Little Red Riding Hood

I’m just going to start off by saying that Little Red Riding Hood is one of my absolute favorite fairy tales of all time. I ended up writing an end of term paper just on the history of this one fairy tale and had so much fun writing it! So, for this week’s fairy tale friday I’m including it below. This really goes beyond just talking about the fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood and gets into fairy tales and their constantly shifting and changing impact on society, and particularly the impact of Little Red Riding Hood on society from the Middle Ages to present day.

Keep in mind this essay is a little dated, I wrote it back in 2003. I fixed some errors, but for the most part I left it unchanged. As for all the pictures, if it’s click-able it can pop to a bigger image if you want a closer look at some of the versions of Red. Also, because this is an older essay, I don’t talk at all about the resurgence of werewolf popularity in YA novels nowadays. Though, if I were to hazard a guess off the cuff from what little I have read, it seems to me the new wave is more about “taming the wolf” than tempting him. It’s more of that whole unhealthy obsession some young women and girls get thinking that they can take a violent and abusive man and change him if they only just “loved him enough”. Gratifyingly at least some of these wolves do want to change in the first place so at least there is that going for them.

Little Red Riding Hood

Here is a tale about a girl with a red cloak going to Grandma’s house with goodies in a basket. She meets a wolf along the way and tells him where she is going and how to get there. The wolf races to Grandma’s house, devours Grandma and takes the old woman’s place in her bed. When the girl makes it to Grandma’s house she enters and exclaims on the large eyes, ears, nose and teeth of the occupant imposter. At the last the wolf devours her whole thus ending the life of Little Red Riding Hood. An innocent tale told to children to keep them amused. Nothing more, right? Wrong.

This is one of many so called fairy tales that has influenced and been influenced by our society and our social mores and norms. It has been told to countless generations in various forms all around the world. According to the Index to Fairy Tales — Myths and Legends there are around eighty-seven official variations to the tale of Little Red Riding Hood (Eastman). These variations each represent slightly different societal influence from the people who crafted the telling, or re-telling of the story. Fairy tales are not age-old stories of long forgotten times that maintain old-fashioned morals. In fact, they are stories that travel through time and are retold over and over again along the way. Each re-telling reflects new morals and new ideas that are held by each new generation that tells the story.

Fairy tales tell tales of birth, of life, of marriage and of death. Any major transition period in the life of a human being is covered by a fairy tale. From the birth of the first child to the birth of the last, from sibling rivalry to dealing with a step-family, from growing up, to coming of age, to passing away all are dealt with by fairy tales. This is why the tales remain true, why they don’t die out; they are stories of basic facts of life that we all must come to terms with. This is also why the tales are constantly changing; the ideas about marriage in the seventeenth century and the ideas about marriage today are quite different. So the tales are changed, but only slightly, so that they are familiar and comforting and yet new and entertaining all at once.

Most older fairy tales are, at their roots, dank and depressing. They are representations of the lives that people led at the time. These lives were not always easy and certainly weren’t as clean and sanitary as the lives we lead today. These tales take a stage of life, a death, a birth, a marriage, or a coming of age and construct a smaller, simpler, crueler, sharper model of our society portraying just that stage for its story (Orenstein, 5). This is why these tales are so enduring. Morals and ideas come and go but growing up, getting married, giving birth, and dying; these stay the same no matter the time or place.

There have been several attempts to censor the tales since then. California school districts have banned Little Red Riding Hood entirely from their libraries. Not because of the fact that there is a cross dressing wolf, and a girl who gets into bed with him. No, it’s because one of the things in Red’s basket to take to Granny is wine. The schools didn’t want to be seen encouraging alcoholism (Orenstein, 7). Outside of that anomaly the tale is usually simply re-written with the bad thrown out and a bit of a new type of good thrown in. Now I will enumerate the versions of the tale of Little Red Riding Hood over time and how society has changed and influenced it, and of course how the tale itself has changed and influenced society.

