Book review week: Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes

woman with candle

 

After my father died, my mother moved from the family home and, before the move, she asked my siblings and I to go through the papers she had been storing in the garage. Sorting through my old school books and reports, I found my social studies school book from when I was about 10. In it, I had a drawn a picture of the Bluebeard story. The woman was chained up against a wall and was begging her captor, the sinister man nearby. I can’t remember the words I had written in the speech bubble coming out of her mouth. A teacher, I’ve forgotten who, had written next to the picture in red pen something like, “Are you serious?” I have no idea what it was all about, except that I remember reading the Bluebeard story and it must have been around that time.

Fast forward decades, and I finally read the famed Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés and there is Bluebeard again. It’s one of the pivotal “fairytales” in her book, and her analysis of the tale runs to many pages including the following aspects:

  • the innate predator in every woman’s psyche
  • naive woman as prey
  • overturning the “not knowing”
  • confronting the murder of ourselves; surveying the carnage
  • the blood of the soul; the decimation of one’s creative life
  • backtracking and looping to pop up behind the predator’s back
  • preparing for the final and decisive battle with the predator; marshalling the psychic muscle.

Since its publication in 1992, the book has sold in the millions and I urge every woman, no matter your age or country, to read it. Don’t wait decades! The following is a slightly adapted version of Dr Estés’s re-telling of the Bluebeard tale. Remember the characters in these stories represent different aspects of the psyche.

*

Once upon a time there was a man with a beard as blue as the shadow of a hole at night. He was a giant man, a failed magician with an eye for women, a man known by the name of Bluebeard.

‘Twas said he courted three sisters at the same time. But they were frightened of his beard with its odd blue cast, and so they hid when he called. In an effort to convince them of his geniality he invited them on an outing in the forest. He arrived leading horses arrayed in bells and crimson ribbons. He set the sisters and their mother upon the horses and off they cantered into the forest. There they had a most wonderful day riding, and the sisters began to think,

Well, perhaps this man Bluebeard is not so bad after all.

They returned home all a-chatter, but the two older girls still had their suspicions. The youngest, however, thought that if a man could be that charming, perhaps he was not so bad. The more she talked to herself, the less awful he seemed, and the less blue his beard.

So when Bluebeard asked for her hand in marriage, she said yes, and they rode off to his castle in the woods.

*

One day, Bluebeard said,

I must go away for a time. Invite your family here, do whatever you want. I’ll give you my keys which you can use. However, this one key, the little one with the scrollwork, do not use.

And so he left and the woman’s sisters arrived, and she told them what he had said. And the sisters, feeling full of high spirits, decided to play a game of fitting each key to a door. The castle had hundreds of doors and they played for hours until there was just the one little scrollwork key.

“Maybe this key doesn’t fit anything at all,” they said. Just then they heard an odd sound – “errrrrrr”. They peeked around the corner, and – lo and behold – there was a small door just closing. One cried, “Sister, sister, bring your key. Surely this is the door for that mysterious little key.”

Without a thought, they put the key in the door and it swung open but it was so dark inside they could not see. “Sister, sister, bring a candle.” So a candle was lit and all three women screamed at once, for in the room was a mire of blood and the blackened bones of corpses.

They slammed the door and leaned against each other gasping.

The wife looked down at the key and saw it was stained with blood. Horrified, she used her skirt to wipe it clean, but the blood remained. “Oh, no!” she cried. The wife hid the key in her pocket and ran to the cook’s kitchen. When she arrived, her white dress was stained red from pocket to hem, for the key was slowly weeping drops of dark red blood. She told the cook, “Quick, give me some horsehair,” but no matter how she scoured the key, it would not stop bleeding. She tried all manner of things to staunch the flow, but nothing could make the weeping blood subside.

“Oh, what am I to do?” she cried.

I know, I’ll put the little key in the wardrobe and close the door. This is a bad dream. All will be aright.

Her husband came home the next morning and strode into the castle calling for his wife.

Well? How was it while I was away?
It was very fine, sir.
So everything is good, wife?
Yes, everything is good.

