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Mr. Fox, Bluebeard, The Robber Bridegroom, and the Anti-Tale (or) A Sort of Response to Katherine Langrish

illustration of Bluebeard

Illustration of a cloven-footed an decidedly

A few days ago author Katherine Langrish published a guest post on The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond about Bluebeard, Mr. Fox, Harald Silkenhair and the anti-tale. During the week preceding her post, I had been considering writing about the tale of Mr. Fox. When I saw Katherine’s post, I knew it was time. Mr. Fox is probably my all-time favourite of all fairy and folk tales. If you haven’t read Mr. Fox, I strongly recommend you do so now.

I have always read Mr. Fox a kind of anti-tale, an English folktale that riffs on The Robber Bridegroom in order to comment on Bluebeard. Despite its categorisation by folklorists as a variation of The Robber Bridegroom, Mr. Fox appears to be quite old (in fact, it is referenced in Much Ado About Nothing[1]).

I am not certain that Mr. Fox was intended to be told or read as an anti-tale, or that it neatly fits the anti-tale category. It is only in context – specifically, in the context of contemporary Western society, in which Bluebeard is far better-known – that Mr. Fox takes on the appearance of an anti-tale. But what an anti-tale it is.

Lady Mary, the heroine of Mr. Fox, shares the pluck of The Robber Bridegroom’s female protagonist. However, instead of being pressured into agreeing to marry a creepy and dislikable man, Lady Mary actively chooses Mr. Fox from among her many suitors. Mr. Fox presents himself as a genteel nobleman who lives in a large castle in the countryside. Mr. Fox’s class affect and ostensible wealth indicate that he is more Bluebeard than Robber Bridegroom. Mr. Fox’s ghastly actions assume contemporary significance in part because of his veneer of upper class charm (more on this in a moment).

Unlike the bride in Bluebeard, Lady Mary choose to visit Mr. Fox’s castle before the wedding. He has suggested she visit many times, and she is curious. Thus, she does so.

The castle itself is an odd an empty place. The first arch Lady Mary passes under is etched with the words “Be Bold, Be Bold.” The words on the next arch: “Be Bold, Be Bold, But Not Too Bold.” And on the third? “Be Bold, Be Bold, But Not Too Bold, Lest That Your Heart’s Blood Should Run Cold.”

The repetition of those particular phrases thrills me every time I read them. It fills the reader with anticipation: we know there must be something to dread beyond that arch.

Lady Mary is bold. Her heart’s blood does not run cold, not in the least! Full of curiosity, she ignores the warnings and proceeds up a stair, at the top of which she finds a room full of rather ghastly corpses (as Langrish writes, this is Bluebeard’s Bloody Chamber).

Suddenly Lady Mary hears a noise. It must be Mr. Fox returning home! She hides in a place where she cannot be discovered, but from which she may see and hear. It is from this location that she spies Mr. Fox, dragging the corpse of a young lady who is dressed as a bride. Mr. Fox notices a ring on the dead woman’s finger and tries to yank it off. When that fails he produces a knife and severs the finger from its hand. The finger flies through the air and lands in Lady Mary’s lap.

Now, in the face of this horror, does Lady Mary’s blood run cold? Oh no, dear reader, no. Even though we are collectively holding our breath in dread, Lady Mary keeps her head and remains still and hidden while Mr. Fox searches the room. When he cannot find the finger, he leaves. Lady Mary slips the dead finger into her pocket and departs the castle.

The next day Mr. Fox visits Lady Mary and her family. As they sit dining, she relates a “dream” she had in which she visited Mr. Fox’s castle. She tells first of the series of arches she encountered, and the cautioning words she found there. Each time she relates one of the phrases (“Be Bold…”) Mr. Fox responds, “But it is not so, nor it was not so.”

When Lady Mary describes the portion of her dream in which she discovers the Bloody Chamber, Mr. Fox responds, “It is not so, nor it was not so. And God forbid it should be so,” and he goes on repeating this until the very end of Lady Mary’s anecdote, when she relates how Mr. Fox chopped off a dead woman’s finger.