In a book by Orenstein she displays the text from a woodcut on the trial for one Stubbe Peeter, which occurred in 1589 (87-90). A horrible man, the people of the countryside claimed, he made pacts with the devil, slept with his sister, slept with his daughter, had a child by the later and when the boy was old enough took him into the forest and killed him before eating his brains. He had been terrorizing the city of Collin and the nearby towns of Cperadt and Bedbur for years, so they claimed, in the guise of a wolf. Clearly the man was a werewolf and nothing but a devil worshiper. The man, in the shape of a wolf had killed several men, women, and children and so when several children were caught unawares by the wolf, they were sure they were done for (Orenstein 87-90). Later several witnesses would sign a document swearing that this was in fact true. For as the wolf took a hold of the nearest child, a young girl, he had difficulty getting a hold of her neck, as her collar was so high that it got in the wolf’s way. Several nearby cattle, upset that their young may be threatened, stampeded the wolf and the wolf released the child and ran away. This final straw spurred the villagers into action and they finally claimed to have captured the wolf/man (Orenstein 87-90).

After several days of torture the man admitted to all of this and more. As punishment the man was dismembered and decapitated, his head was hoisted on a pike and his body burned at the stake, as an afterthought they burned his daughter and mistress at the stake as well, no word on what happened to the sister (Orenstein 87-90). It was just another day in Germany during the werewolf trials.

A vivid and horrifying tale, and sadly, at least the last bit, undeniably true. But, this was the old method of keeping order and enforcing conformity to the social standard. Just like the Salem Witch Trials they killed any who could have been considered an “outsider” a miss-fit some one who created dissension. It was something that would not be tolerated as it meant trouble and hardship for all individually instead of the slightly better ease of working communally. It was a bitter and hard lesson to teach, and a deadly one to learn. Which is why most of these occurrences were turned into tales, fairy tales and folk tales, I am sure you recognize the tale above, and they were passed down so that future generations would know, and benefit (Rothstein).

Little Red Riding Hood is a young tale in that it most probably didn’t develop until the Middle Ages. Theories on this conflict severely, and as Tatar said in The Classic Annotated Fairy Tales the “[…] multiplicity of interpretations leads one to have a lack of confidence in any of them” (18). Regardless of that, most theories seem to agree that in the seventeenth century, sometime after the Thirty Years War in Germany a fear of wolves and a hysteria about werewolves developed and some think that the tale of Little Red Riding Hood developed right alongside all of that. In the book The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood Marianne Rumpf points out some proof that this is true. She says, “Wherever oral versions of the Little Red Riding Hood tale were found later in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, they were primarily discovered in these regions where werewolf trials were most common in the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries” (Zipes, 4).

In the forests of France one of the versions of Little Red Riding Hood was “The Story of Grandmother”. This was an oral tale that had been passed down through many generations. The tale was believed to be cautionary, warning against dallying in the woods and of course against wolves. In this version of the tale Granny is not only eaten by the wolf, he also puts her meat in the cupboard and a bottle of her blood on the shelf. When Red comes in he urges her to eat the meat and drink the “wine” when she does a cat walks by and calls her a slut for eating her own grandmother. Zipes wonders if this symbolizes the replacement of one generation by another (Zipes, 7). After that Red strips for the wolf, asking what she should do with each article only to be told to throw it on the fire, as she wouldn’t be needing it anymore. Red then goes through and asks the questions that lead her to the unfortunate conclusion that this is not her grandmother. She then asks one more question: “Can I go to the bathroom”? Thus she leaves the house and runs home, by the time the wolf realizes he has been duped, it is too late. So perhaps Red had something passed down to her from her Grandmother, her femininity, her quick thinking, and her shrewdness. While it could not save the older generation, it was enough to save Red. So perhaps, “[…] the folk tale was not just a warning tale, but also a celebration of a young girl’s coming of age” (Zipes, 7).

This and other versions most probably contributed to the first literary version of the tale written by Perrault. Perrault, as well as several other Frenchmen of the upper class, were attempting to teach and train their children to hold upper class morals (Bettelheim, 169). It was a new thing and one of the tricks pulled was taking tales from the lower class and re-writing them for the upper class. Such vulgarity as Red eating Grandma and such independence as Red shows when she ran away were cut from the story. Instead the tale spelled out the sexuality of the situation, and ended with Red being eaten by the wolf. Also in this version a red cloak was introduced for the first time. This is not really a fairy tale either, it is just a cautionary tale, one that is intended to shock and scare the children into obedience with Perrault’s wishes (Bettelheim, 169). This story painted the picture of the perfect girl child. She is pretty, spoiled, and stupid. This fulfills the male fantasy of having a simple, docile, obedient, subservient, stupid wife (Zipes, 12). This explains why the child sees nothing wrong with getting in bed with a wolf, and staying there. In the article “Little Red Riding Hood: Werewolf and Prostitute” the author writes about how the tale reveals “[…] a social order in which women required masculine protection and guidance. Any female who chose to be alone placed herself outside the social norm” (Chase). Therefore any independence or quick thinking was stripped from the tale as it had no place inside the heads of female children of the upper class.

