French Folklore and Charles Perrault’s Tale of Bluebeard

Charles Perrault. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Charles Perrault was a seventeenth century French author and member of the Académie Française, and French folklore became synonymous with him because he was the person who laid the foundation for a new form of literary genre known as the fairy tale. Among the many fairy tales that he wrote was one called Barbe Bleue or Bluebeard. It was first published in 1697 and was intriguing enough to permeate literature of the eighteen and nineteenth centuries even though the story was written in the seventeenth century. 

Bluebeard was the story of a wealthy, violent, and ugly nobleman named Bluebeard because of his indigo blue colored beard. Bluebeard had married several times only to have his wives mysteriously vanish and his story began with him having once again “lost” a wife. Wishing to find a new wife, Bluebeard visited a neighbor who had three lovely daughters. Unfortunately, for Bluebeard the daughters were fearful of him because of his odd colored beard, and none of them wanted to become his wife. To convince the daughters that they have nothing to fear, Bluebeard hosted a sumptuous feast and regaled the daughters with charming stories and plied them with dainty treats. The daughters began to think that perhaps Bluebeard was not so bad, and, so, when he selected the youngest daughter to take as his bride, she willing went to live with him in his three-story castle in the countryside.

After some time, Bluebeard told his young wife that he had to leave their castle to attend to important business. While he was gone, he told her that she could do whatever she pleased. She could ride in the forest, invite her family to visit at the castle, give a party, or have a great feast. He also left a ring full of keys that opened all of the rooms in the castle. However, he also gave his wife the following instructions:

“You may open any and every door to the storerooms, the money rooms, any door in the castle; but this little tiny key, the one with the scrollwork on top, do not use.”[1]

Bluebeard also informed his wife that if she used the scrollwork key to open the underground room, she would meet with his wrath. Of course, his young wife promised she would obey. She then invited her sister Anne and some friends to the castle for a party. However, after her sister and guests arrived, the temptation of knowing what was in the underground room was so strong, the young wife decided she must know what was in the room and snuck away from the party.

Woodcut by Walter Crane of Bluebeard Being Slain by His Wife’s Brothers. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

She went to the underground room, put the key in the lock, and threw open the door. The room was dark and when she lit the candle, she was horrified to discover a stack of skulls, several blackened corpses, and blood everywhere. In fact, she was so shocked, she dropped the scrollwork key in the blood, grabbed the key and fled the room. Once upstairs and away from the horror, she discovered that key was stained with blood. The young wife tried everything to remove the blood, but to no avail, no matter what she did the blood remained. So, she finally told her sister Anne what she had done, and she and Anne decided they must escape the next morning.

Unfortunately, before they could escape, Bluebeard unexpectedly returned home and discovered the bloody key. He roared, threatened to kill his wife, and ordered her to the underground room. Hoping to delay, she begged Bluebeard to allow her one last prayer with her sister Anne. Bluebeard reluctantly agreed but before he could administer the fatal blow, the young wife’s brothers arrived striking, slashing, and cutting Bluebeard, forcing him to the ground, and killing him. Thus, as with all fairy tales, there was a happy ending. The young wife inherited Bluebeard’s property, and as a wealthy widow, she married a man that she truly loved.

Gilles de Rais. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

People of the eighteen and nineteenth centuries were fascinated by Bluebeard’s story, and although the story is said to be a fairy tale, it appears to be loosely based on a fifteenth-century Breton killer named Gilles de Rais. Part of the reason for the belief was that Rais was “called Bluebeard from the colour of the lower part of his face.”[2] However, Rais’s story is somewhat different from Bluebeard’s. Rais did not kill his wife or have bodies on his property, but he supposedly confessed to brutally murdering a number of children. However, today, some people believe that he was no murderer but a victim of an ecclesiastic plot or an act of revenge by the Catholic Church. Rais was arrested, condemned to be hanged on 26 October 1440.

Although no one may ever know for sure exactly if Rais actually inspired Perrault’s story of Bluebeard, one fact remained consistent, people were fascinated by the story. The French were particularly intrigued by Bluebeard, and a number of works were based on Perrault’s story. Among the works available in France was a three-act comedy titled Raoul Barbe-Bleue. The classical composer André Ernest Modeste Grétry wrote the accompany music. It was performed for the first time in 1789 at the Théâtre des Italiens in Paris. However, Grétry was not the only one interested in Bluebeard. 

Mr. Dupuis in Role of Barbe-Bleue by Henry Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

In 1866, a three-act, four scene opéra bouffe titled Barbe-bleue was written by French dramatist and opera librettist Henry Meilhac and French playwright Ludovic Halévy to music by the German-born French composer Jacques Offenbach. This version opened on 5 February 1866 in Paris at the Théâtre des Variétés and played for five months. Another French version occurred in 1894. That was when a Monsieur Charles Lemire published a four-part, ten-scene, lyrical representation with music and ballet dancing that was also titled Barbe-bleue.

The English found Perrault’s Bluebeard fascinating too. This resulted in English dramatist George Colman writing a 1798 dramatic romance titled Blue-Beard; or Female Curiosity. It was performed at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane on 16 January 1798. John Palmer, known as Gentleman Palmer, portrayed Bluebeard. The British novelist, William Makepeace Thackeray was also intrigued by Bluebeard. He wrote The Awful History of Bluebeard, included drawings, and combined the story and drawings together in an album that was then given to his first cousin, Mary Augusta Thackeray, on her eleventh birthday (26 March 1841). Thackeray’s daughter, Anne Isabella Thackeray Ritchie, also focused on Bluebeard and wrote Bluebeard’s Keys, and Other Stories in 1874. 

One nineteenth century writer thought so highly of the story, he declared the following to his readers:

“What will be said by some of our nursery-tale loving grandmamas and old nurses, when they hear that their old favourite story (and, alas! ours too) of “Blue Beard” is of French origin? Yes, Blue Beard, with his great red face, staring round eyes, busy eyebrows, hungry, remorseless mouth, his great loose crimson Turkish trouser-bags, his yellow slippers, his jewelled belt and turban, his long beard, painted blue by no niggard hand, and his immense broad crooked seymitar — this magnificent nursery monster, with his blood-stained closet, where his group of former wives all stood up with their heads cut off — this horrible old Blue Beard we rejoice to say is not of English origin; and we are only too sorry that he should ever have become so tragically popular among our infants minds.”[3]

References:

  • [1] Estés, Clarissa Pinkola, Women Who Run With Wolves, (New York, Ballentine Books, 1992), p. 41. 
  • [2] Mackenzie, Eneas, An Historical, Topographical, and Descriptive View of the County of Northumberland, (Newcastle upon Tyne, Mackenzie and Dent, 1825) p. 421.
  • [3] Southern Literary Messenger, Volumes 34-35, 1862, p. 497.

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