Monday, May 9, 2011

ATU 312: Maiden-Killer (Bluebeard)

Bluebeard Tales From Around the World

Today’s Bluebeard post is about the types of tales that appear in Bluebeard Tales From Around the World. From my introduction to the book:

This collection presents a considerable number of tales of dangerous suitors, robbers, wife-killers, cannibals, and overall monsters from our literary history. Most of the tales may be classified as either ATU 312: Maiden-Killer (Bluebeard), ATU 311: Rescue by the Sister, or ATU 955: The Robber Bridegroom, all of which are usually considered together in Bluebeard studies. Some of the tales do not easily fit into any of these three tale types, but merit inclusion for their similarities to the group presented here. I have not sorted them by tale type in the table of contents although a guide at the end of the book provides some classification help despite the various challenges of tale typing many of the stories.
And tale typing is not anything I like to do on a regular basis as much as it is helpful in creating collections like these. Overall, European tales, which dominate the collection, slide into categories much easier than tales from Africa and India. And many of these tales were collected before Aarne thought up the original incarnation of the tale type system. Thompson and Uther have refined it since, but it is a tricky business. I am no expert at it by any means although I have played in the sandbox often enough.

Needless to say, ATU 312 is the Perrault Bluebeard type, it draws its primary example from Perrault and the closely related tales. And this type is easier to trace since there aren’t any strong examples of this tale before Perrault set it down on paper. Not to say that it is the oldest known tale in the larger group, for tales in the ATU 311 and 955 groups predate Perrault’s Bluebeard of 1697. But the specific elements found in Perrault’s Bluebeard aren’t seen previously in literary history. And since the oral isn’t recorded we can only make assumptions about what existed before.

Again from my introduction:

In “La Barbe bleue,” a rich nobleman with a distinguishing blue beard courts and marries a woman who doesn’t appear to care much for him but appreciates his wealth. Before leaving on a journey, Bluebeard gives his wife the keys to the castle and encourages her to explore it with her visiting friends. However, he forbids her entry into one single chamber opened by a certain golden key and threatens a horrible punishment if she disobeys him. During his absence, the wife succumbs to curiosity’s temptation and opens the chamber door. Within she discovers the bodies of Bluebeard’s previous wives. In her horror, she drops the key which is consequently stained with blood and will eventually reveal her disobedience. Upon discovering her betrayal, Bluebeard states he will kill her and gives her a few moments to prepare for death. During this short span of time, the wife’s sister Anne watches for their brothers’ arrival, hoping they will arrive in time to rescue their sister from her gruesome fate. The brothers arrive in time and slay Bluebeard. The wife inherits his wealth and lives happily ever after.

The emphasis in this tale is upon the wife’s fatal curiosity—often likened to the Biblical Eve and mythological Pandora—with sexual overtones concerning the key and the blood. Bluebeard is rather sympathetic in this version, a man betrayed by his wife, although his murderous philosophy earns him a death sentence.

Bluebeard’s restriction and the wife’s transgression in this group have provided much fuel for various interpretations of this tale. Throughout most of the tale’s fascinating history, the wife’s “betrayal” has been emphasized over Bluebeard’s murderous behavior which is almost justified, but not quite, since he does die for his own sins. In one popular reading, the bloody key and opened chamber are seen as sexual betrayal as well as a moral sin. There isn’t as much discussion of Bluebeard’s proclivities or outright entrapment of his wives. In modern times, compelling questions help to downplay those interpretations that condemn the heroine. After all, how did the first wife die? Who would want to live with a murderer and should anyone be expected to do so?
Tomorrow I will talk more about ATU 311 which I definitely prefer since it has more "girl power" in it. I don't have definite reasons why Bluebeard has dominated the group, but it is the most disturbing by modern feminist standards, one of the reasons I think it has decreased in popularity in recent decades. We are not quick to condemn female curiosity or power these days, thank goodness.

And, of course, you can also read an annotated version of the tale, the one that started it all on SurLaLune.

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