“The lion’s cubs [below] are born dead; after three days the father comes and roars over them, and brings them to life.” (fol. 96v) (Photo credit: The Medieval Bestiary)
In his Preface to Æsop’s Fables, its translator, George Fyler Townsend, states that “[t]he introduction [in fables] of the animals or fictitious characters should be marked with an unexceptionable care and attention to their natural attributes, and to the qualities attributed to them by universal popular consent. The Fox should be always cunning, the Hare timid, the Lion bold, the Wolf cruel, the Bull strong, the Horse proud, and the Ass patient.” (Bold characters are mine.)
Medieval Animal Lore
The Fox as the Devil, etc.
Townsend’s statement reflects an anthropomorphic vision of animals (humans in disguise), as in George Orwell‘s 1945 Animal Farm). In fables and in beast epics, such as Le Roman de Renart, animals are anthropomorphic. But Townsend’s comment also reflects a will to stereotype animals and transform them into allegorical creatures. In Medieval Bestiaries, they are symbols.
Medieval writers were fond of allegories, hence the questionable, but poetical, qualities bestowed on medieval beasts. The Lion is God and the Lamb, Jesus Christ. Only a virgin can catch the legendary or mythical Unicorn. (See Unicorn, Wikipedia – the free encyclopedia). The Beaver eats its own testicles to avoid being caught by hunters. The fox is not only devious, but the devil himself:
“The fox represents the devil, who pretends to be dead to those who retain their worldly ways, and only reveals himself when he has them in his jaws. To those with perfect faith, the devil is truly dead.” (See David Badke or The Medieval Bestiary [bestiary.ca].)
“Hunted [above] for its testicles, it castrates itself to escape from the hunter.” (fol. 9r) (Photo credit: The Medieval Bestiary)
Exceptions to the lore, but…
There are exceptions to the lore. The real Dog is a very loyal animal. It can sniff out nearly anything or anyone. However, a real Dog does not let go of the prey it holds for the prey it might catch. In other words, the fanciful and the fantastic suffuse Medieval Bestiaries, such as the Aberdeen Bestiary or the Ashmole Bestiary (or Bestiaries). The same is true of several extraordinary medieval beasts, not to mention qualities attributed to birds, stones, and other aspects of nature. The merveilleux FR characterizes more than a thousand years of Natural Histories. It is often called le merveilleux chrétien, a Christian magical realism (the fantastic).
Writers of Medieval Bestiaries used Natural Histories such as Claudius Alienus‘ (170 CE – 235 CE) On the Nature of Animals (17 books) as their reference. Yet, these works were rooted in earlier texts, such as Herodotus‘ Histories and Pliny the Elder‘s (c. 23 CE – 24 or 25 August 79 CE) Historia Naturalis. However, as we have seen, the preferred source of writers of Medieval Bestiaries was the anonymous Physiologus, which cannot be considered “scientific.” (See Manuscript shelf.)
The Naming of Reinardus/Renart
This depiction of animals seems all the more anthropomorphic when the animal is given a name. In the Ysengrimus, the Fox is called Reinardus, a Latin form of Renart, the Fox’s name in the Roman de Renart, and La Fontaine’s Renard, the current spelling. The Fox is all too human. Professor Jan M. Ziolkowski writes that animals featured in the Roman de Renart are
so highly individualized that they have names, like human beings.
This comment reminds me of T. S. Eliot‘s “The Naming of Cats,” Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939). “The Naming of Cats” was a source for Andrew Lloyd Webber‘s immensely successful musical entitled Cats (1981). (See Cats, Wikipedia – the free encyclopedia.)
Reinardus and Renart
The naming of the Roman de Renart‘s animal cast begins with the Ysengrimus (1148-1149), the birthplace of Reinardus (Latin) who becomes Renart beginning in 1274-1275, when the first “branches” of the Roman de Renart, written in “Roman,” the vernacular, were published. Animals in the Medieval Bestiary are seldom presented with animal attributes, with the probable exception of illuminations (enluminures FR).
In other words, beasts inhabiting the Medieval Bestiary are stereotypes, or archetypes. Deviousness is the Fox’s main attribute, but it is a literary attribute, by “universal popular consent.” In fact, Medieval Beast literature is an example of intertextuality EN, a term coined by Julia Kristeva in 1966. Intertextuality is a theory according to which texts are rooted in an earlier text or earlier texts. One could also use the word palimpsest.
