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July 2019

The story of Bluebeard

Bluebeard by Edmund Dulac


Though based on older folk tales of demon lovers and devilish bridegrooms, the story of Bluebeard, as we know it today, is the creation of French writer Charles Perrault -- first published in 1697 in his collection Histoires ou contes du temps passé (Stories or Tales of Past Times). Perrault was one in a group of writers who socialized in the literary salons of Paris, collectively creating a vogue for literature inspired by peasant folk tales. These new stories were called contes des feés, from which our modern term "fairy tales" derives -- but the contes des feés of the French salons were intended for adult readers.

Bluebeard by Edmund DulacBluebeard, for example, has little to recommend it as a children's story. Rather, it's a gruesome cautionary tale about the dangers of marriage (on the one hand) and the perils of greed and curiosity (on the other) -- more akin, in our modern culture, to horror films than to Disney cartoons. The story as Perrault tells it is this: A wealthy man, wishing to wed, turns his attention to the two beautiful young daughters of his neighbor, a widow. Neither girl wants to marry the man because of his ugly blue beard -- until he invites the girls and their mother to a party at his country estate. Seduced by luxurious living, the youngest daughter agrees to accept Bluebeard's hand. The two are promptly wed and the girl becomes mistress of his great household. Soon after, Bluebeard tells his wife that business calls him to make a long journey. He leaves her behind with all the keys to his house, his strong boxes, and his caskets of jewels, telling her she may do as she likes with them and to "make good cheer." There is only one key that she may not use, to a tiny closet at the end of the hall. That alone is forbidden, he tells her, "and if you happen to open it, you may expect my just anger and resentment."

Bluebeard by Charles RobinsonOf course, the very first thing the young wife does is to run to the forbidden door "with such excessive haste that she nearly fell and broke her neck." She has promised obedience to her husband, but a combination of greed and curiosity (the text implies) propels her to the fatal door the minute his back is turned. She opens it and finds a shuttered room, its floor awash in blood, containing the murdered corpses of Bluebeard's previous young wives. Horrified, the young wife drops the key into a puddle of blood. Retrieving it, she locks the room and runs back to her own chamber. Now she attempts to wash the key so that her transgression will not be revealed -- but no matter how long and hard she scrubs it, the bloodstain will not come off.

That very night, her husband returns -- his business has been suddenly concluded. Trembling, she pretends that nothing has happened and welcomes him back. In the morning, however, he demands the return of the keys and examines them carefully. "Why is there blood on the smallest key?" he asks her craftily. Bluebeard's wife protests that she does not know how it came to be there. "You do not know?" he roars. "But I know, Madame. You opened the forbidden door. Very well. You must now go back and take your place among my other wives."

Bluebeard by Edmund Dulac

Tearfully, she delays her death by asking for time to say her prayers -- for her brothers are due to visit that day, her only hope of salvation. She calls three times to her sister Anne in the tower room at the top of the house ("Sister Anne, Sister Anne, do you see anyone coming?") And at last they come, just as Bluebeard raises a sword to chop off her head. The murderous husband is dispatched, his wealth disbursed among the family, and the young wife is married again, Perrault tells us, to "a very worthy gentleman who made her forget the ill time she had passed with Bluebeard."

Gilles de Rais, from a painting by Éloi Firmin FéronThis bloodthirsty tale is quite different in tone from the other tales in Perrault's Histoires (the courtly confections of "Sleeping Beauty," "Cinderella," etc.), and its history has been a source of debate among fairy tale scholars. Some assert that Perrault was inspired by the historical figure of Gilles de Rais, a fifteenth century Marshal of France and companion at arms to Joan of Arc. After driving the English out of France, this martial hero returned to his Breton estate where, a law unto himself, he practiced alchemy and dark magic while young peasant boys began to disappear across his lands. Rumors swirled around de Rais and when, at last, the Duke of Brittany intervened and investigated, the remains of over fifty boys were dug up in de Rais's castle. He later confessed to sodomizing and killing one hundred and forty boys, although the actual number may be closer to three hundred. De Rais was simultaneously hanged and burned alive for these crimes in 1440.

There is another old Breton tale, however, which relates more closely to Bluebeard's story: that of Cunmar the Accursed, who beheaded a succession of wives, one after the other, when they became pregnant. Cunmar was an historical figure, the ruler of Brittany in the mid-sixth century, but the legend attached to him has its roots in folk tales, not history.

Bluebeard by Gustav DoreThe story concerns a nobleman's daughter, Triphine, the last of Cunmar's wives. Heavily pregnant with his son, she enters Cunmar's ancestral chapel where she is warned of her fate by the bloodstained ghosts of his previous wives. She flees to the woods, but her husband pursues her, cuts off her head and leaves her to die. Her body is found by Gildas, the abbot of Rhuys, who is destined to be a saint. Miraculously, he re-attaches the head and brings her back to life. The two follow Cunmar back to his castle, where Gildas causes the walls themselves to crash down on the murderer. Triphine's son is safely delivered, given to Gildas and the church, and Triphine devotes the rest of her life to prayer and performing good works. Eventually, she too is sainted (depicted in religious statues and paintings as carrying her own severed head) -- while the ghost of Cunmar continues to haunt the country in the form of a werewolf. The Bluebeard parallel becomes stronger yet when one considers a series of frescoes depicting Triphine's story in the Breton church St. Nicholas des Eaux. One panel of these medieval paintings shows Cunmar handing a key to his young bride, while another shows her entering the chamber where his previous wives are hanging.

It's possible that Charles Perrault knew the story of Cunmar the Accursed, using details from it to color his own. Or it may simply be that he knew other similar stories from French and Italian peasant lore, with their wide range of "monstrous bridegroom" and "murderous stranger" motifs. Indeed, these motifs are ones we find in folk traditions around the world. But in marked contrast to Perrault's Bluebeard (the best known of such tales today), in the old peasant stories the heroine does not weep and wait for her brothers' rescue -- rather, she's a cunning, clever girl fully capable of rescuing herself.

Bluebeard by Gustav Dore

In the Italian tale Silvernose (as compiled by Italo Calvino from three regional variants and published in Italian Folktales), the devil, disguised as a nobleman, visits a widowed washerwoman and asks for her eldest daughter to come and work in his fine house. The widow distrusts the man's strange Bluebeard by Harry Clarkenose, but her daughter agrees to go nonetheless, bored as she is with life at home and looking for an adventure. She follows Silvernose to his palace, where she's given keys to all the fine rooms. He gives her the run of the place -- except for one door which she may not unlock. That night, Silvernose enters her room and leaves a rose in her hair as she sleeps. In the morning, he rides off on business, leaving his young servant behind. Immediately she opens the forbidden door. Inside, she finds hell itself -- a fiery room where the souls of the damned writhe in eternal torment. The horrified girl swiftly slams the door shut, but the flower in her hair has been singed. When Silvernose returns, the flower is proof of her transgression. "So that's how you obey me!" he cries, opening the door and tossing her in.

