Who Was Bluebeard?
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.
Read it on your Kindle
- Harry Clarke, illustrator and the master of the art of stained glass
The book above is available with astonishing illustrations by Harry Clarke. He was very versatile artist, but his major skill was work on stained glass.
The symbolism of the story of Bluebeard
As a story it can be a great learning tool to understand the tremendous power behind legends, folk tales and fairy tales. It is full packed with symbols and we will have a closer look only at the most important ones:
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!
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?
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?
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
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 ...
How old should be a kid to hear it for the first time?
Legend of blue beard inspired many artists
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)