“Bear cubs are born as shapeless lumps of flesh, so their mother has to lick them into their proper shape.” (fol. 21r) (Photo credit: The Medieval Bestiary)
“The lion is the king of beasts.” (fol. 6r) (Photo credit: The Medieval Bestiary)
“Bear cubs are born as formless lumps of flesh; here [above] the mother is licking the cub into shape.” (fol. 22v) (Photo credit: The Medieval Bestiary)
“A mother bear [above] licks her cub into shape.” (Photo credit: The Medieval Bestiary)
“‘le lyon [above] qui fait revivre ses lyonciaus’ – The lion revives its dead cubs. In the Bestiaire d’amour the man says that in the same way the woman can revive him from his love-death.” (fol. 18r) (Photo credit: BnF)
The Fox: “Licking into Shape”natural histories licking into shape (Pliny the Elder)
Pliny the Elder
In fables and the Reynard the Fox cycle, Renart’s main fictitious characteristic is his devious nature, an attribute bestowed upon him by humans and which he possesses in fables, beast epics, medieval bestiaries, and in Natural Histories, by “universal popular consent.”
Licking into Shape
Pliny the Elder, however, does not mention deviousness with respect to the fox. What Pliny reveals is the birth of incomplete offspring that have to be licked into shape. I have yet to find an image of the Fox licking its offspring into shape, but Bears and Lions also lick their incomplete progeny into shape. (See Fox, in The Medieval Bestiary.) Although this characteristic, i.e. licking into shape, was noted in Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia, or Natural History (published c. 77– 79 CE), it may have entered animal lore long before Pliny was born.
As noted above, I have not found an image of the Fox licking unfinished foxes into shape, but I have found images of Bears licking their cubs into shape and Lions breathing life into lions born dead.
The Fox Playing Dead to Obtain FoodRenart et les anguilles (br. III) (Reynard and the eels) Æsop’s “The Dog and the Fox Who Played Dead” (ATU 56A) Laurentius Abstemius 146
Animal “lore” also presents a second image of the Fox. We have seen that in “The Crow and Fox” (« Le Renard et le Corbeau, » (La Fontaine I.3) the fox flatters the crow into singing and dropping its dinner. But the literary fox also plays dead to catch food, which is yet another manifestation of the fox’s deceptive literary “nature.” The theft of fish is motif number 1 in the Aarne-Thompson-Üther classification system.
Previously, Isidore of Seville (7th century CE) had written about foxes that they were “deceptive animals.” As for Bartholomeus Anglicus (13th century), he had described the fox as “a false beast and deceiving” that “makes believe it is dead in order to catch food.” (ATU 105)
The fox also plays dead in Laura Gibbs’ Bestiaria Latina:
- Æsop’s “The Dog and the Fox Who Played Dead,” (ATU 5A) and in
- Abstemius 146, the pseudonym of Lorenzo Bevilaqua.
Abstemius is the author of the Hecatomythium (A Hundred Fables). Abstemius’ real name was Lorenzo Bevilaqua. He was a professor of literature at Urbino in the 15th century. He published the Hecatomythium, (A Hundred Fables) in 1495, followed by 97 fables, the content of his 1499 Hecatomythium Secundum, published in Venice in 1499. Hecatomythium is a Greek word, but Abstemius wrote in Latin. (See Laurentius Abstemius, Wikipedia – the free Encyclopedia.)
Several Natural Histories were written in Greco-Roman Antiquity, going back to Herodotus‘ Histories. Herodotus described the crocodile, the hippopotamus and phoenix. Many Natural Histories were also published in the early Middle Ages.
However, animals dwelling in
- in beast epics, such as the Reynard the Fox cycle;
- in Medieval Bestiaries;
- and in Natural Histories are not zoological creatures, but the denizens of literature.
They possess qualities attributed to them “by universal popular consent,” which, in the Middle Ages, may have been the consent of Christian “naturalists,” some of whom were monks and scribes.
The fox, a beloved rascal, was the devil himself. Besides, we owe fox “lore” at least two English expressions: to “lick into shape” and “sour grapes.”
