Monday, July 18, 2016

Variants of Robber Bridegroom

The Grimms' "Robber Bridegroom" isn't nearly as famous as Perrault's "Bluebeard," which is a shame because I think most people like it better. It's still every bit as creepy, as it features a woman who witnesses her betrothed and his friends killing and eating an innocent woman, but the heroine is clever and resourceful-she is able to find her way home because she throught to scatter lentils on the path to the house. Then she exposes the murderer safely by telling the story in public as if it were a dream, but then producing as proof a finger of the dead woman that had flown into her lap.

The great Russian writer Alexander Pushkin wrote several poems based on fairy tales, including "Robber Bridegroom." This poem isn't nearly as exciting, in my opinion, as the Grimm tale. It tells the perspective of the bride's family and friends who don't know why she is so upset until the very end, when she reveals that she witnessed her new husband killing a girl cutting off her hand, and produces the hand with a ring on it as proof. Pushkin's tale also doesn't have the gory details of the Grimms, including the cannibalism of the victims. The poem can be read here.

Mr. Fox is a very similar English tale. The heroine visits the house of the murderer, and first discovers buckets of blood and skeletons, then the men come home and she witnesses a killing. She exposes them in the same way as the bride in "Robber Bridegroom."

D. L. Ashliman has collected several fascinating variants of this morbid tale as well. In a different German version (not the Grimms'), the bride is given the choice of being either boiled in water or oil, and on the witch housekeeper's advice, says she prefers water. This means she draws the water herself, giving her an opportunity to hide. Although the cannibal slices off her toes in his attempt to find her, the blood magically disappears so as not to lead him to her hiding place in a tree, and a prince conveniently stops by the woods and saves her in the nick of time.

In some English versions, the girl comes across her sweetheart digging a grave and later hints at what she saw; sometimes the murderer is frightened off by her knowledge, but in a legend that supposedly took place at Oxford, he stabs her. The "Robber Bridegroom" story is also told in the form of another English legend, Bloody Baker.

In the Welsh Laula, the murderer succeeds in killing the first sister, but her elder sister had followed them and exposed the crime.

The Cannibal Innkeeper is a very dark Romanian tale. After a young servant girl refused to marry a man, he sold her to a cannibalistic innkeeper who locked her in a room and forced her to cook human flesh, which he then served to his guests. One day his mother, who was a witch and wanted to punish him, turned the girl into a duck, so she was able to fly out of the room and escape-but the girl remained a duck for the rest of her life.

In the Lithuanian story Greenbeard, a woman will only marry a husband who has a green beard. The murderer dyes his beard green for her. The moral of this story seems to be for women not to be so picky about the men they marry, for after the crimes are witnessed and exposed in a similar manner, it's added that the girl no longer has such in interest in green beards (and of course the image also links the tale to "Bluebeard"). It strikes me that in this tale, as well as others, the cannibals are not referred to as "murderers" or "cannibals," but simply "robbers." Why is their evil downplayed by that choice of words? The same question applies to the Grimm tale-why is it "Robber Bridegroom" and not "Murderous Bridegroom" or "Cannibalistic Bridegroom"?

Illustrations-Walter Crane, Arthur Rackham, John Batten


  1. I'm STILL trying to write a horror novel based off of this story. Makes for a good one in my opinion.

    Also, the "witch" in Hansel and Grethel is never referred to as a "cannibal," but always as a "witch," despite the fact that she never does anything even remotely magical in the story (unless you think a candy house is magical). I guess people just didn't like the word, "cannibal," back then. Or maybe the word wasn't very common in usage back then.

    1. Ah I never thought about that either! I guess we usually assume the witch does other witchy things, and probably made the house by magical means

  2. To your question: Because while nowadays it is expected to have very specific names for specific crimes, this hasn't always been the case. The antagonists in these stories are people who steal from others using violence. Therefore they are robbers. That they also rape and kill is nothing unusual, it is just one of the forms of violence to be expected from a robber. At least in my understanding, even today "robber" carries the implicit meaning that the person in question may very well murder you in order to steal your belongings or get rid of a witness so I wouldn't find the term that euphemistic. Also don't forget that the term "Cannibalism" is quite modern, etymonline cites the year 1796 for the first english use of the word.

    1. Very interesting, I wasn't aware "cannibalism" is a relatively modern word, or that stealing life and stealing belongings would be viewed so similarly. It's true, murder often does overlap with stealing, although it's still a pretty important distinction to make in my mind