I have found myself dwelling on the color blue and the way our planet’s elemental hue, the most symphonic of the colors, recurs throughout our literature as something larger than a mere chromatic phenomenon…1
The color blue is the chimera of the visible light spectrum. It is everywhere and nowhere. The most popular color. Yet the calculus of blue is tricky. The closer we get to it, the more unattainable it becomes, both literally and figuratively.
Blue is sharply refracted by the eyes. This causes the lens to flatten and to push the blue image back. We perceive that blue areas are receding and smaller.2
Water isn’t blue, neither is sky. Blue eyes contain zero blue pigment. Blueberries are deep purple. A handful of flowers, including delphiniums, bluebells, hydrangeas and cornflowers, appear blue by mixing red anthocyanin pigments with other pigments, molecules and ions.3
Neither a peacock feather nor a blue morpho butterfly is truly blue.
Butterfly wings are sheathed in reflective scales made of chitin, the same stuff that makes a crab’s shell hard. And a 2012 study found that some birds use bubble-laced keratin (the same stuff that human fingernails are made of) in the barbs of their feathers; it scatters the light from the feather in a way that happens to look blue to humans.4
And as for the sky, “As far as wavelengths go, Earth’s sky really is a bluish violet. But because of our eyes we see it as pale blue.”5
This quality of the color blue—to be sometimes more, other times less, than what it seems—makes its appearance in a well-known fairy tale worth a closer look.
Once upon a time there lived a man who possessed fine houses in town and in the country, dishes and plates of silver and gold, furniture all covered in embroidery, and carriages all gilded; but unfortunately the man’s beard was blue, and this made him so ugly and fearsome that all the women and girls, without exception, would run away from him.6
So goes the opening of Charles Perrault’s “Bluebeard,” published in his Histoires ou contes du temps passé in 1697. This literary tale is a blood fest compared to Perrault’s other creations, and its origins have been endlessly scrutinized. It could be based on legends and folktales about demon lovers; it might also be influenced by the fifteenth century Marshal of France, Gilles de Rais, a sadistic killer of boys who was eventually executed, but not before traumatizing a nation. One fact cannot be disputed: Bluebeard, rich as he is, is intent on killing. After love-bombing (a decidedly twenty-first century term) a pair of sisters and their mother for an entire week, being sure to keep them from sleep, lest they begin to think for themselves, the youngest decides he isn’t so bad after all, and agrees to marry, despite his having had several wives before her, all of whom disappeared without a trace.
A month after the wedding, Bluebeard goes on a weeks-long business trip, admonishing his bride to enjoy herself while he’s away, handing her the keys to his castle. But there’s a caveat.
You may open everything and go everywhere, except for this private room, where I forbid you to go; and I forbid it to you so absolutely that, if you did happen to go into it, there is no knowing what I might do, so angry would I be.7
His wife, beside herself with curiosity, busts the secret wide open: Bluebeard has killed his previous wives, and when he discovers the disobedience, will kill this one, too. Tension mounts when Bluebeard sends word he will return home earlier than expected. The key, now stained with blood, will surely betray his bride. Fortunately, her brothers have promised to visit, and she asks her sister Anne to wave from the top of the tower. The brothers arrive just in time. Despite representing Bluebeard as an ugly man with a beard “the colour of ambiguous depth, of the heavens and of the abyss at once,”8 connoting his unsavory nature, Perrault lays the blame at the feet of the young wife: “Curiosity’s all very well it in its way, But satisfy it and you risk much remorse…”9
Perrault, as the Grimms would do more than a century later, gave more ancient story material a makeover. Tales of young ladies married off to monstrous bridegrooms are as old and common as the hills. But “in the old peasant stories the heroine does not weep and wait for her brothers’ rescue—rather, she’s a cunning, clever girl fully capable of rescuing herself.”10
Perrault’s tale was the first to feature a bridegroom with a blue beard and the first to whitewash the murderer’s motivations. Neither disobedience nor curiosity merits a death sentence, no matter what the author says. The secret room, home to spilled blood, body parts and chains, contrasts what was once alive—the former wives—with what was always dead, at least inside—Bluebeard himself.
Perrault’s characterization of Bluebeard contradicts his exoneration of the man’s nature. Blue is shadow, distance, cold, rare—truly what Bluebeard embodies.
First Image Credit: Stergo at Pixabay.com
Second Image Credit: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
- Popova, Maria. “Two Hundred Years of Blue,” accessed June 14, 2018, https://www.brainpickings.org/2018/05/17/two-hundred-years-of-blue/
- “The Meanings of Blue,” accessed June 14, 2018, https://www.colormatters.com/the-meanings-of-colors/blue
- Oder, Tom. “The science of blue flowers,” accessed June 14, 2018, https://www.mnn.com/your-home/organic-farming-gardening/stories/the-science-of-blue-flowers
- Bichell, Rae Ellen. “How Animals Hacked the Rainbow and Got Stumped on Blue,” accessed June 14, 2018, https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2014/11/12/347736896/how-animals-hacked-the-rainbow-and-got-stumped-on-blue
- Koberlein, Brian. “Earth’s Skies Are Violet, We Just See Them As Blue,” accessed June 14, 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/briankoberlein/2017/01/11/earths-skies-are-violet-we-just-see-them-as-blue/#19f20d24735f
- Perrault, Charles. Translated by Christopher Betts. The Complete Fairy Tales (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2009), 104.
- Perrault, Charles. Translated by Christopher Betts. The Complete Fairy Tales (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2009), 106.
- Warner, Marina. From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers (Vintage: London, 1995), 243.
- Perrault, Charles. Translated by Christopher Betts. The Complete Fairy Tales (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2009), 113.
- Windling, Terri. “Bluebeard and the Bloody Chamber,” accessed June 14, 2018, http://www.terriwindling.com/folklore/bluebeard.html