He then returns to the washerwoman, and asks for the second daughter. The middle girl meets her sister's fate. But the youngest daughter, Lucia, is cunning. She too follows Silvernose to his palace, she too is given the forbidden key, she too has a flower placed in her hair as she lies asleep. But she notices the flower and puts it safely away in a jar of water. Then she opens the door, pulls her sisters out of the flames, and plots their escape. When Silvernose comes home, the flower is back in her hair, as fresh as ever. The devil is pleased. Here's a servant at last who will bind herself to his will.

Fitcher's Bird by Arthur Rackham

Lucia prevails upon him then to carry some laundry back to her mother. Her eldest sister is hidden inside the bag, which is very heavy. "You must take it straight to my mother," she says, "for I have a special ability to see from great distances, and if you stop to rest and put that bag down, I will surely know." The devil starts upon his trip, grows tired, and begins to put the bag down. "I see you, I see you!" the eldest sister cries from inside the laundry bag; and thinking it's Lucia's voice, Silvernose hurries on. Lucia repeats this ruse for the middle sister. Then she hides in the third bag herself, along with a store of gold pilfered from the devil's treasury. Reunited with their mother (and wealthy now besides), the sisters plant a cross in the yard and the devil keeps his distance.

Fitcher's Bird by Arthur Rackham

The Italian story Silvernose is similar to an old German tale called Fitcher's Bird, collected by the Brothers Grimm and published in Kinder- und Hausmarchen. In this story, the Bluebeard figure is a mysterious wizard disguised as a beggar. The wizard appears at the door of a household with three beautiful unmarried daughters. He asks the eldest for something to eat, and just as she hands the beggar some bread he touches her, which causes her to jump into the basket he carries. He spirits the girl away to his splendid house and gives her keys to its rooms, but forbids her, under penalty of death, to use the smallest key. The next day he sets off on a journey, but before he leaves he gives her an egg, instructing the girl to carry the egg with her everywhere she goes. As soon as he leaves she explores the house, and although she tries to ignore the last key, curiosity gets the better of her and she opens the final door. Inside she finds an ax and a basin filled with blood and body parts. In shock, she drops the egg in the blood, and then cannot wipe off the stain. When the wizard comes home, he demands the return of the keys and the egg, and discovers her deed. "You entered the chamber against my wishes, now you will go back in against yours. Your life is over," he cries, and cuts her into little pieces.

Fitcher's Bird by Mercer MayerThis sequence of events is repeated with the second daughter, and then with the third -- except that the youngest girl is the clever one. She puts the egg carefully away before she enters the forbidden chamber, determined to rescue her sisters. Inside, she finds her sisters chopped up into pieces. She promptly gets to work reassembling the body parts, piece by bloody piece. When her sisters' limbs are all in place, the pieces knit themselves back together and the two elder girls come back to life with cries of joy. Then they must hide as the wizard returns. He calls for the youngest and asks for the egg. She hands it over, and he can find no stain or blemish on it. "You have passed the test," he informs her, "so tomorrow you shall be my bride."

The girl agrees that she will wed the wizard, under this condition: "First take a basket of gold to my father. You must promise to carry it on your back, and you mustn't stop along the way. I'll be watching you from the window." The two elder girls are hidden inside the basket, beneath a king's ransom in gold. The wizard picks it up and stumbles off, sweating under his burden. Yet every time he stops to rest, he hears one of the sisters saying: "I see you, I see you! Don't put the basket down! Keep moving!" Thinking it's the voice of his bride, the wizard continues on his way -- while the youngest girl invites the wizard's friends to a wedding feast. She takes a skull from the bloody room, crowns it with garlands of flowers and jewels, and sets it in the attic window, facing the road below. Then she crawls into a barrel of honey, cuts open a featherbed, and rolls in the feathers until she's completely Fitcher's Bird by Maurice Sendakdisguised as a strange white bird. As she leaves the house, she meets the wizard's equally evil friends coming toward it. They say to her:

"Oh Fitcher's bird, where are you from?"
"From feathered Fitcher's house I've come."
"The young bride there, what has she done?"
"She's cleaned and swept the house all through;
She's in the window looking at you."

She then meets the wizard himself on the road, and these questions are repeated. The wizard looks up, he sees the skull in the window, and hurries home to his bride. But by now, the brothers and relatives of the three young girls are waiting for him. They lock the door, then burn the house down with all the sorcerers inside. (The unexplained name Fitcher, according to Marina Warner, "derives from the Icelandic fitfugl, meaning 'web-footed bird', so there may well be a buried memory here of those bird-women who rule narrative enchantments.")

The Robber Bridegroom by Arthur Rackham

The Robber Bridegroom is another classic fairy tale about a murderous stranger. It too can be found in Germany and Italy, and in variants around the world. One of the most evocative of these variants is the English version of the story, in which the Bluebeard figure is known as Mr. Fox (or Reynardine). A girl is courted by a handsome russet-haired man who appears to have great wealth. He is charming, well mannered, well groomed, but his origins are mysterious. As the wedding day grows near, it troubles the girl that she's never seen his home -- so she takes matters into her own hands and sets off Mr. Fox by Herbert Colethrough the woods to seek it. In the dark of the woods, she finds a high wall and a gate. Over the gate it says: Be bold. She enters, and finds a large, dilapidated mansion inside. Over the entrance it says: Be bold, be bold. She enters a gloomy hall. Over the stairs it says: Be bold, be bold, but not too bold. She climbs the stairs to a gallery, over which she finds the words: Be bold, be bold, but not too bold, lest your heart's blood should run cold.

The gallery is filled with the body parts of murdered women. She turns to flee, just as Mr. Fox comes in, dragging a new victim. She hides and watches, horrified, as the girl is chopped to bits. A severed hand flies close to her hiding place, a diamond ring on one finger. She takes the hand, creeps out the door, and runs home just as fast as she can. The next day there's a feast for the wedding couple, and Mr. Fox appears, looking as handsome as ever. He comments, "How pale you are, my love!"

"Last night I had a terrible dream," she says. "I dreamed I entered the woods and found a high wall and a gate. Over the gate it said: Be bold." She proceeds to tell him, and the assembled guests, just what she found inside.

"It is not so, nor it was not so, and God forbid it should be so," said Mr. Fox.

"But it is so, and it was so, and here's the hand and the ring I have to show!" She pulls the severed hand from her dress and flings it into her bridegroom's lap. The wedding guests rise up to cut Mr. Fox into a thousand pieces.

