The famous little donkey

Pinocchio, illustration by Charles Folkard

Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi.
[Translated by Mary Alice Murray, 1892, line illustrations by Charles Folkard, 1911.]
Wordsworth Editions, 1995 (1883).

The Famous
Little Donkey
The Star of the Dance,
Will Make His First Appearance

Chapter 33

Carlo Lorenzini, better known after Tuscan town he grew up in as Carlo Collodi, published Le avventure di Pinocchio. La storia di un burattino (‘The adventures of Pinocchio: the history of a marionette’) in 1883, a scant seven years before his death aged just 63. The very first translation – into English – by Mary Alice Murray appeared within a decade of the original, and it remains the most readily available to this day.

While the outline of the story is well-known from the many, many adaptations – mostly for the screen – it’s always worth reminding ourselves of the original text, even if in translation, to see whether Collodi’s intended vision may not necessarily be what comes to the fore in modern retellings.

And it’s possible that by looking at the context and milieu from which it emerged our appreciation of this Italian fable, while remaining ‘fabulous’ in all senses of the word, will take on a very different hue to that with which we’re familiar, somewhat darker and more moralistic.

Zanni mask (Tom Branwell)

First of all it’s worth considering the appeal of a puppet that somehow comes alive, a puppet that in the author’s first version ceased to exist after being hung from an oak tree. The tendency to imagine an inanimate figure or even a pet as having human thought or movement is not restricted to childhood: it’s expressed through Creation myths and medieval legends, manifested in the passions of iconophiles, model railway enthusiasts and lap dog owners, of admirers of animated movies like Toy Story and of fans of speculative fiction from Frankenstein onwards.

What Lorenzini did was to ally 19th-century popular entertainments – principally the puppet theatre and the commedia dell’arte – with a morality tale emphasising redemption, a genre with a long tradition given impetus by the rise in literacy. Charles Kingsley had achieved something similar with The Water-Babies a couple of decades before, but Lorenzini’s now expanded tale was to achieve greater universal success by reportedly becoming one of the most translated books after the Bible.

So, the story. Who doesn’t know the tale of a living piece of wood that, in due course, the woodcarver Geppetto was to make into a jointed marionette? Incidents like the nose that grows with every lie, the puppet’s transformation into a donkey and finding Geppetto in the belly of a fish, and characters like the Fox and the Cat, the Talking Cricket and the Blue Fairy are all familiar tropes associated with Pinocchio’s story.

And yet there is so much more to Lorenzini’s narrative that may be unfamiliar to most of us after more than a century of adaptation, selective retelling, even repurposing. Who recalls the Snail, the Assassins, the Green Fisherman, the mastiff Alidoro, or even the Serpent? Who remembers how many times Pinocchio repents his wayward behaviour before reverting to the ‘boys will be boys’ excuse?

Amidst all the retellings for new audiences it’s worth remembering some of the contexts from which Pinocchio emerged. The subtitle La Storia di un Burattino reminds us of the puppet theatres that the author would’ve known which often featured characters  from the traditional Commedia dell’arte: in fact Harlequin and Punch – or rather Arlecchino and Pulcinella – are specifically mentioned in the novel as marionettes in the theatre. They belong to the class of  stock figures called zanni, knavish comic characters derived from the name Gianni (‘Johnny’), from which the English word ‘zany’ obviously originates.

In fact Pinocchio himself is a kind of zanni, a mischievous individual whose first appearance – acting like the Gingerbread Man – is completely in the clown tradition. Pinocchio’s clothes – conical hat, ruff and motley vestments – accentuate this role; in addition Zanni wore distinctive masks, most of which indicated a character’s degree of foolishness or duplicity by the length of the nose on the face, a feature displayed of course by the puppet. (Incidentally, Pinocchio doubtless inspired the look, nature and behaviour of Enid Blyton’s Noddy, a doll who lived in Toyland, itself a name equivalent to Paese dei Balòcchi, the Land of Toys or Country of Simpletons to which Pinocchio is later lured.)

Mr Punch and friends

Side by side with the commedia influences there’s iconography from religious and classical traditions. For example the name of Pinocchio’s ‘father’ Geppetto is a familiar form of Giuseppe or Joseph, who in the Bible was Jesus’s foster father or stepdad. The constantly forgiving Fairy with the Turquoise Hair, who appears intermittently as a dead child, a young woman or even a blue-coated goat, must surely allude to the Virgin Mary who’s always depicted with a blue robe. The giant dogfish which swallows Geppetto and then Pinocchio recalls the ‘great fish’ in whose belly Jonah spent three days and nights. And the puppet’s constant immersions in the sea are effectively serial baptisms from which he is reborn.

