Last week I mentioned "my recent acquisition by the Skinner sisters, Ada M. and Eleanor L., The Emerald Story Book; Stories and Legends of Spring, Nature and Easter." Today's story, of all the many tales and poems in that book, has haunted me. I'm not alone for even today the novel, Picciola, by French novelist and playwright, X.B. Saintine, from 1836 continues to fascinate readers on Goodreads.
But that is a full-length novel and is neither suited to storytelling nor this blog. Ada Skinner distilled the story to its essence for the "Spring Stories and Legends" section of The Emerald Story Book. I've not read the novel, so I can only react to her adaptation. It's simple matching the novel's introduction of "Here are no stirring incidents, no thrilling love tale. And yet there is love in what I am about to relate; but it is only the love of a man for...Shall I tell you? No, read and you will learn".
Adapted from St. Saintine
Many years ago a good man, who lived in France, was thrown into prison because the King suspected him of having plotted against the government.
Within four grey stone walls, with only one small window through which the little stream of sunshine came, the poor man was kept captive for months and years. He was not allowed to speak to a living soul except his jailer who at best was but a cross old fellow. He had no work to do. There were no books to read, and his only source of amusement during many long tedious hours was drawing pictures with a bit of charcoal on the bare stone walls of his prison cell.
Fortunately, however, the poor captive was permitted to leave his cell for one hour each morning and go up a narrow winding stairway which led him into a small courtyard on all sides of which rose high, strong prison walls. There was no roof overhead. Here the prisoner could breathe the fresh air and feel the warm sun and by looking up he could see a bit of the blue sky above.
Day after day the prison life went on in the same round without any change or hope of change. The bitterness and loneliness of the poor man’s lot grew upon him as months and years passed without a word from his family or friends and without hope of ever seeing one of them again. And by and by a time came when he could no longer even find amusement in sketching upon the walls of his cell, for not one vacant spot was left in all that space where he could draw a picture. He was a very unhappy man indeed, and it is hard to say how it might have ended. But one day a new interest came into his life—an interest which changed the poor fellow from an unhappy bitter man who had come to hate everybody and everything, into one who forgot all wrong and who learned to see only the good and the beautiful in all around him. And this interest came about through the growing up of a tiny stray seed which had been blown into the courtyard by the wind and had taken root between two of the great stones with which the courtyard was paved.
It happened that one day as the prisoner was taking his daily walk his eyes caught sight of the bright green of the little seedling just in time to save it from being crushed beneath his foot. He stopped and looked closer. Then he saw how a little plant had sent down its rootlets into the crevice between the stones and had struggled to push its head up where its green leaves might catch what they could of the scant sunshine. He thought how wonderful it was that the little seed had found courage to take root and struggle for life in the dark and gloomy courtyard of the prison. “Brave little plant,” he said. “You deserve to live. I shall watch over you and guard you, for the wind and the hail are hard enemies.”
Day by day he noticed how bravely it grew higher and higher and unfolded one leaf after another to the dull sunshine. He became more and more interested in the little nursling which in time was like a dear friend and companion to him. He called it Picciola, which means, “little one,” and before many days had passed, it had taken root and grown in his own heart so that there was no longer room for bitterness or memory of any wrongs.
At one time when a great hailstorm sent its cruel hail into the courtyard, the prisoner bent over Picciola to protect it and the driving hailstones fell upon his own head until the storm was over.
“My poor little Picciola,” he said, “I shall not always be here to guard you from harm. Much can happen to my little plant when I am in my cell. I will build a little fence around you, then the wind cannot blow you down nor the hail cut you with sharp stones.”
The cross jailer, too, took an interest in Picciola when he saw how happy the prisoner had become and he was glad to help take care of the little plant. Somehow, the jailer did not seem to be such a cross fellow as before; indeed he seemed to be quite a gentle and kind hearted man.
Now the prisoner was very happy and the days were no longer weary and without interest for Picciola was always waiting for him in the courtyard and he was sure to see something new about the little plant each morning he visited it. And Picciola grew and grew and in time put forth two beautiful blossoms and sent perfume to make glad the heart of her friend.
But one morning alas! when the prisoner went to look at Picciola he found that, in spite of all his care, she had begun to droop and wither. What could be the matter? In a moment he was on the ground examining the little plant to find out what was causing all the trouble. He soon discovered that Picciola had grown so large that there was no longer room enough for it to grow in the crevice between the stones. The sharp edges of the stones cut into the delicate stem and the poor prisoner could see that his little companion would die unless the stones could be lifted.