Mr. Fox by Henry Ryland

An Indian version of the tale has the daughter of respectable Brahmans courted by a man who is actually a tiger in disguise, anxious to procure a wife who can cook the curry dishes he loves. It is only when the girl is married and on her way to her husband's house that she learns the truth and finds herself wife and servant to a ferocious beast. She bears him a child, a tiger cub, before she finally makes her escape. As she leaves, she tears the cub in two and hangs it over the flames so that her husband will smell the roasting meat and think that she's still inside. It's an odd little tale, in which one feels sneaking sympathy for the tiger.

May Colven by Arthur Rackham

In various "demon lover" ballads found in the Celtic folk tradition, the Bluebeard figure is the devil in disguise, or else a treacherous elfin knight, or a murderous ghost, or a false lover with rape or robbery on his mind. In May Colvin, False Sir John rides off with a nobleman's daughter he's promised to marry -- but when they reach the sea, he orders the maiden to climb down from her horse, to take off her fine wedding clothes, and to hand over her May Collindowry. "Here I have drowned seven ladies," says he, "and you shall be the eighth." May begs him, for the sake of modesty, to turn as she disrobes. And then she promptly pushes him in the water to his death.

In a Scandinavian version of this ballad, a nobleman's daughter is courted by a handsome, honey-tongued, false suitor who promises to take her to the fair if she meets him in the woods. Her father will not let her go, her mother will not let her go, her brothers will not let her go, but her confessor gives permission, provided she keeps hold of her virtue. She finds her suitor in the woods busy at work digging a grave. He says the grave is for his dog; but she protests that it is too long. He says the grave is for his horse; she says it is too small. He tells her the grave is meant for her, unless she consents to lie with him. Eight maidens has he killed before, and she shall be the ninth. Now the choice is hers -- she must lose her virtue or her life. She chooses death, but advises her false suitor to remove his coat, lest her heart's blood spatter the fine cloth and ruin it. As he takes it off, she grabs the sword and strikes his head off "like a man." The head then speaks, instructing her to fetch a salve to heal the wound. Three times the girl refuses to do the bidding of a murderer. She takes the head, she takes his horse, she takes his dog, and rides back home -- but as she goes, she encounters her suitor's mother, his sisters, his brothers. Each time they ask, "Where is thy true love?" Each time she answers, "Lying in the grass, and bloody is his bridal bed." (In some versions, the entire family is made up of robbers and she must kill them too.) She then returns to her father's court, receiving a hero's welcome there. But in other "murderous lover" ballads, the heroines are not so lucky. Some meet with graves at the bottom of the sea, others in cold rivers, leaving ghosts behind to sing the sorrowful song of their tragic end.

Bluebeard by Walter Crane

Charles Perrault drew a number of elements from folk tales and ballads like these when he created the story of the urbane, murderous Bluebeard and his bloody chamber. Like the devil in the Italian tale Silvernose, Bluebeard is marked by a physical disfigurement -- the beard that "made him so frightfully ugly that all the women and girls run away from him." Like Mr. Fox, his wealth and his charm serve to overcome the natural suspicions Bluebeard by Walter Cranearoused by his mysterious past and the rumors of missing wives. Like the false suitors, he seduces his victims with courtly manners, presents, and flattery, all the while tenderly preparing the grave that will soon receive them. Perrault parts with these older tales, however, by apportioning blame to the maiden herself. He portrays her quite unsympathetically as a woman who marries solely from greed, and who calls Bluebeard's wrath upon herself with her act of disobedience. This is absent in the older tales, where curiosity and disobedience, combined with cunning and courage, are precisely what save the heroine from marriage to a monster, death at a robber's hands, or servitude to the devil. Perrault presents his Bluebeard as a well-mannered, even generous man who makes only one demand of his wife, marrying again and again as woman after woman betrays this trust.

 Only at the end of the tale, as the bridegroom stands revealed as a monster, does Perrault shift his sympathy to the bride, and Bluebeard is dispatched. Perrault ends the tale with a moral that stresses the heroine's transgressions and not her husband's, warning maidens that "curiosity, in spite of its appeal, often leads to deep regret." In a second moral, Perrault remarks that the story took place long ago; modern husbands are not such "jealous malcontents." Jealous malcontent? "Homicidal maniac" would be a better description! Again Perrault's words imply that despicable as Bluebeard's actions are, they are actions in response to the provocation of his wife's behavior.

The Brothers Come to the Rescue by Walter CraneAnother departure from the older folk tales is that Bluebeard's wife, like the other fairy tale heroines in his Histoires ou contes du temps passé, is a remarkably helpless creature. She herself does not outwit Bluebeard, she weeps and trembles and waits for her brothers -- unlike the folklore heroines who, even when calling brothers to their aid, have first proven themselves to be quick-witted, courageous, and pro-active. As Maria Tatar has pointed out (in her book The Classic Fairy Tales), "Perrault's story, by underscoring the heroine's kinship with certain literary, biblical, and mythical figures (most notably Psyche, Eve, and Pandora), gives us a tale that willfully undermines a robust folkloric tradition in which the heroine is a resourceful agent of her own salvation."

This difference is particularly evident when we compare Perrault's passive heroine with those created by other fairy tale writers in the French salons -- the majority of them women writers, whose works were quite popular in their day. Perrault's niece, Marie-Jeanne L'Héritier, was also the author of fairy tales; her story The Subtle Princess, published three years before Perrault's Histoires, drew on some of the same folklore motifs as Bluebeard. In L'Héritier's tale, a king has three daughters, two of them foolish, the youngest one clever. When the king journeys away from home, he gives each of his girls a magical distaff made of glass that will shatter if the girl loses her virtue. (The tell-tale key in "murderous bridegroom" tales is often also made of glass.) The wicked prince of a neighboring kingdom enters the castle disguised as a beggar, then seduces each elder sister in turn -- marrying, bedding, and abandoning them. The youngest sister sees through his charms, whereupon he tries to take her by force. No wilting flower, she hoists an ax and threatens to chop him into pieces. The story goes on, with more attempts on the life and honor of the Subtle Princess, but she turns the tables on the wicked prince, kills him in a trap he's set for her, and goes on to marry his gentle, civil, kind-hearted younger brother. The Subtle Princess has no brothers of her own to come rushing to her aid, nor does she need them. She manages matters very well for herself, thank you.

Bluebeard by Kay Nielsen

In the following century, as women lost the social gains they'd made in the heady days of the salons, tales by L'Héritier and other women (D'Aulnoy, Murat, Bernard, etc.) fell out of fashion, while those by Perrault -- with their simpler prose style, their moral endings, their meek and mild princesses -- continued to be reprinted and recounted year after year. As the 18th and 19th centuries progressed, re-tellings of Bluebeard increasingly emphasized the "sin" of disobedience as central to the story -- a subsequent version was titled Bluebeard, or The Effects of Female Curiosity. As fairy tales became an area of scholarly inquiry in the 19th and 20th centuries, folklorists pounced upon this theme in their analysis of the tale -- and took it one step further, suggesting that Bluebeard's wife's disobedience was sexual in nature, the blood-stained key symbolizing the act of infidelity. (Never mind the fact that there are no other men in the whole of Perrault's tale until those convenient brothers come thundering out of nowhere to save her.)

