"BUT THERE WAS no readable master collection of Italian folktales which would be popular in every sense of the word. Could such a book be assembled now? It was decided that I should do it."

Short as it is, this paragraph from Italo Calvino's introduction to Italian Folktales offers much to comment on. A "master-collection" of folktales -- the term seems grand, and therefore outdated. It belongs to the brothers Grimm, to Asbjornsen and Moe, to their century. The "folk" of folktales are as long gone in Italy as the rest of Europe, surely. But Calvino rushes in, with "popular" and then "assembled," to show what is wanted and what might be possible. Calvino, presumably, could be "literary" forever, but he shuns that, seeking the broad base, the common meeting ground, of the "popular," because folktales are that or nothing.

To do this he could not just be a scholar, though he had to compare the dozens of versions many tales have been given in different parts of Italy. Nor could he pretend that any version was the "right" one, or that any master collector anywhere had just written down what an old woman sitting by her fire had said. All folktales now are written tales, and in his notes Calvino often reveals that he took a piece from one version of a story and added it to another, or even did a little adding himself. To "assemble" he had to select and retell, but, in the late 20th century, could this still be done as it should be done?

Wonderfully, "it was decided that I should do it." Calvino's retreat into the passive signals something like a religious moment. Not "I decided," or "my friends" or "my publishers" decided, but "it was decided." "I will take the ring," says Frodo Baggins at a similar moment, "but I do not know the way."

As far as I can tell, Calvino has succeeded superbly. Italian Folktales is a huge volume of 200 stories. It takes days and days to read, and, properly, it should take years. Read a tale. Then, trying to remember another like it, in this book, or in Grimm, Boccaccio, or Perrault, let the particular qualities of this one sink in. All fairy tale reading, like all fairy tale telling, is comparative. There is, for instance, a Straparola story about a simpleton who is given magical powers by a fish, including impregnating a princess on a balcony from the street. There is also the Grimm tale "Rapunzel," which opens with a woman craving greens and making a deal with a witch. Calvino has found a Venetian tale, "The Cloven Youth," which combines these, and has, or is given, terrific Italian chatter about who the father of the child is, and how hard it is (but possible) to love a youth who has been cut in two. It is a gem. But if you read it after just having read 10 other tales -- as, alas, reviewers must -- it and all the others can blur.

Even then, though, one's sense of the variety is overwhelming. Since the oral and the written tale developed side by side in Italy -- Calvino even reports a traditional oral telling of a traditional tale, in precisely the form given it by Boccaccio -- there never was a clear line between oral and written, folk and sophisticated, native and borrowed. So one finds here many Arabian Nights stories transposed. A fine series of tales about St. Peter and Our Lord wandering in and out of Italian villages. A local legend about the Piedmont village of Pocapaglia that has managed to attract to it a Sherlock Holmes plot. The best version of "Beauty and the Beast" I have ever read, called "Bellinda and the Monster." Motifs from this story, from Cupid and Psyche, "Sleeping Beauty," and "Cinderella" woven in and out of tale after tale.

People want children, have children, hate children, fuss their childrens' marriages or inheritances. People set out to be rich, to live forever, to find the feathers of an ogre, to make sick people well, to prove their love or loyalty, to just survive. "A man with three sons died of illness," begins one story; "Once there was a king who had twin sons," begins another, and just the difference in number means they must go off in different directions. "The hunchback Tabagnino was a poor cobbler who could no longer make ends meet," and that turns into some fine "Jack and the Beanstalk" stuff. "There was once a greedy little girl." "A king's son was eating at the dinner table. While slicing the ricotta, he cut his finger," and thus begins the story we know best as "The Love of Three Oranges." The abundance and mystery of life are everywhere, so one can start anywhere, go anywhere, and celebrate them.

It may be the Italian tale that is responsible, or it may be Calvino, but there is never any nonsense in the telling. No French courtliness, no German love of violence, no Near Eastern insistence that cunning is everything. It is as though, being so long at the crossroads of the world, the Italians assimilated it all, sought no native style except in the tolerant acceptance shown by the assimilation and the briskness of the narration.

The dialogue, especially, is swift and telling. "Giufa went to the judge. 'Your Honor, I had a sack of gold, and my mother replaced it with rusty nails.' 'Gold? Whoever heard of you having any gold?' 'Yessirree, I did -- that day when it rained raisins and dried figs.' And the judge sent him to the crazy house." That's life in Sicily for you.

A great achievement, truly. Someday it may well be that Italian Folktales is what people remember about 1980.