MÄRCHEN: AN URBAN INVENTION OF THE RENAISSANCE?

The first canto of Dante’s Inferno presents at first a fairly realistic space (a wood, a hill, etc.), which soon dissolves or merges into something more uncanny, like a dream or a fairy tale: the hill becomes a mountain, silent menacing animals appear out of nowhere, etc. The scene seems to echo a wonder tale or Märchen, when the protagonist is confronted with three animal opponents: the intriguingly androgynous lonza or lynx, the leone (male) lion, and the lupa (she)wolf; the two latter bring to mind the stereotypical troll/ogre/father and witch/mother, from whom he is relieved by a helper from the otherworld: Virgil, who will accompany him on his journey. Such motifs are largely absent from other medieval narrative genres, secular or ecclesiastical, such as courtly romance or pulpit exempla; not to mention the wholly realistic novella form. 

The parallel to a wonder tale or Märchen seems not to have been noticed by Dante scholars. But were similar tales in fact known in Dante’s Italy? It is commonly assumed that wonder tales (AT  classification numbers 300-749) were widespread as a popular, oral genre in the European Middle Ages. However, their diffusion before the early modern period (and print) remains yet to be proved convincingly (or at least: proved in a way which will satisfy philologists rather than folklorists) : this is for a decade or so the subject of debate among folklore scholars, where some believe that the genre and the very stories we now know as Märchen or fiabe (which are better terms than fairy tales or contes des fées) basically originated in book form in Venice and Naples in the 16th and 17th centuries and spread to Central and Northern Europe – from where we largely know them today, through Perrault and the Brothers Grimm.

     Can this be true? Probably not ….

 Also, the motif of animal opponents (rather than helpers) seems unknown or at least undocumented in Southern Europe. A few examples can however be found in Scandinavian oral tradition from the early 17th century onwards: an unfinished but attractive version of AT 510 B (Cap O’Rushes or Allerleirauh, a cousin of 510 A, Cinderella or Aschenpüttel, and related to 510 B, One-Eyes, Two-Eyes, Three-Eyes as well as to 511, Das Erdkühlein) is documented in a Swedish manuscript before 1612. Interestingly, it is probably the first ever example of a tale taken down directly from an oral source, and shows no dependence upon printed versions, Venetian or otherwise. Also, the Norwegian folk song epic Draumkvedet (The Dream Lay, a vision of the Otherworld with striking similarities to the Comedia) was written down only in the 19th century, but is probably older.

     Both contain the motif of three animals blocking the way of the protagonist. But of course there is no direct link to Dante …