Psychologist Bruno Bettlheim was one of the critics who read Bluebeard as a tale of infidelity. In his flawed but influential book of the 1970s, The Uses of Enchantment, he pronounced Bluebeard "a cautionary tale which warns: Women, don't give in to your sexual curiosity; men, don't permit yourself to be carried away by your anger at being sexually betrayed. " But as novelist Lydia Millet has pointed out in her essay, "The Wife Killer" (published in Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore The Favorite Fairy Tales): "Blue Beard wanted his new wife to find the corpses of his former wives. He wanted the new bride to discover their mutilated corpses; he wanted her disobedience. Otherwise, he wouldn't have given her the key to the forbidden closet; he wouldn't have left town on his so–called business trip; and he wouldn't have stashed the dead Mrs. Blue Beards in the closet in the first place. Transparently, this was a set-up."

Bluebeard by Edmund Dulac

Marina Warner, in her excellent fairy tale study From the Beast to the Blonde, suggests another way to read the tale: as an expression of young girls' fears about marriage. Perrault was writing at a time, and in a social class, when arranged marriages were commonplace, and divorce out of the question. A young woman could easily find herself married off to an old man without her consent -- or to a monster: a drunkard, a libertine, or an abusive spouse. Further, the mortality rate of women in childbirth was frighteningly high. Remarriage was commonplace for men who'd lost a wife (or wives) in this fashion, and ghosts from previous marriages hung over many a young bride's wedding. (Perrault and other writers in the fairy tale salons were firmly against arranged marriages, and this concern can be seen in the subtext of many fairy tales of the period.)

Bluebeard by Charles RobinsonAnother aspect of Bluebeard's story that we see increasingly emphasized in later re-tellings is xenophobia, with the brutal bridegroom portrayed as an Oriental. There is nothing in the text of Perrault's tale (except that extraordinary beard) to indicate that Bluebeard is anything but a wealthy, if eccentric, French nobleman -- yet illustrations to the story, from 18th century woodcuts to Victorian and Edwardian illustrations (by Edmund Dulac, Charles Robinson, Jennie Harbour, Margaret Tarrant and others) -- depict Bluebeard in Turkish garb, threatening his bride with a scimitar. It must be remembered that Arabian-Nights-style fairy tales were enormously popular in Europe from the 18th century onward, yet none of the other tales in Perrault's collection Histoires ou contes du temps passé were given this Oriental gloss as persistently as Bluebeard. Both horrible and sensual (all those wives!), Bluebeard is perhaps a more comfortable figure when he is the Other, the Outsider, the Foreigner, and not one of us. And yet, it's the fact that he is one of us -- the polite, well-mannered gentleman next door -- that makes the story so very chilling to this day. While tales like Beauty and the Beast serve to remind us that a monstrous visage can hide the heart of a truly good man, Bluebeard shows us the reverse: a man's fine facade might hide a monster.

Bluebeard by Charles RobinsonBluebeard remained well known throughout Europe right up to the 20th century, in turn inspiring new tales, dramas, operettas, and countless pantomimes. William Makepeace Thackeray published a parody called Bluebeard's Ghost in 1843 which chronicles the further romantic adventures of Bluebeard's widow. Jacques Offenbach wrote a rather burlesque operetta titled Barbe-Bleue in 1866. In 1899, the Belgian symbolist Maurice Maeterlinck wrote a libretto entitled Ariane et Barbe-Bleue, set to music by Paul Dukas and performed in Paris in 1907. Maeterlinck's version, written with the aid of his lover, the singer Georgette Leblanc, combines Bluebeard with elements from the myth of Ariadne, Theseus and the Minotaur. In this sad, fatalistic version of the tale, Ariande, the last of Bluebeard's brides, attempts to rescue his previous wives and finds them bound by chains of their own making to Bluebeard's castle. The Seven Wives of Bluebeard, by Anatole France, published in 1903, re–tells Perrault's story from Bluebeard's point of view, portraying the man as a good-hearted (if somewhat simple-minded) nobleman whose reputation has been sullied by the duplicitous women he's married. Bela Bartok's opera Duke Bluebeard's Castle (1911), libretto by Bela Balasz, presents a brooding, philosophical Bluebeard, reflecting on the impossibility of lasting love between men and women.

Bluebeard by Jennie HarbourAs fairy tales were relegated to the nursery in the 2oth century, Bluebeard was seldom included, for obvious reasons, in collections aimed at children. And yet the story did not disappear from popular culture; it moved from the printed page to film. As early as 1901, George Méliès directed a silent film version titled Barbe Bleue, which manages, despite cinematic limitations, to be both comic and horrific. Other film treatments over the years include Bluebeard's Eighth Wife in 1938; Bluebeard in 1944; Richard Burton's Bluebeard in 1972, and Bluebeard's Castle, a film version of Bartok's opera, in 1992. Maria Tatar makes a case that Bluebeard's tale can be seen as a precursor of modern cinematic horror. "In Bluebeard, as in cinematic horror," she writes, "we have not only a killer who is propelled by psychotic rage, but also the abject victims of his serial murders, along with a 'final girl' (Bluebeard's wife), who either saves herself or arranges her own rescue. The 'terrible place' of horror, a dark, tomblike site that harbors grisly evidence of the killer's derangement, manifests itself as Bluebeard's castle."

Bluebeard by Jennie Harbour 2Marina Warner concurs. "Bluebeard," she notes, "has entered secular mythology alongside Cinderella and Snow White. But his story possesses a characteristic with particular affinity to the present day: seriality. Whereas the violence in the heroines' lives is considered suitable for children, the ogre has metamorphosed in popular culture for adults, into mass murderer, the kidnapper, the serial killer: a collector, as in John Fowles's novel The Collector, an obsessive, like Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. Though cruel women, human or fairy, dominate children's stories with their powers, the Bluebeard figure, as a generic type of male murderer, has gradually entered material requiring restricted ratings as well."

