By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Apple Girl’ is an Italian folktale which was memorably told by Italo Calvino (1923-85) in his 1956 collection Italian Folktales. The story concerns a queen who gives birth to an apple, which the king of a neighbouring kingdom sees and falls in love with. Before we analyse ‘Apple Girl’ it might be worth quickly summarising the plot of this short tale.
‘Apple Girl’: plot summary
There was once a king and a queen who had no children. This made them sad, and the queen would wring her hands and ask in her despair why she couldn’t bear children the same way that the apple tree outside bears apples.
Sure enough, one day the queen did conceive, but when she gave birth it was not a son but an apple: an apple more red and more beautiful than any other. The king was so proud of it that he placed it on a golden tray and displayed it on the royal balcony, where it attracted the attention of a king who lived across the street.
This other king, however, saw not an apple but a beautiful young woman, whose cheeks were as red as an apple. He watched her from across the street as she played with her hair and he promptly fell in love with her, but as soon as she saw this king gazing at her, she ran back to the golden tray and disappeared back inside the apple.
This king went across the street and asked the king and queen if he could have the apple on their balcony. The queen refuses initially, but when the besotted king insisted, she realised she would have to hand the apple over to him, in order to maintain good relations with this neighbouring king.
So this lovestruck king takes the apple home with him, taking it straight into his bedroom. Every day, the beautiful maiden would come out of the apple but she would never speak to the king and would simply play with her hair and then disappear back inside the apple again.
The king’s stepmother, who lives with him, becomes suspicious that her stepson is spending so much time in his room, and when war breaks out and the king has to leave the palace to lead the troops, she seizes her chance and goes and has a good look in her stepson’s bedchamber. The king has put a trusted guard on the door to his room, but the canny stepmother drugs the man’s wine and steals the key to the room from him.
However, when she’s inside the room she cannot find anything out of the ordinary. What could her stepson possibly have been doing in here all this time? Then she spots the apple, and reasons that this must be the thing he spent all his time with. So she takes out a dagger and pricks the apple all over. To her horror, blood flows out of it, and she flees, returning the key to the sleeping guard.
The guard, when he awakens, is horrified to see what has happened to the apple, so he rushes to his aunt, who is a fairy, and asks her to work her magic on it. Using magic powders, his aunt heals the apple, and a bandaged woman emerges from it. When the king returns, the ‘apple girl’ speaks for the first time, telling him what his stepmother had done to her while he was away, and announcing that she is eighteen and will be his bride, if he would like her to.
The king replies that he definitely would like that, so they get married; everyone is at the wedding except for the king’s stepmother, who has fled.
‘Apple Girl’: analysis
‘Apple Girl’ is based on the ‘Ragazzo mela’ story from Florence, a much older folktale which Calvino retells and adapts in his modern story. In his vast version of the Italian folktales, Calvino generally sticks quite closely to the source material, signalling whenever he has made substantial changes to the earlier versions of the tales. ‘Apple Girl’ has the feel of a Tuscan fairy tale handed down orally through the generations and centuries.
Indeed, it shares many features with other European folktales and fairy tales (and it can qualify as a ‘fairy tale’, not least because it features an actual fairy!), such as the king and queen longing for a child, the unusual child they conceive, the happily-ever-after romance between the king and the beautiful maiden, the evil stepmother, and, of course, the apple, a staple of many classic fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm, Perrault, and others.
The theme of metamorphosis or transformation is also an important theme, or at least plot device, in many fairy tales, and in ‘Apple Girl’ the conflating of the beautiful heroine with an apple recalls other folktales in which a character is trapped in the form of another creature or thing (‘The Frog Prince’, for instance) or in which a beautiful maiden is trapped under some powerful spell (such as ‘Sleeping Beauty’). Calvino was undoubtedly aware of these shared tropes, as one of his inspirations for writing Italian Folktales was reading Vladimir Propp’s influential Morphology of the Folktale.
Apples, of course, have a longstanding association with a loss of innocence, thanks to the identification of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden as an apple. (The Bible never identifies the fruit as such, but in literature and art, the fruit is usually depicted as an apple.) It is significant that the maiden trapped in the apple only gains her voice and, with it, her agency when she turns eighteen and thus attains womanhood. (It is noteworthy that she proposes to the king, rather than vice versa.)
Her childhood innocence has given way to worldly knowledge. Having been the mute, passive object of the male gaze – a role from which she shrank in horror – the girl has become a woman who, having formerly been given over to the king against her will, now freely offers herself to him.
The blood symbolism, in this connection, is obvious. It represents the physical onset of womanhood: the woman who was concealed within the fruit is now able to bear fruit herself.