Many fairy tales, especially those that survived the Victorian era and became modern classics of the Western world, started life as morality stories. Some meanings are remain obvious – helping the elderly and the poor is common decency, stealing from witches or indeed anyone else is not a good idea, and small children should be discouraged from wandering off and talking to wolves without adult supervision. Others are so inexplicable that I can only assume the word ‘morality’ has been mistranslated as ‘arbitrary and extreme rules that should not be tried at home’. Forcing your daughter to sleep with a frog is terrible parenting! So is marrying her off against her will. Stealing a baby away and telling your wife it died to test her devotion is full on psychopathic.
I’ve never quite decided where ‘Bluebeard’ sits on this scale. Bluebeard certainly gets punished for his homicidal hobby, but even quite modern retellings tend to imply all the escalation is the girl’s fault – that if she’d simply accepted there was a hidden door in her house that reeked of blood, and not ever been tempted to go inside, she’d have been okay. Punishing women for perfectly natural curiosity is not an uncommon theme in folklore, something I’ve discussed in a previous post. This week I want to take a closer look at that from a slightly different angle, with three versions of what is essentially the same story.
There’s a girl, and a key, and a killer. And a door that must never, ever be opened.
Version 1: The Feather Bird
Once upon a time a wizard with a Bluebeard complex went around in the guise of a beggar, tricking kind-hearted girls by coming to the door asking for bread and enspelling them into a sack. This Grimm brothers story begins when the wizard targets his next set of victims and kidnaps the eldest of three daughters. He drags her back to his castle, then pretends to be in love by giving her whatever she wants – except of course her FREEDOM.
This charade lasts for two days, at the end of which time the wizard arranges a journey. In true Bluebeard style, he gives the girl the household keys, instructing that there is this one key, yes, this one here that she is never permitted to use. He also gives her an egg that she must carry around wherever she goes. If anything happens to the egg, bad things are guaranteed to follow.
Bad things have already happened. The girl grabs her chance to find out a few wizardly secrets, unlocking the forbidden door, and inside the room she finds a large basin of fresh blood. In her shock she drops the egg and it rolls unerringly in the basin. Though she snatches it up instantly and scrubs it fiercely, she can’t remove the mark. Of course she can’t. It is the first thing the wizard notices on his return. “Have you, then, dared to enter that room against my will?” he accuses. “Then now you enter it against yours.” And, seizing her by the hair, he drags her inside and locks the door.
He kidnaps the second sister that same day, and events play out to an identical pattern.
Then he gets hold of the youngest girl and she doesn’t just ignore the instruction about the keys – she ignores the bit about the egg. Smart kid that she is, she puts it down before going to explore. When she opens the locked door, she sees her sisters sprawled on the floor around the basin, slowly starving to death. She goes back and forth through the room as she nurses them back to health, but because the egg remains unmarked the wizard assumes she’s never set foot inside and doesn’t think to check on his previous victims. Instead, he proposes marriage. The youngest sister coolly replies that if he really thinks she’s that wonderful, he will take a sack of gold as a dowry to her parents’ house. This he does, little knowing that the two girls he tried to murder are hidden under the gold.
The sack is naturally quite heavy. Several times along the journey he tries to stop and rest, but one of the sisters cries out an admonishment and he thinks it is his bride-to-be calling out from her window back at the castle. Possibly they are ventriloquists, or he’s just stupid; either way, he goes all the way the house, depositing the sack and starting back towards the castle. The youngest sister has been very busy while he was gone. After distributing wedding invitations to the wizard’s friends she whips up a feast and makes the mannequin of a bride from a turnip and veil. She props it at the topmost window, so from a distance it seems to be a girl looking down. Then she rolls in honey and feathers and transforms herself into a magnificent bird-woman. Though she meets with her guests on her way out, they mistake her for avian royalty and let her pass untroubled. Even the wizard himself does not recognise her. He reaches the castle and enters – which is when the small army of furious villagers alerted by the elder sisters descend, setting fire to the castle and burning it down with the wizard and all his friends inside.
He really should have left them alone.
Version 2: The Brides of the Bear
This story, taken from Hamlyn’s Russian Fairy Tales, has a similar theme. A family of three daughters live in a meadow that is bordered by forest; a bear and his cat live in a forest that is bordered by the meadow. One day the bear demands his pet go forth and find him a bride, correctly surmising his proposals will not go down well in person. The cat pays a visit to the neighbours, parading in front of the eldest daughter and leading her away into the woods. She is so eager to catch the pretty creature that she runs right up to the bear’s cottage before she realises what she’s doing.