Indeed, for modern prose versions of Bluebeard we must go not to the children's fairy tale shelves, as we do for other stories by Perrault, but to the shelves of adult literature, where we find a number of interesting re-tellings. Foremost among them is Angela Carter's splendid story, "The Bloody Chamber," published in her short story collection of the same name, in which the author gives full reign to the tale's inherent sensuality, and expands the role of the bride's mother to wonderful effect. "Bluebeard's Daughter" by Sylvia Townsend Warner is a wry, sly, elegant tale about the daughter of Bluebeard's third wife, with her own abiding interest in the locked room of her father's castle. "Bones" by Francesca Lia Block (from The Rose and the Beast) transplants the fairy tale to modern Los Angeles, while Margaret Atwood's "Bluebeard's Egg" (from Bluebeard's Egg & Other Stories) is a contemporary, purely realist tale of marriage and infidelity, drawing its symbolism from both Bluebeard and Fitcher's Bird.

Bluebeard by Nadezhda Illarionova

Gregory Frost's inventive novel Fitcher's Brides (a finalist for the World Fantasy Award) also draws liberally from both these tales, setting the story in upstate New York in the 19th century, at a time when religious fervor, doomsday cults, and experimental utopian communities were widespread. His Bluebeard figure is a calculating, controlling preacher named Reverend Fitcher. Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut and The Blue Diary by Alice Hoffman are contemporary novels that make use of the fairy tale's symbolism in intriguing ways. Vonnegut's book is the tale of an artist with a secret in his potato barn; Hoffman's novel is the chilling study of a seemingly perfect man with a mysterious past. Bluebeard/Robber Bridegroom poetry includes Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Bluebeard " (Renascence and Other Poems), Anne Sexton's "The Gold Key " (Transformations), Gwen Strauss's "Bluebeard" (Trail of Stones), and Neil Gaiman's "The White Rose" (Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears) -- plus an entire anthology of Bluebeard poems: Bluebeard's Wives, edited by Julie Boden and Zoe Brigley (Heaventree Press, 2007).

Bluebeard paintings by Gaila Zinko

In her essay "The Wife Killer," Lydia Millet reflects on Bluebeard's potent, enduring allure. "Blue Beard retains his charm," she writes, "by being what most men and women feel they cannot be: an overt articulator of the private fantasy of egomania...he is the subject that takes itself for a god. He is omnipotent because he accepts no social compromise; he acts solely in the pursuit of his own satisfaction." She goes on to comment that "between an egotist with high expectations and a sociopath stretches only the fine thread of empathy and identification."

Bluebeard, Millet reminds us, is a story about illusion, transgression, and the dark side of carnal appetites. It cautions us to beware of strangers in the woods...and of gentleman in the front parlor.

Bluebeard by Harry Clarke

Pictures: Artists are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights to the art, text, and quotes above reserved by the artists and authors. Related reading: "Bluebeard's Third Wife" by Helena Bell (Strange Horizons), "Bluebeard's Final Girl, or the Revisionist" by Veronica Schanoes (JOMA), and  "The White Road," a Mr. Fox poem by Neil Gaiman (JOMA). For more on Charles Perrault and other salon fairy tale writers of 17th century France: Once Upon a Time: a short history of adult fairy tales.


Wily and brave: the heroines of fairy tales

The Glassy Hill by John D. Batten

Continuing our discussion of stories, storytelling, and the fairy tale tradition, here's one more passage from Katherine Langrish's fine book Seven Miles of Steel Thistles:

"Fairy-tale heroines do not signifiy passivity and helplessness. Far more often they exhibit resourcefulness, resilience, courage. In the Norwegian fairy tale The Master-Maid, the prince would be eaten by the troll to whom he has pledged his work, were it not for the wisdom and magical power of the eponymous Master-Maid who lives in the troll's house. The prince succeeds in each perilous task only by following the Master-Maid's advice. Finally the troll orders the Master-Maid to kill and prince and cook him. Instead she cuts his little finger and lets three drops of blood fall. As the troll sleeps, she escapes with the prince and a great deal of magical treasure; when the troll awakes to demand if the meal is cooked, the drops of blood answer for her: 'Not yet'; 'Nearly'; and, 'It is boiled dry.' The troll pursues the couple, but the Master-Maid flings magical impediments in his path. Prince and Master-Maid are finally married, but not before a further development in which the prince forgets her, and is rescued on the verge of marrying the wrong woman....

Mr. Fox by John D. Batten"In one of my favourite English fairy tales Mr. Fox, the heroine Lady Mary may initially be deceived by the sly flattery of her suitor, but she is inquisitive and brave as well as rich and beautiful. She discovers for herself the bloody secrets of Mr. Fox's castle, and turns the tables on her would-be murderer in the neatest and most self-possessed of ways. The story quite definitely approves of female curiousity and courage: without these qualities, the heroine would have joined the list of this serial killer's victims. There is no marriage at all at the end of the story, and one feels Lady Mary will give the next suitor a very hard look indeed.

Tattercoats by John D. Batten"In the story variously known as Donkeyskin, Allerleirauh, or Cap o' Rushes, the heroine flees her father's house to save herself from an incestuous marriage:

When the king's daughter saw there was no hope of turning her father's heart, she resolved to run away. In the night when everyone was asleep, she got up and took three different things from her treasures, a golden ring, a golden spinning wheel, and a golden reel. The three dresses of sun, moon and stars she placed into a nutshell, put on her mantle of all kinds of fur, and blackened her face and hands with soot. Then she commended herself to God and went away.

"Disguised in ordinary clothes, a donkeyskin, a coat made of all kinds of different furs, or a cloak made of rushes, she sets out for another kingdom and finds rough work in the palace kitchens. On seeing the prince or heir of the house, she obtains his attention by a series of tricks (mysterious appearances at dances; golden rings dropped in wine cups) and finally marries him. You might call it enterprising.

The Witch by John D Batten

"Many are the heroines who get the better of the Devil himself -- in fact, this dark gentleman rarely fares well in folktales. Remember the farmer who sells his soul in return for twenty years of good harvests? And when the time comes to pay up, his clever wife saves him. 'My man won't be a minute, sir, he's just getting his things together, and please take a mouthful to eat while you wait!' she calls to the Devil, handing him a pie into which she has baked a red-hot griddle. When he bites into it, burning his tongue and breaking his teeth, she interrupts his howls with the merry cry, 'And I'm coming too, to cook for you both!' -- at which the terrified Devil takes to his heels. Of course it's comical: but note that the farmer's wife employs her wits and skills, and defeats the Devil, in a particularly feminine way.

Big Fish by John D Batten

"Just as wives can be cleverer than their husbands, daughters are frequently wiser than their fathers. In one of the Grimms' tales, a peasant digging a field discovers treasure -- and ignores his daughter's advice:

When they had dug nearly the whole of the field, they found in the earth a mortar made of pure gold. 'Listen,' said the father to the girl, 'as our lord the King has graciously given us this field, we ought to give him this mortar in return for it.' 'Father,' said the daughter, 'if we have the mortar without the pestle as well, we shall have to get the pestle, so you had much better say nothing about it.' But he would not obey her, and he carried the mortar to the king....

