Tuesday, 26 May 2020

Strong Fairy Tale Heroines #14: MR FOX




MR FOX

This is one of my top ten favourite fairy tales. It is old perhaps the oldest known version of the ‘Bluebeard’ story, though as I wrote in my book of essays on fairy tales, ‘Seven Miles of Steel Thistles’, I think it’s a great deal better than ‘Bluebeard’. When courageous Lady Mary discovers the reason why her fiancé, the suave Mr Fox, seems unwilling to let her visit his castle, this very self-possessed and steely heroine turns the tables on him. 

Shakespeare knew and quoted from the story, and Edmund Spencer also quotes from and references it in Book 3 of ‘The Faerie Queen’. Then it disappeared from view, until Joseph Jacobs, looking for stories for his ‘English Fairy Tales’ (1898) rediscovered it in an addendum to Edmond Malone’s 1790 edition of the complete works of Shakespeare. A Mr Blakeway contributed a note to explain the line in Act I, Sc 1, of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, where Benedick says to Claudio: ‘Like the old tale, my lord: it is not so, nor ‘twas not so; but, indeed, God forbid it should be so.’ (To find out more, you can read my post on the history of the story by clicking on this sentence.) In his note, Mr Blakeway recounts the story in an abbreviated form, explaining that his great-aunt had told it to him in his childhood. He concludes: 

Such is the old tale to which Shakspeare evidently alludes, and which has often ‘froze my young blood’ when I was a child. I will not apologize for repeating it, since it is manifest that such old wives’ tales often prove the best elucidation of this writer’s meaning.

This accidental survival of such a very strong fairy tale makes me wonder, with something of a sigh, how many other English fairy tales we may have lost?

'Mr Fox' is literally a ‘twice-told tale’. During the first telling, Lady Mary is a witness to frightening events. Then she seizes control of the narrative and wields it: and the person who owns the story owns the power. The many children to whom I‘ve told this tale have easily intuited this, and they have all loved its sinister power, rising suspense and easy-to-remember mantras. 


Lady Mary was young, and Lady Mary was fair. She had two brothers, and more lovers than she could count. But of them all, the bravest and most gallant was a Mr Fox, whom she met when she was down at her father’s country house. No one knew who Mr Fox was; but he was certainly brave, and surely rich, and of all her lovers, Lady Mary cared for him alone. At last it was agreed upon between them that they should be married. Lady Mary asked Mr Fox where they should live, and he described to her his castle, and where it was; but, strange to say, did not ask her or her brothers, to come and see it.

                So one day, near the wedding day, when her brothers were out and Mr Fox was away for a day or two on business (as he said), Lady Mary set out for Mr Fox’s castle. And after many searchings she came at last to it, and a fine strong house it was, with high walls and a deep moat. And when she came up to the gateway she saw written on it:

Be bold, be bold.

And as the gate was open, she went through it, and found no one there. So she went up to the doorway, and over it she found written:

Be bold, be bold, but not too bold.

Still she went on, till she came into the hall, and went up the broad stairs till she came to a door in a gallery, over which was written:

Be bold, be bold, but not too bold
Lest that your heart’s blood should run cold.

But Lady Mary was a brave one, she was, and she opened the door, and what do you think she saw? Why, bodies and skeletons of beautiful young ladies all stained with blood! So Lady Mary thought it was high time to get out of that horrid place, and she closed the door, went through the gallery, and was just going down the stairs and out of the hall, when who should she see through the window but Mr Fox, dragging a beautiful young lady along from the gateway to the door. Lady Mary rushed downstairs, and hid herself behind a chest, just in time, as Mr Fox came in with the poor young lady who seemed to have fainted. Just as he got near Lady Mary, Mr Fox saw a diamond ring glittering on the finger of the young lady he was dragging, and he tried to pull it off. But it was tightly fixed and would not come off, so Mr Fox cursed and swore and drew his sword, raised it, and brought it down upon the hand of the poor lady. The sword cut off the hand, which jumped into the air, and fell of all places in the world into Lady Mary’s lap. Mr Fox looked about a bit, but he did not think of looking behind the chest, so at last he went on dragging the young lady up the stairs into the Bloody Chamber. 

                As soon as she heard him pass through the gallery, Lady Mary crept  out of the door, down through the gateway, and ran home as fast as she could. 

                Now it happened that the very next day the marriage contract of Lady Mary and Mr Fox was to be signed, and there was a splendid breakfast before that. And when Mr Fox was seated at the tables opposite Lady Mary, he looked at her. “How pale you are this morning, my dear.” “Yes,” said she, “I had a bad night’s rest last night. I had horrible dreams.” “Dreams go by contraries,” said Mr Fox, “but tell us your dream and your sweet voice will make the time pass till the happy hour comes.”

                “I dreamed,” said Lady Mary, “that I went yesterday to your castle, and I found it in the woods, with high walls, and a deep moat, and over the gateway was written:

                                                Be bold, be bold.

                “It is not so, nor it was not so,” said Mr Fox.

                “And when I came to the doorway over it was written: 

                                                Be bold, be bold, but not too bold.

                 “It is not so, nor it was not so,” said Mr Fox.

                “And then I went upstairs, and came to a gallery, at the end of which was a door, on which was written: 

Be bold, be bold, but not too bold
Lest that your heart’s blood should run cold.

                “It is not so, nor it was not so,” said Mr Fox.

                “And then – and then I opened the door, and the room was filled with bodies and skeletons of poor dead women, all stained with their blood.”

                “It is not so, nor it was not so. And God forbid it should be so,” said Mr Fox. 

                “Then I dreamed that I rushed down the gallery, and just as I was going down the stairs I saw you, Mr Fox, coming up to the hall door, dragging after you a poor young lady, rich and beautiful.”

                “It is not so, nor it was not so. And God forbid it should be so,” said Mr Fox. 

                “I rushed downstairs, just in time to hide myself behind a chest, when you, Mr Fox, came in dragging the young lady by the arm. And, as you passed me, Mr Fox, I thought I saw you try and pull off her diamond ring, and when you could not, Mr Fox, it seemed to me in my dream that you pulled out your sword and hacked the poor lady’s hand off to get the ring.”

                “It is not so, nor it was not so. And God forbid it should be so,” said Mr Fox, and he was going to say something else as he rose from his seat, when Lady Mary jumped up, crying, “But it is so, and it was so. Here’s hand and ring I have to show,” and she pulled out the lady’s hand from her dress and pointed it straight at Mr Fox.

And with that, her brothers and her friends drew their swords and cut Mr Fox into a thousand pieces!




More on fairy tales and folklore in my book "Seven Miles of Steel Thistles" available  here and here.


    Illustration by HJ Ford          

3 comments:

  1. Also a favourite of mine - and I believe what gave Angela Carter the title of her book of short stories, In the Bloody Chamber?

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  2. I think it may have - she certainly must have known it. But the term is used in other variants of the Bluebeard story.

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  3. Well...that escalated quickly. O.o

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