I apologize for my tardiness and send all of you my kindest regards. ♥
- Dogs, a long time ago… (12 September 2014)
- The Dog that dropped the Substance for the Shadow (10 September 2014)
- Aesop & La Fontaine Online… (8 September 2014) list
- Aesop’s “The Boy Bathing” (5 September 2014)
- La Fontaine’s the “Fox and Grapes” (20 September 2013)
- Another Motif: The Tail-Fisher (29 April 2013)
- Another Motif: Playing Dead (20 April 2013)
- Reynard the Fox, the Itinerant (24 October 2011)
Sources and Resources
- Aarne-Thompson-Üther classification system (motif index)
- Perry Index: index of Æsop’s Fables
- Le Roman de Renart (Renart et les anguilles [Renart and the eels]) (br. III; ATU 1)
- Mythologia Æsopica (mythfolklore.net)
- Bestiaria Latina (Laura Gibbs)
- The Bern Physiologus Codex Bongarsianus 318
- The Medieval Bestiary (http://bestiary.ca) (David Badke)
 George Fyler Townsend, Æsop’s Fables, Project Gutenberg [EBook #21]. Third paragraph.
 Pliny the Elder died in the eruption of Vesuvius.
 Jan M. Ziolkowski, Talking Animals: Medieval Latin Beast Poetry, 750 – 1150 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993), p. 3.© Micheline Walker 25 September 2014 WordPress
Metamorphoses: Ovid, Horace, Apuleius and Æsop
According to the editors[i] of my collection of La Fontaine‘s Fables, the moral this fable (Book II: 18), The Cat Memorphosed into a Woman (La Chatte métamorphosée en femme), finds its roots in Horace‘s (8 December 65 BCE – 27 November 8 BCE) Epistles, Book I. ii, lines 69-71.[ii] The moral is Horatian, but the source of La Fontaine’s fable is an Æsopic fable entitled Venus and the Cat and Æsop‘s (c. 620 – 564 BCE) Fables predate Horace’s Epistles. However, metamorphoses are a theme linked with Ovid (20 March 43 BC – AD 17/18), the author of Pygmalion, one of the metamorphoses, and with Lucius Apuleius (c. 125 – c. 180 CE), the author of The Golden Ass, an entertaining story, which contains the Tale of Cupid and Psyche.
Interestingly, in Jean de La Fontaine’s La Chatte métamorphosée en femme (II. 18), a metamorphosis is used to show that metamorphoses are not possible, at least not altogether. In other words, in The Cat Metamorphosed into a Woman, La Fontaine uses a metamorphosis, his exemplum, to demonstrate that nature is mostly immutable. A cat is cat and remains a cat, despite appearances, and a woman is a woman and remains a woman, despite appearances.
In seventeenth-century France, particularly after the Fronde, the aristocrats and honnêtes hommes[iii] who gathered in the salons of refined women gave free rein to fantasy and would eventually create children’s literature, but nature reigned supreme, not to mention Cartesian reason and absolutism. Absolutism had taken their power away from the highest- ranked aristocrats. It was a time when one had to heed Horace’s advice: “Limit your desires” (Epistles, Book I, ii, lines 55–71), but the cast of our fable seems not to have known Horace.
La Fontaine’s fable, entitled La Chatte métamorphosée en femme (II. 18), is about a metamorphosis — a cat is “successfully” transformed into a woman — the purpose of which, i.e. the metamorphosis, is to tell that a metamorphosis is not possible, which is somewhat paradoxical. The metamorphosis that has occurred goes amiss. In other words, the exemplum shows that, if taken away, what nature has ordained, le naturel, will always return. As the French proverb goes: Chassez [chase away] le naturel, il revient au galop [it comes galloping back]. So our cat has been turned into a woman, but the woman’s instincts, the core, are those of a cat. Let us read the fables.
La Fontaine: The Cat Metamorphosed into a Woman
In The Cat Metamorphosed into a Woman (simply click on the title to read the fable) (La Chatte métamorphosée en femme II. 18), a man so loves his cat that he wants to transform her into a woman using every trick: from tears and prayers, to charms and magic. This man succeeds in transforming his cat into a woman, but the moment she hears mice, our newly fashioned woman is crawling on the floor chasing them, but without instilling fear in the mice. Our former cat looks like a woman, so the mice have no reason to fear her in the least. Appearances are deceptive.
