Some believe that Blue Beard was a “woman’s story” about the risks of pregnancy and childbirth, or, alternatively, about the dangers of not following their instincts in regards to men, and therefore inherently Feminist. My first experience with the tale and this opinion was in Clarissa Pinkola Estés’ book Women Who Run With the Wolves. While it is true that Blue Beard was already a popular tale by the 17th century, and it’s possible that it was originally a “woman’s story”, Perrault’s version is based on the combination of two gruesome, and, unfortunately, true, stories.
The first one was about Conomor the Cursed, a Breton chief who it was predicted would be killed by his son. To avoid the prophecy coming true, he murdered his wives as soon as they became pregnant. That’s horrible enough, right? Well, the second is a much more gruesome story, even when compared to Perrault’s tale, and is about Gilles de Rais, a wealthy nobleman who lived during the 15th century.
Gilles de Rais was Joan of Arc’s protector on the battlefield and considered a hero for helping to drive the English out of France during the Hundred Years’ War. However, he also developed the reputation of practicing alchemy and black magic and being a pedophile and murderer of young boys after he left the military. Supposedly, he earned the nickname “Bluebeard” from his horse’s fur, which appeared to be blue when seen in daylight, and the original folk tale was told as a way of deterring children from going onto his land. During his trial, after the remains of fifty boys were discovered near his castle, he confessed to killing over 140 children and described in great detail how he preyed upon and tortured them. He was burned alive while being hung at the same time.
Regardless of whether the story of Blue Beard is a Feminist tale or a story to frighten children away from an evil man, here are some modern retellings:
The fairy tale “Rapunzel” comes from one of the stories of the Saints. During the 3rd century AD, a wealthy merchant in Asia Minor loved his daughter so much that he forbade her to have any suitors. He locked her in a tower whenever he traveled. She converted to Christianity and prayed so loudly when she was in the tower that her prayers were heard throughout the town. The merchant, informed of her actions, took her before the Roman proconsul who insisted she be beheaded or the father would have to forfeit his fortune if she refused to give up her newfound faith. The father decapitated her but was then killed by a lightning strike. She became the martyr, Saint Barbara.
The version of the story the Grimm’s were told was thought to be a folktale, but as it turns out, was actually written by Giambattista Basile in 1637. It was rewritten by a French aristocrat, Charlotte Rose de Caumont de la Force in 1697. The 1697 version was translated into German by J.C.F. Shulz, but the Grimm brothers were unaware of this fact.
In the Grimm version, which is almost identical to the Shulz translation, Rapunzel lets her hair down for a prince to climb into her tower and ends up pregnant. The witch chops off Rapunzel’s hair and magically transports her far away, where she lives as a beggar with no money, no home, and a baby. The witch lures the prince up into the tower and then pushes him from the window. Some thorn bushes break his fall, but also blind him. However, as with most fairy tales, there’s still a happy ending for the two lovers.
If you want to read a more modern version of this classic fairy tale, check out the following books (all links are to Goodreads):
One of the many things I love about fairy tales, and stories in general, is that they reflect the reality of the time and place in which they were created. The possible origins of Hansel and Gretel are varied. Some say that it was a result of a famine in Europe during the early 14th century that led to an increase in disease, mass starvation, infanticide, child desertion, and possibly even cannibalism. Others say it was due to the story of a baker during the 17th century, Katharina Schraderin, accused of witchcraft and burned to death in her own oven after she created a gingerbread cookie so delicious that another local baker got jealous. As with most folk tales passed on from one person and place to another over time, it’s likely both had an influence on the story.
Though the origins of Hansel and Gretel are up for debate, what is known is that the Grimm brothers’ 1812 version, given to them by Dortchen Wild (who later became the wife of Wilhelm Grimm), isn’t the only one. While it’s the one people are most familiar with, an earlier French version, titled “The Lost Children”, is a bit more horrific. The “witch” is actually the Devil, who wants to bleed the children on a sawhorse. They pretend not to know how to get on the sawhorse, so the Devil has his wife demonstrate. The children slit her throat, steal the Devil’s money, and run away.
If you’re looking for something more modern, and perhaps less gruesome, give one of the books below a try (all links are to Goodreads).
As sometimes happens with fairy tales, “Snow White” is based on a true story. Margarete von Waldeck was a 16th century Bavarian noblewoman who grew up in Bad Wildungen with a stepmother who despised her and sent her off to Brussels to get rid of her. Prince Philip II fell in love with Margarete, but his father, the king of Spain, didn’t approve and had her killed with poison. The dwarves came from Margarete’s brother’s use of child labor in his copper mine. The work caused severe deformities in the children, and so they were called dwarves. The poison apple came from the spoiled fruit that an old man would give to the children, especially if he believed they had stolen from him.