He was in great distress. He tried with all the strength he had to lift the stones himself; but he could not move them. He begged the jailer to help him.
“I can do nothing for you,” said the jailer. “You must ask the King; he alone has the power to say that the stones should be lifted.”
“But the King is far away,” said the prisoner. “There is but one way to reach him—I must write.”
The poor fellow in despair sent a letter to the King begging him to save the life of his little friend, Picciola. The letter was written on a white handkerchief with a bit of charcoal. He begged the King, not for his own freedom and life, but for the life of Picciola. As soon as the King finished reading the prisoner’s letter he said:
“This man is not really wicked at heart or he could not care so much for a little plant. The stones shall be raised that the little plant may live, and I will pardon this prisoner because of his great love and sacrifice for so helpless a thing as Picciola.” So the prisoner was released and when he left his lonely prison cell he took Picciola with him, for she had been the beginning for him of a new happiness.
Initially trying to find more about this story, Skinner led us astray by claiming it was originally by "St. Saintine." A typo? Wikipedia gives us the basics on X.B. Saintine, hinting at the popularity of the novel, but while they mention it being "translated into many European languages", Project Gutenberg only offers it in the original French. Google Books has a free eBook also in French, but with the mainly English introduction by A.C. Clapin telling us of the book's popularity not only in winning the highest award by the French Academy, but :
Picciola was a great literary success. Music, painting, the stage, even fashion, in all its frivolities, borrowed in turn from the Author of Picciola either the sentiment or the title of his book. There was a time when the flower of the Fenestrelle prisoner blossomed everywhere; on the piano as a musical reverie; on the easel as a painting; those who in the evening saw Picciola on the stage, might have contemplated, in the morning, Picciola, a real living flower at a flower show.
Can you think of any modern novel that is a similar sensation everywhere?
The introduction goes on to say "Saintine was not dazzled by the great renown of his book." This is further shown by its sparking a letter (unfortunately given only in French) in 1843 by Napoleon III telling of it bringing comfort in his own imprisonment. Saintine sent a copy of the book to him and received back a blossom of the Heliotrope the prisoner cultivated on the terrace of his prison.
As the French might sigh, "Alas!" it takes some prowling to find the book in English. Archive.org will let you read an English translation online. There are several, but skip the first one as it's the version offered by Google I mentioned earlier and is mainly in French. Beyond that there are several translations, including ones with illustrations.
(You even can find at Archive.org a pair of those "musical reveries.")
For myself, I find Skinner's adaptation sufficient, but, as I said earlier, haunting.
- There are many online resources for Public Domain stories, maybe none for folklore is as ambitious as fellow storyteller, Yoel Perez's database, Yashpeh, the International Folktales Collection. I have long recommended it and continue to do so. He has loaded Stith Thompson's Motif Index into his server as a database so you can search the whole 6 volumes for whatever word or expression you like by pressing one key. http://folkmasa.org/motiv/motif.htm
- You may have noticed I'm no
longer certain Dr. Perez has the largest database, although his
offering the Motif Index certainly qualifies for those of us seeking
specific types of stories. There's another site, FairyTalez
claiming to be the largest, with "over 2000 fairy tales,
folktales, and fables" and they are "fully optimized for
phones, tablets, and PCs", free and presented without ads.
Between those two sites, there is much for story-lovers, but as they say in infomercials, "Wait, there's more!"
- Zalka Csenge Virag - http://multicoloreddiary.blogspot.com doesn't give the actual stories, but her recommendations, working her way through each country on a continent, give excellent ideas for finding new books and stories to love and tell.
You're going to find many of the links on these sites have gone down, BUT go to the Internet Archive Wayback Machine to find some of these old links. Tim's site, for example, is so huge probably updating it would be a full-time job. In the case of Story-Lovers, it's great that Jackie Baldwin set it up to stay online as long as it did after she could no longer maintain it. Possibly searches maintained it. Unfortunately Storytell list member, Papa Joe is on both Tim Sheppard's site and Story-Lovers, but he no longer maintains his old Papa Joe's Traveling Storytelling Show website and his Library (something you want to see!) is now only on the Wayback Machine. It took some patience working back through claims of snapshots but finally in December of 2006 it appears!