La Fontaine, however, does not tell us the rest of the story, i.e. what happens to the cat-woman. He simply writes a moral according to which one cannot change: “Old habits die hard.” It is as Horace wrote:Limit your desires (Horace, Epistles, Book I, ii, lines 55-71) A jar will long retain the odor of what it was Dipped in when new. (lines 69-70) The Delights of Nature (Horace, Epistles, Book I. x, lines 1-25) Drive Nature off with a pitchfork, she’ll still press back, And secretly burst in triumph through your sad disdain. (lines 24-25)
Æsop: Venus and the Cat
La Fontaine’s narrative resembles its source, Æsop‘s fable entitled Venus and the Cat or The Cat and Venus. This time, however, the cat herself wishes to be metamorphosed into a woman because she is in love with a man. Roles have therefore been reversed: the man is a cat. Consequently, La Fontaine’s fable is a mirror image of its sources which would be, first, Névelet or Isaaci Nicolai Neveleti’s Mythologia Æsopica (Frankfurt, 1610), a retelling of Æsop, and, second, Æsop’s own Venus and the Cat.
In Venus and the Cat, our enamoured cat so wishes to become a woman that she asks Venus, the goddess of love, called Aphrodite in Roman mythology, to turn her into a woman. The goddess Venus obliges but, when night falls or “one day,” curiosity leads her to the bride’s chamber where she places a mouse in the middle of the room. The woman leaps out of bed and goes chasing after the mouse. Contrary to La Fontaine, Æsop provides a full narrative, leaving little to the imagination. A disappointed Venus turns the woman back into a cat, which seems a form of punishment. V. S. Vernon Jones’ translation of Venus and the Cat is as follows:
Æsop: Venus and the CatGutenberg (EBook #11339) V. S. Vernon Jones, Translator G. K. Chesterton, Introduction Arthur Rackham, Illustrator “A Cat fell in love with a handsome young man, and begged the goddess Venus to change her into a woman. Venus was very gracious about it, and changed her at once into a beautiful maiden, whom the young man fell in love with at first sight and shortly afterwards married. One day Venus thought she would like to see whether the Cat had changed her habits as well as her form; so she let a mouse run loose in the room where they were. Forgetting everything, the young woman had no sooner seen the mouse than up she jumped and was after it like a shot: at which the goddess was so disgusted that she changed her back again into a Cat.” Æsop (c. 620–564 BCE)
La Fontaine’s Moral: Horace, Epistles Book I. x, 1-25
The editor of my copy of La Fontaine, Fables et Contes is quite right. The moral of La Fontaine’s fable is linked with Horace’s first book of Epistles or Letters. However, it is related to both Book I, ii, 55-71, and Book 1, x, 1-25. We may in fact have a translation for “Chassez le naturel, il revient au galop[,]” which would be: “Drive Nature off with a pitchfork, she’ll still press[.]” (Horace Epistles, Book I, x, line 24). The two relevant morals are the above-mentioned Horatian:A jar will long retain the odor of what it was Dipped in when new. Drive Nature off with a pitchfork, she’ll still press back, And secretly burst in triumph through your sad disdain.
