Once upon a time, in a land far away, a man with striking blue eyes built a castle. Heavily fortified, it had vertical bars on every window and horizontal bars on every door, and from every door handle hung a huge black padlock with its own huge black key, that hung always on a giant key-ring that he wore on his belt for the world to see. He filled the counting-house with money from floor to ceiling, he filled the treasury with jewellery and treasures beyond price from floor to ceiling, he filled the pantries with food from floor to ceiling, he filled the ice-house with meats of all kinds from floor to ceiling, he filled the granaries with wheat and rice and barley and rye from floor to ceiling. And lastly, he filled the courtyards, surrounded by high, strong stone walls, with fruit trees heavy with every kind of sweetness, and with flowering herbs of all kinds filling the air beneath the trees with the richest of perfumes.
He looked at his castle, so impregnable, and his bunch of keys, and knew that none could come in or go out without his permission. And it gave him pleasure. He looked at everything in his castle and his courtyard and knew he had everything he needed to live, and that gave him pleasure, too. Most of all, he loved sapphires. The whole eastern corner of his treasury was filled with sapphires: pale-blue ones from Ceylon, dark-blue ones from Australia, and every shade of blue between from every country on the world. Mountains upon mountains of them gleamed in the sunlight falling across them
from the high barred window. His yellow and pink sapphires were mixed with his other treasures, but after glancing at them he would always turn to his blue sapphires. And the sapphires were lit by the falling sunlight, and reflected back on his glossy, oiled beard, making it shine with a deep blue iridescence over its natural black, a blue that made his beard echo the blue of his own eyes.
The years passed and he became lonely. The gleam of treasure was not so pretty without someone else’s eyes to see it. The lush sweetness of figs and dates twisted at perfect ripeness off the tree was not so sweet if he could not feed it to appreciative lips, to sweet lips.
He took to riding his dapple-grey horse through the town on market day, and talking to the stallholders and customers, but although he was open and friendly he was still the newcomer in the big castle, and the townsfolk were nervous. Month after month he came and talked, and befriended a widow and her three grown daughters. One day he asked them if they would like to come to the castle for a feast in their honour.
The widow looked at her eldest daughter.
The eldest looked away. “I do not like him, Mother,” she said.
“I do not know,” she replied. I just know that I do not think he is a nice man. And she would not go.
The widow looked at her second daughter.
The second daughter fidgeted. “Well, he’s been nice to us,” she said, “and his offer is generous. But I’m uneasy.”
Before the widow could look at her youngest daughter, she laughed and said: “He’s being more than nice to us! Look at the beautiful castle he has built, and how it reflects the sunlight off its white stone surfaces! Look at how he comes to town every market day just to talk to people, buy produce without even haggling, sometimes paying for food for the poor to take home so that they get two loaves instead of one. Look at how nice he has been to everyone, especially us, for so long! I feel we should be nice to him in return, I feel that it is unkind to repay generosity with suspicion.”
So the next week the widow took her middle daughter and her youngest daughter to the feast, whilst the eldest stayed at home.
There was such merriment. The food was fresh and delicious, the bread was light and fluffy, the water was cold and cleansing. After the meal the man showed the widow and her two younger daughters around the castle, with its grand walks, its arches, its windows, its thick soft carpets, its hand-carved, comfortable furniture, the myriad colourful paintings and tapestries on the walls. And they agreed that it was a very fine home.
“Not as fine as if I had someone to share it with,” he muttered under his breath.
The next week he asked them to come riding with him. The middle daughter made an excuse: seeing his fine house had not persuaded her that something was not wrong. The younger daughter came willingly, and her mother accompanied her. The women rode on two fine chestnut mares, the man on his dapple-grey gelding, its saddlebags bulging.
They rode to a clearing in the woods, with a fallen tree-trunk to sit on, and a small stream trickling through between the light and the shade. There they let the horses drink and graze, as he unpacked his saddlebags. They were filled with wonderful things to eat, including great globular oranges from his orchard, their skins the colour of embers and their juice tasting of the strength of sunlight.
And there, with the permission of the widow, he asked the youngest daughter to marry him, and when she said yes he produced from his pocket a golden ring in the shape of a lemniscate, with a diamond in one loop and the finest pale sapphire in the other, and placed it on her hand.
They prepared a magnificent wedding and invited the whole village. The bride was allowed to choose any of the fabrics in his storehouse, and she chose a fabric as sparkly as the stars on a still night, overlaid on another as calmly silver as moonlight. At the wedding the second sister said maybe he wasn’t as bad as she had thought; the eldest sister just looked away without saying anything. And they were married, and the youngest sister went to live in the castle, where she was very, very happy.
After some time the husband called his wife to him and told her: “I am going away on business for a while. I will be gone two weeks. Here is my key-ring: you may enter every room in the castle which the black keys open, but the tiny bronze key, that is special. Do not open the lock that it fits. I could take the key with me, but I’d rather trust you. Can I trust you?”
And the young bride said he could, so he handed her the keys and said that to prevent her from becoming too lonely she could invite her family to stay for the two weeks, if she liked. So she thanked him and kissed him goodbye, and he rode away on his dapple-grey, his saddlebags bulging.
