Old Children’s Classic – Pinocchio

Pinocchio by Carol Collodi (my copy published by Simply Read Books, 2002, illustrated by Iasssen Ghiuselev)

1807 saw the first publication of Thomas Bowdler’s ‘Family Shakespeare’, an edition of the Bard’s works where all the parts deemed racy, blasphemous or otherwise unsuitable for the young or female readers were removed.  ‘Cleaning up’ tales for children is something that Walt Disney did for years through the twentieth century- although Disney managed to maintain a more positive reputation for his efforts than did Dr. Bowdler.  The moral perhaps being that it’s safer to sanitize old fables and children’s stories than the works of Shakespeare.

18th and 19th century writers didn’t have qualms about depicting the cruelty and violence of their age when it came to children’s stories.  In the original fables, little pigs that made houses of straw or sticks got eaten.  The big bad wolf ate Red Riding Hood and her granny, although a woodsman arrived, killed and gutted the wolf – miraculously finding the two ladies unharmed in the wolf’s stomach.  Apparently they were highly indigestible.  No doubt the idea was to scare wee folk about what we now call ‘stranger danger’ or just get them thinking about the consequences of unacceptable behavior.

Pinocchio, written by Carlo Lorenzini (pen name Carlo Collodi), is a work that falls solidly into the European tradition of morality folk tales with grizzly bits – as exemplified by the brothers Grimm and, in the twentieth century, by Roald Dahl.  Pinocchio was first serialized in the Italian children’s newspaper, ‘Giornale dei bambini’, before the complete story was published in 1883.  Most people know the work through the Disney movie and have never read the less sanitized original.  You know things will part company with the movie when Pinocchio first gets advice from the cricket and squashes him with a hammer.  There’s also a part when the puppet bites off a robber’s hand and a scene where the coachman driving the children to Playland bites the ears off a donkey – details perhaps more acceptable in the nineteenth century than now.

Like all classic children’s books, Pinocchio can be read on several levels.  One can read the story with its surface appeal or consider the wooden puppet a metaphor for the young, callow, gullible and irresponsible aspects of childhood.  However you choose to approach the work, the underlying moral is always evident – Pinocchio will only become a ‘real boy’ when he can resist temptation and model socially desirable attributes: obedience to elders, a solid work ethic, studiousness, charity and good works.  It’s a tough assignment for Pinocchio who is naturally lazy, easily influenced, prone to leaping headfirst into temptation and is a bit of an impudent rascal.  Pinocchio knows what he should do, and he has the best of intentions, but each foray away from home brings him fresh temptation with disastrous consequences. 

The first part of the book is full of adventures in which Pinocchio ignores advice and suffers the consequences.  Collodi only starts Pinocchio on the road to maturity after an encounter with a police dog.  Pinocchio eludes capture by jumping into the sea and ends up saving the dog from drowning.  The dog later returns the favor by saving Pinocchio from being eaten by a fisherman – a quid pro quo too straightforward for even Pinocchio to miss. 

Those who only remember Pinocchio as the puppet whose nose grew whenever he lied may find the original surprising in how small a part this plays in the overall story.  It but one small vignette in a series, each written so that a young reader will have no doubt that bad deeds lead to bad consequences.  It’s inventive and memorable, even with its darker aspects.  As a nineteenth century children’s story, even despite the grizzly bits, Pinocchio holds up fairly well in these modern times. 

TL;DR

Pinocchio – it’s more than just a nose.

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