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Who Was Bluebeard?

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Tolovaj is a publishing house. It is focused on fairy tales, their history, theory, and possibilities they offer in the field of education.

Bluebeard and his wife, illustrated by Walter Crane

Bluebeard and his wife, illustrated by Walter Crane

The fairy tale about a serial killer with a blue beard

Bluebeard is a fairy tale about a man who was killing his wives until he encountered a worthy encounter.

By today's standards this fairy tale is not suitable for children anymore but it is still powerful, thanks to its symbols and breath taking background because human history is full of serial killers who could serve as role models for a Bluebeard.

When Charles Perrault wrote this tale, the legend about a man with extreme wealth and power who locked his dark secrets behind the walls of his castle, was already circulating for hundreds of years, so there were already many candidates who could be classified as a 'real Bluebeard' although none of them had blue beard in reality.

And this was not he end. This legend inspired many works from different parts of arts. Unfortunately he got impersonators in real life too...

(All used images are in Public Domain, if source is not explicitly mentioned, the artist is Walter Crane)

Short summary of The Bluebeard

This is a story about power and passion. He is a very rich man and all his wives disappeared soon after they married. Nobody knows what happened to them.

The fairy tale starts with a new marriage. The bride is already aware of his bad reputation and when he decided to leave the castle she can expect a trap.

Husband said he is going to be absent for six weeks and gives her the keys of all rooms of the castle. He explicitly forbid her to open one of the rooms and of course she couldn’t resist the temptation.

When she opens the door, she finds several bodies of his previous wives, the key falls on the ground and gets stained with blood. This blood can’t be washed out and is beside the blue color of beard the only really magical element of the fairy tale.

When the master of the house returns to the castle he discovers his wife’s disobedience and wants a revenge. She only got few minutes to say her prayers before he kills her like he killed all others. Luckily in this time her brothers came by and killed the Bluebeard. Wife becomes a rich widow.

Bluebeard chasing his wife (picture by Walter Crane)

Bluebeard chasing his wife (picture by Walter Crane)

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Vintage illustration of Bluebeard by Edmund Evans

Vintage illustration of Bluebeard by Edmund Evans

Beard is an ancient sign of power. Because in some cases very young people occupied positions of power (for instance if the king died and his young son inherited the throne) but they didn’t grow a beard yet, they could wear a false one. In ancient Egypt false beards for royalties were made of gold and worn by kings AND queens.

Beard is also a sign of wisdom. Most of the holy men have had beards.

Blue is color of water and sky but not very common in earth. It can’t be described as a color of life like colors red, yellow or green. Because of rarity and expense connected with minerals used to make blue pigments it was at first reserved for special occasions, in Egypt, for instance, for objects related with death because they believed blue color protects the dead against evil.

In many cultures it is color of mourning. Don’t forget the expression: I am feeling blue!

This picture from Bluebeard is packed with symbolism

This picture from Bluebeard is packed with symbolism

More symbols

Symbolic meaning of keys, blood and mirrors

Bluebeard is a story about mysteries and locked room mysteries are genre of their own. When he gives the keys to his wife, he symbolically gives her power, connected to the keys. He also sets her a trap with forbidding her to open one of the rooms.

We know a lot of similar temptations from Bible (Eve in garden of Eden, Lott’s wife leaving Sodom…), Greek mythology (Pandora’s Box, Eros and Psyche…) and other fairy tales (Sleeping Beauty and spindle, Snow White and gifts from her evil step-mother in disguise…). Keys also carry many other symbolic meanings, probably more then needed for our exploration into the depths of this legendary tale at the moment.

Another important symbol in this fairy tale is a mirror. Bluebeard’s castle has walls covered with mirrors what is clear evidence of his impressive wealth (mirrors were extremely expensive in medieval times) and also strong suggestion of some sort of magic because mirrors were for many centuries considered as walls between this and other worlds (Other world is common name for the world of the dead).

Don’t forget the blood. Of course it is a symbol of life but it is also a sign of his crime (murders) and her disobedience (stains can’t be washed from the key). We can surely expand the power of blood in many other interesting areas too. Maybe on another occasion …

Please note the details in the picture on the right and above: the key in her hand, the mirror and the scene from Garden of Eden in background - all showing the rich knowledge of classical history by Walter Crane, as well.

