People seem to think that just because a person’s female and pretty they’re not supposed to do magic, and they’re supposed to stay at home and have babies and be obedient and be married…Why is that? Why?
– Diana Wynne Jones, Year of the Griffin
In most fairy tales, marriage is the happy ending, the reward for everything that the hero or heroine (or in some cases, both) have slugged through to get there. The finding, losing and reclaiming of spouses is a popular theme in stories such as ‘The Goose Girl’, ‘Cinderella’, ‘The Beauty and the Beast’, ‘The Real Princess’ (otherwise known as ‘The Princess and the Pea’), ‘East of the Sun, West of the Moon’, and so on. This is quite reasonable when you consider that for a long time, marrying into money was the best chance you had to transform your life. Even now, girls fantasise about being whisked away by handsome millionaires; how much greater a dream that would have been for a peasant’s daughter with a short, hard life ahead of her and little hope of changing it.
There are, however, fairy tales in which marriage is not a reward, but something to be escaped at all costs, in what I suppose could be described as the Bluebeard Phenomenon. Funnily enough they don’t seem to attract many modern retellings. As storytellers, humans really haven’t changed all that much: a love story trumps an escape. For this week’s Fairy Tale Tuesday, however, I have collected three different stories on the same theme, in which the wedding is no happy ever after.
Version 1: The Robber Bridegroom
This story comes from the Dean&Sons collection Grimm’s Fairy Tales and begins with a miller’s pretty daughter who gets loaded off onto the first rich man who comes along. Her fiance has good manners and is liked by her father, but something about him bothers her. When one day he suggests she come and visit the house where she will live once they are married, the girl tries to find excuses not to go, but her bridegroom insists and sets a date for the visit, telling her that the right path will be strewn with ashes. It’s difficult to take that as a good omen.
So the next Sunday the girl goes into the woods and finds a path of ashes waiting for her. She doesn’t trust it though, and having filled her pockets with peas and beans, Hansel and Gretel style, she scatters them behind her to mark her own path. She is alone, which seems puzzling in what was a very moral time, and the journey takes all day. The woods are very dark by the time she reaches her fiance’s house. Everything seems very still, and then suddenly a voice cries out from nowhere, warning her to run away. When she looks around, the girl realises it’s coming from a little bird in a cage hanging over the door. Still, this is her fiance, it isn’t like she can avoid him forever – so she goes inside.
Wandering from room to room, she finds no one in the house but a very old woman who is horrified to see her. Because this is no innocent visit planned by her fiance. The girl has been tricked into a robber’s den, and if they find her, they will kill her. The old woman hides her behind a large cask, warning her not to move or make a sound, and it’s lucky she does because the next minute the robbers return, bringing with them another girl drawn into their trap. In all their feasting and carousing they give her three draughts of wine, and their victim falls to the floor dead. The miller’s daughter watches, appalled, as the man chosen to be her husband tries to snatch a ring from the hand of the girl they’ve just killed. It flies up into the air and falls into his fiance’s lap. The robbers search for it but, fortunately for the terrified bride, the old woman distracts them with more food and wine. Only this time, she’s drugged it. Never underestimate a dissatisfied cook.
Soon the robbers are sprawled across the floor, snoring away. The girl is forced to walk over them in order to get away, but they do not wake, and together she and the old woman flee into the woods. The path of ashes has been blown away by the wind, but the girl’s foresight is rewarded – her peas and beans are still there, showing her the way home. They walk all night. By morning they have reached the safety of the mill and the girl pours out her story to her father. Who hopefully feels bad about his terrible judgement and promises to let her pick her own husband next time, although I wouldn’t count on that.
The day of the wedding arrives. The robber bridegroom arrives and during the celebrations one of the other guests, a friend of the miller’s, asks everybody present to tell a tale. Well, the miller’s daughter has quite an interesting one in mind. She had a dream once, she tells the wedding party, in which she was going through a wood, and when she came to a house there was a bird who warned her away…And she blithely tells the whole story, concluding by showing everyone the ring. Her fiance tries to escape but is surrounded by the other guests. When they say he and his robber friends meet the due reward of their wickedness, let me put it this way, I don’t think it was a wedding.
Version 2: Cannatella
This Italian fairy tale comes from Ruth Manning Sanders’ 1982 reprint of A Book of Wizards and bears some unfortunate similarities to a Grimm brothers story called ‘King Thrushbeard’, which I loathe. A king is trying to marry off his beautiful daughter but she doesn’t like any of the young gallants he throws at her head and jokes that her dream husband should have a head of gold and teeth to match. She of course believes that no such man exists, but that’s never a safe assumption in the world of fairy tales and the king takes her at her word, sending out a proclamation in the hope that such a man will come forward. A wizard called Sciorovante hears of this. Summoning up his imps, he has them conjure him a golden head and rides off to the palace to claim his bride.
