Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

A Tale Without a Name by Penelope S. Delta

9781908968906A Tale Without a Name by Penelope S. Delta has been much-loved in Greece since its original publication in 1911, and a beautiful English translation was published by Pushkin Press last year. It is a fairy tale, in which a nameless kingdom rapidly descends from place of plenty under the popular King Prudentius I to a derelict ruin under his feckless son King Witless and his vain, stupid wife Queen Barmy. In a few short years, the coffers have been emptied through a combination of the royal family’s greed and the deviousness of some of their advisers, unemployment is the norm, and crime is rife. Witless and Barmy have four children. Spitefulnia and Jealousia are always fighting, but a glimmer of hope comes with the younger two: The Prince, and Little Irene. It dawns on them that everything has gone to rack and ruin and the people are all desperately unhappy and angry about the state of their lives. An encounter with a beautiful young women called Knowledge, and an insulting present from their Uncle to their father, reveals to them that the only way back to prosperity and pride in themselves is to begin with taking pride in yourself. So begins an attempt to galvanize not just their own lazy, stupid family, but also the whole kingdom.

“Time always passes. But if you consume yourself in idle things, you waste it; whereas if you do work that has a purpose, you make good use of time.”

It is, to say the least, a thinly disguised fable, but that is forgivable when you remember that Penelope Delta primarily wrote for children. Thinking about it in terms of a young audience, the moral of the story is a good, solid one: work hard, take pride in what you do, and the rewards will surely follow. But in these times of austerity and political unrest, it takes on a darker hue for the adults in the audience. It is a stark warning of what is liable to happen if the people in charge are wasteful and don’t care about anything other than their own comfort. King Witless is not, I should point out, an inherently bad person. He does not wish ill on anything or anyone. It is simply that he is too dim to be concerned with anything outside of his immediate life. For instance, he has absolutely no idea that his adviser Cunningson is emptying the cellars of jewels and keeping the cash, and is frankly staggered when he discovers that the armed forces have long since given up and wandered off. He is just, well, witless. This strikes me as another stark warning for modern times. The people at fault do not need to be “evil” and hellbent on the destruction of society. All it takes is for someone to be uninterested or preoccupied with other things. With great power comes great responsibility.

It is a simple story, with simplistic answers, but for all that it still works as a political allegory. I was unsurprisingly irritated that Little Irene’s role in bringing about the renewal of society was to be in the kitchen cooking for her family and mending their ragged robes, but it must be remembered that it is a century-old children’s fairytale, and the emancipation of women was not particularly high up the agenda. The book itself is also an utterly beautiful object, which is to be expected from Pushkin Press. It is a tactile thing, with small but gorgeous illustrations carefully placed throughout. It is clear that time and thought has gone into the book’s production, and that makes it a joy to read and hold. It is a quick read, but a meaningful one in these interesting times.

Penelope S. Delta: A Tale Without a Name, translated by Mika Provata-Carlone (London: Pushkin Press, 2013). ISBN 9781908968906, RRP £10



2 comments on “A Tale Without a Name by Penelope S. Delta

  1. Jackie
    July 25, 2014

    The names! Those are very clever and make me chuckle. Now I’m curious about the illustrations and are they the ones which were in the original edition, do you know? This sounds like a way to impart messages without being preachy.
    Like you, I’m disappointed about Little Irene’s role. Surely if sewing and cooking was all that was needed to make a good family and society, it would never have fallen apart to begin with?

  2. Stefos Alevras
    November 8, 2018

    The writer was born in 1874, for Pete’s shake ! Greek society ladies then, as the utmost adventure were taken in a carriage ride and returned without ever having stepped on the ground. They were not even allowed to be in their home’s kitchen, apart for giving instructions to the staff ; this was the Cook’s domain !
    Penelope’s family was one of the wealthiest, her father was businessman, benefactor, later Mayor of Athens Emmanuel Benakis.
    Women voted in England from 1918, in Greece from 1952 after the civil war.
    Even the part Irene plays is revolutionary for the time the book appeared.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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