Though based on older folk tales of demon lovers and devilish bridegrooms, the story of Bluebeard, as we know it today, is the creation of French writer Charles Perrault — first published in 1697 in his collection Histoires ou contes du temps passé (Stories or Tales of Past Times). Perrault was one in a group of writers who socialized in the literary salons of Paris, collectively creating a vogue for literature inspired by peasant folk tales. These new stories were called contes des feés, from which our modern term "fairy tales" derives — but the contes des feés of the French salons were intended for adult readers.
"Bluebeard," for example, has little to recommend it as a children's story. Rather, it's a gruesome cautionary tale about the dangers of marriage (on the one hand) and the perils of greed and curiosity (on the other) — more akin, in our modern culture, to horror films than to Disney cartoons. The story as Perrault tells it is this: A wealthy man, wishing to wed, turns his attention to the two beautiful young daughters of his neighbor, a widow. Neither girl wants to marry the man because of his ugly blue beard — until he invites the girls and their mother to a party at his country estate. Seduced by luxurious living, the youngest daughter agrees to accept Bluebeard's hand. The two are promptly wed and the girl becomes mistress of his great household. Soon after, Bluebeard tells his wife that business calls him to make a long journey. He leaves her behind with all the keys to his house, his strong boxes, and his caskets of jewels, telling her she may do as she likes with them and to "make good cheer." There is only one key that she may not use, to a tiny closet at the end of the hall. That alone is forbidden, he tells her, "and if you happen to open it, you may expect my just anger and resentment."
Of course, the very first thing the young wife does is to run to the forbidden door "with such excessive haste that she nearly fell and broke her neck." She has promised obedience to her husband, but a combination of greed and curiosity (the text implies) propels her to the fatal door the minute his back is turned. She opens it and finds a shuttered room, its floor awash in blood, containing the murdered corpses of Bluebeard's previous young wives. Horrified, the young wife drops the key into a puddle of blood. Retrieving it, she locks the room and runs back to her own chamber. Now she attempts to wash the key so that her transgression will not be revealed — but no matter how long and hard she scrubs it, the bloodstain will not come off.
That very night, her husband returns — his business has been suddenly concluded. Trembling, she pretends that nothing has happened and welcomes him back. In the morning, however, he demands the return of the keys and examines them carefully. "Why is there blood on the smallest key?" he asks her craftily. Bluebeard's wife protests that she does not know how it came to be there. "You do not know?" he roars. "But I know, Madame. You opened the forbidden door. Very well. You must now go back and take your place among my other wives."
Tearfully, she delays her death by asking for time to say her prayers — for her brothers are due to visit that day, her only hope of salvation. She calls three times to her sister Anne in the tower room at the top of the house ("Sister Anne, Sister Anne, do you see anyone coming?") And at last they come, just as Bluebeard raises a sword to chop off her head. The murderous husband is dispatched, his wealth disbursed among the family, and the young wife is married again, Perrault tells us, to "a very worthy gentleman who made her forget the ill time she had passed with Bluebeard."
This bloodthirsty tale is quite different in tone from the other tales in Perrault's Histoires (the courtly confections of "Sleeping Beauty," "Cinderella," etc.), and its history has been a source of debate among fairy tale scholars. Some assert that Perrault was inspired by the historical figure of Gilles de Rais, a fifteenth century Marshal of France and companion at arms to Joan of Arc. After driving the English out of France, this martial hero returned to his Breton estate where, a law unto himself, he practiced alchemy and dark magic while young peasant boys began to disappear across his lands. Rumors swirled around de Rais and when, at last, the Duke of Brittany intervened and investigated, the remains of over fifty boys were dug up in de Rais's castle. He later confessed to sodomizing and killing one hundred and forty boys, although the actual number may be closer to three hundred. De Rais was simultaneously hanged and burned alive for these crimes in 1440.
There is another old Breton tale, however, which relates more closely to the Bluebeard story: that of Cunmar the Accursed, who beheaded a succession of wives, one after the other, when they became pregnant. Cunmar was an historical figure, the ruler of Brittany in the mid–sixth century, but the legend attached to him has its roots in folk tales, not history. The story concerns a nobleman's daughter, Triphine, the last of Cunmar's wives. Heavily pregnant with his son, she enters Cunmar's ancestral chapel where she is warned of her fate by the bloodstained ghosts of his previous wives. She flees to the woods, but her husband pursues her, cuts off her head and leaves her to die. Her body is found by Gildas, the abbot of Rhuys, who is destined to be a saint. Miraculously, he re–attaches the head and brings her back to life. The two follow Cunmar back to his castle, where Gildas causes the walls themselves to crash down on the murderer. Triphine's son is safely delivered, given to Gildas and the church, and Triphine devotes the rest of her life to prayer and performing good works. Eventually, she too is sainted (depicted in religious statues and paintings as carrying her own severed head) — while the ghost of Cunmar continues to haunt the country in the form of a werewolf. The Bluebeard parallel becomes stronger yet when one considers a series of frescoes depicting Triphine's story in the Breton church St. Nicholas des Eaux. One panel of these medieval paintings shows Cunmar handing a key to his young bride, while another shows her entering the chamber where his previous wives are hanging.
It's possible that Charles Perrault knew the story of Cunmar the Accursed, using details from it to color his own. Or it may simply be that he knew other similar stories from French and Italian peasant lore, with their wide range of "monstrous bridegroom" and "murderous stranger" motifs. Indeed, these motifs are ones we find in folk traditions around the world. But in marked contrast to Perrault's "Bluebeard" (the best known of such tales today), in the old peasant stories the heroine does not weep and wait for her brothers' rescue — rather, she's a cunning, clever girl fully capable of rescuing herself.
