by Giambattista Basile

Once upon a time there lived a man upright and just, Col’ Aniello was his name, and he was blessed with three daughters, Rosa, Garofana, and Viola: and the youngest of these was very beautiful. She was like syrup which purged the heart from all its cark and care. And Ciullone, the king’s son, burned with a burning fire for the love of her, and every time that he passed that way and glanced where the three sisters sat at work together, he would lift his cap, and say courteously, ‘Good day, good day, sweet Viola,’ and she would answer, ‘Good day, Prince. I know more than you.’ And the other sisters were sore envious, and murmured with each other, and said to her, ‘You are very rude, and you will anger the prince’; but Viola noticed not her sisters’ words, rather putting them behind her.

Now her sisters, to spite Viola, went to their father, and told him that she was a bold and brazen-faced hussy, who answered pertly to the prince, just as if he were her equal, and one of these days she would be punished, and they, the just, would suffer for the guilty. Col’ Aniello, being a wise and good man, sent Viola to stay at the house of her aunt, Cuccepannella, bidding her to set his daughter some work to do. Meanwhile the prince tarried every day before the house of his dove, and seeing naught of his heart’s desire, passed the days as a nightingale who has lost her little ones’ nest, flying from bough to bough, wofully lamenting. And he pried, and listened, and watched, and looked through keyholes, till at last he knew where they had sent her, and he journeyed to the aunt, and when he reached her house he said to her,

‘Dear madam, you know who I am, and what I can do, and what I am worth; you must do me a favour, and then you may ask of me as much money as you want .’ Answered the old woman, ‘In all that I can, I am at you service, command me and I will obey’ ; and the prince said: ‘I want none of you, but only that you allow me once to kiss sweet Viola, and then you may take this money.” And replied the old woman, ‘So that I may be of service to you…but I may not allow that her innocence be defiled, or the pitcher’s handle be broken, or that I hold hand to this infamy, so that my old age be disgraced ; nor will I hold the title of the apprentice of a smith who works the bellows; but whatever I can do to please you I will do. Go and hide thyself in the chimney of the little summer- house in the garden, where with some excuse I will send Viola, and as you will have in hand the cloth and the scissors, if you do not know how to use of it the fault will be yours.’

The prince without any loss of time hid himself in the summer-house, and the old woman, pretending that she wanted to cut out some cloth, said to her niece, ‘ O Viola, go to the garden summer-house, and bring the measure.’

And Viola entering the room to obey her aunt’s desire, perceived the ambush, and quick as a cat jumped out of the room, leaving the prince heart-sore, and with his nose long with shame. And the old woman, when she saw Viola coming in such haste, suspected that the prince’s ruse had not succeeded, and a little while after said to the girl, ‘Go, O my niece, to the summer-house, and bring that ball of thread upon the table;’ and Viola ran to do her aunt’s bidding, and slipped like an eel from the prince’s grasp. But in a little while the old woman again said to her, ‘ My sweet Viola, if you don’t fetch me the scissors, I shall be ruined ;’ and Viola went down for the third time, but being quick as a dog, escaped again, and going upstairs, cut her aunt’s ears with the same scissors she had brought, saying,:

“Here is a good gift to you for you romancing : every kind of work hath its reward : a sliding of honour bringeth a loss of ears. I have a mind to cut off your nose also, but then you wouldn’t smell the stink of your own bad reputation. Thou bawd, pimp, chickens-carrier.’ And leaving her in bad plight, in three minutes was at her own house, leaving her aunt without ears, and the Prince full of cark and care.

In a day or two he once more began walking in front of her father’s house, and beholding her seated in the same place where she used to work, he began to address her as before, ‘ Good day, good day, sweet Viola,’ and she at once answered, ‘ Good day, Prince, I know more than you.’

The sisters could not bear to hear this music, and desiring to get rid of her, they confabulated together how they should best accomplish their purpose ; and they bethought themselves of a window in their house which overlooked upon an ogre’s garden, and they agreed one with the other that this would be the best means to rid themselves of this hated sister. Therefore, dropping a skein of silk out of this window, with which they were working a piece of tapestry for the queen, they cried out:

‘O woe unto us, we are ruined, we will not be able to finish the work in time, if Viola will not help us ; she is the youngest and lightest of us, and if she will let us tie a rope round her waist and lower her down, she will be able to pick up the silk.’ And Viola, not desiring to see them so sorrowful, offered to descend, and they tied a rope round her, and lowered her down, and then let go the rope.

At the same time the ogre entered for a view of the garden, and the ground being damp he had taken a bad cold and sneezed, and in sneezing he let go a fart, so powerful and strong that it sounded like thunder, and Viola, hearing it, screamed with fright, ‘O mother mine, help me!’ And the ogre, hearing the scream, turned round, and beheld the beauteous child behind him, and remembering that once he had heard a clever student say that the Spanish mares became with foal by the wind, bethought himself that maybe the wind of his fart had filled a tree and out of it had come this beautiful child: therefore embracing her with great love he said to her,

‘O my daughter, part of this my body, breath of my breath, soul of my soul, who could have told me that a fart could have given life to such a beauteous creature? Who could have told me that an effect of a cold would have brought forth such fire of love?’ And saying these words, and others of more tender import, he led her to his palace, where he consigned her to three fairies, and bade them take care of her, and entreat her kindly, and give her the best of all things. Such was her case. But the prince who could see nothing of his love, and could hear naught concerning her, neither new nor old, was sorely stricken, and his eyes were swollen for so much weeping, and his face was discolored, and his lips were whitened, and he could take no food, and his sleep was lost, and he could find no peace. And he searched everywhere, and promised rewards, and sent many of his followers in quest of her, until at last it came to his ears where she dwelt, and sending for the ogre, he said to him: ”

I am very ill, as you can perceive, and I would ask of thy favour to allow me to dwell for one single day and night in thy garden, as in this chamber I feel that I am suffocating, and I should like to come there to cheer my spirit.’ Now the ogre, being a good subject unto the king, could not deny the prince so small a favour, and offered him the use of all his palace if one room did not suffice, and said he would lay down his life in his service.