Who was real Bluebeard?

Portrait of Gilles de Rais

Portrait of Gilles de Rais

The unpleasant history of a serial killer

At first glance Gilles de Montmorency-Laval, more known as Baron de Reis or Gilles de Reis looks like the most serious candidate for that job. He lived in 15 century and was one of the generals fighting in the army of legendary Joan of Arc against English army and its allies. For his exceptional achievements he was appointed Marshal of France. This military title is given only to few men in a century and he was one of them. Shortly: a hero.

When he was still young, age about 30, he withdrew from military service and started several extravagant private projects. Probably most famous was his reconstruction of battle of Orleans with hundreds of actors and free food and drinks for all attendance. His life was so expensive, despite the fact he was considered as one of the richest men in the country, he couldn’t afford it. He started to sell his properties and got in conflict with relatives.

He even tried to gain more wealth with alchemy and black magic. This is the reason he and his accomplices started killing young boys and girls from poor families around his castle. This terror lasted for five or six years before he got involved in trouble with powerful men from Church and ugly truth came out.

Gilles de Reis admitted torturing and murders of dozens and he was convicted to death. Nobody knows for sure how many kids died thanks to his dark desires but numbers are somewhere between 40 and 600!

There is no doubt the story of Gilles de Reis was known to Charles Perrault and it for sure inspired his writing of The Bluebeard. We can find many similarities in both stories: mysterious and extremely wealthy character with demonic powers, people disappearing in castle and death sentence of the villain. Baron de Reis even have a blue colored framework of his coat of arms.

But there are some discrepancies too.

Gilles de Reis got good portion of his wealth with his arranged marriage but he was married only once. His victims were children, not wives. And the trial maybe wasn’t fair because after his death all his remaining properties (we are talking about huge parts of country with castles and everything) belonged to his prosecutor Duke of Brittany and people who witnessed against the accused.

Many people involved in the trial and conviction profited from the death of Gilles de Reis who was maybe just one of many victims of the inquisition. We will never know the truth… What we know for sure, people in 15 century even before the notorious Baron de Reis was born, knew the legend of the Bluebeard and his murdered wives.

So who was the real Bluebeard?

Bluebeard's death was violent as his life

Bluebeard's death was violent as his life

Another candidate

Most serious of all candidates is Conomor, nobleman from medieval Brittany (6 th century) and probably the same person as King Marc of Cornwall, uncle of legendary Tristan, knight of the Round Table.

It is hard to say what is true about Conomor. Looking at historical documents (most of documents are unreliable too) he got his position with killing the king and marrying his widow. She soon escaped and he remarried. Few years after he killed his new wife Trephine and their son Tremeur.

Myth of Trephine and Tremeur (the names are the same as the names of Conomor’s murdered wife and son) is talking about three murdered wives and Trephine as fourth who discovers the ugly truth about her husband. He threatened her not to get pregnant because of the prophecy telling his son will kill him. She miraculously survives with a help of murdered wives and her son Tremeur finally revenges their death.

Similarities with legend of Bluebeard are obvious. In my opinion he is better candidate for the role of Bluebeard than Gilles de Reis.

If we dig a little deeper, we can find more candidates for the title of real Bluebeard, actually almost every country in Europe can provide one or two, but this should be a lens about a fairy tale, not serial murderers.

Looking from this or that point of view, we should conclude the real Bluebeard is dead, but his legend persists.

Remorse, repentance, forgiveness

His wife is asking for mercy, but her attempts are futile

His wife is asking for mercy, but her attempts are futile

What can we learn from cruel fairy tale of the Bluebeard?

We already mentioned how Bluebeard is portrayed as a creature out of this world. He is a cold person testing his wife. Strictly speaking of his rights he has all rights to be angry with his wife. She betrayed his trust and opened the forbidden room.

On the other hand every human being totally understand how tempting was Bluebeard’s key and a chance to discover the truth behind the rumors about his wives. She is made of flesh and blood and we understand her curiosity. She made a mistake but she shows repentance for her act.

The scene behind the door is of course completely other story. There are corpses proving Bluebeard’s crimes. Even if we forget about them for a while, he should show some humanity too. He should at least try to forgive her. All he does is giving her several minutes for some remorse.

