Today I'm talking about ATU 955: The Robber Bridegroom, the third and final tale type in the Bluebeard group. (See my previous posts on ATU 312 and ATU 311) as part of my discussion of Bluebeard Tales From Around the World. You can read many of the tales on SurLaLune and D. L. Ashliman's site. The new book features 30 tales of this type.
From my introduction:
The third and final type, ATU 955: The Robber Bridegroom, once again claims its primary name from the Grimms’ Kinder- und Hausmärchen. However, this tale is the one with the oldest recorded history, with references to its English version, “Mr. Fox,” appearing in both Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590) and Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (1600).This tale is one of the best horror stories in the fairy tale canon, in my opinion, of course. It even usually has a gory death on screen, including dismemberment, sometimes cannibalism, too, for good measure. This isn't a bedtime tale for toddlers! But it is empowering for the heroine outwits the robber and his band, bringing them to justice and doing so in a prudent and effective manner. She doesn't jump out and try to rescue the girl being murdered. That is problematic, to be sure, but she also knows she is no match for them. It will be two lives lost, not one, if she does, so her decision is justified. We can argue that she is instead saving several future victims from a horrible death by saving herself first. Even the warning, "Be bold, be bold, but not too bold" seems to advise she do just that. Go and see but don't confront until you have backup. It's the stuff of good detective and police work but storytellers, even Hollywood today, seems to think that is not dramatic enough. Instead the heroes (or heroines) jump right in and provide foolish action that would get them killed in real life. Not so with this heroine for she gives us a dramatic escape and a wonderful confrontation for the denouement.
In this tale type, a young woman makes an unannounced visit to the home of her fiancé or beau although she has been invited and is expected at a later time. In the subtext, he has appeared to be ideal husband material, but the tale implies she is suspicious of him. She usually follows a path upon which she receives several warnings from animals, other magical elements, or even written signs, such as in “Mr. Fox” where she reads, “Be bold, be bold, but not too bold.” Once she has entered the home, usually a castle, undetected, she hides and witnesses the man and a band of thieves kill and dismember another maiden. A body part, usually a hand with a ring, comes into her possession which she takes away with her when she makes her secret escape from the horrible place. Later, after arranging a party to which the man is invited, she tells the story of her horrible adventure, disguising it as a dream, until the end when she confronts the man with her physical evidence. He is then captured and executed by the authorities she had waiting. She inherits his riches, or at least escapes with her life, and becomes a heroine who lives happily ever after. Curiosity is rarely an emphasized issue and the murderous villain is usually the least sympathetic in this tale group.
Note that in two of the three variants—the lesser known ones—the heroine arranges her own escape as well as the capture of the villain. Her curiosity is not a fatal flaw but a heroic attribute which saves her own life and that of any future victims. This is in contrast to the more popular Perrault tale of Bluebeard in which the heroine relies upon her brothers or another outside force for her rescue. The references to the tales in early literature as well as their similarities to several old ballads led ballad scholar Francis Child to speculate that the tales of ATU 311 and 955 were older. He writes:
That the woman should save her life by her own craft and courage [first German form, ATU 311 & 955] is certainly a more primitive conception than that she should depend upon her brother [second German form, ATU 312], and the priority of this arrangement of the plot is supported, if not independently proved, by the concurrence, as to this point, of so many copies among so many nations, as also by the accordance of various popular tales. The second German form must therefore, so far forth, be regarded as a modification of the first.
So she goes home and gathers forces to defeat the evil she has witnessed and provide justice, carrying damning evidence with her despite her fear. It's stunning actually. I can't think of many stories like this. There is never a question of whether she is a silly female weakened by curiosity. The story even implies she is suspicious of her suitor and acts accordingly, using caution and investigating him before committing to him, perhaps despite pressures from family and community to accept this charming, apparently wealthy man.
And it is an old, old tale. Dating back to pre-Spenser and Shakespeare but we don't know just how far back. But isn't that a lovely redemption of the usual accusation that fairy tale heroines are bad examples?
And I must admit I rather hope one of those new fairy tale inspired tv series uses this plot in one of their episodes. (Hoping that they both get picked up first.) Wouldn't that be delicious?