Cannatella is in her room, trying on dresses, and ignores the king’s summons until she’s quite ready to come. Maybe if she had been prompter, things would have turned out differently, but she’s a sullen eighteen-year-old princess and incredibly good at infuriating her father. By the time she arrives, the king has already decided to marry her off to Sciorovante whether she likes it or not. And she doesn’t like it. He’s hideous and terrifying and gold is in fact not such a good look. But Cannatella has her pride and she refuses to show her fear. Sciorovante whisks her onto his black horse and rides away, telling the king that they will marry in his own country and he’ll claim the kingdom when he’s ready. The king is fine with that. He wants to plan his retirement anyway. What he doesn’t realise is that Sciorovante doesn’t intend to look after his daughter at all. Instead they stop at a stable and the wizard throws the girl in an empty stall. He is going away for seven years, he tells her, to return to his own country and arrange the wedding, and if Cannatella is not in this very stable when he returns, she will regret it.
And so Cannatella is left there, to live off what the horses leave, drinking from their troughs and sleeping in the straw. They won’t even let her stroke them – Sciorovante is not the sort of owner who makes his beasts happy or well-adjusted. For months the princess lives like this, growing thinner and sicker and more miserable with each day, until one morning she notices a little crack in the wall. On the other side is a beautiful garden full of the most luscious looking fruit. Sciorovante is far away and she’s starving; there is no reason she can see not to slip out of the stable and eat as much of that fruit as she can.
Only the next day, the door won’t open, leaving her with an incriminating pile of fruit stones that she is forced to hide in the straw. To her horror, Sciorovante appears that very evening. Instead of talking to Cannatella, maybe asking her how she’s survived all this time or telling her a few of his wedding plans, he goes straight to his black horse and asks what’s been happening in his absence. The black horse tells him exactly where to find the fruit stones and the wizard goes half mad. For a minute Cannatella thinks he’s going to kill her; he pulls an enormous knife and it takes all her sobbing and pleading to change his mind. Eventually he puts away the knife and tells her what he did when she first came to this awful place, that he’s going away for seven years and she has to find a way to survive in the stable until he gets back. Again.
For a whole year Cannatella lives on oats and bran. Then one day she hears wheels and hooves outside and the whistling tune of a familiar song. Running to the stable door, she hammers on the door, screaming for help, and it is pushed open by none other than her father’s cooper, the man who makes wine barrels in the palace at home. He doesn’t recognise Cannatella at first, but when she tells him the whole story he agrees to help her escape. Hiding her away in a barrel, he brings her back with him and rouses the whole palace in his excitement. The king is not pleased to be woken in the middle of the night by the delivery of a barrel, but when his long-lost daughter emerges he can’t believe his eyes. He has been regretting his hasty decision ever since he let her go and now is his chance to make things up to her.
But she isn’t safe yet. Sciorovante, who seems to have a very flexible approach to the timing of this journey of his, has returned to the stable and found his prisoner gone. The black horse tells him where Cannatella went and the wizard immediately sets about getting her back. Goodness knows why. He didn’t seem to want her much when he had her. Anyway, removing his golden head and replacing it with the more ordinary-looking original, he bribes an old woman to let him spy on the palace from her rooftop. But Cannatella sees him. The golden head may be gone, but she knows who he is all the same. She runs to her father and has him make her a room with seven iron doors, all of which are securely locked behind her. Surely, she thinks, even Sciorovante can’t get through them all.
Only he doesn’t have to. He bribes the same old woman into bringing a beautiful rose-coloured bowl into the palace, which the unthinking king has brought to his daughter. While Cannatella is admiring her present, the old woman slips a piece of paper underneath her pillow. It reads, May all other folks be fast asleep, and only Cannatella be left awake. When the wizard comes for her, there is no one left conscious to hear her screams. One by one the iron doors fall. Cannatella, in a mad panic, leaps onto the bed and refuses to be dislodged; Sciorovante just picks the whole bed up and carries it away. On the way out, however, he stumbles over one of the fallen iron doors, and the slip of bespelled paper falls out from under Cannatella’s pillow. Immediately, the palace awakens. And everyone, from the king and his guards to every cook and scullery maid, fall upon the wizard with every weapon they have to hand. Take our princess? Not bloody likely.
