A Moment of Literary Enlightenment

In 1956 Michael Ende was commissioned by the Bavarian public broadcasting authority to accompany cameraman Bodo Bluthner to southern Italy on a trip lasting several months. The assignment included a visit to Palermo, where he witnessed something that made a profound impression on him. One evening he was in the town square near the castle listening to the cantastories - traditional Italian storytellers. A crowd had gathered, and everyone was captivated by the sing-song Sicilian stories told in verse and accompanied by the rhythmical drumming of wooden swords. ‘Every now and then the storyteller would stop mid-sentence and wait for his listeners to throw coins on the ground near his feet. When enough change had accumulated, he would continue singing a never-ending story about Orlando and Rinaldo, Sicily’s national heroes. But there was a second storyteller sitting on a bench with men and children crowding around him. (…) His storytelling was incredibly impressive (…) and his tale seemed peculiarly familiar.’

Michael Ende questioned the man about the story and learned that he had inherited a novel by Alexander Dumas from his grandfather. Since reading it, he had made a career of re-telling the story in Palermo’s town square. ‘…Now that’s a challenge (…) What if a hundred years from now storytellers in Palermo were to re-tell my stories on the street? You’d never been able to do that with James Joyce’s Ulysses. But (…) Alexander Dumas was a storyteller. And in that sense (…) I’m not really a writerly writer. In fact, stylistic posturing just tends to annoy me.’