Sunday, March 14, 2010

Women in Folklore Month: Laura Gonzenbach

Today I am featuring Laura Gonzenbach, an amateur folklorist who has recently been acknowledged for her work and contribution to the field.

From The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Folktales and Fairy Tales:

A Swiss-German woman born in Sicily, Laura Gonzenbach was an amateur collector best known for her two-volume collection of Sicilian folktales published in German in 1870 as Sicilianische Märchen (Sicilian Fairy Tales). Predating Sicilian folklorist Giuseppe Pitrè’s four-volume Fiabe, novelle, e racconti popolari Siciliani (Fairy Tales, Novellas, and Popular Tales of Sicily, 1875) [see The Collected Sicilian Folk and Fairy Tales of Giuseppe Pitré] by several years, Sicilian Fairy Tales is one of the few nineteenth-century folktale collections made by a woman. It contains predominantly fairy tales and romantic novellas, and although both male and female protagonists are represented, the majority of these narratives are feminine tales with female protagonists. These stories present a decidedly lower-class, feminine perspective, and women’s struggle against oppression in various forms is a major theme.

Gonzenbach was born to Swiss-German parents in Messina. Sicily, in 1842; her family was part of a German-speaking community in Sicily. She was well educated and spoke many languages, including German, French, Italian, and Sicilian. Her father was both a merchant and the Swiss consul in Messina, and her sister, Magdelena Gonzenbach, founded a school for girls in Messina. Laura Gonzenbach was motivated to collect these stories when historian and theologian Otto Hartwig requested that she send him a few tales for inclusion in his history of Sicily. In 1868, she collected and sent to Hartwig ninety-two stories told by Sicilian peasant women and translated from Sicilian into literary German. Hart- wig edited and published this collection, along with comparative notes by folklorist Reinhold Köhler. The vast majority of Gonzenbach’s informants were women from eastern Sicily, including Messina, its surrounding region, the countryside to the southeast of Mount Etna, and Catania. Two tales were narrated by a man, Alessandro Grasso, who learned his repertoire of feminine tales from his mother. Otherwise, very little is known about the narrators, the circumstances, the methods of collection, or the natural storytelling context; any original manuscripts or notes Gonzenbach might have taken were destroyed in Messina’s 1908 earthquake.

Although Gonzenbach was regarded as a talented storyteller, she was not trained as a folklorist, which is one reason scholars have long ignored her work. No transcripts exist, so it is impossible to know what alterations she made during translation. In a letter from Gonzenbach to Hartwig published in the collection’s introduction, she assures him that her transcriptions of the oral tales were faithful.

Here are her books now translated into English by Jack Zipes:

Beautiful Angiola: The Lost Sicilian Folk and Fairy Tales of Laura Gonzenbach

In one of the most startling literary discoveries of recent years, Jack Zipes has uncovered this neglected treasure trove of Sicilian folk and fairy tales. Like the Grimm brothers before her, Laura Gonzenbach, a talented Swiss-German born in Sicily, set out to gather up the tales told and retold among the peasants. Gonzenbach collected wonderful stories - some on subjects that readers will know from the Grimms or Perrault, some entirely new - and published them in German. Her early death and the destruction of her papers in the Messina earthquake of 1908 only add to the mystery behind her achievement.

Beautiful Angiola, a nineteenth-century collection of stories in the great tradition of fairy and folk tales now translated into English for the first time, is certain to become an instant classic. Gonzenbach delights us with heroines and princes, sorcery and surprise, the deeds of the brave and the treacherous, and the magic of the true storyteller. The Green Bird, The Humiliated Princess, Sorfarina, The Magic Cane, the Golden Donkey, and the Little Stick that Hits are titles destined to become new favorites for readers everywhere. Yet while the stories enchant us, the wry taglines with which they often end ("And so they remained rich and consoled, while we keep sitting here and are getting old") gently bring us back to earth.

The Robber with a Witch's Head: More Stories from the Great Treasury of Sicilian Folk and Fairy Tales Collected by Laura Gonzenbach

The Robber with the Witch's Head presents almost fifty new stories about demons and clever maidens and princes. Bursting with life, this is a storyteller's dream, full of adventure and magic, translated by Jack Zipes.

Now if you are interested in own these books, I recommend purchasing the paperback version which combines both of the volumes above and adds two more tales. (Yes, I own the original two volumes and feel cheated since this came out later...)

Beautiful Angiola: The Lost Sicilian Folk and Fairy Tales of Laura Gonzenbach

Presented here are the complete texts of "Beautiful Angiola" and "The Robber with the Witches Head", plus two never-before translated stories. In the late nineteenth century, Laura Gonzenbach collected these stories throughout her native Sicily and now Jack Zipes' sparkling translations bring these stories to life for English-speaking readers. Witches and princes, magic and trickery, and a parade of lively characters make "Beautiful Angiola" the perfect book for anyone who loves folk and fairy tales.

Gonzenbach's tales do have a somewhat different flavor and are interesting on their own or when compared with similar works from the time period. She also includes many "similar" tales to more familiar ones.

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