The Wolf and the Seven Little Goats

What makes this fairy tale stand out from the others is its almost mythic themes of life and death and rebirth. We have two opposing main characters set up against each other in a battle over the lives of seven children. On the one hand a self-centered, devouring dark wolf who wishes to kill and eat the children. On the other is a self-sacrificing, saving light mother who wishes to protect and nurture the children. In between them are the mother goat’s seven kids who have to learn to distinguish between the two.

The fairy tale opens with the mother saying good-bye to her children as she is going into market to buy food for her family. She tells the children not to let anyone in but her and to beware the big bad wolf. He has black fur denoting his evil while the mother has white fur denoting her purity and goodness. She also tells the children that the wolf has a deep gruff voice while hers is soft and melodic. The children promise their mother they will remember all of this and off she goes to market.

Not long after she leaves there is a knock at the door and a voice calls out that it is their mother returned and that she has brought a goody for each of the children. The children hear the rough voice and taunt the wolf saying that they know it is him and they are not going to let him in. The wolf leaves and goes to a shopkeeper where he buys and eats a lump of chalk, which apparently softened his voice. I don’t want to think about how the original story-teller found that out about chalk. Anyway, the wolf returns with a nice soft voice and calls for the children again and again promises them goodies. Unfortunately for the wolf the children see his paw on the window sill and they cry out that they will not let him in because his paws are black and their mother’s are white.

The wolf leaves again and this time he goes to a baker and has the baker rub some dough on his paws. Then the wolf goes to the miller. The miller hears the wolf’s request to powder his paws with flour to make them white and initially refuses. He can see that the wolf must want to trick someone with a request like that. The wolf threatens the life of the miller and his family and so the baker helps the wolf in his deceit anyway.

Then the miller was afraid, and made his paws white for him. Truly, this is the way of mankind.

An interesting note from the brother’s Grimm on the selfishness of self-preservation. The wolf then returns and tells the children that he is their mother returned from shopping and the little goats hear the sweet voice and see the white paws and so they open the door. As the wolf barges in they realize their terrible mistake. The children scramble and run and hide but the wolf sniffs out and devours each one by one save for the youngest. The youngest had chosen as his hiding place a clock. This is highly symbolic for reasons I will touch on later, but suffice to say hiding in a physical representation of the concept of time allows him to hide from death while his siblings were all killed.

Then the wolf was full and content and so wandered off into a nearby meadow, bloated and pregnant looking with six kids inside him, and went to sleep. The mother returned home to find the door thrown open and all of the house in disarray but most importantly all of her children were gone. She searched for them and called for them by name and it was only when she got to the youngest that she heard a response. She found him hiding in the clock and scooped him out, he then told her everything. The mother wept for her children. Then mother and child went and found the wolf dead to the world in the pasture. He was not completely still though for she could see movement in his belly, her children still lived. She had the youngest kid fetch her sewing supplies and, using the domestic tools of her home and hearth, she performed a simple surgery on the wolf and brought her children one by one back into the light of day. In his greed whilst devouring the children he had swallowed each of them whole and so they were unhurt. The children danced in joy to be free, “like a tailor at his wedding.”

She then had the children fetch rocks for she did not wish the wolf to realize that the children were missing and so refilled the space in the wolf’s stomach with the stones the children brought and sewed the wolf back up. This is very like the punishment given the wolf in Grimm’s version of Little Red Riding Hood. He too was cut open to free Red and her grandmother and was refilled with stones and sewn back up.

When the wolf awoke later he was groggy and thirsty and as he got unsteadily to his feet the rocks inside him shifted and knocked together. As the wolf went in search of drink he said to himself:

“What rumbles and tumbles
Against my poor bones?
I thought ’twas six kids,
But it feels like big stones.”

When he came upon a well he leaned over to have a drink but the weight in his stomach pulled him much further then he expected and he toppled into the life-giving waters. There the stones in his stomach pulled him down to the bottom and he drowned. When the kids saw this all seven of them with their mother got in a circle and danced around the well and sang, “The wolf is dead! The wolf is dead!” And so the seven little goats were safe with their mother once more.

There are many different interpretations of this fairy tale depending on whom you ask. If you asked Sigmund Freud he thought this fairy tale symbolized the fear that children have of their fathers who devoured and used versus their mother that cared and nurtured. The problem with this interpretation is that the male figure is not the father of the goats, he is not even the same species. He is a male figure though, and the only one provided in the course of the narrative. It remains though that the danger comes from an outside source and the sanctity of the family provides safety, protection and salvation for its children.

This fairy tale bears a resemblance not to just to myth but to many other fairy tales as well. It is similar to the tale of the Three Little Pigs, they too had a wolf using tricks to gain admittance and devour the inhabitants of the house. Only instead of having the wolf fail to enter many times, the pigs instead fail to stop him, to their varying levels of dismay depending on the version you read. Bruno Bettleheim believes that the Three Little Pigs is a manifestation of a child’s fears of taking too much. Children devour everything in their path at times and some of these fairy tales that feature the big bad wolf show what can happen if you take too much, are too selfish and thus share the big bad wolf’s fate in each of these fairy tales. The danger does not from without in this fairy tale, but is an expression of a danger found within.

I said at the beginning of this post that this fairy tale featured many mythical elements of life and death. In many ways it bears a strong resemblance in fact to a specific myth, that of Cronus. In that myth the god devoured his own children one by one and was tricked into thinking his youngest, Zeus, had been eaten by himself as well. This was not so because his wife Rhea had tricked him by giving him nothing but a stone wrapped in swaddling to eat. Later Zeus freed his siblings, in some myths by forcing Cronus to drink something to make him regurgitate them, in others Zeus cut his father open, just like in this fairy tale. Cronus devoured his children because he wanted to stop the progress of time, he wanted to stifle the emergence of the next generation so that his own might reign longer. In fact in modern-day Cronus is often depicted as Father Time. Now do you see why it was so interesting that the youngest survived by hiding in a clock?

The other popular fairy tale it is similar to is The Goat and Her Three Kids. This is a Romanian literary fairy tale that was written several decades after the brothers Grimm passed away. Instead of seven, there are three kids. The oldest is hardheaded and outspoken and is the first to die, the youngest is quiet and obedient and is spared. There was some squabbling in YouTube comments over which is the “true” version of the fairy tale and while the Grimm tale does predate it I’m not even sure that can provide a satisfactory answer. Most fairy tales have bits and pieces scattered back so far and so wide that finding an original anything is often literally impossible. Wolves or other monsters eating children or stones or even being turned into stone are common motifs, as are kids of various species and ages being warned against wolves and their tricks, and parents attempting to protect their young with knowledge and songs and wisdom and wile. These all are to be found in every culture in one form or another. It is an overarching theme of familial protection and instinct, protect the young ones from death, that we all share regardless of era or language. It is in everyone’s fairy tales if you look enough.

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