"It's a bad decision. Surely enough, the greedy king wants the pestle too, and imprisons the peasant for failing to produce it. The daughter's wit and courage saves her father and wins marriage with the king -- whom she later kidnaps in order to teach him a much-needed lesson.

At the Church Door by John D. Batten

"Heroines such as these know their own minds and make their own decisions. They are prudent, determined, wily and brave. They are so far from the stereotype of the fairy-tale princess that one has to ask how it arose. If there are so many stories with strong heroines, why are they not more widely known?

"Traditional tales change subtly each time they are told as, consciously or unconsciously, the teller adjusts and tinkers with them to appeal to the tastes of the moment's audience. We cannot say that this or that version of any traditional story is 'original.' All we can do is look, every time, at who is telling it, and to whom, and for what purpose. 'The prominence of certain stories is itself symptomatic of cultural production -- of the way in which culture constitues itself by constituting us.'*

Rushin' Coatie by John D Batten

"Despite the title, the first two volumes of Wilhelm and Jacob Grimms' Children's and Household Tales (1812 and 1815) were intended for adults and scholars. When in 1825 the brothers decided to bring out 'a smaller edition of 50 tales...geared to the tastes of bourgeois families'** and likely to be read to or by children, they rewrote or omitted many stories with sexual content, yet included some we would today consider inappropriately violent. Each successive generation uses, interprets and censors fairy tales according to its own standards. Not intrinsic excellence, but an ongoing process of social and editorial bias towards passive, gentle heroines has favoured and raised to prominence those tales we recognise as 'classic,' including four of the best-known of all: Sleeping Beauty, Snow-White, Cinderella, and Beauty and the Beast.

"Even these heroines turn out on closer scrutinty to be less passive than you suppose."

The Black Bull of Norroway by John D. Batten

To learn more about the heroines of those four stories, follow the links above.

Beauty and the Beast by John Batten

Quoted from Off With Their Heads! by Maria Tatar (Princeton University Press, 1993)
**
Quoted from
The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales, edited by Jack Zipes (Oxford University Press, 1998)

Pictures: The art in this post is by John Dickson Batten (1860-1932), who was born and raised in Plymouth, on the south Devon coast. He studied at the Slade School of Art in London, socialized with the Pre-Raphaelites, and is best known for his illustrations for Joseph Jacabs' fairy tale collections (English Fairy Tales, Celtic Fairy Tales, Indian Fairy Tales, etc.).

Words: The passage quotes above is from Seven Miles of Steel Thistles: Reflections on Fairy Tales by Katherine Langrish (The Greystones Press, 2016), which I highly recommend. All rights reserved by the author.


Once upon a time

Among the trees

To continue our discussion of stories and storytellers, here's another fine book that no folklore shelf should be without: Seven Miles of Steel Thistles: Reflections on Fairy Tales by Katherine Langrish, the author of West of the Moon and other excellent works of myth-based fantasy for children.

 The Terrible Head by HJ FordNow while I might seem biased because Katherine is a family friend (her daughter and ours have been best friends for many years), in truth I am sharply opinionated when it comes to books about folklore and fairy tales; I was mentored in the field by Jane Yolen, after all, which sets the bar pretty damn high. Thus it is no small praise to say that Seven Miles of Steel Thistles is an essential book for practioners of mythic arts: insightful, reliable, packed with information...and thoroughly enchanting.

"As a child I was usually deep in a book," Kath writes in the volume's introduction, "and as often as not, it would be full of fairy tales or myths and legends from around the world. I remember choosing the Norse myths for a school project, retelling and illustrating stories about Thor, Odin and Loki. I read the tales of King Arthur, I read stories from the Arabian Knights. And gradually, I hardly know how, I became aware that grown-ups made distinctions between these, to me, very similar genres. Some were taken more seriously than others. Myths -- especially the 'Greek myths' -- were top of the list and legends came second, while fairy tales were the poor cousins at the bottom. Yet there appeared to be a considerable overlap. Andrew Lang included the story of Perseus and Andromeda in The Blue Fairy Book, under the title 'The Terrible Head.'  And surely he was right. It is a fairy story, about a prince who rescues a princess from a monster....

The wildflower path

The Green Serpent by HJ Ford

Wild apple blossom

"The field of fairy stories, legends, folk tales and myths is like a great, wild meadow. The flowers and grasses seed everywhere; boundaries are impossible to maintain. Wheat grows into the hedge from the cultivated fields nearby, and poppies spring up in the middle of the oats. A story can be both things at once, a 'Greek myth' and a fairytale too: but if we're going to talk about them, broad distinctions can still be made and may still be useful. 

The Complaint of the Three Maidens by HJ Ford"Here is what I think: a myth seeks to make emotional sense of the world and our place in it. Thus, the story of Persephone's abduction by Hades is a religious and poetic exploration of winter and summer, death and rebirth. A legend recounts the deeds of heroes, such as Achilles, Arthur, or Cú Chulainn. A folk tale is a humbler, more local affair. Its protagonists may be well-known neighborhood characters or they may be anonymous, but specific places become important. Folk narratives occur in real, named landscapes. Green fairy children are found near the village of Woolpit in Suffolk. A Cheshire farmer going to market to sell a white mare meets a wizard, not just anywhere, but on Alderley Ledge between Mobberley and Macclesfield. In Dorset, an ex-soldier called John Lawrence sees a phantom army marching 'from the direction of Flowers Barrow, over Grange Hill, and making for Wareham.' Local hills, lakes, stones and even churches are explained as the work of giants, trolls or the Devil.

The black hound comes

The Faithful Beasts by HJ Ford

Hound and wildflowers

"Fairy tales can be divided into literary fairy tales, the more-or-less original work of authors such as Hans Christian Andersen, George MacDonald and Oscar Wilde (which will not concern me very much in this book), and anonymous traditional tales originally handed down the generations by word of mouth but nowadays usually mediated to us via print. Unlike folk tales, traditional fairy tales are usually set 'far away and long ago' and lack temporal and spatial reference points. They begin like this: 'In olden times, when wishing still helped one, there lived a king...' or else, 'A long time ago there was a king who was famed for his wisdom throughout the land...' A hero goes traveling, and 'after he had traveled some days, he came one night to a Giant's house...' We are everywhere or nowhere, never somewhere. A fairy tale is universal, not local."

Blue sicklewort, healer of heartbreak

Beauty & the Beast by HJ Ford

White stitchwort, breaker of enchantments

Katherine concludes the book's introduction with the reminder that fairy tales, found all around the world, are amazingly diverse and amazingly hardy. "They've been told and retold, loved and laughed at, by generation after generation because they are of the people, by the people, for the people.  The world of fairy tales is one in which the pain and deprivation, bad luck and hard work of ordinary folk can be alleviated by a chance meeting, by luck, by courtesy, courage and quick wits -- and by the occasional miracle. The world of fairy tales is not so very different from ours. It is ours."