After the final “It is not so, nor it was not so. And God forbid it should be so,” Lady Mary pulls from her pocket the finger, still adorned with its ring, and throws it on the table, crying out, “But it is so, and it was so. Here’s finger and ring I have to show!”

The story concludes, “At once her brothers and her friends drew their swords and cut Mr. Fox into a thousand pieces.”

Note that it is Lady Mary’s curiosity that not only allows her to live, but leads to Mr. Fox’s punishment for his ill deeds. She stands in stark opposition to Bluebeard bride, a woman who is ever imperilled and chastised for her curiosity. Bluebeard’s bride is first punished for her interest in an unusual man (who is, of course, later revealed to be a murderer) and then, rather paradoxically, almost murdered for violating her nasty husband’s interdictions.

Lady Mary stands as a kind of anti-tale heroine, the foil to Bluebeard’s meek and helpless bride. Though Mr. Fox is centuries old, its repetition in the contemporary West, as related to but not of the Bluebeard fairy tale, lends it the appearance and function of the anti-tale. Not only is Lady Mary rewarded for her curiosity and her lack of dependance upon male characters (or anyone else, for that matter), her actions drive the story. Her male relatives and friends don’t protect some wilting heroine; instead, they chop Mr. Fox to pieces, “not Lady Mary’s rescuers, but her agents” (to quote Langrish).

Mr. Fox also has parallels with the contemporary English class system. There are many members of the English Upper Class who are so only because of a certain title or affect, but who lack wealth. Mr. Fox has the manner and castle of an upper class Englishman, but the reader gleans from his preoccupation with the ring (and from use of the motif of the chopped appendage, which also appears in The Robber Bridegroom) that Mr. Fox is after money (again, contrast Mr. Fox’s motivations to Bluebeard’s; Bluebeard kills out of sexual and psychological motivation, whereas Mr. Fox murders for money). He may be nobility, and have a castle, but he is poor, and has turned to monstrous deeds to support himself.

Moreover, Mr. Fox is identified with an animal who the English know will resort to theft and murder in order to survive. This is in stark contrast to Bluebeard, whose name and appearance are necessary to the story. The blue beard in question is the kind of signifier that might titillate an audience accustomed to Orientalist aesthetics. Thus Bluebeard is Other. Mr. Fox, on the other hand, is decidedly English, thus sharing the identity of traditional tellers and listeners.

Mr. Fox scuttles the ideology of Bluebeard better than the latter’s anti-tale variations. It is perhaps more challenging than Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber,” an anti-tale version of Bluebeard, or even Fitcher’s Bird, another of those stories that hover between being tale and anti-.

Neil Gaiman has written an anti-tale of Mr. Fox called The White Road, in which Mr. Fox is falsely accused put to death for crimes he did not commit, and Lady Mary is a lying polymorph whose secret shape is the fox[2]. If one interprets Lady Mary as a kind of anti-tale unto itself (or at least, a temporary anti-tale, that become anti- simply because of the time in which it is told), it is rather difficult to see what is so anti- about Gaiman’s version of the tale. One of the many things John Pazdziora and I discussed during the fairy tale conference last weekend was the need for an anti-tale to challenge not only the story it reinterprets but also the dominant ideologies of the time in which it is penned. Mr. Fox strikes me as more surprisingly, fresh and challenging than The White Road. But I may, as always, be wrong.

This has gone far afield from Katherine’s original post. One thing I can say for certain, is that I found her description of her characters intriguing and am now quite desperate to read her books. I am profoundly frustrated that my library lacks a copy of West of the Moon.

[1] Click here and read the second footnote to find out more about the reference to Mr. Fox in Much Ado About Nothing. I must admit a mild skepticism. It seems just as possible that the reference in Much Ado About Nothing is to a different piece of folklore whose motif or refrain Mr. Fox recycled to good affect.

[2] The Lady Mary in Gaiman’s The White Road bears stronger resemblance to the shapeshifting Japanese kitsune than to the British fox.

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