Tea and a Story: Caught Red “Handed”

Today’s story is going to be the story of “Blue Beard” from Charles Perrault, along with a related story from the Brothers Grimm called “Fitcher’s Bird.” I’ve been catching up on back episodes of Myths and Legends and recently listened to the episode where he talks about “Blue Beard,” in addition to just having finished a Korean drama in which a play based (loosely) on the story features in the plot. But I found myself somewhat unsatisfied with the podcast’s analysis of the story, and I happen to have written a paper on this story when I was in school.

The story of Blue Beard is a story of a man with a blue beard who cannot find a wife who will stay with him, due to his strange facial hair. He visits a neighbor who has two beautiful daughters and chooses one of them to be his latest bride. About a month after they’re married, he leaves on a long journey and leaves his bride a ring of keys, but warns her not to go into one room in the house. She, of course, eventually falls victim to curiosity and looks in the room, only to find the dismembered corpses of all of his previous wives. In a fright from seeing this, she drops the key in the blood, and when her husband returns, he sees this and knows she has disobeyed him. Upon discovering her “crime,” he tells her he now has to kill her, too. She begs that he give her enough time to say her prayers before death, and in the time he gives her, she calls to her sister to looks for her brothers, who were supposed to be coming to visit, and manages to stall until her brothers are nearly there. They arrive in the nick of time and save her from her husband, who is killed, and all his lands passed to her.

One peculiarity of Charles Perrault is that he likes to include a little moral at the end of his stories, and this one is no different. But the moral, despite most modern readers’ assessment of the story as being about a cruel murderer who gets his just deserts, speaks to the crime of the wife as being to curious and being justly punished for it (although he does also admonish husbands not to punish their wives too viciously). But upon reading it more closely, it becomes painfully obvious that the “curiosity” he is condemning is not about going through your husband’s rooms. The line “For thou … A fleeting pleasure art, but lasting care, alas! too dear the prize, Which in the moment of possession, dies” doesn’t really seem to just be about curiosity. Indeed, the psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim suggests that this story is about female infidelity and loss of virginity to someone other than her husband. The moral certainly seems to me to agree with this assessment, particularly when it brings in the husband’s “wicked jealousy” when describing how modern husbands shouldn’t be as brutal as the husband in this story.

The main aspect of the story that Bettelheim points to as support for his theory that it is about virginity and infidelity is the key, which gets blood on it that cannot be washed off. His analysis says that this represents the virgin blood, which, once spilled, cannot be unspilled. Add onto that the fact that Blue Beard is considered hideous to others in this story’s world, and the fact that he leaves his young and beautiful wife merely a month after their marriage, at which time she invites all of her neighbors and good friends to the empty house, and it’s not a stretch to see the opportunity presented to the young wife. The admonishment from her husband that she can go in all of the room, except one, echos the stricture to indulge in life’s pleasures, except that which breaks the vows of marriage.

The other story, “Fitcher’s Bird” comes from the Brothers Grimm and is very similar in structure, except that the husband is an evil sorcerer, and he uses the forbidden room as a test to find a trustworthy wife. Another telling difference is that he gives each girl he tests a key to the room and an egg, and he inspects both for blood. Upon testing two daughters of a local man, they fail and are dismembered, but the third daughter brilliantly leaves the egg somewhere else when she goes to search the forbidden room. She is able to reconnect her sisters’ body parts and bring them back to life, all while keeping her precious egg free of damning blood. Then, when the sorcerer is making preparations for their wedding, she is able to disguise herself until her brothers can come to rescue her.

Now, of course I like this version better because the woman, though ultimately rescued by a deus ex machina in the form of her brothers, manages to avoid death through her own ingenuity. But even more than that is the addition of elements that support the idea that this story of a bloody husband and bloody retribution against a wife who breaks her husband’s command is actually about a husband who overreacts to the revelation of a wife’s infidelity. First, in this story, the man leaves the girls alone in his house as a test before marrying them. Only upon finding a “trustworthy” girl does he think he’s found a suitable bride. It’s no secret that virginity is highly prized in a society that decides lineage through the male line, so it’s less of a stretch to consider this a virginity test. Add to that the fact that the damning bloody object is not a key, but an egg, which is a common symbol of female fertility, and Bettelheim’s analysis starts to make even more sense.

Taking this into account, it now makes a bit more sense why Perrault’s moral focused almost entirely on what the bride had done wrong rather than condemning the obvious brutality of Blue Beard himself.

Sources:

“Blue Beard” from The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault [link]

“Fitcher’s Bird” from The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales [link]

Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales by Bruno Bettelheim [link]

Tea and a Story: The Unnatural Father

Today’s stories are two variations on what is called by some who analyze folk tales stories of the trope of the unnatural father. Now, in the future, I’ll talk a little bit about the unnatural mother, which is where all the stories of evil stepmothers come from, but for today, we’re talking about dads. One story is from the Brothers Grimm and the other is from Jacobs’ English Fairy Tales, and have big enough differences to be told distinctly, though the structure is similar. At their core, they’re the stories of two young women who are forced to flee their respective fathers and homelands, disguise themselves, and then find their way back to their rightful stations as nobility through their wits.

