Friday, November 18, 2016

Adventure classics – Grim story behind a classic fairy tale


by Charles Perrault

I was chatting with a librarian at the Dallas Public Library about fairy tales – specifically, about the difference between the often-horrifying originals and the Disneyesque modern versions. A mom had come in, looking for the Cinderella story to read to her probably princess-obsessed daughter. The only available written one happened to be the particularly gruesome version from the Brothers Grimm in which in the wicked stepsisters cut off portions of their feet in their attempts to fit into the slipper dropped by Cinderella as she fled the ballroom. The librarian insists he cautioned the mother to read the story herself before reading it to her daughter. Instead, she must have launched into it directly at her daughter’s bedtime story session, giving her child nightmares!

Charles Perrault
Was the Grimms’ version a case of a widespread folktale crossing European linguistic barriers or an unwitting plagiarism, as some authorities believe? But if parents can rest assured that the English translations, at least, of Charles Perrault’s original “Cinderella” lack the Grimms’ degree of horror, the same can’t be said for all of his stories, published in 1695 under the title Histoires ou Contes du Temps passé, subtitled “Tales of Mother Goose.”

Among the grimmest of Perrault’s tales is “Bluebeard.” But considering Perrault’s own source for the story, even his gory tale is a prettifying of the original worthy of Disney.

The story opens: “Once upon a time there was a man who had fine houses in town and country, gold and silver plate, embroidered furniture, and coaches gilt all over.”

Of course, he's in need of a wife. But there's a problem. His beard is -- blue, a bit of a turnoff for the local girls. Not to mention that Bluebeard's previous wives have mysteriously disappeared.

Dtermined to put his marital misfortunes behind him, he embarks on a grand scale of entertaining, inviting a lady with two lovely daughters, along with a bunch of neighborhood young people to his country castle for a week of festivities. In the end, one of the daughters decides that Bluebeard’s beard wasn’t so very blue after all, and agrees to marry him.

image: wikipedia
Immediately after the honeymoon, Bluebeard goes on a long business trip, leaving his bride the run of the castle, with the exception of one little locked room, which he warns her severely not to open. Of course she does. Inside hang the bodies of all her husband’s previous wives, their throats slashed, their blood pooled on the floor. The horrified bride drops the room's key, which splashes into the blood. And despite her desperate attempts to wash off the blood, it magically reappears. The only person she can confide in is her sister, Anne, but before the girls can flee, Bluebeard appears unexpectedly early. And he wants the key. . .

The girls’ only hope – that their brothers, who have promised to visit, will arrive in time to save the bride, whose husband’s sword is drawn, ready to cut her throat.

If this is Perrault’s lightened up version of a tale, how bad could the original source have been? Very bad, if as some scholars believe, the story of Breton nobleman Gilles de Rais (sometimes spelled Retz) was Perrault’s source. Gilles was said to have hair (and beard) so black as to appear almost blue, at least according to the description I found in Thomas Wilson’s 1889 book, Blue-Beard: A Contribution to History and Folk-Lore, Being the History of Gilles de Retz of Brittany, France, Who Was Executed at Nantes in 1440 A.D. and Who Was the Original of Blue-Beard in the Tales of Mother Goose.

After that typically 19th century title, there's not much else to say about Gilles. Except that he was known for extravagances so great he was reputed to have turned to the occult, seeking demonic help to fund his lifestyle. Oh, and for being a serial killer, although of children, not wives. (Perrault apparently decided wife murder would be less horrific for his audience that child murder.)

Some historians later tried to excuse Gilles, aka Bluebeard, saying the charges against him were trumped up by people who just wanted to get their hands on his estate. His daughter built a shrine over his tomb. In an ironic twist, this later became a shrine sacred to St. Anne and, as Wilson writes, “a place of value for furnishing milk for nursing mothers.”

And Bluebeard’s story became a nursery tale. Although perhaps not one that should be told to very young children.

(Next Friday, Adventure classics concludes a November of fairy tale fantasy with Hans Andersen's "The Snow Queen.")

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