Æsop’s Moral: “Nature will out”
In La Fontaine’s version of Æsop’s Venus and the Cat or The Cat and Venus, the moral is largely implicit, yet clear. However, some translations of Æsop’s version and the source of La Fontaine’s fable end with an explicit moral. As he concludes his 1887 Cat and Venus, author-translator George Fyler Townsend writes that “Nature exceeds nurture.” Similarly, Joseph Jacobs‘ 1894 The Cat-Maiden ends on the proverbial: “Nature will out.”[iv]
Alishman does not include La Fontaine’s Cat Metamorphosed into a Woman in his list of fables classified as Aarne-Thompson-Uther Type 2031. Type 2031’s chief fable is The Mouse Who Was to Marry the Sun. La Fontaine’s cat is changed into a woman and the mouse, into a woman, but this motif is that of another fable by entitled The Mouse metamorphosed into a Girl (IV.7), published in La Fontaine’s 1678 collection of fables, his second volume of fables a volume that reflects the influence of Le Livre des lumières ou la conduite des roys (The Book of Enlightenment or the Conduct of Kings), a French translation of fables by Bidpai, originating in the Sanskrit Panchatantra (Pañcatantra) and Arabic Kalīlah wa Dimnah, written by Persian scholar Ibn al-Muquaffa’. This one fable is in fact taking us all the way to Japan.______________________________ [i] René Groos et Jacques Schiffrin, La Fontaine, Fables et Contes (Paris: Gallimard, collection La Pléiade, 1954), p. 688. [ii] Epistles are letters. Horace was born on 8 December 65 BCE and died on 27 November 8 BCE. [iii] “honnête homme.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2013. Web. 27 Jul. 2013. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/271056/honnete-homme>. [iv] To read other translations of Æsop’s fable, click on The Cat and Venus. Arthur Rackham (19 September 1867 – 6 September 1939) Book cover, 1912 edition, by Arthur Rackham Photo credit: The Project Gutenberg © Micheline Walker 17 July 2013 WordPress
*Available from The Spirit of the Ages
As you have noticed, Bluebeard is reminiscent of many folktales and other works of literature, not all of which belong to what we now call children’s literature. Yesterday, we looked at Charles Perrault’s Bluebeard. Perrault’s first audiences were persons who gathered in French seventeenth-century salons, a more refined and sophisticated environment than court: the Louvre and, later in the century, Versailles. Children may have been Perrault’s very last audience.
Charles Perrault as a Moderne
I also mentioned that in French seventeenth-century literature, one could not combine comedy and tragedy. Like comedies, fairy tales end well, but there may be a “happy ending” to a comedy that does not seem a real comedy. Such is the case with some of Molière‘s comedies. The best examples are Le Misanthrope, Tartuffe and Dom Juan. Molière nearly broke the rules as did Perrault in his fairy tales. We know that Bluebeard’s young wife will be saved, but by the time her brothers arrive, we are out of breath. Would that a message-carrying dog had been sent to fetch the brothers!
However, Charles Perrault, a moderne in the famous Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes, has chosen riveting suspense. Here, rules are being challenged by a member of the Académie française itself. Other than the stained key, there is very little enchantment in Bluebeard, in which respect it resembles Puss in Boots. The young wife and Anne are clever girls, but where is the young wife’s fairy godmother? Well, she does not have one. Is this a fairy tale? One wonders.
A Fairy tale “bursting out,” but saved
As for motifs and instances of intertextuality, seldom have they been as abundant than in Bluebeard. In fact, motifs and intertextualité seem to override genre. Although, “all’s well that ends well,” this is a fairy tale I would call “éclatée” or bursting out. Perrault is taking the new genre to its very limit. Moreover, there is something biblical about this fairy tale: the stain cannot be removed, except miraculously. That stain seems of remembrance of la tache [stain] originelle, the original sin. Moreover, the brothers arrive at the very last-minute. So not only the young bride, but the genre itself, i.e. fairy tales, are saved. This is an “in extremis,” intervention.
As for Bluebeard, he is not the mean second wife who turns her husband’s beautiful daughter by a first marriage into a chimney sweeper. Bluebeard is more than an “animal,” he is a monster. He’s Goethe’s Faust: Mephistopheles.
Having written the above, I can say no more than I did yesterday: “All’s well that ends well.”
Both images are by Danish illustrator Kay Nielsen (12 March 1886 – 21 June 1957)Kay Nielsen
For those of you who are students of folklore, I have provided Alishman’s extremely useful cross-referencing, complete with links to the tales he mentions. Motifs overlap in this surprisingly rich “fairy tale,” so I have listed them.
Particularly helpful is Alishman’s page devoted to the Grimm Brothers. It is entitled: Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The brothers Grimm have a classification system of their own: KHM.
Marienkind (KHM 3)To access D. L. Alishman’s page, click on How the Devil Married Three Sisters ATU 311 and other folktales of Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 311 translated and/or edited by D. L. Alishman
- How the Devil Married Three Sisters (Italy).
- The Cobbler and His Three Daughters (Blue Beard) (Basque).
- Your Hen Is in the Mountain (Norway).
- Fitcher’s Bird (Germany).
- Link to The Hare’s Bride (Germany). This tale is contained in a separate file and will open in a new window.
- The Three Chests: The Story of the wicked Old Man of the Sea (Finland).
- The Widow and Her Daughters (Scotland).
- Peerifool (Scotland).
- The Secret Room (New York, USA).