The first is the story of “Catskin,” from the Grimms. It’s also called “Roughskin,” which is the name I had heard originally, but the version of Grimm’s fairy tales that I have now calls it Catskin. In the story, a king has a beautiful wife with golden hair. Sadly, she dies without bearing a sun, though she does have a daughter as beautiful as herself. The king is beside himself with grief, but also must wed again. He decides that the only one beautiful enough to replace his wife is his daughter. Now, even though this takes place in medieval Europe, most people still think this is icky, especially the girl, who does not want to marry her father. But he’s pretty set on it. So she asks for four gifts before she can marry: three dress, one of gold like the sun, one of silver like the moon, and one as dazzling as the stars, plus a coat made out of a thousand different animals’ skins. Upon getting her gifts, she packs everything up, along with a few trinkets of her own, puts on the patchwork fur coat, disguises herself by smearing soot on her face and hands, and runs away.

She ends up falling asleep in a wood in another kingdom and is found by a huntsman who thinks she is an especially exotic form of animal. The huntsman catches the strange creature for his king (the king who rules the forest, not the girl’s father), and it’s revealed that it’s not a strange animal, but a particularly dirty young woman. The young woman, called Catskin because she doesn’t give another name, is offered a job as a kitchen maid, which she accepts. Some time later, there is a ball and Catskin wants to attend. She cleans herself up and wears her dress that is gold like the sun and dances with the king, who doesn’t recognize her. But she has to leave early to prepare the soup afterwards. She puts one of her trinkets, a golden ring, into the soup, and the king finds out that Catskin made the soup and asks her about the ring. She plays coy. This continues twice more, with her wearing the dress that is silver like the moon and putting a gold necklace into the soup, and a third time when she wears the dress that is as dazzling as the stars.

But the third time, the king is starting to suspect something, so he instructs the musicians to play an extra-long song so that the mysterious woman he’s dancing with doesn’t leave so early. Unfortunately, that means that Catskin realizes she might not have time to change to make the soup. In her haste to leave, she doesn’t notice the king slip a gold ring on her little finger. She also doesn’t have time to change, so she just puts her fur coat on over the stars dress, and doesn’t fully cover one of her fingers in soot. She does, however, have time to put a gold brooch in the soup. When the king calls her up again to ask about the soup, he grabs her hand and reveals the clean finger with the ring on it. He also sees a flash of her dress through the coat, so he pulls it off, revealing that she is the mysterious woman from the ball. And they get married and live happily ever after.

This version of the story is interesting because, although the girl is the one who comes up with the plan to escape her father, disguise herself, and still meet and intrigue the king, it is the king’s ingenuity that actually leads to their marriage. It’s a bit strange because, although Catskin doesn’t seem to want the king to know who she is, as she continues to disguise herself and deny putting the trinkets in the soup, she must, on some level, want him to figure it out because, well, she puts trinkets in his soup. Because of this, I prefer the alternate version of this story, “Cap o’ Rushes.”

The story of Cap o’ Rushes starts in a familiar way, if you know Shakespeare. Rather than wanting to marry his daughter, a gentleman asks his three daughters how much they each love him. One daughter says she loves her father as much as her life, the second as much as the whole world, and the third daughter says she loves her father “as fresh meat loves salt.” Naturally, the father thought that the third daughter is not only weird, but doesn’t actually love him, and casts her out. She disguises herself with a hooded cloak made from rushes and finds a job in a local nobleman’s house. They call her Cap o’ Rushes because of her distinctive fashion sense. But when there are dances held near the manor, she takes off her disguise and wears her fine clothes and dances with the son of her employer. This goes on for a few nights, and on the last night, the master’s son gives her a ring. When she’s asked to make gruel for the son because he is dying of love for his mysterious dancing partner, she puts his ring into it and reveals herself.

Now, this is where the first story ends, but the other thing I like about this story is the ending. You see, when the master’s son and Cap o’ Rushes get married, all the nearby gentry attend, including Cap o’ Rushes’ father. When she finds out that he’s coming, she tells the cook to prepare all the meat without salt, despite his protests. When the guests sit down to the wedding feast, they find the unsalted meat is inedible. But surprisingly, Cap o’ Rushes’ father (who at this point is just a random neighbor) bursts into tears and exclaims that he understands how much his daughter, whom he cast out, loved him. Once again, Cap o’ Rushes reveals herself and is reconciled with her father. And that’s how you live happily ever after.

Now, I like this version better because the heroine’s ingenuity basically takes her the whole way. She waits three nights to reveal herself not out of some coyness, but because she has proof of who she is. And at the end, she is able to redeem her father by showing him how he misunderstood her (although it helps that his “unnaturalness” was in casting out his loving daughter, not wanting to commit incest). Of course, there are some parallels to the story of Cinderella in these stories, but what I particularly like is that, other than some potentially magical packing devices, these women find their ways in the world through their own intelligence, and not with any help from fairies or gods. Perhaps I gravitate a bit much towards stories of strong women, but I think it’s important to highlight the often-forgotten heroines of folklore who fight the idea that all fairy tale princess are just waiting to be rescued.

Sources:

“Catskin” from The Complete Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales, by Jacob Grimm [link]

“Cap o’ Rushes” from English Fairy Tales, by Joseph Jacobs [link]