The Brothers Grimm’s collection of fairy tales that allegedly came from the German countryside was the next to popularize the tale Little Red Riding Hood. The Grimm brothers did not find the tale suitable for their audiences of German children so they dutifully stripped the tale of all sexual connotations. They re-wrote the tale into one of obedience, about sticking to the straight path and always doing as you are told. The child is not killed in this story. Instead she is saved by a woodsman who cuts her and Granny out of the wolf’s stomach with a pair of scissors and then fills the space with stones before sewing him back up again. When the wolf comes to and tries to get away the wolf falls over dead. The story not only teaches obedience it also teaches subservience to the more dominant male, when he is in the right. The collection of fairy tales was wildly popular and in Germany is still second only to the Bible in lasting sales.

“Erotic play and seduction appear to capture the imagination of the French, whereas the Germans are more concerned with law and order” (Zipes, 24). And, they weren’t the only ones, the Victorian era took to this and other stories and so this, the Grimm’s version, is the most widely known. The tale was translated into English and was released in both England and the United States as it was. The United States viewed the tale and came to some conclusions; one they were notorious for was openly blaming the apparent “rape” of Red on herself and warned their own children against such behavior.

In early nineteenth century America a new tale was written by a woman which was called “The New Red Riding Hood”. The tale contained no wolf, no men of importance at all. Instead of having a wolf or a hunter deny her life’s pleasures she denies herself in a long boring story of self sacrifice and diligence, being kind and sweet, yet subservient and humble. She was a crown-less Snow White or a prince-less Cinderella, minus the ridicule. According to Zipes, “Women were expected to be strong and self-sufficient, yet dependent and self-denying” (23). In this tale Red was written to be a perfect picture of nineteen century womanhood for all to see.

In 1929 Walt Disney released his first animated cartoon which starred none other then Little Red Riding Hood. Later in the 1930’s Tex Avery, Walt’s polar opposite, began animating Red. Only he gave the tale a very different slant. Red was now a sexy Hollywood stripper and the wolf was one of the boys dressed to the nines and whistling at the show (Orenstein, 112). Red begins to symbolize the sexuality of a woman, a single woman. Most other fairy tales contain women who end the story married, such as Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid (at least in Disney), and Beauty to name a few. Red doesn’t, she doesn’t even have any brothers to speak of, no male at all save the wolf. Tex Avery starts a long series of an endless drawn out romance between Red and the wolf, which he animates over the next two decades. Red teases and denies while the wolf salivates and howls, and when things get out of hand Red sees nothing wrong with grabbing a lounge lamp and knocking the wolf unconscious with it. This is now more then a fairy tale, it is actual characters and symbols of the human sexual drama (Orenstein, 115).

In more recent times the tale has been taken up by feminists to hold feminine ideals about marriage and courtship. About avoiding the wolf or outright tricking him. They turn Red’s story into one of independence and pride. For the first time the tale of Little Red Riding Hood was viewed as an undeserved rape on Red, and for the first time it was not considered entirely her fault. Red became strong, sexy, crafty, a Woman among women. She was someone who chased down the wolf and looked down on him through the site of a semi-automatic. In fact, more and more, she was the wolf. Feminists knew that people are influenced by stories and so wanted those stories changed to reflect their ideals. Red was their spokeswoman, who showed there was nothing a man could do that a woman couldn’t do too.

And, in that light, there is nothing a woman can do that a man can’t do. As James Thurber pointed out in one of his cartoons, “It is not so easy to fool little girls nowadays as it used to be” (Orenstein, 118), and indeed it isn’t. The wolves are having to put on more charm, figuratively wear more frills, be more in touch with their feelings and essentially more feminine if they even want a chance with the Reds of the world. So, they have switched skins, fur for frills. Some people even view the wolf as maternal as several pictures show the wolf, after having swallowed red, fat and pregnant with a blissful smile on his face. You could almost say the wolf must have had pregnancy envy. In 1989 Gary Larson drew a cartoon of the wolf in a granny costume lying out on a psychiatrist’s couch, the caption read: “It was supposed to be just a story about a little kid and a wolf. But off and on I’ve been dressing up as grandmother ever since” (Orenstein, 193). The wolf has become what he only pretended to be, a mother to be, a transvestite, he was a woman.