It is indeed.

Oak elder

The Princess and the Fox by HJ Ford

Fairy tale reflections

Seven Miles of Steel Thistle is available from The Greystones Press, an excellent publishing venture by Mary Hoffman and Stephen Barber. (Check out their other books too.) You can read Katherine's musings on folklore on her blog, also called Seven Miles of Steel Thistles; and learn more about her other books, stories, and essays here.

There are seven miles of hill on fire for you to cross, and there are seven miles of steel thistles, and seven miles of sea, says the narrator of an old Irish fairy tale.

With this delightful collection of essays as a guide, the journey is worth every step.

Once upon a time

The Night Owl & The Kiss That Gave the Victory by HJ Ford

Seven Miles of Steel Thistles by Katherine Langrish

Words: The passages quoted above, and in the picture captions, are from Seven Miles of Steel Thistles by Katherine Langrish (The Greystones Press, 2016); all rights reserved by the author. This post first appeared on Myth & Moor in the spring of 2016.

Pictures: The Terrible Head, The Complaint of the Three Maidens, The Green Serpent, The Faithful Beasts, Beauty and the Beast, The Princess and the Fox, The Night Owl, and The Kiss That Gave the Victory by H.J. Ford (1860-1941).

Related reading: The Virago Books of Fairy Tales (edited by Angela Carter) and Once Upon A Time: a short history of adut fairy tales.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Art by Laurence Winram

Karin Powlwart by Laurence Winram

This week, music from Scottish singer/songwriter Karine Polwart -- beginning with three songs from her "Tiny Desk Concert" at the National Public Radio offices in Washington DC, accompanied by guitarist Steven Polwart (Karine's brother) and multi-instrumentalist Inge Thomson (one of my lovely colleagues from the Modern Fairies project).

As NPR explains: "Polwart writes songs about hope, music that harnesses spiritual power and lyrics that address important social justice themes. Stories of human emotion and the human experience are also commonplace as in the first tune, 'Ophelia.' Her second song, 'I Burn But I Am Not Consumed,' includes a mesmerizing spoken word denunciation of President Donald Trump, while the closing tune, 'King of Birds,' praises the power of small things. In it Polwart recounts the legend of a wren who piggybacks a lift on an eagle's wing. Just as the large bird is unable to fly any higher in the sky, the tiny wren catches a breath of air, soars higher than the eagle and is crowned the king of all birds."

Below: A new rendition of Big Country's "Chance," from her latest album, Karine Polwart's Scottish Songbook, featuring re-imagined songs drawn from fifty years of Scottish pop music.

Above: "All of a Summer's Evening," a song from her stunning album and stage show A Pocket of Wind Resistance (created with Pippa Murphy) -- a "poetic meditation on midwifery, ecology, sanctuary and solidarity, combining elements of memoir, essay, myth, sound art and song." The gorgeous video was made by another colleague of mine from the Modern Fairies project: singer, songwriter, artist and animator Marry Waterson.

Above: "Lark in the Clear Air," also from A Pocket of Wind Resistance.

Art by Laurence Winram

The art in this post is by Scottish photographer Laurence Winram, based in Edinburgh.


The stories we need

After spending the last week basically dissing Disney's treatment of classic stories, here's a post from the Myth & Moor archives looking at Disney retellings from a different perspective, positing that bad books (and films) created for children aren't always bad for children....

The Blackberry Bush

Sleepy Time Tale

“Just as the child is born with a literal hole in its head, where the bones slowly close underneath the fragile shield of skin, so the child is born with a figurative hole in its heart.  Slowly this, too, is filled up.  What slips in before it anneals shapes the man or woman into which that child will grow.  Story is one of the most serious intruders into the heart."    - Jane Yolen

As a folklorist, fantasist, and passionate advocate for the value of fairy tales, I have written many articles and talks over the years about the fairy tales I loved as a child and how they've permeated my creative life ever since. I've spent less time thinking about the other tales that colored my childhood, especially those from the earliest years, tales read to me before I could read for myself -- tales that, whatever their objective value as literature, "intruded into the heart" during that formative time.

I wish I could say my young mind was nourished on the classics of children's literature -- the original text of J.M Barrie's sly and sardonic Peter and Wendy, for example -- but like so many children growing up in the '60s I had a Peter-Pan-simulacrum, not Peter himself: a small picture book with a re-written text that had been greatly slimmed down and simplified, based on Walt Disney's Peter, not Barrie's. Likewise for Felix Salten's Bambi, Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, and so many other classics in 1960s adapations: they all seemed to bear Disney's stamp, whether or not Disney Studios had ever actually made films out of them.

Little Golden Book editions

I loathe such books now. And yet, I confess, as a child I swallowed them whole. The timeless magic of stories like Peter's runs deep, no matter how badly re-tellings may ravage them. I know from my taste in fairy tales -- where I had the luck to be raised on the old, unwatered-down versions -- that I would have preferred the original texts, even when the language sailed over my head; but I took what was offered, and loved Imitation Peter and Imitation Thumper and Imitation Baloo nonetheless.

Sleepy Time Tale

My memory of my pre-reading years is patchy, but my memory of the books I adored is not, the stories entwined with the sound of my mother's voice as she read them to me at bedtime. She worked during the day, and these were among the rare moments I had her all to myself, and when she seemed contented to be with me, not sadly bewildered by my existence.

What I know today, and did not know then, is that my mother was still just a child herself, having dropped out of high school when I came along (the result of a love affair gone wrong) and still living under her own mother's roof. Her room was a frilly teenager's bedroom. I had the little bedroom next door, where through the thin walls I could hear the sound of her crying, night after night. I thought I was the cause of those tears, an unwanted baby who had ruined her life. Much later I learned the rest of the story: there had been a second love affair, and a second baby after me, a son, who had been taken away. Now those years of her bottomless grief made sense. But these clarifying details were hidden from the puzzled child I was, and in the tale that I wove from my ignorance I was the source of her misery and her shame, and the fact that I could not break through her sorrow seemed to confirm this as truth.

Little 'Fraid of the Dark (from the Book Trails series)

We lived at that time with my grandmother, my step-grandfather, and the three young daughters of that marriage: my aunts, but barely older than me and so they seemed more like sisters. I adored them, followed them everywhere (when they let me), and longed to sleep in their dorm-like room at the top of the house, instead of in my bed with my head under the pillows to block out my mother's crying. Is it any wonder that the first great love of my life was Peter Pan? I insisted on keeping the window cracked open at night, in all kinds of weather, but I never said why. I was waiting for Peter. I wanted to fly to the stars and away. I was certain he would come.

