Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Dickens and Bluebeard

Dickens is loved by fairy tale enthusiasts; the fact that he was enamored with Little Red Riding Hood as a child is fairly well known. He also claimed that "it is a matter of grave importance that fairy tales should be respected" and in general advocated for the genre. Yet he also claimed that fairy tales should not be altered from their "original form." Anyone who has studied fairy tales will know there's really no such thing as an "original" version of any tale, and probably most of us also agree there are good reasons to adapt fairy tales to changing cultures. Yet we may understand the same frustration when fairy tales are interpreted in a way we don't think does them justice, or when fairy tale variants become so prevalent the older versions get lost and fewer and fewer people are familiar with a tale's history. Dickens claimed, "With seven Blue Beards in the field, each coming at a gallop from his own platform mounted on a foaming hobby, a generation or two hence would not know which was which, and the great original Blue Beard would be confounded with counterfeits."

Dickens referred to Bluebeard in five of his novels, including Pickwick Papers, Bleak House, and Hard Times, and his journalism. In his The Uncommercial Traveller of 1860, in the essay "Nurse's Stories," Dickens recalls being told the tale of Captain Murderer, a variation of Bluebeard. The story is of the eponymous Captain who, when courting a woman, always asked if she could bake a pie crust, and instructed those who couldn't how to do so. A month after the wedding, he gave her a golden rolling pin and silver pie board, and butter and eggs and everything she needed, except for the pie filling. When his bride would ask why she saw no meat, he would reply, "look in the glass." She would then look up just in time to see her head cut off. Finally one bride, whose twin sister had already fallen victim to Captain Murderer, gained revenge by taking poison before she was killed. When the cannibalistic Captain eats the last pie, he turns blue and spotty and explodes.
Often adults debate as to how harmful it is to tell violent stories to children. Dickens would have landed on the Keep Violence Far From Children side:

"Hundreds of times did I hear this legend of Captain Murderer, in my early youth, and added hundreds of times was there a mental compulsion upon me in bed, to peep in at his window as the dark twin peeped, and to revisit his horrible house, and look at him in his blue and spotty and screaming stage, as he reached from floor to ceiling and from wall to wall. The young woman who brought me acquainted with Captain Murderer had a fiendish enjoyment of my terrors, and used to begin, I remember-as a sort of introductory overture-by clawing the air with both hands, and uttering a long low hollow groan. So acutely did I suffer from this ceremony in combination with this infernal Captain that I sometimes used to plead I thought I was hardly strong enough and old enough to hear the story again just yet. But, she never spared me one word of it...Her name was Mercy, though she had none on me."
Source: Bluebeard: A Reader's Guide to the English Translation by Casie E. Hermansson
Illustrations of Captain Murderer by Rowan Barnes-Murphy

1 comment:

  1. I find it interesting that Dickens did not like the newer variations of Bluebeard especially since the "original" Bluebeard was rather grisly already.

    It's interesting that only recently we're coming up with so many fairy tale adaptations and spin-offs, especially when it comes to film. I wonder if we'll get to a point where we'll finally say, "Enough already!" At the same time, though, I agree with what you said about fairy tales constantly being changed based on the current times.

    Regarding what you said about older variants of fairy tales being lost forever, I don't think it will ever happen completely, as I think that they might provide a source of unexpected inspiration for people who may be working on fairy tale adaptations of their own (and may even encourage others to check out the older source).