In 1996 the movie Freeway came out. It was a movie that took the story of Little Red Riding Hood to the streets. It is a story about a girl named Vanessa on the run from the system to her grandmother’s house so that she no longer needs to be in yet another foster home. Opposite her is Bob Wolverton, a clean cut upper class man with an SUV and a job as a physiatrist at a local all-boys school (Freeway). When Vanessa’s car breaks down she accepts a ride from him. He gains her trust by being passive and taking on the feminine role of just listening and being silently supportive. Then the tables turn when he starts trying to convince her that being raped by her step-father is entirely her fault (Freeway). Up until this point he has been a proper upper class person, but now he starts to swear:

Bob. Look at you. You’re already a master at the manipulation of men.
Vanessa. I didn’t run nothing on you.
Bob. It’s so intrinsic to your fucking nature you’re not even aware of it when you do it.

The audience is led to believe that Vanessa may just be asking for it, what with accepting a ride from a perfect stranger and all, stupid in a Perrault sort of way, really. Then Vanessa comes to the realization that that this is the Freeway Killer and she has fallen into his hands. Bob believes that he can kill any low class scum he wants, that he will be helping, and that he is above the law, being upper class and the ones to influence its creation (Freeway). Vanessa is left with only one thing to do. “Vanessa would rather live with the consequences of murdering a psycho-killer masquerading as a high class, than live with the knowledge that Bob could and would kill other innocent women” (Sinn, 14). Not a happy ending, but a necessary one.

So, as the tale of Little Red Riding Hood is passed down from generation to generation, new morals and new ideas are attached to the tale. The tale shows the changing of ideas and values surrounding a young girl coming of age. From being empowered by her grandmother’s death, to always losing her innocence, to being saved by the dominant male time and again, showing her own inadequacy, to denying herself in the interest of being a perfect woman, to being a Hollywood stripper, a femme fatale, and a girl lost on the Freeway, Red has lived on and changed to survive it all. A story that influences each culture even as the culture molds it to fit its ideals and lifestyle. Little Red Riding Hood may be an age-old tale, but it definitely does not showcase old-fashioned morals, it is a constantly changing tale of “coming of age” and going from being just another little girl to a full-fledged woman.

Works Cited

Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Vintage Books, 1976.

Chase, Richard, and David Teasley. “Little Red Riding Hood: Werewolf and Prostitute.” The Historian. 57 (1995): 769-776. 25 Apr. 2003.

Eastman, Mary Huse. Index to Fairy Tales — Myths and Legends. Boston: F.W. Faxon Co., 1926.

Freeway. Dir. Matthew Bright. Perf. Keither Sutherland and Reese Witherspoon. Videocassette. Republic Pictures, 1996.

Orenstein, Catherine. Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality and the Evolution of a Fairy Tale. New York: Basic Books, 2002.

Rothstein, Edward. “Into the Woods, Children, for Dark Mysteries, Not Simple Lessons.” The New York Times 07 Dec. 2002: B09. ProQuest. Elmhurst College Library, Elmhurst. 23 Apr. 2003. Keyword: Little Red Riding Hood.

Sinn, Julia A. “‘I Ain’t No Trick Baby’ or Princess in Disguise: Gender Boundaries and Female Mobility in Freeway, Snow White: A Tale of Terror, and Ever After: A Cinderella Story.” Diss. U of Florida, 2001.

Tatar, Maria. The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales. New York: Norton, 2002.

Zipes, Jack. The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood: Versions of the Tale in Sociocultural Context. South Hadely, MA: Bergin & Garvey, 1983.

3 Responses to Little Red Riding Hood

  1. carol
    9:35 am on April 16th, 2010

    You’re fairy tale posts are always fascinating. Thanks!

  2. Tif
    7:58 pm on April 23rd, 2010

    Wow!!! This is amazing and very thorough! There was much written here that I was not aware of and has really got me intrigued! I’m so glad that you have your references listed because I think I need to check some of these out for myself!!!

  3. SheWolf
    6:32 am on September 27th, 2011

    You’re definately right about “Red Riding Hood” changing into “coming of age”. A so called innocent girl on her way to do good for granny,being killed by a wolf would never have crossed my mind to be about sexuality,feminine ways,and independence.I guess I never really thought about the story behind the story of Red until reading about it in College Writing.

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