May 11, 2010

Fairy Tale Origins, Part I
Little Red Riding Hood

Little Red Riding Hood started life in stories told orally of a girl who outsmarts a wolf – all by herself without any help. A few hundred later, she’s given a red cap, which seems to reduce her IQ, and she gets eaten by a wolf that likes to dress up like a woman. In another hundred years, the cap becomes a hood, which appears to reduce her IQ even further, she gets eaten by the wolf, but then is rescued by a big, strong man. It’s unfortunate that this is the story most of us are familiar with.

Traditional versions of Little Red Riding Hood were oral tales about a young girl’s initiation into womanhood. In an Italian version, the wolf is an ogress and Little Red is a girl on the cusp of growing up. A better known version comes from France and is known as “The Path of Needles or Pins”, named so because when she meets the wolf she must choose one of two paths, the path of needles or the path of pins.

Yvonne Verdier, who studied numerous variations of the Little Red Riding Hood tale, believed the paths were symbolic of two periods of growth in a young girl’s life. When a girl was sent off to be apprenticed to a seamstress, this was the path of pins (learning a trade as part of growing up) and is regarded by Verdier as the path of maidenhood, the path of change from child to young woman. The path of needles was the next stage and implied sexual maturity, the needle being emblematic of sexual penetration.

Angela Carter’s Little Red (“The Company of Wolves”) is brave and independent, fearless and ready to protect herself. She can and will look after herself. She is confident and when she meets the wolf/huntsman on the path to Granny’s house she is in no way intimidated.

They make a wager with a kiss the prize, and she happily dawdles so he may reach Granny’s house first. When she arrives, Granny is a rattling bundle of bones wrapped in a napkin under the bed, and the wolf makes no real attempt to pretend to be the grandmother. Their exchange, informed by knowledge rather than fear, breaks the traditional pattern. She undresses quite willingly. There is no fear of sex, or of male desire, or even a hint of shame about her own desires.

Carter’s heroine is fearless on many levels: she has sex outside the bounds of the approved space of marriage, she chooses it for herself (it is not imposed upon her as a marriage duty or as an act of rape), she acts without deference to anyone, and with no thought for society’s sanctions. And there are no consequences for her actions, no societal enforced punishment for being a “loose” woman.

Jack Zipes refers to the original tales as depicting the way a young girl must learn to cope with the world around her. The girl meets the wolf on the way to Granny’s house and discloses where she’s going. The wolf kills and eats the grandmother, takes her place in bed, and induces the girl to eat and drink Granny’s flesh and blood before climbing into bed with him. Recognising her danger, and with no one else to turn to, the girl uses her wits to save herself.

Gruesome though it is, the eating of the grandmother’s flesh and drinking of her blood can also be seen as representing the life-cycle. The young replace the old, the girl is coming into the fullness of her womanhood. The grandmother is at the end of the cycle, she is no longer fertile, no longer desired, no longer agile and active. Although the young girl has a traumatic experience, she has been independent and saved herself with no help from either a prince or woodsman, nor any other male figure.

Enter Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm.

Perrault’s tale became a moral tale, warning women and children that if they did not conform there would be consequences. Perrault introduces the red cap/hood and the element of a wager between the wolf and Little Red Riding Hood. He also implies that she is somehow careless in taking her time to get to Granny’s house – that she is complicit in Granny’s death because she wants to lose the bet, and thus invites the wolf’s sexual advances. When she arrives at Granny’s house she is raped and eaten. Perrault lays the blame very squarely on her shoulders (just in case anyone should miss the point).

A century or so later, the Brothers Grimm gave the story a happy ending and removed the sexual bawdiness and overt violence. Little Red is shown as a foolish little girl who gets herself and her Granny into trouble by disobeying her mother, dawdling, and talking to strangers. The wolf once again wins the race to Granny’s house, where he eats the old woman and then her granddaughter. Luckily, there is a woodsman, a big strong man, to rescue them by disemboweling the wolf. The huntsman then sews rocks back into the wolf's stomach for punishment.

If you’re interested in learning more about Little Red Riding Hood, here’s some links for you:

The Path of Needles or Pins by Terri Windling

The Grandmother (Needles or Pins) by Achille Millien

Little Red Riding Hood, by Charles Perrault

Little Red Cap, by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

Politically correct Little Red Riding Hood


Jamie D. said...

Fascinating, Carol. I had no idea. Thanks for much brain food with's rather inspiring. :-)

C R Ward said...

Thanks Jamie! I've always found the origins of fairy tales fascinating. :-)