“Well,” he whispered, “then you’d best return my keys.”

Within a glance he saw a key was missing. “Where is the smallest key?”

“I … I … don’t remember.”

“Don’t lie to me! Tell me what you did with that key!”

He put his hand to her face as if to caress her cheek, but instead seized her hair. “You infidel!” he snarled, and threw her to the floor. “You’ve been into the room, haven’t you?”

He threw open the wardrobe and the little key on the top shelf had bled over her beautiful gowns.

“Now it’s your turn, my lady,” he screamed, and dragged her down the hall and into the cellar till they were before the terrible door. He opened the door and there lay the skeletons of all his previous wives.

“And now!!!” he roared, but she caught hold of the door frame and would not let go. She pleaded for her life, “Please! Please, allow me to compose myself and prepare for my death. Give me but a quarter hour so I can make my peace with God.”

“All right,” he snarled, “you have a quarter hour only.”

The wife ran up the stairs to her chamber and posted her sisters on the castle ramparts, while she knelt pretending to pray.

“Sisters, sisters! Do you see our brothers coming?”

“We see nothing yet.”

Every few minutes she called up to her sisters, “Sisters, sisters! Do you see our brothers coming?”

“We see a whirlwind in the distance.”

Meanwhile, Bluebeard roared for his wife to come to the cellar so he could behead her. Again she called to her sisters, and again Bluebeard shouted for her and began to clomp up the stone stairs.

Her sisters cried out, “Yes! We see them! Our brothers are here and they have just entered the castle.”

Bluebeard strode down the hall towards his wife’s chamber. “I am coming to get you,” he bellowed.

As he broke into her room with his hands outstretched to seize her, her brothers charged into the room as well. There they routed him out onto the parapet. With swords, they advanced upon him, beating Bluebeard down to the ground, killing him at last and leaving for the buzzards his blood and gristle.

*

Image: London-based illustrator, Silje Kristin

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4 thoughts on “Book review week: Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes

  1. I first encountered Dr. Estes’s work in the form of cassette tapes in Toronto’s “World’s Biggest Bookstore” in the early 1990’s. They were recorded by Estes herself, in her soothing voice; so soothing that I often fell asleep when listening to the tapes while lying in bed. Her message was not sleepy, though: it was powerful, and changed my way of thinking about many things. I recognized in my own self the “instinct damaged woman”. It takes a long time to truly internalize these ideas: for me, at least, it’s an ongoing process rather than one decisive battle.

    The illustration is perfect, though I’m disappointed not to see your schoolroom drawing!

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    • Falling asleep can also be a reaction to being confronted. It’s in the stories too. Many of the characters fall asleep when resisting the call to be wakeful and active. BTW, isn’t it a funny way of speaking? “Fall” asleep. Like The Fall in Eden, like Satan’s fall from heaven in Paradise Lost, like a loss, a failure, etc, and then there’s all the piety and morality about getting up early.

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      • Yes, you’re right. It’s hard to think of another way of putting it, though. We use the expression, “drop off to sleep,” too. Or “drift off”.

        If you have a chance to listen to Estes’s voice, you will understand what I mean about it being soothing. Of course, it may have been a sign of resistance, as you say. On the other hand, I was working hard and was often very tired during that time period. If you go to http://www.soundstrue.com, there are samples from Estes’s recordings.

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      • Drop off, drift off, also, “go to sleep”. I was reading a book by Thich Nhat Hanh and he mentioned that in his culture they do not say “strike” the bell or gong. They say “invite the bell to sound”. Isn’t it funny? “Strike the gong” or “ring the bell” or “fall asleep” occur as if it’s perfectly obvious it’s the right (only) way to say it. And it’s all just a filter.

        People get sleepy or fall asleep doing the Landmark Forum. Or they get a headache or they have to get up and stretch continually because their back’s killing them, and it’s because they’re being confronted. I was one of the latter ones. Before I did the Landmark Forum I couldn’t get through a day without strong painkillers and anti-inflammatory medication. Now I haven’t had a back ache for years.

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