The first written version of the story was by the Grimm Brothers, published in 1812, and it was considerably darker than both the true story and the Disney version. Instead of a stepmother, it’s Snow White’s mother who treats her so horribly, and, instead of ordering the huntsman to bring back Snow White’s heart, she tells him to bring back the liver and lungs because she wants to eat them. Even more gruesome is that when the Prince finds Snow White, she’s not sleeping, but dead, and the Prince knows that when he carts off her body. It’s not until during the trip that the coffin gets bumped, the piece of poisoned apple gets dislodged from Snow White’s throat, and Snow White comes back to life. The “happily ever after” involves her mother being forced to dance to death in a pair of heated iron shoes after she comes to the wedding, which she was invited to attend. I’m not really sure which of the two is more evil, but I don’t see Snow White as being the innocent she’s portrayed to be. I would love to read a modern day retelling that depicts Snow White as the one who’s evil instead of the stepmother.
This is by far my favorite fairy tale and Disney movie, and it was my favorite TV show when I was a kid (my parents once bribed me with it to get me to clean my room). Why? Belle is one of the few fairy tale characters that has real agency. First of all, she chooses to take her Father’s place in staying with the Beast. Secondly, she makes the best of a beastly situation (har-har) without any real help from anyone. She doesn’t have a Fairy Godmother to solve her problems, she isn’t taken in by dwarves, and, though she repeatedly gets marriage proposals from the Beast, she doesn’t immediately fall into his arms (In the original, unedited version, he asks her if he may sleep with her, not to marry him, but the response is the same). Also, in the Disney version, she knows Gaston isn’t the right man for her, and doesn’t give in to his pushiness. Finally, she is the one that saves the Beast from his curse, instead of being the one that is rescued. She even wins a rap battle against Cinderella, as far as I’m concerned.
So, I wasn’t surprised to learn that the story, while being a traditional fairy tale, was originally an adult novella written in 1740 by a French woman, Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, who was critiquing the marriage system of her time. A little more than a decade later, it was shortened, “cleaned”, and published in a women’s magazine by another woman, Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont. You can find free versions on Project Gutenberg, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon. Also for free is Andrew Lang’s version of the story, which is a combination of Villeneuve’s and Beaumont’s, in his Blue Fairy Book. In addition to those, there’s an EPUB edition that comes with a free download of the audio book (I’m not affiliated with Barnes & Noble, and don’t receive any profits from sales of the book).
Below is a list of Beauty and the Beast retellings. All of the links are to Goodreads:
The original 1697 story of Cinderella, sometimes called The Glass Slipper, is by Charles Perrault, and was published in his book Histoires ou contes du temps passé (You can listen to the story in French or read the English translation, both for free). His version is the one that people are most familiar with, as it’s the version closest to the Disney animated movie. It is loosely based on a story written by Strabo, a Greek Historian during the 1st century BC, who based his story on one written 500 years earlier by Herodotus, and was considered to be true.
Strabo’s story is of a Greek woman named Rhodopis, meaning “rosy cheeked”, who was a young girl when she was taken in the city of Thrace, and sold into slavery in Egypt. Her owner frequently gave her gifts, including a pair of gold shoes, which eventually led her to being noticed by Ahmose II, Egypt’s then current Pharaoh. She was “rescued” from slavery by becoming one of his wives. Despite Rhodopis being mostly passive, Perrault’s Cinderella is even more so, and is the most passive version of the Cinderella character found throughout the world.
While the Grimm brothers kept Perrault’s ultra-passive main character, what is surprising is that, instead of cleaning up the story to make it more palatable to Victorian society, their 1812 version, “Aschenputtel,” is the more graphic one. It can be read for free, along with many of their other fairy tales, HERE.
Modern day retellings of the Cinderella story include:
Friday’s Fairy Tales is a new feature about a different fairy tale each week/month. I still haven’t decided which.
Though most often attributed to Charles Perrault, “Sleeping Beauty” was published even earlier as “Sun, Moon, and Talia”, by Giambattista Basile in 1634, also known as “Il Pentamerone, Day 5, Tale 5”. This version is said to be the primary influence for the version that Charles Perrault wrote in 1697, which was one of the stories included in his book Histories ou Contes du temps passé. The book was first translated into English by Robert Samber as Histories, or Tales of Past Times in 1729, and “Sleeping Beauty” can also be found in Classic Fairy Tales by Iona and Peter Opie.
Later on, the Grimm brothers borrowed the story from Perrault, as they did with many of their stories. They cleaned it up and renamed it “Briar Rose”. Their book was first published in 1812, and their version of the story became the most well known. However, Charles Perrault was one of the last to avoid waking Beauty with a kiss. Most of the versions written since, including “Briar Rose”, have used the kiss to awaken the sleeping princess.
You can find the Charles Perrault version in French and English as an ebook or audiobook at Project Gutenberg.