The young bride went to her mother’s house, and said that the whole family could visit for two weeks. The widow had missed her, and so had her two older sisters, so they came right away, leaving a note on the table for their seven brothers, who were away at the wars, and would be coming home any day now.
They went to the castle, and the bride opened the portcullis with a great black key and led them in. For days they were happy to be together, and chattered about all the things they needed to talk about; then the eldest sister, who still didn’t like the husband, asked her why she always wore the keys at her belt. So the bride told her about the promise. The two older sisters, delighted, thought it would be a great game to open every locked door in the castle and see what was behind it. They started at the attics, looking at great bundles of herbs hanging from the rafters drying, and worked their way slowly down the castle, floor by floor. It took most of the day to look at everything.
Last of all they reached the cellars, where the fine pink wine was stored, and where the well that never ran dry was, for the castle to draw water. It was cool and quite dark in the cellars, the only light twinkling faintly from the top of the stairs. In the shadows there, the girls found a small door. “This must be the door that tiny bronze key opens,” the middle sister exclaimed. “Shall we open it?”
“No,” said the bride, definitely. She remembered how her husband had asked if he could trust her.
At the same moment the oldest sister said “Yes,” and her voice was louder and she was more excited so the sisters opened the door, the youngest hanging back wishing it hadn’t happened. The eldest looked in, and started crying. The middle one looked in, and fainted. The youngest didn’t look in, so she never knew what her sisters had seen. She pulled them out of the doorway and slammed it shut, turning the key to lock it fast. She put the key-ring back on her belt and wiped the tears of the eldest sister, then revived the middle sister.
By the time all that was done she felt a dampness on her leg. She looked down, and found great gouts of warm, steaming blood pouring from the little bronze key down her clothes. She knew at once it was marking her untrustworthiness for her husband to see.
She and her sisters tried wrapping the key, but it still bled. They tried washing the key, but it still bled. They tried pressing it with sand, but it still bled, saturating the sand. They tried covering it with wax to seal the blood in, but still it bled. The bride was terrified, knowing that the husband only had to see the bleeding key, and he would know he couldn’t trust her.
At that moment they all heard the sounds of horse’s hooves on the cobblestones outside: the husband’s business took several days less than he expected. The two elder sisters took their mother and fled, leaving the bride alone. Frantically she dropped the key on the floor, and kicked it under some heavy curtains. Her husband entered the room. He saw the blood on her dress, starting where the key-ring was dangling.
“Did you use the bronze key?” he asked.
She stuttered and stammered, and as she tried to start to tell him that it wasn’t her fault but her sisters’, he saw the pool of blood start to ooze from beneath the curtain. With a great cry, he fell on the key and picked it up, sobbing. His bride had betrayed him. She hadn’t given her mother and sisters great chests of sapphires and other precious gems to take away. She hadn’t emptied the gold out of the counting-houses into their waiting aprons. She hadn’t even kissed the servants. She had just done the one thing she told him she could be trusted not to do.
His pain was immense. Without even knowing what he was doing he turned to her, let out a wordless roar and tried to tear the pretty lemniscate ring off her fingers.
At that moment, the seven brothers entered the room. They had gone home, seen the note, and come to the castle. Hearing their sister’s screams and her husband’s roars they entered the room, and seeing the blood from the key all over her dress and him pulling at her hand as soon as they came in, they waited no longer, but drew their seven shiny swords and cut him to pieces where he stood, heedless of their sister’s screams for them to stop.
* * *
Many characters get vilified in fairy stories, and I think Bluebeard is one of them. The crucial thing about the many very different versions of the story is the betrayal at the end. The bride never disposed of his wealth – at the most, she showed it to his family. The murky secret in the locked room – which in earlier versions of the tale is never described let alone spelled out as the remains of previous curious wives – is the only thing the bride is forbidden. The point is not discovering that he is an evil wife-murderer – the point of the whole story is that his trust is betrayed by her and he attempts (and in most versions succeeds) in punishing her.
The role of the mother and the elder sisters, who have been edited out in some babified versions, is not trivial, either. What kind of mother would let one of her daughters court a stranger, or even someone well-known – without any kind of comment or judgement passed on the suitor, negative or positive? Perhaps her passivity towards her daughter’s decisions represents a feeling of being inadequately mothered. And the two older sisters represent more knowledgeable aspects of the bride herself: the middle sister, slightly uneasy about the man, can’t place her finger on what’s wrong. She represents a dawning sense of intuition, specifically of a
looming unpleasantness in the future.
The eldest sister, older and therefore supposedly more developed, is less likely than the middle sister to be bribed or side-tracked into accepting a thing she thinks is wrong. However, at the same time, she takes the initiative in breaking the husband’s prohibition on using the key, and is the first into the locked room, to see whatever lies within it. It is her choice of action, encouraged by the middle sister, that precipitates the disaster in the first place.
The story is not a fable of a gruesome murderer or the need to not trust a husband. The story is about loyalty, living up to your promises, living by your word and making those around you conform to it too, if at all possible. It is about honour and integrity. The bride did not take action to open the room, but she could have taken more action to prevent her sisters opening it on her behalf. In many versions of the story we are not told what lies within the room, just that it is a terrible shock: the act of opening the door itself is more important than the contents of the room, precisely because it is a morality-tale about living by your promises.