The prince thanked him, and was at once conducted to the ogre’s palace, and a chamber was assigned to him next to the ogre’s, where Viola slept in the same bed with him. And when night came forth to play with the stars the game of drawing the curtain, the prince finding the door of the ghul’s chamber open, it being summer and the heat very excessive, and the ghul liking to have the fresh air, feeling he was in a safe place he entered very quietly therein, and going to the side where Viola slept, he gave her two pinches, and .she woke up in affright and cried out,’ O papa, we are full of fleas!’

The ogre at once changed place with his daughter, and sent her into another bed, and when once more she slept, the prince did the same as before. And Viola cried in the same way, and the ogre bade the servants change her bed- linen and her mattress, and all the night was spent in this traffic, till with the dawn, the sun finding himself alive came forth, and the sky shook off its mourning garment. But as soon as it was day, the prince walked about in the palace and gardens, and saw Viola standing at the gate, and said to her as usual, ‘Good day, good day, sweet Viola;’ and she replied, ‘Good day, Prince, I know more than you. ‘

But the Prince answered: ‘O papa, we are full of fleas!’

As soon as Viola heard these words, she understood that all the upset of the night had been a trick played her by the prince, yet she said naught to him, but went to pay a visit to the fairies, and told them what had come to pass. Said the fairies, ‘If he hath done this, we will treat him as a corsair treateth a corsair, and a sailor a galley slave; and if this dog has bitten you, we will try to get his fur; he has played you a trick, and we will play him a trick and a half: tell the ogre to make you a pair of slippers covered with tiny bells, and after leave all to us, as we will pay him in good coin.’

Viola, desirous of avenging herself, told the ogre at once to get her these slippers, and awaiting until the heavens, like unto a Genoese woman, apparelled themselves with a black veil upon their face, all four made their way to the prince’s palace, where Viola with the fairies entered unseen into his chamber. And as soon as the prince tried to sleep, the fairies made a great noise, and Viola stamped with her feet, and the noise of her heels upon the floor, and the tiny bells ringing, awakened the prince, and he started up in affright, and cried out, ‘ O mother mine, help me!’ and the same was done three times, whereafter Viola and the fairies retired to their home.

Now in the morning the prince was obliged to take lemonade and other drinks to allay his fright, but as usual he made his morning walk, and beholding Viola standing at the gate, since he could not live without a sight of that Viola who so greatly excited his flesh, he said, ‘ Good day, good day, sweet Viola;’

And Viola replied, ‘ Good day, Prince, I know more than you;’ and the prince said, “O papa, how full of fleas we are!’

But then Viola said: “O mother mine, help me!” and the prince hearing these words, said, “You have played me a good trick, you have won, I give in, and seeing that in reality you do know more than me, I will have you for my wife.”

He sent for the ogre and asked him to give her to him in marriage. The ogre, not desiring to put his hand on other people’s property (as in the morning it had come to his knowledge, that Violet was the daughter of Col’ Aniello, and that his back eye had been deceived to think that this sweetly scented being could be the offspring of a stinking wind) sent for her father, and telling him of her good fortune, with great feasting and enjoyance the prince took Viola to wife, and thus came the proverb true that

‘A fair maiden soon gets wed.’

Note: You can find the public-domain text of this oh-so-out-of-copyright tale here. Don’t sue me.


This story really makes me laugh! Giambattista Basile is a genius. It’s not for nothing that Jack Zipes says: “Along with E.T.A Hoffman, Giambattista Basile is the most talented and innovative of all the fairy tale writers up to the present day.” You can read Zipes’ essay on Basile in “Giambattista Basile’s The Tale of Tales, Or, Entertainment for Little Ones” translated by Nancy L. Canepa.

Where to begin? This fairy tale is so funny! I love how it’s bawdy, yet charming at the same time. Basile has written the tale in such a way as to make even serious subjects (the Prince is after more than kisses in that summerhouse) light and airy. It helps that he makes all his characters take basically everything as a joke.

The fairy tale with which this has the most in common is The Peasant’s Clever Daughter. In Viola, the Prince originally lusts after Viola because she is beautiful. But it isn’t until she matches wits with him and wins that he respects her enough to marry her. Same goes for the Grimms’ tale. The King marries the peasant girl because she’s pretty (and clever), but remarries her when she outwits him big time. That’s why I like these two tales so much. They’re really very much about respect and equality; the Grimms’ tale obviously so, and the Basile tale underhandedly so, underneath all that talk about farts and such.

The last thing I want to talk about with this tale is the version I used. Savvy readers (and nerds) will have seen that my version is very very flowery in style. That’s because it was translated by the King of Flowery Prose, Richard Francis Burton. He’s also translated the 1001 Nights. Now, Zipes hates Burton, because he’s “chock full of errors.” As far as this relates to the language, this is probably true. Heck, I don’t speak Italian. But three things make me choose this translation. One: I like Burton. Sure, he’s flowery, but his language can also be charming. Two: I have limited options. I have to use translations that are in the public domain; the Canepa/Zipes one isn’t. Three: Burton doesn’t censor the text. There are other versions of this tale out there coughcough SurLaLune coughcogugh that edit out all the sexual stuff. The Prince did not want to kiss Viola. C’mon. These were written for adults! So just know that this version is unedited in basic content, but more flowery than the original.

If you’re going to read these tales (and you really, really should), I’d recommend picking up Canepa’s translation. You can browse it here.