"

Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

Foils and Fakes: The Hydra in Giambattista Basile's Dragon-Slayer Tale, "Lo Mercante"

Article excerpt

Vicious devourers or fierce guardians, dragons are a fixture in the myths, legends, and folklore of the Western tradition. Hercules slew the Hydra of Lyrna as one of his seven labors; Saints George and Martha succeeded in converting infidels by smiting dragons; and countless legions of protagonists in both oral and literary fairy tales have proved their mettle by butchering these malevolent creatures. Even in contemporary feminist fairy tales such as The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch, dragons threaten to devour princesses, although in these versions the female character often trades in the role of victim for that of victor by vanquishing the scaly beast herself. So prevalent is the dragon in European oral and literary traditions that twentieth-century folklorists identified the dragon-slayer tale as one of the fundamental tale types (Aarne 44-45). Vladimir Propp indicates the encounter with the dragon as one of the elemental motifs of the Russian folktale (51-52), and Max Lûthi argues that "all fairytale heroes and heroines are in fact somehow or other dragon-slayers, rescuers, disenchanters, or victims of'dragons,' those rescued and freed" (144). In these stories, the monster functions as the necessary counterpart to the hero or heroine (Izzi 104): its defeat testifies to the hero or heroine's strength and cunning and earns him or her some kind of reward, be it marriage, wealth, or the spiritual gain of converting heathens. So closely intertwined are their fates that some critics have suggested that the monster is simply an extension of the hero, an alter ego or a sort of brother-father figure that must be slain so that the hero can achieve his goals (Vaz da Suva 172).

Historians and anthropologists have documented the diverse guises of dragons-and of their multiheaded kin, the hydras-in early modern European societies where these monsters figured as fantastic antagonists in legends, as the handiwork of charlatans displayed in the town square, as divine portents appearing on earth and in the sky, and as a living species.1 Although literary critics now recognize that early modern Europeans understood dragons and hydras to be both materially real creatures and imaginary monsters (Calabrese 3; Battisti 108-14), they have not yet studied how this multifaceted identity affects the representation of this beast in early modern fairy tales. Despite the fruitful trend in fairy-tale studies of sociohistorical analysis,2 dragons continue to be interpreted as universal symbols or narrative motifs, perhaps due in part to their persistent cross-cultural presence (Vaz da Suva). In this article I reject such universalizing interpretations as I undertake a reading of the hydra in Giambattista Basile's fairy tale "Lo mercante," or "The Merchant's Two Sons." Through a close reading of the description of the multicephalic dragon slain in this tale, I demonstrate that Basile purposefully recalls a monster known as the Venetian hydra, which was discussed widely in prodigy books and natural histories. By reconstructing a textual genealogy for the scientific accounts of this hydra, I reveal that by the time Basile wrote his tale, natural historians considered it to be a hoax crafted from fish skins rather than a marvel of nature. Basile's engagement of scientific depictions of the Venetian hydra leads to a comic deflation of the epic struggle between hero and dragon, for the protagonist of "Lo mercante" does battle with a manufactured monster instead of a ferocious beast.

"Lo mercante" is the seventh tale of the first day of storytelling in Basile's Lo cunto de li cunti, a text that quickly acquired the alternative title of i! Pentamerone due to its structural resemblance to Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron. Published in 1634-36 in Neapolitan dialect, Lo cunto begins with a frame tale that circumscribes and divides the fifty fairy tales into five days of ten tales each. The first four days of storytelling conclude with the recitation of an eclogue. …

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