This is definitely one of the most well-known fairytales in the world. It rates right up there with Cinderella. Even if you weren’t raised on fairytales, like I was, you probably know the story of the little girl in a red hood/cap who has been sent by her mother to bring cake and wine to her sick grandmother. The trip takes her through the woods and she has been told not to stray off the path for any reason. But given that she’s a child, she becomes distracted by the flowers and wanders off, leading to a plethora of drama.
This story is believed to date back to the 10th century in Europe and there are versions in North Africa as well as Taiwan and other East Asian countries. While I would love to discuss all of them, that would take absolute days. So I’m going to focus on the most-well known Western versions because those are the ones that I can speak about with some semblance of knowledge. The basic theme of all of these stories, however, is that little girls that stray from the path will find themselves at the mercy of a Big Bad Wolf (or another vicious beastie). And no, in the Western versions we’re not talking about actual wolves. IT’S A METAPHOR, PEOPLE!
Once upon a time there was a sweet little maiden. Whoever laid eyes upon her couldn’t help but love her. But it was her grandmother who could never give the child enough. One day she made her a present, a small, red velvet cap, and since it was so becoming and the maiden always wanted to wear it, people only called her Little Red Cap.Grimm, Jacob; Grimm, Wilhelm. The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition (p. 85). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
When Red’s mother sends her to grandmother’s house, she implores her daughter to not stray from the path for any reason. Now, this makes absolute sense on a surface level, given that forests are often places of unknowable and inescapable hazards. And too, wolves were a very real and present danger. The only safe way to get through is to stay on the path, although, I would question this logic only because we’re talking about real life, not World of Warcraft. The beasties aren’t going to leave you alone just because you followed the clearly delineated trail.
However, as one could expect of a little girl skipping through the woods on a beautiful day, Red becomes distracted by flowers after having them pointed out to her by the wolf. She wanders off the path and he races away to grandmother’s house. Once grandmother has been gobbled up, he puts on her clothes, climbs into her bed, and waits for his dessert.
“Oh, grandmother, what big ears you have!”Grimm, Jacob; Grimm, Wilhelm. The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition (pp. 86-87). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
“The better to hear you with.”
“Oh, grandmother, what big eyes you have!”
“The better to see you with.”
“Oh, grandmother, what big hands you have!”
“The better to grab you with.”
“Oh, grandmother, what a terribly big mouth you have!”
“The better to eat you with!”
While many of the variations contain wolves as the antagonist, some early variations use werewolves instead. This may seem a little weird but it’s actually incredibly topical. Everyone knows about the witch trials that infected Europe (and other countries) for centuries, however, there were also werewolf trials taking place at the same time.
Several of these earlier variations also have the wolf eating grandmother, and then when Red comes in, the wolf orders her to strip and get into bed with him while he’s still dressed as grandmother. In some cases the story ends here; in others, Red escapes by herself or is helped in her escape by another person. The fact that these versions have Red getting into bed with the wolf should tip you off as to where this is all going.
I believe that the ending that is most commonly known, though, is the one that is particularly gruesome…
He had been searching for the wolf a long time and thought that the beast had certainly eaten the grandmother. “Perhaps she can still be saved,” he said to himself. “I won’t shoot.” So he took some scissors and cut open the wolf’s belly. After he made a couple of cuts, he saw the little red cap shining forth, and after he made a few more cuts, the girl jumped out and exclaimed, “Oh, how frightened I was! It was so dark in the wolf’s body.”Grimm, Jacob; Grimm, Wilhelm. The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition (p. 87). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
The Grimm’s include an addendum to the story, describing Red’s return visit to grandmother. Another wolf attempted to sway her from the path but she didn’t listen and hightailed it to grandmother’s house. There, Red and her grandmother conceive of a rather elaborate plan involving sausage water that leads to the wolf’s demise.
While the Grimm’s version is definitely well-known, the earliest printed version was from Charles Perrault, in 1697. Now, we previously discussed Perrault in the Cinderella entry, wherein Perrault moralizes about young women maintaining a gracious and ladylike attitude above all things. It should come as no surprise, then, that Perrault’s ending is not a happily ever after. After she climbs into bed with the wolf, the wolf eats her, and that’s it. The wolf claims another notch and Red become persona non grata.
It’s important to note that Perrault describes Red as being an “attractive, well-bred young lady,” which leads one to believe that his Red was probably a teenager and, therefore, the most likely to fall victim to a wolf, which, in this case, is a man.
Yes, it’s all about how good girls shouldn’t stray from the paths that have been chosen for them. And lest you think I’m projecting, or reading the wrong things into it, I’ll let Perrault tell you himself:
From this story one learns that children, especially young lasses, pretty, courteous and well-bred, do very wrong to listen to strangers, And it is not an unheard thing if the Wolf is thereby provided with his dinner. I say Wolf, for all wolves are not of the same sort; there is one kind with an amenable disposition – neither noisy, nor hateful, nor angry, but tame, obliging and gentle, following the young maids in the streets, even into their homes. Alas! Who does not know that these gentle wolves are of all such creatures the most dangerous!“Little Red Riding Hood Charles Perrault”. Pitt.Edu. University of Pittsburgh. 21 September 2003. Retrieved 28 December 2021.
When Perrault says “one kind” he’s referring to the rakish, roguish scoundrel who lives to seduce unwitting women. And his Red is a young, innocent, and desirable woman who would apparently easily fall for the traps of such a man. Given the ending that Perrault gave our sweet, innocent, now-debauched Red, it’s clear what he thinks of young women who lose their virtue.
The Grimm version came to them in the form of two oral tales, by way of the oft-mentioned Hassenplfugs. While it’s clear that their story was certainly inspired by Perrault’s, the Grimm’s made Red younger and let her be saved by the huntsman, however, the Grimm ending–of the wolf’s belly being cut open and then filled with stones before being sewn back together–is taken directly from another story we’ve discussed, The Wolf and the Seven Kids.
What I find most interesting about this story in particular is the way that Red has recently been evolving into an empowered young woman who doesn’t need the huntsman to save her because she is fully capable of saving herself. She’s smart and cunning and she isn’t falling for any of the wolf’s bullshit.
And then there are the versions like Ruby/Red from the tv show Once Upon a Time. In this story, Red is both the girl and the werewolf. Her red cape and hood are the only thing that can keep her from shifting. Once she gets a handle on her dual nature, Red becomes strong and confident, capable of shifting at will when the need calls for it. (editor’s note: this is my favorite version of Little Red Riding Hood)
This is exactly how fairytales should work. They are meant to symbolize the societal and cultural mores of a certain period. We no longer need huntsmen to save us, and we’re a lot less likely to fall for the wolf’s wiles. and even if we do, who cares? If we can evolve our beloved fairytales past their slut-shaming nature, that would be fantastic.
I know I say this all the time but this is only a small portion of the analyses of this fairytale. There is much more that can be written about its similarity to nature cycles and Norse myths (yes, really), not to mention the very deep and detailed analyses of the gender and sex politics in the story. So, as usual, I encourage you to give it a deeper look. There are a slew of academic articles about the different interpretations and some of them are really interesting and worth your time.