What’s your favourite fairy tale? It should be simple right? Like when people ask you “What’s your favourite book?” or movie, or band. It’s never simple for me because I can never seem to pick just one. Maybe one per genre, but not one that tops the others. I also find as I get older it seems to change. One of my favourite Fairy Tales is Little Red Riding Hood. I studied Fairy tales at Uni so there are quite a few that are dear to me but LRRH has to be up there at the top. So is The Little Mermaid (the original not the Disney version, which brings a whole set of problems to the table; more on that later). I feel like LRRH is one of the core tales that inspires writers. LRRH as well as Beauty and The Beast and Cinderella seem to get the most re-tellings, reprints and abridged versions. When I was studying these tales in Uni I was surprised at not only the wide varieties available throughout the ages as source material but the richness of contemporary versions. Italo Calvino once wrote, ‘The tale is not beautiful if nothing is added to it’; considering that this was written in the introduction of a well known book of folktales it can be assumed that each author/teller impacts the narration of it. Each teller brings something different to the story, adding and subtracting that which does and does not help their purpose. Stories are alive and feed each other, and us.
I think LRRH is one of the sources where I get my love of werewolves from, I know the original is not actually a werewolf story, but a lot of the contemporary re-tellings incorporate werewolf lore into them. My favourite contemporary version is Wolfland by Tanith Lee which focuses on the female characters in a beautiful way. This tale teaches women to be empowered; that we do not need men to take care of us. I don’t want to give away any spoilers so I’m just going to say that I love how they changed the traditional roles of the characters. Another modern retelling that I really enjoyed was Scarlet by Marissa Meyer. It’s my favourite book out of the whole Lunar Chronicles.
LRRH is a story that has changed over the centuries as people’s cultural ideologies have changed. Charles Perrault was the first author to overtly add a moral to the tale of LRRH. Perrault’s version, modelled on the court of King Louis the XIV, reflects the time and the purpose to which it was written. This version ends in the death of LRRH, which was a new addition to the tale from its predecessors in the folk tale genre. In Perrault’s time childhood was just beginning to be recognised as a development stage. Many sociological changes took place due this change including the institution of education and the need for children’s stories, and stories were written, or edited, to have morals at the end. It is in this moral that we are taught that the wolf is merely a symbol for the lusty man. Perrault’s moral, and likely Perrault himself, blames the child’s disobedience for the misfortune that befalls her. Most of these moralised children’s tales at this time ended with the child protagonist (whether “good” or “bad”) dying, as people believed that a frightened child was a behaved child.
One of the things I really love about LRRH is that in most versions, the story has elements of female empowerement. Yes, it originated as a warning to girls of the dangers of “wolves” but most of the versions I know of include LRRH saving herself. Of course, in some a man saves her (a hunter or woodcutter) but the messages in a lot of LRRH versions are better than in most fairy tales. Many folklorists agree with Perrault’s interpretation of the wolf, that the wolf is symbolic of men, and the wolf’s devouring of Little Red is the art of seduction. Original versions were based off an older LRRH (just like the film version starring Amanda Seyfried). Versions from Perrault and the Grimm Brother’s era featured a younger LRRH, radically changing the message of the tale. LRRH’s red hood, a gift from her Grandmother usually, can also be read as a signal that she is approaching adulthood. The colour red can be used to signify menstruation, proving that original versions of the tale were focused more on the young woman’s rite of passage into adulthood. Her hood is a symbol, not just a quirky fashion choice. In these original versions the symbolism of the three types of female archetype are much more pronounced. The journey from Maiden, to Mother, to Crone, is more obvious and more likely to have been meaningful in original oral versions.
The Wolf is an interesting character. Even in the tales that do not incorporate Lee and Carter’s ideals of lycanthropy he is a shape shifter. He is typical of the Trickster archetype and even when he is not a werewolf he still disguises himself as a ‘nice’ wolf to LRRH, as LRRH to Grandmother, and as Grandmother to LRRH. However, in the LRRH tale, often men (barring the wolf) are absent from the text.
I think that another reason I love LRRH, is that it speaks to the witch in me. Writers Chase and Teasley draw links with LRRH and oral tales circa the Witch Hunts in France in the 16th and 17th Centuries. So, it is not hard to understand why male authors such as Perrault and the Grimms chose to demonise her. Jack Zipes, in one of my favourite theory books, discusses how the colour red is associated with the Devil and Witchcraft. In a lot of fairy tales Red Hats, or other articles of clothing, are associated with trouble making fairy folk and witches. So there is a question in Zipes’ mind as to the implications of her red hood. Is LRRH a witch? I’m not sure about the answer to that and it creates a whole new tangent of thinking that I’m not going to get into today. This is a legitimate line of thinking culturally, as when you correspond with older versions of the tale, as well as some of the contemporary versions, there are a lot of similarities with European Pagan folklore and Goddess Worship.
I’m going to stop there. I could talk about this forever! I hope this has been an interesting read for you. Next week I’m going to talk about The Little Mermaid and how the original is vastly different from the Disney version.