Bluebeard (Continued)

by Terri Windling

Illustration by Herbert Cole

"The Robber Bridegroom" is another classic fairy tale about a murderous stranger. It too can be found in Germany and Italy, and in variants around the world. One of the most evocative of these variants is the English version of the story, in which the Bluebeard figure is known as Mr. Fox (or Reynardine). A girl is courted by a handsome russet–haired man who appears to have great wealth. He is charming, well mannered, well groomed, but his origins are mysterious. As the wedding day grows near, it troubles the girl that she's never seen his home — so she takes matters into her own hands and sets off through the woods to seek it. In the dark of the woods, she finds a high wall and a gate. Over the gate it says: "Be bold." She enters, and finds a large, dilapidated mansion inside. Over the entrance it says: "Be bold, be bold." She enters a gloomy hall. Over the stairs it says: "Be bold, be bold, but not too bold." She climbs the stairs to a gallery, over which she finds the words: "Be bold, be bold, but not too bold, lest your heart's blood should run cold." The gallery is filled with the body parts of murdered women. She turns to flee, just as Mr. Fox comes in, dragging a new victim. She hides and watches, horrified, as the girl is chopped to bits. A severed hand flies close to her hiding place, a diamond ring on one finger. She takes the hand, creeps out the door, and runs home just as fast as she can. The next day there's a feast for the wedding couple, and Mr. Fox appears, looking as handsome as ever. He comments, "How pale you are, my love!"

"Last night I had a terrible dream," she says. "I dreamed I entered the woods and found a high wall and a gate. Over the gate it said: 'Be bold.' She proceeds to tell him, and the assembled guests, just what she found inside.

"It is not so, nor it was not so, and God forbid it should be so," said Mr. Fox.

"But it is so, and it was so, and here's the hand and the ring I have to show!" She pulls the severed hand from her dress and flings it into her bridegroom's lap. The wedding guests rise up to cut Mr. Fox into a thousand pieces.

Illustration by Herbert Cole

An Indian version of the tale has the daughter of respectable Brahmans courted by a man who is actually a tiger in disguise, anxious to procure a wife who can cook the curry dishes he loves. It is only when the girl is married and on her way to her husband's house that she learns the truth and finds herself wife and servant to a ferocious beast. She bears him a child, a tiger cub, before she finally makes her escape. As she leaves, she tears the cub in two and hangs it over the flames so that her husband will smell the roasting meat and think that she's still inside. It's an odd little tale, in which one feels sneaking sympathy for the tiger.

In various "demon lover" ballads found in the Celtic folk tradition, the Bluebeard figure is the devil in disguise, or else a treacherous elfin knight, or a murderous ghost, or a false lover with rape or robbery on his mind. In "May Colvin," False Sir John rides off with a nobleman's daughter he's promised to marry — but when they reach the sea, he orders the maiden to climb down from her horse, to take off her fine wedding clothes, and to hand over her dowry. "Here I have drowned seven ladies," says he, "and you shall be the eighth." May begs him, for the sake of modesty, to turn as she disrobes. And then she promptly pushes him in the water to his death.

Illustration by Arthur Rackham

In a Scandinavian version of this ballad, a nobleman's daughter is courted by a handsome, honey–tongued, false suitor who promises to take her to the fair if she meets him in the woods. Her father will not let her go, her mother will not let her go, her brothers will not let her go, but her confessor gives permission, provided she keeps hold of her virtue. She finds her suitor in the woods busy at work digging a grave. He says the grave is for his dog; but she protests that it is too long. He says the grave is for his horse; she says it is too small. He tells her the grave is meant for her, unless she consents to lie with him. Eight maidens has he killed before, and she shall be the ninth. Now the choice is hers — she must lose her virtue or her life. She chooses death, but advises her false suitor to remove his coat, lest her heart's blood spatter the fine cloth and ruin it. As he takes it off, she grabs the sword and strikes his head off "like a man." The head then speaks, instructing her to fetch a salve to heal the wound. Three times the girl refuses to do the bidding of a murderer. She takes the head, she takes his horse, she takes his dog, and rides back home — but as she goes, she encounters her suitor's mother, his sisters, his brothers. Each time they ask, "Where is thy true love?" Each time she answers, "Lying in the grass, and bloody is his bridal bed." (In some versions, the entire family is made up of robbers and she must kill them too.) She then returns to her father's court, receiving a hero's welcome there. But in other "murderous lover" ballads, the heroines are not so lucky. Some meet with graves at the bottom of the sea, others in cold rivers, leaving ghosts behind to sing the sorrowful song of their tragic end.

