My previous post introduced the “tell-tales” of guilt that appear in ATU tale types 311, 312 and 955. I focused on unwashable bloodstains that revealed wives’ trespasses in the forbidden bloody chamber.
In contrast, the tell-tale object in “The Robber Bridegroom” is a severed hand or finger (or in a couple cases, a fresh-dug grave), which the woman presents as proof of her account of her lover’s murderous ways.
The phrase I brought up in the last post: “Be bold, but not too bold,” doesn’t just apply to the women in these stories. It’s a good warning for the killers, too. After all, they got caught because they were too confident and careless.
A Few Notes for Would-Be Murderers
It’s not that I approve of murder. I just think that if you’re going to do it, you may as well take it seriously. So, some tips:
- Don’t own a pet that can tell on you.
- Invest in good locks for your murder-room, and lock your door when not home.
- Don’t involve little boys and old women in your crimes — and if you must, don’t treat them like crap unless you want them to definitely betray you.
- Double-check that you haven’t scheduled your fiancee’s visit and your next murder for the same day.
- Don’t go chopping off bits of victims willy-nilly, and never leave appendages unaccounted for.
- Just … don’t murder people. How about that?
Now that that’s taken care of, let’s move on to…
Rhyme, Rhythm, Repetition: Mnemonic Devices from Oral Tradition
Though I’ve been referring to tales of type 955 as “The Robber Bridegroom,” which is how it’s listed in the Aarne-Thompson-Uther classification system, the two variants I tend to think of are “The Story of Mr. Fox” (one of the first variants I encountered) and “The Sweetheart in the Wood,” a very similar variant that’s a bit more fleshed out.
These two versions stand out to me because of their strong narrative patterns, with lots of repeated rhymes and phrases that stick in my mind. That’s the point — those patterns, rhythms, rhymes and so on work as mnemonic devices, common in stories descended from oral tradition. When a story only existed in people’s minds between tellings, by necessity those stories were crafted and altered for easier recall.
So we get this charming little rhyme from the robber’s bird:
Be bold, be bold, but not too bold,
Lest that your heart’s blood should run cold!
(In “The Story of Mr. Fox;” a shorter version appears in “The Sweetheart in the Wood”)
Or, from Grimm’s “The Robber Bridegroom“:
Turn back, turn back, you young bride.
You are in a murderer’s house.
…it sounds a bit better in the original German:
Kehr um, kehr um, du junge Braut,
du bist in einem Mörderhaus.
And then you have the story told by the bride herself at the dinner party/impromptu murder trial.
How to Accuse Someone of Murder/Win at Show-and-Tell
In “The Sweetheart in the Wood,” she recounts what she saw as part of the tale, while in “The Story of Mr. Fox,” her dialogue is summarized; but both include increasingly vehement objections from the murderer as he realizes what is happening — a great way to create a tempo and build tension, especially in a spoken form.
In a couple other versions, she witnesses not a murder but the digging of a grave intended for her, and delivers her account in verse:
I’ll rede you a riddle, I’ll rede it you right,
Where was I last Saturday night?
The wind did blow, the leaves did shake,
When I saw the hole the fox did make.
And another version:
One moonlight night as I sat high
Waiting for one but two came by,
The boughs did bend, my heart did quake
To see the hole the fox did make.
(Both from “The Girl Who Got Up the Tree“)
And, just to be tedious (or thorough, depending on your level of interest), a couple more versions from yet another tale variant, “The Oxford Student:”
One moonshiny night, as I sat high,
Waiting for one to come by,
The boughs did bend; my heart did ache
To see what hole the fox did make.
As I went out in a moonlight night,
I set my back against the moon,
I looked for one, and saw two come.
The boughs did bend, the leaves did shake,
I saw the hole the Fox did make.
Anyway, in this variant, she makes the mistake of confronting Mr. Fox when they’re alone, and he stabs her right there.
Which calls attention to her impressive self-control in all the other versions, where — after finding out her beloved is a murderer, and she would’ve been the next victim — she waits. She waits for him to stop by and get invited to dinner. She waits through the meal. She waits until everyone else has finished chatting. And then she tells the tale, with attention to structure, tension, and timing, finishing off with the damning physical evidence/prop.
Quite the feat, considering the circumstances.
It makes me wonder … well, a lot of things. There’s a bunch of different ways to take this, and one specific possibility I want to explore — I’m still figuring out how to tell that story (hence the extreme vagueness).
In the meantime, you can see my first stab at a “Mr. Fox”/”Sweetheart in the Wood” retelling in my next post. I’ll warn you, it transitions oddly from blog post to story form partway through, but I decided to leave it like that because … I kind of like it.