By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Is the story of Bluebeard based on a real person? Perhaps more so than any other fairy tale, we want to know whether the chilling tale of the serial killer and wife-murderer (and perhaps the example par excellence of toxic masculinity in children’s literature) is based on historical fact.
Certainly, since it was first published in Charles Perrault’s collection of fairy tales in 1697, the tale of Bluebeard has exercised a peculiar fascination over readers, both young and old.
A studied analysis of the horrific capabilities of corrupt masculinity (as suggested by the uber-masculine sobriquet of the central, murderous character), ‘Bluebeard’ is one of the most perennially popular of fairy tales – though far from the most typical. Here, there are no prince and princess destined to live happily ever after, no kindly woodsman, no evil stepmother.
Bluebeard: plot summary
The story of Bluebeard can be summarised thus: a wealthy man had a blue beard which made him extremely ugly, so that women ran away from him. It was known that he had been married several times before, but what had become of his wives, nobody knew.
Eventually, Bluebeard managed to win the heart of one of his neighbours’ daughters, and they were married and she went to live in one of his vast houses. One day, Bluebeard told his wife that he had business to attend to in the country, and would be gone for several days. He entrusted her with the keys to all of the various rooms in the house which contained his treasure.
He told her that she was free to unlock any of the doors – with the exception of one, the door to a secret closet in the house, which she was forbidden to look inside. She agreed to his wishes and waved him off.
It didn’t take long for the young wife’s curiosity to get the better of her, and she risked a peek in the forbidden chamber. After all, Bluebeard would never find out that she had disobeyed him! She took the key to the closet and unlocked it, and found that the floor was clotted with blood, and the bodies of dead women were kept in the chamber. So this is what had happened to all of Bluebeard’s previous wives!
In her shock and fright, the young wife dropped the key on the floor and, having recovered it, she locked the door to the chamber and went to return the key to its rightful place.
Unfortunately, the key was now stained with blood. She set about cleaning it, wiping the blood from the key … but the blood returned. Every time she cleaned the key, the blood remained. She tells her sister about the horrible secret she has discovered, and they hatch a plan to flee the castle the following morning.
But Bluebeard suddenly returns, discovers the bloody key, and threatens to kill his wife there and then. Begging for one last prayer before she and her sister are slaughtered, Bluebeard’s wife buys herself enough time for her brothers to arrive and rescue her and her sister, killing Bluebeard.
Bluebeard’s wife has the dead wives formally buried, and inherits Bluebeard’s castle. She eventually remarries and lives happily ever after.
The bloody key is the only supernatural element in this grisly tale, which – if it didn’t contain this detail of the blood that remains even when it has supposedly been wiped from the key – would scarcely qualify as a ‘fairy’ tale at all, but more as a domestic story of marital violence and murder.
Bluebeard’s name, foregrounding his beard of deepest black (it’s not literally blue, we assume!), marks him as a figure of overpowering masculinity, an ‘alpha male’ whose strength and virility are almost superhuman.
The story of Bluebeard is, then, on one level about the importance of tempering Bluebeard’s toxic masculinity (to use the modern parlance) with a more caring and loving side. Bluebeard’s problem is that he is all masculinity with none of the softer, sympathetic characteristics which, the tale seems to imply, make for a good husband. It’s also, of course, a story designed to entertain us through its exposure of domestic horror and danger.
Did ‘Bluebeard’ really exist? No, but the character in the fairy tale may have been modelled on a real person. There are several candidates.
The fifteenth-century serial killer Gilles de Rais is one contender: a knight who fought alongside Joan of Arc in her campaigns against the English, he became a powerful nobleman and political figure in France. But there’s one rather big problem: Gilles de Rais never murdered his wife. He killed children in astounding numbers (and appears to have sexually abused them first).
It’s possible that his unspeakable crimes were still the basis for the Bluebeard story, with poetic licence transforming his child-victims into wives instead, although it’s far from conclusive that this was the case.
Another possible source for the Bluebeard legend is the Breton king Conomor the Accursed, who married Tryphine, who was subsequently warned by the ghosts of his previous wives that he murders them as soon as they become pregnant. Since Tryphine herself is pregnant by this stage, she flees the castle in a panic, but Conomor catches up with her and murders her.
St. Gildas brought her back to life, however, and upon being confronted with his now-no-longer-dead wife back at his castle, Conomor is killed under the weight of his own collapsing castle.
Conomor was a real king, but it’s unlikely, to say the least, that all of that happened. In the last analysis, the story of Bluebeard may not have one single origin in a real person, but is probably an amalgam of different legends and stories involving wife-killing men.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.