Illustration by Charles Robinson

Charles Perrault drew a number of elements from folk tales and ballads like these when he created the story of the urbane, murderous Bluebeard and his bloody chamber. Like the devil in the Italian tale "Silvernose," Bluebeard is marked by a physical disfigurement — the beard that "made him so frightfully ugly that all the women and girls run away from him." Like Mr. Fox, his wealth and his charm serve to overcome the natural suspicions aroused by his mysterious past and the rumors of missing wives. Like the false suitors, he seduces his victims with courtly manners, presents, and flattery, all the while tenderly preparing the grave that will soon receive them. Perrault parts with these older tales, however, by apportioning blame to the maiden herself. He portrays her quite unsympathetically as a woman who marries solely from greed, and who calls Bluebeard's wrath upon herself with her act of disobedience. This is absent in the older tales, where curiosity and disobedience, combined with cunning and courage, are precisely what save the heroine from marriage to a monster, death at a robber's hands, or servitude to the devil. Perrault presents his Bluebeard as a well–mannered, even generous man who makes only one demand of his wife, marrying again and again as woman after woman betrays this trust.

Illustration by Charles Robinson

Only at the end of the tale, as the bridegroom stands revealed as a monster, does Perrault shift his sympathy to the bride, and Bluebeard is dispatched. Perrault ends the tale with a moral that stresses the heroine's transgressions and not her husband's, warning maidens that "curiosity, in spite of its appeal, often leads to deep regret." In a second moral, Perrault remarks that the story took place long ago; modern husbands are not such "jealous malcontents." Jealous malcontent? "Homicidal maniac" would be a better description. Again Perrault's words imply that despicable as Bluebeard's actions are, they are actions in response to the provocation of his wife's behavior.

Another departure from the older folk tales is that Bluebeard's wife (like the other fairy tale heroines in his Histoires ou contes du temps passé) is a remarkably helpless creature. She herself does not outwit Bluebeard, she weeps and trembles and waits for her brothers — unlike the folklore heroines who, even when calling brothers to their aid, have first proven themselves to be quick–witted, courageous, and pro–active. As Maria Tatar has pointed out (in her book The Classic Fairy Tales), "Perrault's story, by underscoring the heroine's kinship with certain literary, biblical, and mythical figures (most notably Psyche, Eve, and Pandora), gives us a tale that willfully undermines a robust folkloric tradition in which the heroine is a resourceful agent of her own salvation."

Illustration by Walter Crane

This difference is particularly evident when we compare Perrault's passive heroine with those created by other fairy tale writers in the French salons — the majority of them women writers, whose works were quite popular in their day. Perrault's niece, Marie–Jeanne L'Héritier, was also the author of fairy tales; her story "The Subtle Princess," published three years before Perrault's Histoires, drew on some of the same folklore motifs as the story of Bluebeard. In L'Héritier's tale, a king has three daughters, two of them foolish, the youngest one clever. When the king journeys away from home, he gives each of his girls a magical distaff made of glass that will shatter if the girl loses her virtue. (The tell–tale key in "murderous bridegroom" tales is often also made of glass.) The wicked prince of a neighboring kingdom enters the castle disguised as a beggar, then seduces each elder sister in turn — marrying, bedding, and abandoning them. The youngest sister sees through his charms, whereupon he tries to take her by force. No wilting flower, she hoists an ax and threatens to chop him into pieces. The story goes on, with more attempts on the life and honor of the Subtle Princess, but she turns the tables on the wicked prince, kills him in a trap he's set for her, and goes on to marry his gentle, civil, kind–hearted younger brother. The Subtle Princess has no brothers of her own to come rushing to her aid, nor does she need them. She manages matters very well for herself, thank you.



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