She, capable of all human feelings, is than saved by her brothers. He, insensitive as a monster, is killed.

If we can find only one important message in the fairy tale of Bluebeard, this is probably the one.

Humanity should win!

The fairy tale Bluebeard is pretty cruel ...

Legend of blue beard inspired many artists

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By the way, bluebeard is not the only fairy tale which is today considered as too cruel for children. Another cautionary tale with similar message - keep your word, or ... - is The Pied Piper of Hamelin, with interesting historical background and speculations, which is nicely explained with another article.

Some interesting resources for further exploration

Audio collection of Perrault's fairy tales - Nine of his fairy tales, including the Bluebeard, ready to listen (in English language)

Symbols in fairy tales - My blog about symbols in fairy tales (in Slovene language)

Blog dedicated to illustrators of fairy tales and everything related - Here you can learn a lot about vintage illustrations and their creators (in English language)

What do you think about the Bluebeard?

Tolovaj (author) on July 22, 2020:

You probably heard about Edward Teach whose nickname was Blackbeard:) Thank, Peggy Woods, your input is always appreciated.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on July 07, 2020:

For some reason, before reading this article, I thought of Bluebeard as a pirate. I never heard this fairy tale. It is indeed a gory one. If I was reading to children, I would skip reading this one to them.

Tolovaj (author) on October 29, 2015:

Thanks, Larry Rankin, for stopping by. Sorry for my late response... Yes, Bluebeard is a tale with rich history, which is probably less known to wider audience because it's dealing with pretty gory stuff. While the same is true for many other fairy tales, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Red Riding Hood somehow managed to find a way in mainstream media with some heavy censorship. On the other hand bluebeard inspired several interesting movies for grown ups.

Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on July 11, 2015:

I was familiar with the Bluebeard tale, but not the history behind it.

Very cool hub.

Tolovaj (author) on November 16, 2014:

It was my pleasure, teaches12345, this character is scary, but fascinating as well. I believe we should not run away from this fairy tale, because there are real people who resemble the Bluebeard, out there. Of course the stor should be presented to the right audience at appropriate time.

Tolovaj (author) on November 16, 2014:

Thanks, m abdullah jave, for your insightful comment. I also don't consider this particular tale as appropriate for little children, but on the other side I see a tremendous potential in its message for older ones, who are already 'intoxicated' with violence in media. As you said, education is the key.

Dianna Mendez on November 15, 2014:

You hear references to this character in movie thrillers and it's enough to care an adult, let alone a child. I thank you for the background on this legend. Very interesting!

muhammad abdullah javed on November 13, 2014:

Hi Tolovaj the fairy tale is horrible and reflects an abstract black character but that had been surprisingly buried under the pages of histroy as a blue one. You are absolutely right that our children should not get exposure of such 'fiery tales'. You may agree with me that even after centuries we still find 'blue beared' in our societies, not as cruel though. In some cases every minutes in some every hour witness violence against women, i think only human species resort to such a acruel act against its own gender, animals seems to be far better than us that atleast they refrain from such discriminations. This needs a serious reflection. The ways of containing all sorts discriminating acts against women should be made effective, for which the role and responsibilities of both the genders must be assumed as supplement of each other. Also, there is an urgent need of educating our children about the status and dignity of feminne gender as they are going to be future husbands and fathers. Thanks for the hub. Voted up interesting.

Tolovaj (author) on November 11, 2014:

Thank you, Eiddwen, it is very kind of you!

Tolovaj (author) on November 11, 2014:

Thanks, colorfulone, if I only find a way to make it profitable;)

Eiddwen from Wales on November 11, 2014:

I also loved this great story and thank you for sharing. voted up and shared.


Susie Lehto from Minnesota on November 10, 2014:

You really found your niche when you started writing articles about fairy tales, Tolovaj. This is one more entertaining article.

Tolovaj (author) on November 10, 2014:

Thanks, Jodah, for your kind words. Always a pleasure to see you!

John Hansen from Australia (Gondwana Land) on November 10, 2014:

Wonderful hub explaining the fairytale and legend of Bluebeard. I loved it Tolovaj. Voted up.

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