A clarification: when the bear said ‘bride’, what he actually meant was ‘household slave’. He tells the girl she must stay and take care of the house, and in exchange he will supply her with wood. He also hands over a ring of keys, carefully pointing out which cupboard she is forbidden to ever, ever open. The next day, when the bear and the cat have left the house, what does the girl do with that information? Go on, guess.
Inside the cupboard there are five tubs. Curiously, the girl pokes at the nearest and her finger comes out golden. She quickly slams the cupboard shut and disguises the finger under a bandage, but the bear is not fooled; in a manic rage, he bites her to death and throws her body to the back of the forbidden cupboard. This is like a twisted version of ‘Goldilocks’. Please tell me this isn’t what happened when Baby Bear grew up.
The bear is still in want of a housekeeper, so he orders the cat to provide him with another bride and events duly repeat themselves. Girl chases cat, girl is imprisoned by bear, girl opens cupboard. Mauling her to death and throwing her after her sister, the bear demands yet another replacement, and the cat obliges by tricking the third sister from the safety of her home. What the bear doesn’t know, though, is that the cat is thoroughly sick of his murderous behaviour. The next day, when the bear leaves the cottage to fetch wood, the cat remains behind to watch over its latest mistress. Seeing her unlock the third cupboard, it races over to intercept her. “Don’t dip your finger into it, put a stick in it instead!”
The girl heeds this advice and proceeds to experiment with all five tubs. The first turns the stick gold, the second silver, the third lead. When she dips it in the fourth tub, it grows green, but the fifth shrivels the new buds and leaves the stick dead. Behind the fifth tub, the girl discovers the bodies of her sisters. The experimentation yields a result; the girl bathes her eldest sister in magical water, restoring her to life. Then they cook up a plan.
All the bear notices her cooking, when he comes back, is pancakes. Her fingers are unbandaged, so he assumes the cupboard has been left untouched. He is so pleased with this show of blind obedience that he consents to carry a portion of pancakes to the cottage in the meadow, in honour of the girl’s mother’s birthday. He doesn’t notice that one of his erstwhile corpses creeps inside the basket first and is concealed underneath a layer of panckes. Neither does he question how each time he stops to rest the voice of his wife sounds at his ear, urging him onwards. Assuming she just has excellent eyesight and a strident voice, he travels all the way to the meadow. Here he is set upon by a pack of local dogs and drops the basket in his haste to get away.
The next day the girl repeats her plan, frying up a batch of potato cakes – in honour of her father’s birthday, this time – and asking the bear to carry them home for her. Set upon once again by the dogs, he doesn’t notice the second of his ‘wives’ crawling out of the basket and legging it across the meadow.
On the third day, the girl has run out of relatives to cook for, so she invents a brother and whips up cakes to celebrate. She then climbs into a basket and piles cakes on top of herself. As an extra measure she has made a dummy of herself from a barrel and broom, swathing them in her cloak and scarf and propping them on the roof. This isn’t the brightest bear in the woods, you know? He proves it by carrying the suspiciously heavy basket to the edge of the meadow, as before, and mistaking the dummy in the cloak for the real girl upon his return home. He shouts at her to come down and when she doesn’t, starts hammering at the cottage. The shaking brings the barrel down on his head, and that is the end of him. The girls live peacefully together in the cottage in the meadow, and the cat gives up matchmaking for good.
Version 3: The Long Tale of the Widow and Her Three Daughters
This one comes from Scottish Fairy Tales, collected and adapted by Margaret Lyford-Pike. An impoverished widow and her three daughters eke out a living from the cabbages they grow and when their livelihood is threatened by the ravenous appetite of an enormous horse marauding in the neighbourhood, the eldest daughter goes out to stand guard. She tries to drive the horse away with the distaff from her spinning wheel, but this plan doesn’t work out so well. Her hand sticks to the distaff, the distaff sticks to the horse’s hand, and the girl is dragged away against her will.