Peter Pan illustration

In addition to those dreadful Disney editions, when storytime came around at night I often requested the "red books": a children's anthology series from the 1920s that lived on my mother's shelves, not mine, for they'd been hers as a child, and she loved them, and I wasn't to touch them. (Or, god forbid, to color in them -- but of course I did and spent a whole week in disgrace.) When my mother died (again, much too young) the books came to me, and I still have them today: an eight volume series called Book Trails, published by Shepard & Lawrence in 1928.

Book Trails (Lawrence & Shepard, Inc. 1928)

Two things about these books strike me now. First, they are filled with poems and tales of Victorian and Edwardian vintage, full of children who lived in day and night nurseries, attended by nannies and servants, aired in perambulators and fed strange meals called "tea" (at which, I imagined, only the beverage of that name was served). In this way, I received a literary education more common to children of my mother's, and even my grandmother's, day. I can still quote reams of poetry by Walter de la Mare and Robert Louis Stevenson by heart...along with plenty of sickly-sweet late-Victorian rhymes that no one else has heard of now.

The Little White Bed That Ran Away

Second, I am struck by the fact that the tales I remember as favorites are all, every one of them, variations on a single theme: an unprepossessing child, or puppy, or princess, or fairy is overlooked, unwanted, or has no home...but by story's end they are claimed, loved, and recognized for their inherent worth.

The Story of the Three Little Doggies

The Chicks  That Stayed Up Late (from the Book Trails series)

One story I asked for again and again is a saccharine take on the Ugly Duckling theme, "The Little Fat Fairy" by Florence S. Page. In this tale, there's a little fairy so chubby and clumsy that he can't fly like his fellow fairies, or dance properly, or do much of anything at all. The other fairies tease him and he tries not to mind, but he knows there is something horribly wrong with him and he's deeply ashamed. One day a Lovely Lady comes to the forest looking for a fairy companion. They dance around her, all calling "Choose me! Choose me!" Each one is more beautiful than the next, and the Lovely Lady can't make up her mind...until she spies the fat fairy above her in the trees, hiding his ugliness from her.

"Oh you dear little thing," she cries. "I want you!"

The other fairies are shocked. "Why would you want him? He's so fat he can't dance or anything!"

"That's because he's a baby, not a fairy," says the woman. "He's a beautiful baby boy! And I'm going to be his mother."

It's embarrassing reading the tale today, so cloyingly sweet, so heavy-handedly moral. And yet, I admit, this silly story still makes my heart catch in the same old way. I am in my 50th decade now, but that unwanted child is still at my core. To be seen, to be valued, to be claimed without hesitation...that's a powerful magic indeed, and it doesn't matter that the tale is so badly written. The child I was didn't know that, or care. I read it now and I'm transported back: to that room, to that bed, to the window cracked open, to the nightly sobs of my teenage mother. And the waiting, the waiting, for someone to claim me. Peter Pan. Lovely Lady. Anyone.

The Fat Little Fairy

It's unsettling to write these words. Not because of painful emotions evoked -- I've made my peace with my past after all these years -- but because I'm a writer myself now, and these stories are challenging my deepest convictions. I believe it's important to write well for children; to create fantasy that is complex and true, not didactic tales or frivilous fancies steeped only in bathos and wish-fulfillment. Yet the sugary stories of the "red books" were true for me at that time, and I did not distinguish good writing from poor. I took what I needed, and if the tales were simplistic in the telling, they became something more in the hearing.

From the Book Trails series"I  don't think there is such a thing as a bad book for children," says my wise friend Neil Gaiman. "Every now and again it becomes fashionable among some adults to point at a subset of children's books, a genre, perhaps, or an author, and to declare them bad books, books that children should be stopped from reading. I've seen it happen over and over; Enid Blyton was declared a bad author, so was RL Stine, so were dozens of others. Comics have been decried as fostering illiteracy. It's tosh. It's snobbery and it's foolishness. There are no bad authors for children, that children like and want to read and seek out, because every child is different. They can find the stories they need to, and they bring themselves to stories. A hackneyed, worn-out idea isn't hackneyed and worn out to them. This is the first time the child has encountered it."

Little Milk, Little Cereal, and Grey Kitten Moorka

Another "bad book" I loved without reservation was  The Little Mailman of Bayberry Lane by Ian Munn, published in 1953 and dismissed by reviewers as "sticky sentiment" even then. I can't say that assessment is wrong, but as a small child in the early '60s this book was my sacred text: profound, transcendent, and necessary. The story is simple. Mrs. Pig is the only animal on Bayberry Lane who never receives any mail. Each day she waits by her mailbox, hopeful, and each day the kind-hearted The Little Mailman of Bayberry Lane by Ian MunnLittle Mailman, a chipmunk, witnesses her disappointment. Distressed by Mrs. Pig's loneliness, the Little Mailman comes up with a plan. The next day, everyone on the lane gets an invitation to a party...except poor Mrs. Pig, who is now sadder than ever. It turns out, of course, that the big event is a surprise party thrown by the mailman for her, after which she has so many friends that her mailbox never stands empty again.

Polly Pig, as depicted by illustrator Elizabeth Webbe, is quietly sad and quietly sweet -- descriptions I could also apply to my mother. No Mr. Pig is ever mentioned (another similarity), and she seems undeserving of the loneliness that suffuses her life until the Little Mailman comes along. I might easily have been a more selfish child, rejecting my mother and her suffocating sorrow, adding to the burden of grief she carried; but instead, through the Little Mailman, I learned about kindness, empathy, emotional generosity. If only I could be half so clever as he, I too might devise an ingenious plan to bring happiness back into my mother's life. I tried, and I tried, and I never succeeded. Her problems were larger than Mrs. Pig's. But the compassion that I learned from that "sticky sentimental" story I carry with me to this day.

The Little Mailman of Bayberry Lane

None of these are tales I would choose to grow up with. Nor would I would give them to a child now when there are so many better stories to offer, both classic and contemporary. Yet I craved these books, asked for them over and over, and found their sugary sweetness nourishing to my soul. As a writer, I cannot approve of them. They are not, by any measure of the writing craft, good: they are simplistic, soppy, and (in the case of the Disneyfied picture books) inauthentic. They are everything that as an artist I deplore.

Yet they made me the person and writer I am. And I love them still.

7b88526df9849ffd287ab1e7619ac18f

A Story Book (from Book Trails)

Words: The quote by Jane Yolen is from her excellent book Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie & Folklore in the Literature of Childhood (Philomel, 1981). The quote by Neil Gaiman is from "Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreams (The Guardian, October 15, 2013). Pictures: The images are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the pictures to see them.) The illustrations from the Book Trails series (Lawrence & Shepard, 1928) are, alas, not credited by artist.