Pinocchio and Moby Dickens

My 10-year-old daughter and I recently read Carlo Collodi’s 1883 story, “The Adventures of Pinocchio.” Now, it turns out that the story is fairly dark, much more than the famous Disney movie of 1940. Parents may wish to be careful with this one, and a full plot description of Collodi’s story can be found on Wikipedia.

A new and annotated translation by John Hooper and Anna Kraczyna

I read most of the story out loud to my daughter, minus the hanging scene (yes, there’s a hanging scene), and she took great interest. She asked for more chapters and even read a few to me, which she’d never done before. The series of “adventures” are quite creative, and there were a few passages where we both were laughing.

We both were a little exasperated at Pinocchio’s self-centered behavior, though we found somehow that we understood him! And we found him endearing for how he keeps trying to be good and to focus on what he needs to do.

But the story is not for all kids. My 12 year old son, who can be more sensitive about dark stories, stopped asking for more after the first few chapters and went back to other books. Pinocchio kills a cricket very early in the story, and I think he sensed then that it was not for him, not right now. Every kid is different.

There are some striking but distant echoes of Christ in this book, in one of Pinocchio’s unexpectedly good acts and in some of the things that happen to him. But these are distant echoes, because throughout the story our wooden friend really does struggle to do the right thing. There is a section of the story with echoes of the Prodigal Son, and that seemed more true to the character.

When Pinocchio hitches a ride on a giant pigeon, there are a few lovely echoes of the language used by Sancho Panza to describe his view of the earth from a great height, one of my favorite passages from “Don Quixote.”

All of these are nice touches, and they’re more than I expected to find in this story, which I knew only from its Hollywood version.

I wonder too if J.R.R. Tolkien, when he came to write “The Hobbit”, was thinking of one scene in the book in which Pinocchio climbs a pine tree to escape his pursuers, who proceed to set a fire at the foot of the tree.

This all began because I was reading “Les Misérables” this summer, and there is a chapter in which three young orphans crawl into the dark belly of a giant plaster elephant sitting in the middle of Paris.

“The Elephant of the Bastille”, steel engraving of the plaster full-scale model

Gavroche’s two guests looked around them, and felt something rather similar to what anyone shut up inside the great Heidelberg tun would feel, or better still what Jonah must have felt in the biblical belly of the whale. A whole gigantic skeleton appeared, in which they were enveloped. Above, a long brown beam set at regular intervals with massive curved ribs represented the vertebral column with its ribcage,

“Les Miserables” (1862), Christine Donougher translation

Of course this reminded me of Disney’s “Pinocchio,” so I went looking for the book. There the monster is known as the Terrible Shark, or Terrible Dogfish:

The Terrible Dogfish, turned into Monstro the Whale in Disney’s 1940 film

My daughter’s reaction to the description of Pinocchio traveling into the guts of the monster? “That’s disgusting.”

But she knows something about whales. And baking. And the Moby Dickens fanboy that is her dad. This is the cake she made me for my birthday a few months ago:

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