The Robber Bride, by Margaret Atwood is a new twist on an old, almost forgotten Grimm tale. Not so new, as it was published in 1993. I read it when it first came out, then re-read it a couple of times, read the Grimm version and Eudora Welty’s take and also saw the musical which was based on Welty’s novel. Now I’ve just read Atwood’s book again and enjoyed it just as much as the first time—she is that good a writer.
The original tale was set in Germany, and was called “The Robber Bridegroom”. The plot is simple, but creepy: a young man sweet-talks his betrothed into visiting his house in the woods, where he and his cronies plan to kill and eat her. The tale features a pet raven who tries to warn the woman, crying “Turn back, turn back!” She escapes, but another young woman’s murder is discovered when her ring is found on a severed finger. (I told you it was creepy.)
Eudora Welty chose this tale for her first novel, published in 1942. She embellished it by setting it on the Natchez Trace and adding real life characters like Mike Fink, a legendary brawler and river boatman, as well as Little Harp, who was a Mississippi bandit. In this version, the bridegroom is an outlaw, but the real villain is Little Harp. The 1978 musical takes Welty’s version and turns it into a dark comedy with rollicking tunes.
Margaret Atwood borrows the theme of the folk tale, but makes the vampiric villain a woman who devours her victims in a metaphoric, rather than literal, sense. As Roz says, “She’ll just take one bite out of him and throw him away.” The novel is riddled with fairy tale references: the witch who cannot enter your house without your invitation, rituals that keep ghosts in their place. Atwood is a gifted writer who creates word pictures to capture the essence of her characters. Tony sneaks along behind her sleep-walking friend “like a butterfly collector.” Charis is “slippery and translucent…like the prehensile tentacles of sea anemones.” Zenia, dressed in white, “glows like the moon.”
Margaret Atwood is a prolific award-winning poet, novelist, essayist and literary critic. The Robber Bride is a pleasure to read.