Meanwhile Pinocchio’s adventures are a kind of Odyssey: like the wily Odysseus the puppet travels to various locations and even encounters a cannibalistic ogre similar to Polyphemus in the Greek epic. But Pinocchio also gets turned into a little donkey: the metamorphosis into an asino – which translates both as donkey and fool or dunce – is a trope which goes back at least to the classical satire called The Golden Ass by Apuleius, one even cited in Kingsley’s The Water-Babies (1863).

But we come back to Pinocchio himself, and the significance of the name. The usual suggestions are that pinocchio is a dialect word for a pine-nut, or that it’s a combination of Italian nouns for ‘pine’ and ‘eye’. A more recent theory links it with the author’s family connections with the small Tuscan town of San Miniato basso. This settlement was given its name in 1924 but research has suggested that San Miniato was formerly known by a different name: as road signage now declares, it is San Miniato basso, già Pinocchio.

Lorenzini’s skill was in refreshing an oral folktale tradition by combining tropes from fairytales, the Bible, fables, classical epics and tall tales, all the while injecting his narrative with enough farcical humour to take the sting from the underlying didacticism. There’s little doubt that, Pinocchio having survived 140 years since its first outing in 1883, there remain many more years of life left to this perennial history of a marionette.

Pinocchio is my read for May for Adam @’s #TBRyear10 challenge, and one of my Wyrd &Wonder titles for 2023

@WyrdAndWonder Flying witch artwork by astromoali, magic portal artwork by Tithi Luadthong

20 thoughts on “The famous little donkey

  1. I must admit, Chris, that I had read Pinocchio first as a child, and that it was a scarring experience. This story is very dark, not only to my younger eyes but remains so to me even now. The final redemption feels contrived and quickly dealt with, considering what Pinocchio must suffer through before that – and let’s be honest here, some of the things he’s going through are a result of his naivety and believing in goodness of people.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have an inkling of how that may have affected you, Ola, except my memory came from seeing the Disney film in the cinema. In fact nearly all those early Disney films – Bambi, Dumbo, Snow White, Pinocchio – I found quite harrowing as a kid despite all the technicolor bravura of the movies.

      As for the novel, it’s only now that I’ve read it in its entirety and its illogicalities and character motivations fore count the most against it, as it clearly does to some extent for you.

      As for the inherent cruelties (and there are far too many of these for our sensibilities) as an adult I take these as.a reflection of historical realities. Hangings, poverty, brigandage, torture, mantraps, physical hardships, con artists etc were all endemic in 19th-century Italy even after unification, and Collodi’s story scarcely exaggerates what conditions were really like.

      Even the commedia and puppet theatres (much like Punch & Judy puppet shows in England) played up the nasty side of humanity to contrast the innocence of lovers or the gullibility of old people. Anyway, I’m glad I finally got round to reading it, even if only in my dotage!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ve heard that explanation about the different and much harsher reality of the 19th century Italy – and there is definitely truth in it. But, to my younger self and to me today, what comes as almost gratuitious is the number of the mishaps coming poor Pinocchio’s way. He becomes an allegory of a youthful victim, condemned to be punished for the sole reason that he dares to exist. I’ll confess that I feel Collodi tortures his young protagonist with much too much delight, and that tacked-on, artificial happy ending only confirms this ;). But yeah, as you can surmise I am certainly not an objective judge here :D.

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        1. Allegory is a good way of looking at this, Ola, a kind of Pilgrim’s Progress or a bildungsroman like the journey the simple innocent Percival had to endure to get to his grail. I get what you say about Collodi ‘torturing’ his protagonist – it does feel like randomly assigned violence with an arbitrarily placed closure. Described that way it’s not unlike an unsophisticated violent video game, the trajectories of which I could never understand.

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    1. For definite there’s a lot more to it than Disney’s cutesome creation! And its influence has been huge – not just the film versions and Blyton’s Noddy but also Stravinsky’s Petrushka, and movies about automata (like Scorsese’s Hugo) or robots (like Spielberg’s A.I., based on Aldiss’s short story ‘Supertoys Last All Summer Long’).

