Bluebeard is an odd fairy tale. Unremarkably, for anyone who knows the tale, it has not managed to join its more child-friendly fellows in the Disney hall of fame. Though many of us know that the original Cinderella involved slicing parts off young women’s feet and eyes being pecked out by birds, the discovery of a room full of dead women is not so easily edited out.
Like many of our modern fairy tales, Bluebeard was a French literary folktale. It was first recorded by Charles Perrault as La Barbe Bleue in his work Histoires ou contes du temps passé in 1697. At this time, the reading of literary folk tales was popular in fashionable salons so Perrault’s work was a success. However, many of the tales, La Barbe Bleue included, had been folk tales for a long time before Perrault wrote them down. There are other tales which have similar plots, though Bluebeard is best known in western culture.
A rich noble man has the unfortunately habit of murdering his wives. A young woman is persuaded to marry him and then left alone in the castle. She is given a set of keys, but forbidden entry to a specific room. Driven wild by curiosity, once her husband leaves the girl enters the forbidden room and discovers the bodies of her husband’s former wives there. It depends on which version you read as to how gory a description you get. Bluebeard returns home and realises she has enters the room, he is furious. She is in danger of her life, but escapes as her brothers arrive and rescue her.
There are a few men from history who have been suggested as the inspiration for the tale, though nothing can be proved. Gilles de Rais was a 15th-century aristocrat and prolific serial killer who could fit the bill. De Rais served under Joan of Arc and was a French national hero. However, once he settled back into his own estates he practised alchemy and black magic. Apparently, he enjoyed killing young boys by decapitation after he had sodomized them. Some believe that the story of Bluebeard evolved from peasant’s warnings to their children to stay away from the rich baron.
This guy was seriously unpleasant, when the Duke of Brittany got around to investigating they found 50 bodies in de Rais’ castle. De Rais confessed to 140 killings in total but some estimates put the real number at around 300. He was executed for his crimes in 1440.
Wherever the tale originated, it evolved into a caution against female curiosity (Red Riding Hood is another good example of this moral). A subtitle added by some publishers (in case their readers couldn’t interpret the tale themselves) was ‘The Effects of Female Curiosity’ or ‘The Fatal Effects of Female Curiosity’. The young girl is easily persuaded by Bluebeard into marriage but if she had only restrained her curiosity, we are lead to believe, she would not have been in danger.
A modern retelling of Bluebeard is Angela Carter’s excellent short story The Bloody Chamber. In this, the young girl is, to some extent, complicit in her own seduction,
For the first time in my innocent and confined life, I sensed in myself a potentiality for corruption that took my breath away
Even as she places her neck on the block, the reader is away of the sensuality of the situation,
I felt the silken bristle of his beard and the wet touch of his lips as his kissed my nape
Though this is not a ‘feminist retelling’ (as I’ve mentioned, the young wife feels a certain pleasure in the sadism of her husband) the girl is rescued not by her brothers but by her bad-ass mother.
On her eighteenth birthday, my mother had disposed of a man-eating tiger…Now, without a moment’s hesitation, she raised my father’s gun, took aim and put a single, irreproachable bullet through my husband’s head.
What’s your favourite fairy tale “origin story”? And the best retellings?