They run for a long time. At last the horse comes to a green hill and demands entry. Inside lies a hidden mansion, where the horse transforms into a handsome prince. He brings water to wash the girl’s sore feet, offers a delicious dinner and a comfortable bed – in fact he gives her everything except an explanation. In the morning he offers one thing more: a ring of keys. In obedience to the Bluebeard Principle, he points out the one door she mustn’t open, then leaves to her to do exactly that.
Does it surprise ANYONE that the room is full of dead girls?
Panicked, she flees the room, retreating to the kitchen to collect her thoughts. That’s when she notices her foot is marked by a drop of blood, and all the washing in the world won’t make it go away. While she’s stubbornly soaking it, a little cat appears in the room, offering to lick the blood away in exchange for a dish of milk. The girl shouts at her to go away and hastens to prepare a meal in the hopes of distracting the prince. Of course that doesn’t work; he knew exactly what would happen and now demands to see the evidence. As soon as he sees the blood on her foot, he seizes his axe and chops off her head, then drags her body away to the locked room.
The next day he goes back to the widow’s garden to fetch the second daughter. She tries to shoo him away with her sewing, gets caught instead, and ends up in the hidden palace with a door she’s forbidden to ever open. By the end of the day, there’s another body behind it.
Which leaves only one girl left, deeply worried about her sisters but aware that if the horse eats any more of their cabbages her mother will starve. So she sets up outside as guard, like the others, and is dragged back to the house under the hill the same way. When the prince leaves in the morning she unlocks the forbidden door and finds a butchery inside, with her sisters’ bodies among the dead. While she’s frantically scrubbing away the blood in the kitchen, the cat approaches her too, and this girl is only too happy to accept her help.
Sure enough, one lick of the cat’s tongue wipes away the blood, and over a dish of milk she provides detailed instructions on what to do next. Top on my list would be finding a door and getting out, but the cat tells her to do the opposite: she must stay and act unsurprised by anything the prince does. He is apparently under the spell of an evil witch and is acting out her orders. The trick to survival is breaking the curse.
The girl spends the rest of the day on housecleaning and by the time the prince gets back there’s an excellent dinner waiting for him. Seeing no bloodstain on her feet, he assumes her to have abided by his restriction and the evening is unmarred by sudden death. The prince instead exerts himself as a conversationalist. The next day the girl and the cat continue their plotting with more milk and another round of cleaning, this time scrubbing up three chests from the cellar. After dinner that night, the girl suggests that the chests might make a nice gift for her mother, only the prince should deliver them in the dark. Her mother may freak out at the sudden appearance of murderous royalty.
On the third day, following the cat’s instructions, the girl drags her sisters’ bodies from the forbidden room. The cat washes them thoroughly with her tongue, restoring them to life. As they wouldn’t stay that way for long with the prince around, the girl moves onto stage two and hides them in two of the chests, covering them up with gold and silver from the prince’s treasury. When he returns that evening, the girl greets him with more fine food and an extra cup of wine, promising that by the time he’s finished with dinner the chests will be ready to take to her mother. That’s when she dashes downstairs and clambers into the last one. The prince transports them all to the widow’s house, then goes home, expecting his obedient little bride to be waiting.
When he finds out she’s not, he returns to the cottage in a rage, hammering on her door until the youngest sister pulls it open and neatly chops off his head. Ah, poetic justice! This, however, was all a part of the plan. The prince jumps up, alive and uncursed and in an excellent mood. The youngest girl agrees to marry his shiny new self and her sisters cope with their post traumatic stress in financial comfort. As for the other dead girls, presumably SOMETHING is done with them, now that Mr Serial Killer has left the building, but all that gets washed away in the tide of happy ever after.
This last story is – in the retelling I read at least – openly disapproving of the sisters’ curiosity, and interestingly is also the one that most closely resembles ‘Bluebeard’. The prince’s redemption is…look, I accept curses as a valid plot device, but regardless of who really chose to go on that killing spree, it was the prince who beheaded those girls and I really, really don’t feel comfortable about him getting rewarded at the end. Because these are not stories about obedience and duty. In my post Three Men Not To Marry, the girls I wrote about were tricked into believing the best of their homicidal husbands. They had money, choices, a chance at rescue. In these versions, the girls are poor. They are kidnapped, controlled, and there are no convenient brothers coming to save them.
If these are morality tales, they aren’t saying that curiosity is bad. They’re saying to trust your instincts. Find out the truth. And most importantly: if you’re going to break one rule, break them all, then run like hell.