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  2. Aonghus Fallon

    I read this as a teenager and thought it was pretty good, but never considered the corollaries with the Commedia dell’Arte or with Catholicism until now. You’re absolutely right about both. In that respect, Pinocchio could only have been written by an Italian, I guess? It’s funny what you take away from a book. I remember that Pinocchio ends up riding on the back of a tuna at one stage. Until then I’d thought tuna were the same size as sardines.* Well, I was wrong!

    * the only common denominator is that both come in tins.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Heh, in this translation the older word ‘tunny’ is used; to my ear (and possibly yours too) tunny suggests a smaller more cutesy fish than the bulky bluefin tuna which can grow more than 2 metres in length. You’re gonna need a larger boat than for titchy sardines…

      The most contemporary literary parallel – certainly in terms of redemption after a series of disobedient escapades – is Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies, which came out in book form in 1863.

      Although the origin stories are very different – Tom is a climbing boy for a chimney sweep, not a puppet – Kingsley’s hero like Collodi’s puppet has a kind of baptism, reborn as a water-baby after leaving his dirty husk of a body (like Pinocchio leaves his wooden torso behind when he becomes a proper boy).

      The equivalent of Pinocchio’s Blue Fairy is an Irishwoman who turns out to be a cross between a fairy godmother and Eve; in their later adventures both boys have to confront father figures, visit a land where humans have become donkeys, meet giants, swim in the sea etc. And both stories are exceedingly moralistic about good behaviour – Charles Kingsley was an Anglican priest as well as a novelist. Eventually (spoiler alert!) both boys grow up to be older, wiser and more mature young men.


      1. Aonghus Fallon

        I meant to comment on the parallels you draw with The Water-Babies – ie, the similarities are very interesting; also how they differ – ie, unlike Pinocchio, Tom starts out a boy.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Lizza Aiken💙💛
    Replying to

    This is another of your masterly pieces of research Chris! Absolutely fascinating…I have to write about it one day as a major Joan Aiken influence, her Pa Conrad Aiken bought it for her when she was two! Illustrated by Attilio Mussino – scary and beautiful. Many Aiken plots come to mind – the journey to Playland in ‘Is’ for example – I wonder if the Aiken family poem the Playlanders which she uses as a preface was influenced by this story too?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Lizza, and thank you especially for introducing me to Attilio Mussino’s beautiful illustrations! How wonderful that Conrad bought her a copy, especially as I see that Carol della Chiesa’s translation, allied with Mussino’s pictures, was newly published in 1926 when Joan had her second birthday!

      I’m sure you’re right to link the Playland poem and Is specifically with Pinocchio’s trip to the Land of Toys (as this translation calls it; mine first refers to it as the Land of Boobies, rendering Balòcchi as boobie meaning dunces or simpletons). I now wonder about other incidents, such as Dido cast adrift at sea, or the numerous havey-cavey coves who, like the Fox and the Cat, try to bamboozle our heroines with false statements and fake smiles.


  4. What an interesting review, Chris. There are aspects to this story that I had never been aware of previously. The links to Catholicism particularly. Unfortunately I think the Disney film scarred me for years, I know my parents regretted taking me due to the nightmares it prompted for weeks afterwards. That experience resulted in me avoiding the book subsequently but I’m really intrigued now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you’d take this in your stride now, Anne, especially if you get a modern Puffin or Penguin edition with illustrations of Pinocchio not at all resembling the Disney puppet in his anatopistic Tyrolean outfit.

      I also think Collodi’s story is much easier to take because it’s closer to an Aesop fable with its talking animals and moralistic stance. And the broad humour somewhat tempers the cruelty, which to me feels no worse than a Tom and Jerry cartoon (though I know even that freaks out some viewers).

      Interestingly there’s no overt religiosity here – no priests, no church, no angels – but the symbolism inherent in names and the Fairy’s multiple appearances, and constant forgiveness meted out to the backsliding Pinocchio, would have done the job for the original Italian readership.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you for this review Chris and highlighting all the elements that together influenced the story. I remember reading this a few years ago and being surprised by how the aspects that one remembers from various adaptations and popular impressions were only a small part (especially the nose) of a book that had so much more to it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As I suspect with you, I found it enlightening to finally read the story in its entirety and to gain new perspectives on a narrative that seems somewhat hackneyed now through being hacked about by various adaptations.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, others have referred to the trauma felt after watching the Disney animation, but the original text has a rather different feel to it, and how much or little angst one gets from its pages depends on the imagination one brings to the reading. Glad you liked the review though!


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