Halloween is about tradition. Of course traditions have to start somewhere, and in our new tradition, Melissa—dressed as a witch, hiding as best she can her red hair—takes Thalia around the neighborhood. Much booty, dropped into a paper bag, is to be gotten this way.
I suggested to Thalia she costume herself as a fairy or an ogress, but to my disappointment she chose to be a princess.
The culmination of the evening occurs in my study. I build a fire in the hearth and turn out the lights. Thalia feasts on her take as Melissa reads us an uncanny tale.
“It will be a Grimm story,” Melissa announces and Thalia applauds. “One of the omitted tales,” Melissa continues. “Blue Beard.”
“Omitted?” asks Thalia.
“It was in the 1812 edition, but dropped from the last edition. Perhaps Wilhelm thought it too violent.”
Thalia grins broadly in anticipation. Melissa, still dressed in her witch’s costume and squinting in the low light, begins.
A man, who has three sons and a daughter, is approached by a king who wishes to marry the girl. The honor is too great for the father to refuse, despite the king’s unsettling blue beard.
The daughter consents to the marriage with trepidation and asks her brothers to come to her aid if needed. They promise to come at her call.
All goes well in her new home. All her desires are fulfilled. She would have been happy except, in the presence of her husband, the blue beard makes her uneasy.
Before leaving on a long trip, Blue Beard gives her the key to the castle, including a small golden key she must not use on pain of death.
Thalia sits in Melissa’s lap, wide-eyed, munching caramel corn.
Having the keys, the girl explores all the rooms of the castle, filled with treasures, until only the one opened by the golden key remains.
Curiosity, be it creative or destructive, causes her to open the last door.
In that room hangs the decimated bodies of Blue Beard’s previous wives. Blood courses across the floor. The golden key falls from the lock onto the floor and into the blood.
Horrified, she tries to wipe the blood from the key, but as she cleans one side the blood appears on the other.
Thalia stops munching and peers off into space.
Blue Beard returns and soon asks for the keys. She has removed the golden key from the ring. He notices and demands her death. She pleads to say her final prayers and this he grants. She goes upstairs and calls out to her brothers, who, mysteriously despite the distance, can hear her.
Blue Beard, annoyed by the delay, threatens to come upstairs and drag her away, which he does, but not in time to prevent the brothers from coming to the rescue. They hang his body in the room with his former wives, the treasures of the castle now belonging to his surviving wife.
“Wow,” Thalia admires, then inspects her bag for more treats.
I throw a few more logs on the fire. “Another wonderfully odd tale from the Grimms.”
“And appropriate for the times,” says Melissa.
“I am thinking of the #MeToo movement.”
“Really,” I say. “I am not seeing the connection.”
“Thalia is falling asleep.” Melissa looks fondly at her charge. “I’d better put her to bed.”
Thalia’s eyes are closed; her hand is in her goody bag, but not moving.
“We need to talk on this,” I say. “I’ll go find a bottle of wine.”
“Red,” she says.
Fairy Tale of the Month: October 2018 Blue Beard – Part Two
Melissa takes off her witch’s hat, her red hair falling from underneath it, settles into one of my comfy chairs, and sips her glass of wine. “Before I start grinding my axe,” she begins, “what do you see in the story?”
I sense a pit opening up before me in which to fall. ”Well, we have seen the woman with the key opening a door or a box many times in these tale—and myths for that matter. The consequences are uniformly bad. The woman’s weakness is always curiosity and the breaking of a promise not to peek. Let me agree right away neither of these infractions deserves a death penalty.”
Melissa ignores my attempt at cover. “Is curiosity a weakness in men?”
I hear the first passing swoosh of the pendulum blade. “Ah,” I say, thinking hard as I open my mouth. “In the tales, curiosity is reserved for women. Men will go adventuring to find answers, but that is not called curiosity. I see your point.”
Melissa nods. “Logically—and I know better than to apply logic to fairy tales, but bear with me for argument’s sake—logically, if Blue Beard did not want the heroine to enter the forbidden room, he would not have given her the key.”
I hear the pendulum on its returning pass. I stare at my wine glass. I haven’t drunk any. Melissa’s is already half empty.
“Where is the #MeToo in Blue Beard?” I ask. “It was told long, long before social media existed.”
Melissa laughs a little. “This social media debate is the present-day iteration about the concept behind The Fall.”
“As in Adam and Eve?”
