A king had his crier announce in the town squares that whoever found his missing daughter would be rewarded with a fortune. But the announcement brought no results, since no one had any idea of the girl's whereabouts. She had been kidnapped one night, and they had already looked the world over for her.
A sea captain suddenly had the thought that since she wasn't on land she might well be on the sea, so he got a ship ready to go out in search of her. But when the time came to sign up the crew, not one sailor stepped forward, since no one wanted to go on a dangerous expedition that would last no telling how long.
The captain waited on the pier, but fearful of being the first to embark, no one approached his ship. Also on the pier was Samphire Starboard, a reputed tramp and tippler, whom no ship captain was ever willing to sign on.
"Listen," said our captain, "how would you like to sail with me?"
"I'd like to very much."
"Come aboard, then."
"So Samphire Starboard was the first to embark. After that, other sailors took heart and boarded the ship.
Once he was on the ship, Samphire Starboard did nothing but stand around all day long with his hands in his pockets and dream about the taverns he had left behind. The other sailors cursed him because there was no knowing when the voyage would end, provisions were scarce, and he did nothing to earn his keep. The captain decided to get rid of him. "See that little island?" he asked, pointing to an isolated reef in the middle of the sea. "Get into a rowboat and go explore it. We'll be cruising right around here."
Samphire Starboard stepped into the rowboat, and the ship sailed away at full speed, leaving him stranded in the middle of the sea. He approached the reef, spied a cave, and went in. Tied up inside was a very beautiful maiden, who was none other than the king's daughter.
"How did you manage to find me?" she asked.
"I was fishing for octopi," explained Samphire.
"I was kidnapped by a huge octopus, whose prisoner I now am," said the king's daughter. "Flee before it returns. But note that for three hours a day it changes into a red mullet and can be caught. But your have to kill the mullet at once, or it will change into a sea gull and fly away."
Samphire Starboard hid his boat and waited out of sight on the reef. From the sea emerged the octopus, which was so large that it could reach clear around the island with its tentacles. All its suckers shook, having smelled a man on the reef. But the hour arrived when it had to change into a fish, and suddenly it became a red mullet and disappeared into the sea. Samphire Starboard lowered fishing nets and pulled them back up full of gurnard, sturgeon, and dentex. The last haul produced the red mullet, shaking like a leaf. Samphire raised his oar to kill it, but instead of the red mullet he struck the sea gull flying out of the net and broke its wing. The gull then changed back into an octopus, whose wounded tentacles spurted dark red blood. Samphire was upon it instantly and beat it to death with the oar. The king's daughter gave him a diamond ring as a token of the gratitude she would always feel toward him.
"Come and I'll take you to your father," he said, showing her into his boat. But the boat was tiny and they were out in the middle of the sea. After rowing and rowing they spied a ship in the distance. Samphire signaled to it with an oar draped with the king's daughter's gown. The ship spotted them and took them aboard. It was the same ship that had earlier discharged and abandoned Samphire. Seeing him back with the king's daughter, the captain said, "Poor Samphire Starboard! Here we thought you were lost and now, after looking all over for you, we see you return with the king's daughter! That calls for a real celebration!" To Samphire Starboard, who'd not touched a drop of wine for months on end, that seemed too good to be true.
They were almost in sight of their home port when the captain led Samphire to a table and placed several bottles of wine before him. Samphire drank and drank until he fell unconscious to the floor. Then the captain said to the king's daughter, "Don't you dare tell your father that drunkard freed you. Tell him that I freed you myself, since I'm the captain of the ship and ordered him to rescue you."
The king's daughter neither agreed nor disagreed. "I know what I'll tell him," she answered.
To be on the safe side, the captain decided to do away with Samphire Starboard once and for all. That night, they picked him up, still as drunk as could be, and threw him into the sea. At dawn the ship was in sight of port. With flags they signaled they were bringing home the king's daughter safe and sound. A band played on the pier, where the king waited with the entire court.
A date was chosen for the king's daughter to wed the captain. On the day of the wedding, the mariners in port saw a man emerge from the water. He was covered from head to foot with seaweed, and out of his pockets and the holes in his clothes swam fish and shrimps. It was none other than Samphire Starboard. He climbed out of the water and went ambling through the city streets, with seaweed draping his head and body and dragging along behind him. At that very moment the wedding procession was moving through the street and came face to face with the man wreathed in seaweed. Everyone stopped. "Who is this?" asked the king. "Seize him!" The guards came up, but Samphire Starboard raised a hand and the diamond on his finger sparkled in the sunlight.
"My daughter's ring!" exclaimed the king.
"Yes," said the daughter, "this man was my rescuer and will be my bridegroom."
Samphire Starboard told the story, and the captain was imprisoned. Green though he was with seaweed, Samphire took his place beside the bride clad in white and was joined to her in matrimony.
(Riviera ligure di ponente)
"The Man Wreathed in Seaweed" (L'uomo verde d'alghe) from Andrews, 7, Menton, told by the widow Lavigna.
This sea tale transfers to an unusual setting a plot well known throughout Europe: that of the younger brother who goes down into the well to free the princess and is subsequently abandoned there himself (cf. my no.78). Andrews's collection of tales presents no more than brief summaries in French; for this tale, then, as well as the following, taken from the same compilation, I gave free rein to my imagination in supplying details, while adhering to the basic plot. I chose the name Baciccin Tribordo (Giovanni Battista Starboard) to replace the original name whose meaning is not very clear. In the original text, the princess is abducted by a dragon instead of by an octopus, and the dragon changes into a barnacle, which seemed to me too easy to catch.
Copyright: Italian Folktales Selected and Retold by Italo Calvino,
translated by George Martin,
Pantheon Books, New York 1980