- Zerendac (Palestine).
- The Tiger’s Bride (India).
- Links to related sites.
- Link to The Robber Bridegroom (Germany, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, versions of 1812 and 1857). Opens with a new page.
- The Robber’s Bride (Germany).
- The Sweetheart in the Wood (Norway).
- The Story of Mr. Fox (England).
- The Oxford Student (England).
- The Girl Who Got Up a Tree (England).
- Bloody Baker (England).
- Bobby Rag (England).
- Captain Murderer (England, Charles Dickens).
- Laula (Wales).
- The History of Mr. Greenwood (Scotland).
- The Cannibal Innkeeper (Romania).
- Greenbeard (Lithuania).
- Sulasa and Sattuka (India, The Jātaka).
- Links to related sites.
Charles Perrault‘s (1628-1703) Bluebeard, La Barbe bleue (see Gallica.BnF), is an exceptionally rich source of motifs. In Aarne-Thompson-Uther, Bluebeard is classified as ATU 312, ATU 312A: The giant-killer and his dog– Bluebeard. The U in ATU stands for Hans-Jörg Uther.[i] Charles Perrault‘s Barbe bleue, Bluebeard, features a killer, but there is no reference to a dog. However, Bluebeard is rooted in a popular and largely oral tradition. In the more traditional tales, a dog or a bird is sent to warn our heroine’s family, her brothers especially.[ii] This element has been removed by Perrault. However, Professor D. L. Alishman specifies that folktales classified as ATU 312 and ATU 312A are stories “about women whose brothers rescue them from their ruthless husbands or abductors.” Such is the case with Bluebeard. So, to begin with, the motif of Bluebeard is AT 312 and 312A .
According to Alishman, related tales are:
- Bluebeard (France, Charles Perrault).
- King Bluebeard (Germany).
- Don Firriulieddu (Italy).
- The Little Boy and His Dogs (African-American, Joel Chandler Harris).
- Blue-Beard (North Carolina, USA).
- The Chosen Suitor (Antigua, British West Indies).
- The Brahman Girl That Married a Tiger (India).
Gallery1. Kay Nielsen (12 March 1886 – 21 June 1957) (Photo credit: Google Images) 2. Gustave Doré (6 January 1832 – 23 January 1883) (Photo credit: Google Images) 3. Arthur Rackham (19 September 1867 – 6 September 1939) (1919) (Photo credit: Google Images) 4. Gustave Doré (Photo credit: Google Images) 5. Gustave Doré (Photo credit: Google Images) (Please click on the small images to enlarge them.)
Setting the Stage: a mystery and Suspense
Bluebeard is feared by most women. He owns many properties, in town and in the countryside, “gold and silver dishes, beautifully upholstered (embroidered) furniture and golden carriages: de la vaisselle d’or et d’argent, des meubles en broderie, et des carrosses tout dorés.” (Gilbert Rouger)[iii] However, his blue beard makes him so ugly and terrifying that women run away when they see him. Moreover, despite his blue beard, this colourful but brutal character has married several times, but every wife has disappeared. The moment Perrault reveals this fact, we enter the realms of mystery and suspense. What has happened to the former wives? There will be a moment of revelation.
Bluebeard’s neighbour, a Lady, has two beautiful daughters and is looking for suitable husbands. When they first see Bluebeard, the daughters find him repulsive. However, Bluebeard organizes a feast and invites the young women and a few of their friends (first image). As they go from pleasure to pleasure, the younger daughter begins to see Bluebeard as a less frightening man and marries him.
Bluebeard marries and goes on a trip: forbidden room
Once he has married the younger daughter, Bluebeard tells her he must go away on a trip, but to invite friends (second image). He then starts distributing keys and warns his wife not to enter a certain room yet gives her the key to this room. The telltale key and the forbidden room are motifs dating to the story of Adam and Eve. Eve is tempted by the serpent and bites into the forbidden apple. When collecting folktales, the Brothers Grimm were told the story of Marienkind, Mary’s Child, in which a girl enters a forbidden thirteenth room, sees the Trinity and is then burdened with a telltale gold finger. Marienkind will not confess that she did enter the forbidden room until she is condemned to burn at the stake. As the flames start engulfing her, she finally tells the truth and is saved. The motifs of that tale, the forbidden room and the telltale stain, link it to Bluebeard.