Sciorovante turns into a lion, then a serpent, then a fire and after that a hare, but in no shape can he escape his attackers. Even a rat is too much of a target. Turning into a gnat, he is just about to fly away up the chimney when the king spies him and squashes him flat. Cannatella is finally safe. She marries the next prince who comes calling, perhaps on the principle that however dull he is, that way she will never be the victim of another wizard’s schemes. That isn’t quite the end of the story, though. Freed from Sciorovante’s cruel mastery, the black horse returns to his master’s stable and sets all the other horses loose, then leads them away to live on their terms, happily ever after.
Version 3: Blue Beard
Taken from Puffin Books’ 1999 collection Perrault’s Complete Fairy Tales, this is the story of a man who is arguably the most famous evil fictional bridegroom in the English language. You might not think so, though, from the way the story starts – we are introduced to Blue Beard as a wealthy and powerful man who is simply unfortunate enough to have facial hair in an unusual colour. Girls don’t exactly flock to him. When he proposes to the beautiful daughters of his neighbour, allowing their mother to choose which girl will marry him, another reason springs to mind. He’s just weird, really.
But he’s also persistent. When both sisters make it clear that neither of them like him, he arranges a grand house party in the country for them and their friends, and the younger girl decides that if life with him is this fun all the time he might not make such a bad husband after all. They are married. Less than a month later, Blue Beard is obliged to go away on business, but he encourages his young wife to invite some friends down to the country and entertain herself as she likes while he’s gone. He produces a ring of keys with detailed instructions for each one. These are for the storerooms, this one is to lock up the silver and gold plate, these are for the strongboxes…and this little key right here, it’s for a room you must never ever enter. Then he gives her directions on where that room is. Because if you don’t want someone to go somewhere in your house, you want them to know exactly how to find where they aren’t allowed to go. Obviously.
No sooner has he departed than his wife’s friends descend for an enjoyable snoop around the house, running from room to room and admiring his wealth. She, of course, is distracted – she wants to know what’s in that hidden room. Leaving her guests to poke around a bit more, she sneaks off and Pandora-like, unlocks the forbidden door. The windows are closed, so at first she can’t see what’s inside. Then, as her eyes become more used to the dark, she realises the floor is thick with clotted blood. Hung on the walls are the bodies of dead women – the lost wives of Blue Beard, their throats all cut.
The girl is so terror-stricken that she drops the key. Later, shutting herself in her own room to try and pull herself together, she notices that the key is now stained with blood and nothing she does can wash that away. Who knows why she doesn’t tell her guests straight away and leave with them – perhaps she’s still in a panic – but by the evening it’s too late anyway, because Blue Beard returns. He received letters on his way that meant his business is already concluded. His wife, scared almost out of her wits, tries to look as if she thinks this is a good thing. The next morning, Blue Beard asks for the keys. Her panic betrays her immediately; the key seals her fate. “You wanted to enter the little room!” Blue Beard cries. “Well, madam, enter it you shall – you shall go and take your place among the ladies you have seen there.”
His wife sobs and pleads. Her beauty and misery win her but a quarter of an hour to say her prayers. This is when things get even weirder, because she immediately calls her sister Anne to her. What is her sister doing in the house, and why aren’t they formulating a plan that is slightly more reliable than ‘go to the tower and see if our brothers are coming to visit’? The minutes pass and Anne sees nothing on the road, only dust and grass and sheep. Meanwhile, Blue Beard has brought his cutlass and is standing by the stairs shouting for his wife to come down to her death. At the very last minute, when he has her by the hair and his cutlass is about to cut open her throat, the brothers burst in on horseback. Blue Beard tries to run, but they catch him, and they run him through. Grisly, but poetic justice, I think.
Blue Beard’s very relieved widow is now sole mistress of an enormous estate. She rewards her sister’s loyalty by settling on her a large sum that pays for Anne’s wedding and buys a captain’s commission for each of her brothers. At length she herself marries again and this time her husband is a perfectly normal man instead of a homicidal maniac, so even if she doesn’t necessarily live happily ever after, at least she lives.
Unlike the other two versions of this story, though, this one comes with official morals, courtesy of Perrault. In two smug little rhymes, he both tut-tuts at female curiosity (because girls who don’t do what their husbands say clearly deserve to be murdered) and praises 18th century men, who control their households without going around killing their wives. Oh, yay. I feel so safe now.
But really, you know, I think he’s completely misinterpreted what the story means. Each of the girls from these three fairy tales are pushed into marriages with men they neither like nor trust and in each, their natural curiosity leads them to discover the truth. It is not what puts them in danger – on the contrary, it is what saves them. If there is a moral to these stories, it is to tell women to trust their instincts. The man who asks for your hand isn’t always Prince Charming. Unlock the forbidden doors and see what he’s hiding on the other side.
Just don’t drop the damn key.