Just Deserts

One of my readings this week in Marina Warner‘s From the Beast to the Blonde focuses on the symbolism and origins of the Bluebeard story. In a chapter titled “The Ogre’s Appetite”, Warner discusses many different iterations of a common theme: the serial murderer.1 What with Perrault‘s fairy tales, medieval legends, devoured Catholic saints, and historical child killers, it’s pretty clear that society has been morbidly obsessed with these stories for centuries.2 Georges Méliès, early cinema pioneer and genius, made his own version of Bluebeard:

Not only that, but Lubitsch and Chaplin had their way with the story too. And then there’s Béla Bartók‘s operaDuke Bluebeard’s Castle(“A kékszakállú herceg vára”), Atwood‘s “Bluebeard’s Egg”, and even a couple of foreign animated features. Is our obsession with the horrific image of slaughtered women in pieces behind the forbidden door, the confusing morality of the story (is it telling women to be analytical or obedient?), or even with the satisfaction of Bluebeard’s well-deserved end? Well, yes. But enough about society. As Jim Groom would say, let’s talk about me!

My last post was all about Hilaire Belloc‘s Cautionary Tales for Children. One commenter was curious about the long-term effect these poems may have had on me, considering the early age at which I was exposed to them. While I don’t have an answer (yet), I do have one significant observation. Belloc’s poems, though certainly vindictive (“Matilda, Who told Lies and was Burned to Death”), aren’t especially shocking, given historical storytelling traditions. The idea that children must be protected from anything unsavory or violent, even in stories, seems to be a fairly recent development. Kids are being taught through stories like “Curious George” rather than “Bluebeard”.  (Even Beatrix Potter‘s Peter Rabbit stories are less watered down than most modern children’s literature. It’s pretty clearly stated that Farmer McGregor is going to bake the protagonist into a pie and eat him. In another story, a ‘bad rabbit’ steals and, as a consequence, has his tail and whiskers shot off by a hunter. And let’s not forget Owl trying to skin annoying Squirrel Nutkin alive.)3 So if you think Matilda’s punishment for lying is a bit harsh, let’s take a look at some popular fairy tales…

Snow White (Grimm Brothers):

“Snow White’s wicked step-mother was also bidden to the feast…At first she would not go to the wedding at all, but she had no peace, and had to go to see the young queen. And when she went in she recognized Snow White, and she stood still with rage and fear, and could not stir. But iron slippers had already been put upon the fire, and they were brought in with tongs, and set before her. Then she was forced to put on the red-hot shoes, and dance until she dropped down dead.”

Bluebeard (Perrault):

“The gate was opened, and two horsemen entered. Drawing their swords, they ran directly to Bluebeard. He knew them to be his wife’s brothers, one a dragoon, the other a musketeer; so that he ran away immediately to save himself; but the two brothers pursued and overtook him before he could get to the steps of the porch. Then they ran their swords through his body and left him dead.” (Bluebeard, Perrault)

The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood (Perrault):

“The ogress presently knew the voice of the queen and her children, and being quite mad that she had been thus deceived, she commanded next morning, by break of day (with a most horrible voice, which made everybody tremble), that they should bring into the middle of the great court a large tub, which she caused to be filled with toads, vipers, snakes, and all sorts of serpents, in order to have thrown into it the queen and her children, the clerk of the kitchen, his wife and maid…They were brought out accordingly, and the executioners were just going to throw them into the tub, when the king entered the court on horseback and asked, with the utmost astonishment, what was the meaning of that horrible spectacle. No one dared to tell him, when the ogress, all enraged to see what had happened, threw herself head foremost into the tub, and was instantly devoured by the ugly creatures she had ordered to be thrown into it for others.”

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Little Red Cap (Grimm Brothers):

“And then the grandmother came out alive as well. Then Little Red Cap fetched some large heavy stones. They filled the wolf’s body with them, and when he woke up and tried to run away, the stones were so heavy that he fell down dead.”

Cinderella (Grimm Brothers):

“When the wedding with the prince was to be held, the two false sisters came, wanting to gain favor with Cinderella and to share her good fortune. When the bridal couple walked into the church, the older sister walked on their right side and the younger on their left side, and the pigeons pecked out one eye from each of them. Afterwards, as they came out of the church, the older one was on the left side, and the younger one on the right side, and then the pigeons pecked out the other eye from each of them. And thus, for their wickedness and falsehood, they were punished with blindness as long as they lived.”

When I was a kid, these were the stories that I loved. I’m sure my parents also read me the usual politically correct, award-winning children’s books, but violent fairy tales, Beatrix Potter, and Hilaire Belloc are what I remember and what I learned from the most. It hasn’t turned me into a constantly fearful adult, a serial killer, or a raving lunatic.4 Nothing can fully prepare children for the chaos and brutality of adult life, but stories like “Bluebeard” are a valuable teaching aid that is too often dismissed. So if you have kids, do them a favor. Read something grotesque and vindictive.5

  1. Did you know that Wikipedia has a “List of murderers by number of victims“? []
  2. Millennia? []
  3. You can read and listen to these wonderful stories here, in English or Japanese! []
  4. Well, I’m not sure about that last one. []
  5. Extra credit: Poe’s “Hop-Frog“ []

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