Disobedience: the stained key
Like the archetypal Eve, women are considered curious and, despite their fears, they want to unlock forbidden rooms, closets and cabinets. Again, “folk versions of the tale do not fault the heroine for her curiosity?”[iv] Bluebeard’s young wife trembles, but she unlocks the hidden cabinet (third image). Here we think of the deceptive closet that leads to other rooms. That is another motif. Next, when the young wife sees the bloodstained floor and the bodies of dead women, she drops the key and it gets stained by the blood on the floor of the room. This element seems a variation on the “tache [stain] originelle,” or the original sin. Therefore, our main motif could well be that of the indelible stain. Babies are born “entachés,” stained with the original sin. The young wife cannot clean the key. It is, therefore, an enchanted key.
Bluebeard returns that very evening and is received with open arms. His bride hopes to delay the moment when he will ask for the keys to be returned, one of which is the stained key. The young bride therefore entertains her husband as does Scheherazade, the Persian Queen of the One Thousand and One Nights who has studied sufficiently to know that fiction, entertainment in the form of storytelling, might save her from death, which it does.
However, the next morning, our poor young wife is asked to return all the keys her rich and ruthless husband has entrusted to her. He sees the stained key and tells her she will join the wives who have died due to their indiscretion. She, of course, falls to her knees begging for forgiveness. Bluebeard was testing her and she has failed the test. She is yet another Eve who has yielded to temptation.
Tests are a common element in fairy tales as are the three requirements that will turn a toad into a prince. But Bluebeard is a one-test, or trap, narrative that resembles the Pandora’s Box narrative. Pandora is given a jar named pithos which she is instructed not to open, but curiosity, the villain, is as irresistible as the serpent. She opens the jar and releases all the bad things in the world. Evil is born and women are to blame. They are the scapegoats.
Fortunately, Bluebeard’s young wife inhabits fairyland. Her sister Anne has not yet returned home. So the young bride has a stand-in, so to speak, and uses a common a ruse. She asks to be allowed to pray for one half of a quarter-hour and goes upstairs to alert her sister. This recourse is reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Desdemona‘s (Othello) request. This is yet another motif or, possibly, an instance of intertextuality, texts that mirror one another. Usually, folktales contain motifs, just as music contains themes. Shakespearean theater is otherwise classified, but the stained finger could be designated as a motif in the broader world of fiction. Our terrified héroïne asks her sister Anne to go to a tower and to watch because their brothers have promised to visit and Bluebeard has returned earlier than expected. Anne is instructed to alert them from her tower. This is ATU type 312 and 312A.
Anne, ma sœur Anne, ne vois-tu rien venir ?
Bluebeard grows increasingly impatient, but the younger wife keeps asking her sister Anne whether or not she can see the brothers. This is a summit of suspense: Anne, ma sœur Anne, ne vois-tu rien venir ? Anne, my sister Anne, can’t you see anything coming? Anne answers twice. Je ne vois rien que le Soleil qui poudroie, et l’herbe qui verdoie. All I see are flurries of the Sun and grass turning green. The third time, however, Anne reports that she sees men on horseback riding in their direction. As you know, the number three is a common element of fairy tales.
At his wits end, Bluebeard starts screaming so loudly that the house shakes (fourth image). He goes upstairs and grabs his young wife by the hair, holding a knife. Once again, she asks to pray, but he will not let her pray. At this point, the reader or listener fears that all is lost, except that we are in fairyland. There has to be a savior, and there is.
Kairos: the opportune moment
At the opportune moment, kairos, the brothers make a racket at the door. The door is forced open and Bluebeard sees one brother, a dragoon, and the second, a musketeer. Bluebeard runs away from them, but the brothers catch him when he reaches the porch and they drive a sword through his body (fifth image).
The younger sister inherits her husband’s possessions. She provides her sister with the dowry that will enable her to marry a kind man she has known for a long time. She buys her brothers appointments as captains and, for her part, she marries a gentleman.
The MoralsLa curiosité malgré tous ses /attraits, Coûte souvent bien de regrets On en voit /tous les jours exemples paraître. Curiosity, despite all its /appeal / Often costs many regrets / One sees /everyday examples appear. (literal translation)
However, Perrault uses a second moral that is not altogether a moral, but a form reassurance. He writes that those who have common sense know that this story happened a long time ago. There are no longer such terrible husbands, nor husbands who asks for the impossible, even when they are displeased or jealous, etc.