“As in Eve,” she replies. “The Fall is blamed on Eve. Adam gets off as being only a witless accomplice.”
I hear the pendulum again; a little closer this time.
Melissa takes a long sip of wine. “Eve eats an apple from the Tree of Knowledge and becomes the equal of God. That act God cannot tolerate and he expels her from the Garden along with her sidekick, Adam, condemning her to eventual death.
“The girl in Blue Beard uses the golden key and obtains knowledge about her husband. This is enlightenment, which he cannot tolerate and condemns her to death.
“In both cases, God and Blue Beard allow access to the forbidden knowledge. In both cases they tempt their adversary, who, in both cases are guileless, innocently trapped into the machinations of the male figures.”
Hey rats, gnaw on those leather straps that bind me. I haven’t much time.
“You might,” I suggest, “get struck by lightning for comparing God to Blue Beard.”
Melissa narrows her eyes. “It’s been said God created man in his own image and man returned the compliment. I take it the masculine aspect of our culture needs the feminine to be subjugated or she will rival and become equal to the male persona, be it a god’s or a king’s.”
“Subjugate,” I echo. “If I understand you that is the operative word.”
Melissa raises a finger and takes another sip. “Thank you for understanding me. This is an argument my former husband could not consider.”
The pendulum blade disappears in mid-arc. I am a little embarrassed I had not seen this connection before. I did not suppose that the #MeToo movement addresses a problem as ancient as our creation story.
Fairy Tale of the Month: October 2018 Blue Beard – Part Three
I pour Melissa some more wine and finally take a sip of my own.
“In defense of men,” I say, “it is her brothers who come to the rescue.”
“Granted, but now we enter into family relationships, different from other social bonds. Men will treat their mothers and sisters differently than any other women. The brothers’ rescue of their sister does not water down my observation of the overriding social divide between the masculine and the feminine.”
I feel compelled to change the topic to another aspect of the story.
“Why a blue beard?” I offer up for discussion.
“Indeed,” says Melissa. “Does it have anything to do with blue blood?”
“That’s a stretch.”
“Maybe not. In the late medieval period blue became one of the colors of royalty; the court of Louis IX to be specific. Blue Beard was described as a king.”
I take another sip of wine. “I was thinking, the blue beard served at a sort of stigmata, simply marking him as different from everyone else. Even above the law, you might say. However, I don’t think I have run into any other blue beards.”
Melissa stares into the fire’s flames as she speaks. “When I decided to read this story to Thalia I did some research. I didn’t find any blue beards in the story’s variants, not even Mr. Fox, its best-known relative.
“I did find a Welsh legend of the medieval king Conomor, a historic figure. A story is woven around this actual king that he killed his first three wives before marrying the fourth, Tryphine. She finds the secret room where relics of the former wives are kept. She prays for their souls and their ghosts appear to warn her that Conomor will kill her when she becomes pregnant because of the prophecy he will be killed by his son.
“When she does become pregnant, she flees but is caught and beheaded by Conomor. Saint Gildas restores Tryphine to life and returns with her to Conomor. His castle collapses around him and he is killed.”
“Did Conomor have a blue beard?” I ask.
“Not that the legend tells us.”
“Perhaps the beard is Charles Perrault’s invention; the Grimms’ stole that story from him, you know. But,” I enjoin, “let’s change the color of our conversation. What about the golden key?”
“Yes!” exclaims Melissa. “What an image. Blood wiped from one side of the key appears on the other. I’ll guess that is another Perrault addition. Do you recall Grimms’ The Fitcher’s Bird, where the heroine is obliged to carry around an egg that gets stained with blood in the forbidden chamber?”
The Fitcher’s Bird, of course. “I know it well. It is as close a relative as Mr. Fox.”
“Let me propose,” Melissa straightens herself in the comfy chair, “that The Fitcher’s Bird is much closer to the origins of this motif than Perrault’s version.”
“Go on.” I am delighted. I think I know where this is going.
“Charles Perrault was a skilled writer, writing for a court audience, not for scholars. Whatever tale he drew his version from I feel safe guessing he edited out what he didn’t like and added his own spin.
“The Grimms, while they were not shy of making changes in the tales, were scholars in search of the German folk-voice and allowed the folk messiness of The Fitcher’s Bird to remain in the story.
“The egg almost has to be a pagan holdover. For me, that suggests The Fitcher’s Bird predates Perrault’s Blue Beard, even though the latter was published a decade before the former.”
Raising my glass, I say, “Well argued.”