In the Italian tale "Silvernose" (as compiled by Italo Calvino from three regional variants and published in Italian Folktales), the devil, disguised as a nobleman, visits a widowed washerwoman and asks for her eldest daughter to come and work in his fine house. The widow distrusts the man's strange nose, but her daughter agrees to go nonetheless, bored as she is with life at home and looking for an adventure. She follows Silvernose to his palace, where she's given keys to all the fine rooms. He gives her the run of the place — except for one door which she may not unlock. That night, Silvernose enters her room and leaves a rose in her hair as she sleeps. In the morning, he rides off on business, leaving his young servant behind. Immediately she opens the forbidden door. Inside, she finds hell itself — a fiery room where the souls of the damned writhe in eternal torment. The horrified girl swiftly slams the door shut, but the flower in her hair has been singed. When Silvernose returns, the flower is proof of her transgression. "So that's how you obey me!" he cries, opening the door and tossing her in.
He then returns to the washerwoman, and asks for the second daughter. The middle girl meets her sister's fate. But the youngest daughter, Lucia, is cunning. She too follows Silvernose to his palace, she too is given the forbidden key, she too has a flower placed in her hair as she lies asleep. But she notices the flower and puts it safely away in a jar of water. Then she opens the door, pulls her sisters out of the flames, and plots their escape. When Silvernose comes home, the flower is back in her hair, as fresh as ever. The devil is pleased. Here's a servant at last who will bind herself to his will. Lucia prevails upon him then to carry some laundry back to her mother. Her eldest sister is hidden inside the bag, which is very heavy. "You must take it straight to my mother," she says, "for I have a special ability to see from great distances, and if you stop to rest and put that bag down, I will surely know." The devil starts upon his trip, grows tired, and begins to put the bag down. "I see you, I see you!" the eldest sister cries from inside the laundry bag; and thinking it's Lucia's voice, Silvernose hurries on. Lucia repeats this ruse for the middle sister. Then she hides in the third bag herself, along with a store of gold pilfered from the devil's treasury. Reunited with their mother (and wealthy now besides), the sisters plant a cross in the yard and the devil keeps his distance.
The Italian story "Silvernose" is similar to an old German tale called "Fitcher's Bird," collected by the Brothers Grimm and published in Kinder– und Hausmarchen. In this story, the Bluebeard figure is a mysterious wizard disguised as a beggar. The wizard appears at the door of a household with three beautiful unmarried daughters. He asks the eldest for something to eat, and just as she hands the beggar some bread he touches her, which causes her to jump into the basket he carries. He spirits the girl away to his splendid house and gives her keys to its rooms, but forbids her, under penalty of death, to use the smallest key. The next day he sets off on a journey, but before he leaves he gives her an egg, instructing the girl to carry the egg with her everywhere she goes. As soon as he leaves she explores the house, and although she tries to ignore the last key, curiosity gets the better of her and she opens the final door. Inside she finds an ax and a basin filled with blood and body parts. In shock, she drops the egg in the blood, and then cannot wipe off the stain. When the wizard comes home, he demands the return of the keys and the egg, and discovers her deed. "You entered the chamber against my wishes, now you will go back in against yours. Your life is over," he cries, and cuts her into little pieces.
This sequence of events is repeated with the second daughter, and then with the third — except that the youngest girl is the clever one. She puts the egg carefully away before she enters the forbidden chamber, determined to rescue her sisters. Inside, she finds her sisters chopped up into pieces. She promptly gets to work reassembling the body parts, piece by bloody piece. When her sisters' limbs are all in place, the pieces knit themselves back together and the two elder girls come back to life with cries of joy. Then they must hide as the wizard returns. He calls for the youngest and asks for the egg. She hands it over, and he can find no stain or blemish on it. "You have passed the test," he informs her, "so tomorrow you shall be my bride."
The girl agrees that she will wed the wizard, under this condition: "First take a basket of gold to my father. You must promise to carry it on your back, and you mustn't stop along the way. I'll be watching you from the window." The two elder girls are hidden inside the basket, beneath a king's ransom in gold. The wizard picks it up and stumbles off, sweating under his burden. Yet every time he stops to rest, he hears one of the sisters saying: "I see you, I see you! Don't put the basket down! Keep moving!" Thinking it's the voice of his bride, the wizard continues on his way — while the youngest girl invites the wizard's friends to a wedding feast. She takes a skull from the bloody room, crowns it with garlands of flowers and jewels, and sets it in the attic window, facing the road below. Then she crawls into a barrel of honey, cuts open a featherbed, and rolls in the feathers until she's completely disguised as a strange white bird. As she leaves the house, she meets the wizard's equally evil friends coming toward it. They say to her:
"Oh Fitcher's bird, where are you from?"
"From feathered Fitcher's house I've come."
"The young bride there, what has she done?"
"She's cleaned and swept the house all through;
She's in the window looking at you."
She then meets the wizard himself on the road, and these questions are repeated. The wizard looks up, he sees the skull in the window, and hurries home to his bride. But by now, the brothers and relatives of the three young girls are waiting for him. They lock the door, then burn the house down with all the sorcerers inside. (The unexplained name Fitcher, according to Marina Warner, "derives from the Icelandic fitfugl, meaning 'web–footed bird', so there may well be a buried memory here of those bird–women who rule narrative enchantments.")