In other words, he tells readers that he has written a fairy tale.
Criticism of Bluebeard
- There has been criticism of Bluebeard. For instance, help is so slow in coming that this fairy tale, nearly fails the “happy ending” rule fairy tales. However, Perrault’s suspense is acceptable in storytelling. It adds piquancy to the tale. In seventeenth-century France, one could not mix comedy and tragedy. Tragedy inspires pity and fear. Featuring a dog or a bird carrying a message would have lessened the degree of suspense, not to mention pity and fear. In more traditional tellings of Bluebeard, the heroine “insists on donning bridal clothes, and they prolong the possibility of rescue by recounting each and every item of clothing.”[v]
- As mentioned above, curiosity is not a factor in more traditional tellings of Bluebeard.
- Bruno Bettelheim[vi] situates Bluebeard in the animal-groom cycle (Aarne-Thompson), except that our heroine marries the animal before a curse is lifted that transforms him into a kind and beautiful person, which is usually the case in fairy tales. In Beauty and the Beast, Beauty learns to love Beast as Beast is, which lifts the curse. She marries a beautiful man, the appropriate ending of a fairy tale.
Bluebeard is an ATU 312 or ATU 312A type, but it is related to the Brother’s Grimm’s Fitcher’s Bird (number or KHM 46, Grimm), Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 311, and the Robber Bridegroom (KHN 40, Grimm), Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 955. Marienkind (KHM 3) is ATU 710. So it seems that Professor Alishman’s above-mentioned list could include Marienkind, Fitcher’s Bird and the Robber Bridegroom, depending on his criteria for selection. Margaret Atwood is the author of The Robber Bride (1993) and Angela Carter, the author of The Bloody Chamber (1979). It would appear this story therefore combines many ATU types. Moreover, this tale and its variants have been told many times.
The Indelible Stain and Intertextualité
The indelible stain seems a particularly important motif. I have mentioned the Bible. Curiosity leads to the original sin, called stain in French: la tache. But it also reminds us of the stain on Lady Macbeth’s hand. It will not wash away: “Out, damn’d spot! out I say!” (Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 1, line 35). Lady Macbeth has killed and the stain on her hand is as permanent as the original sin. She must atone. In this regard, Bluebeard is reminiscent of William Shakespeare‘s Macbeth. But we are reading a fairy tale. The genre itself demands a happy ending, as do comic texts. Moreover, the indelible stain could be a motif, and the original sin, to which it can be compared, an instance of intertextualité.
The indelible stain motif also appears in Le Roman de Perceforest, a medieval narrative usually associated with Sleeping Beauty. Blanchette’s fairy godmother has asked her not to touch Lyonnel. But she does, briefly and accidentally. The finger that has touched Lyonnel turns black.
In the Brother’s Grimm’s Marienkind, Marienkind opens the thirteenth door, or the forbidden door. It seems the number thirteen has long been an unlucky number, but the more important element, the motif, is that of the telltale stain.
Let it be short: “All’s well that ends well.” Tout est bien qui finit bien.
Sources and Resources
Perrault fairy tales are the Project Gutenberg [EBook #29021]______________________________ [i] The AT-number system was updated and expanded in 2004, the year Hans-Jörg Uther published his Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography. Hans-Jörg Uther calls types some of the elements formerly named motifs, but some motifs are types. The telltale stained key is a motif, but brothers saving a sister would be a type. [ii] Maria Tatar in Jack Zipes, editor, The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 2000). [iii] Gilbert Rouger, editor. Les Contes de Perrault (Paris: Editions Garnier, 1967). [iv] Op. cit. The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales. [v] Ibid. [vi] The Uses of Enchantment (New York: Vintage Books Edition, 1989 [1975, 1976]), p. 182. Franz Schubert (31 January 1797 – 19 November 1828; aged 31) Piano Sonata in B Flat Major, D. 960 Alfred Brendel, KBE (born 5 January 1931, Wiesenberg) © Micheline Walker
14 June 2013 WordPress La Barbe Bleue, by Kay Nielsen Photo Credit: Google Images (Click on the image to enlarge it.)