"Loudly sing cuckoo!" So said a wise man once. April is a wonderful time to explore tales of Fools, Numbskulls, and Noodleheads, and I recently had the pleasure of performing one such story. Known as Tale #4 of the Neapolitan Giambattista Basile's famous collection of elegantly re-worked folktales called "Il Pentamerone", it is subtitled "Vardiello".
The hero of our tale - the eponymous Vardiello - is a silly fellow who lives alone with his mother, a sensible and intelligent woman, except where her son is concerned. The fun begins when she leaves him home alone to babysit her valuable chicken, currently brooding over a clutch of eggs. Her proactive attempts to protect the hen and its offspring from her son's well-meant "help" result in one absurd household disaster after another. Upon her return, she finds the hen gone, the eggs crushed, her wine spilled, her carefully hoarded supply of walnuts devoured, and her foolish son hiding in the oven after a failed suicide
attempt. And that right there would have been an appropriate ending to this silly tale of woe, but Vardiello was only getting warmed up!
Why his mother gave him a second chance, we'll never know; her persistent albeit unfounded belief in Vardiello's mental capacity is the underlying engine upon which this story runs. This time, she tries sending him out of the house, with the goal of selling an expensive bolt of cloth (see image above). Fearing that he will be easily swindled by some clever fast-talker, she warns her son to avoid buyers who talk too much. Which results in Vardiello selling the cloth to a statue.
The poor mother's frustration can only be imagined, however Vardiello is not finished! Returning to his customer, with the innocent expectation of being paid for the cloth which he had left at the taciturn fellow's feet the day before, Vardiello is shocked and outraged when no payment or explanation is forthcoming. In a fit of uncharacteristic rage, the poor fool crushes the "man" with a rock, only to find that his client is hollow and contains a large quantity of gold coins!!
Gratified as his put-upon mother is to receive this unexpected but very welcome treasure, she is left with the problem of how to deal with Vardiello. He can't possibly be trusted to keep his mouth shut about all that gold, and what will the neighbors say then? Vardiello's mother now proves herself to be something of a genius: she tricks her son into believing that it is raining figs and raisins; thus, when he inevitably blabs about finding treasure to all who will listen, he explains that his good fortune occurred on the day when fruit fell from the sky. Pitying him as a supposed madman, a concerned judge sends Vardiello away to a madhouse, leaving his mother - with the gold - in peace at last.
What fascinates me about this complex and episodic story is the connections it has to other tales and tale-telling traditions. For instance, Vardiello's mother attempts to prevent him from eating her carefully saved stash of pickled walnuts, by telling him that they are poisonous. Ironically, her precaution backfires when Vardiello decides to take his own life for fear of facing his mother's wrath, having killed her chicken, crushed its precious eggs (in an attempt to keep them warm by sitting on them), and inadvertently poured the contents of an entire keg of wine on the flour. Despondently, he eats her all of her walnuts and placidly waits for death's release in his mother's oven.
The motif of the fool who purposely eats hoarded food disguised as poison as an attempt at suicide is found in Isaac Bashevis Singer's lovely collection of Yiddish folktales "Zlateh the Goat and Other Stories" in the story of Shlemiel. Shlemiel is a classic fool in the Yiddish tradition; he tries and tries but simply cannot get anything right! When his wife leaves him to take care of their baby and rooster, he similarly goofs up, although thankfully in this tale there are no fatalities, human or avian. But like Vardiello, Shlemiel fears female retribution when his misdeeds are found out, so he eats his wife's delicious "poison". We, the Readers, chortle knowingly, enjoying the fruits of Shlemiel's "logical" thinking.
Similarly, when Vardiello is tricked into thinking - and then telling - how food has fallen like rain from the sky, there are cognates in other traditions. A wonderful German folk tale called "The Blabbermouths" features a wife who successfully prompts her husband to convince a magistrate of his own supposed madness, when he describes how donuts fell the day he dug up treasure.
The moral of these silly tales? Fooling fools is a complex yet lucrative business for enterprising wives and mothers!