Crimson Elf, The

The Crimson Elf: Italian Tales of Wisdom by Michael J. Caduto. Illus. by Tom Sarmo. Golden, co: Fulcrum, 1997. 58 pp. HC ISBN 1-55591-323-7, $15.95 The Eagle and the Rainbow: Timeless

J. Caduto, creator and co-author of the highly acclaimed Keepers of the Earth series, returns to his Italian roots in The Crimson Elf. It contains his retellings of six traditional stories. Five are Italian tales, and the sixth is from the Mediterranean region. These are traditional tales retold to clearly portray traditional values and lessons.

In the introduction children are alerted to the fact that the stories are about growing up and learning from life's experiences. The lessons they teach include the importance of obeying one's parents; the equality of all people regardless of wealth and social status; and the necessity for faith and courage.
Perhaps because the book is intended for children, Caduto is very clear in presenting the lessons of each tale. He does not assume that the children will grasp implicit messages, but chooses instead to clearly state the wisdom each story offers. The stories range from the one about the boy who seeks the land of eternal life, to one in which a prince marries a frog. They include an evil elf who tricks a disobedient child, a crone who is willing to sell the world's wisdom to greedy villagers, and poor but noble youths.

Caduto includes an afterward addressed to parents, teachers and librarians, and does a great job of including sources and notes on how and why he retold the originals. Of the three stories for which I was able to locate the variants listed by Caduto, two stayed quite close to what he calls "the original heart" of the story. In A Mountain of Contentment, however, I wonder if he lost some of the import of the source story. Called The Three Orphans in Calvino's Italian Folktales, the story is about three brothers who set out, one at a time, to seek their fortune. Each, in Calvino's version, approaches a man who agrees to take him on "if we can reach an agreement." The man then asks for, and receives, a promise of obedience, and sends the young man off of on a horse with explicit directions not to touch the reins, but only to let him gallop, for the horse would know the way. The first two young men, frightened by a rocky precipice, break their promise of obedience, take up the reins, and hence, fail.

In Caduto's retelling, there is no promise of obedience, and the young men are told only to ride the horse up a mountain. There is no intimation that the horse knows the way, no reason, to my mind, for any sensible person to make any choice other than the one made by the young men when they face an impossibly steep mountain: to turn around and go back. In Calvino's story the young men who fail are allowed to fill their pockets with gold, but then walk out the door
and fail straight down into hell. Caduto's young men are chastised for their lack of faith and courage, and are sent back home "where they can take care of you."

Caduto says that in this collection he is creating original retellings, and A Mountain of Contentment does make the point that faith and courage can help one through hard times.
However, I feel that this retelling lacks impact since it demands no commitment of its characters and deprives them of the moral dilemma faced by those who must choose between a promise given and possible danger to the physical self.

A couple of other points struck me. The introduction states "Traditional Italian stories include the Märchen, or fairy tales." The use of the German term, Märchen , in describing Italian tales seems to invite confusion. I would also question the statement that "fairy tales are the original children's stories of Europe" since it is my understanding that they were not specifically for children.

Still, children will be drawn into the book by the cover illustration of an obviously wicked elf grasping the arm of a surprisingly calm young girl, and teachers and parents looking for teaching tales will welcome the collection.

Fulcrum Publishing's World series brings folktales and contemporary stories from a variety of cultures and makes them attractive and accessible to readers aged eight and up. (From the Mouth of the Monster Eel was reviewed in Vol.2 No.1 )This is one of the two additions to the series this year.

The Second Story Review, Vol 2 , No. 2, June 1997
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