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|Fairy Tales |
A closer look at those familiar yarns
Little Red Riding Hood
Last time we talked about the peasant version of Red Riding Hood, which was really just an Any Girl who was destroyed by her naÔvetť about the world. Now we turn our attention to the collectors of tales -- those who published these collections of supposed oral literature as untouched, but in reality altered the stories in various ways to suit their morality and thus changed the tales for us today.
Charles Perrault, the courtier at the court of Louis XIV we heard about at this column's introduction, collected such tales and published them for the first time. He claimed they were transcribed directly from what he heard his nanny tell to his son, but if we look at some specifics from Perrault, we see his mark on the story in several ways. Here's the opening paragraph:
Once upon a time there was a little village girl, the prettiest that had ever been seen. Her mother doted on her. Her grandmother was even fonder, and had a little red hood made for her, which became her so well that everywhere she went by the name of Little Red Riding Hood. One day her mother, who had just made and baked some cakes, said to her: Go and see how your grandmother is, for I have been told that she is ill. Take her a cake and this little pot of butter.
Notice the differences from the peasant version? This is not just any girl; this is the prettiest girl, and one who is loved by her mother. And grandma's diet just improved by leaps and bounds: bread and milk have given way to cake and butter, true luxuries in the 18th century and something Perrault would have expected, given his courtly surroundings.
Here at last is the red riding hood, right? Well, not exactly. In the original French it was a chaperon rouge, which could best be understood as a red ribbon in her hair. Really! The English translators, when they wanted to translate the wildly successful Perrault stories, couldn't understand why a girl should wear around a ribbon all the time, since the translators probably weren't used to courtly life as Perrault was. So they, in their inimitable English fashion (England was positively crazy for mounted fox hunts in those decades), anglicized the story by giving this peasant girl a riding hood. Where, pray tell, would such a poor girl get the money to own a horse?
Lastly, notice that the grandmother did not create the ribbon herself, but had it made for her. Can't imagine a courtier making his own clothes, can we?
Skipping to the end of the story, we find Perrault turning up the symbolic heat. The wolf tells the girl to get into bed with him. And what body parts do we find? They are, in order: arms, legs, ears, eyes, and teeth. In other words, the girls eyes travel down the wolf's body, and then scan his face and settle on his mouth. Not a particularly wholesome gaze for a girl in bed with a wolf.
This Red Riding Hood is also eaten and not rescued. It remains a tale of caution, but specifically caution about male seducers. In case we didn't get the point, Perrault includes a moral at the end of the story: Wolves may lurk in every guise. Handsome they may be, and kind, gay, or charming -- never mind! Now, as then, 'tis simple truth sweetest tongue has sharpest tooth!
I did warn you that Perrault would turn the fairy tales into courtly stories of intrigue and seduction!
Let's look briefly at the Grimms' version of the story. Remember that the Grimms are middle-class Christian scholars, interested in German nationalism, which meant an attempt to unite the splintered country, not patriotism as we might consider it today. In general, the Grimms revise the stories to remove sexuality and add punishment to the wicked, in keeping with their religious morality.
Keeping all that in mind, here's the opening paragraph of Little Red Cap:
Once upon a time there was a dear little girl who was loved by every one who looked at her, but most of all by her grandmother, and there was nothing that she would not have given to the child. Once she gave her a little cap of red velvet, which suited her so well that she would never wear anything else; so she was always called Little Red Cap. One day her mother said to her: Come, Little Red Cap, here is a piece of cake and a bottle of wine; take them to your grandmother, for she is ill and weak, and they will do her good. Set out before it gets hot, and when you are going, walk nicely and quietly and do not run off the path, or you may fall and break the bottle, and then your grandmother will get nothing; and when you go into her room, don't forget to say good morning and don't peep into every corner before you do it.
Several items leap out as different: this little girl is dear to everyone -- she's a far cry from the peasant girl who is just any girl. The cranial ornament is here, but still not in the form of a hood. The German word Kšppchen actually means something like a skull cap. By rights the story should be called Little Red Skull Cap, at least if you're talking about the Grimms version.
Once again grandmother's diet has been upgraded -- now to cake and wine -- as society continues to move away from agrarian fare to more sophisticated food. But clearly the biggest difference here is the mother's admonitions to the girl to mind her manners. Naturally, the Grimms intend that the mother is talking to all children who hear this story -- it's still a didactic tale intended to teach; only now, it's teaching the Grimms' view of morality. As noted before, the Grimms are devout Christians -- did you notice the reference to not leaving the path in the mother's admonitions? There are no innocent paths in literature -- they are usually Biblical allusions!
Skipping again to the end, we find Red Riding Hood arriving at her grandmother's house:
She called out: Good morning, but received no answer; so she went to the bed and drew back the curtains. There lay her grandmother with her cap pulled far over her face, and looking very strange. Oh! grandmother, she said, what big ears you have!
Notice that there is no undressing and no getting into bed in the Grimms' version! The girl here notices yet another set of body parts: ears, eyes, hands, and mouth. At first blush, you might think the imagery is as seductive as Perraults, but the order here is important. The girl looks to the face first, then to the hands, and then to the mouth. The overall effect is not one of seduction, as with Perrault, but of fear: eyes betray danger first, so the girl looks to the hands -- the most likely point of assault -- and then finally to the mouth, the location of ultimate danger. Sex has been squeezed out of this tale.
But the Grimms are not done yet! They add a few paragraphs after the supposed end of the story. As soon as the wolf eats the girl, a passing huntsman happens by and cuts open the wolf. Out spring the girl and grandmother, no worse for the wear after their ordeal. Because the wolf is not dead, he will attack if they don't do something, and Red-Cap hits upon the idea to fill his belly with heavy stones. When he awakens, he dies from the exertion of trying to run away.
Notice that the Grimms provide a second chance in their stories. The underlying message is that in their world, it's not such a harsh place as the peasants made it sound. This, too, is a Christian message: you get a second chance at life.
That Red-Cap comes up with the plan of defense shows she is capable of learning from her mistakes; she becomes clever like the wolf, and thus she survives and perseveres. Naturally part of the equation in survival is luck; she had to have the luck of the passing huntsman to survive.
Ah yes, the huntsman. The Grimms, ever cognizant of current events, were very likely drawing a parallel between the wolf of the story and the great European wolf of the early 19th century: Napoleon (the association of Napoleon with a wolf was a popular one in German press and literature at the time). The huntsman of the story is portrayed -- through ways too intricate to bother going into here -- as a definite symbol of Germanhood. Thus, the overall message is one of fighting back Napoleon and implying that Germans can prevail. Since the many principalities of the German-speaking region had never yet united into one country, what we now think of as Germany, this was a cry to fight back the Napoleonic wolf and insist on German nationality, to preserve the German character.
So what seems to be the same story told by peasants, Perrault, and the Grimms actually turns out to be three radically different tales. What does all this have to do with Disney? I've used Red Riding Hood as the clearest example of what the Grimms and Perrault do with the peasant versions of the story, and having gone through this exercise it will be much easier to deal with the actual source material of the Disney stories themselves. Now that we're familiar with the baggage Perrault and Grimms bring to their versions, we'll be able to recognize their elements for what they are when they show up in the Disney tales.
With that in mind, let's crack open our Grimms volume and read through Snow White. There is no Perrault for Snow White, so our task is a lot easier. But just wait until you hear how the Grimms revised their own versions of the stories in subsequent publications. By the time Disney deals with the subject, it's become a radically different tale altogether.
Grimms - published their fairy tales in 1812/1814, with an unpublished and unedited collection of raw stories in 1810
Perrault - published his tales in France, 1697.