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|Fairy Tales |
A closer look at those familiar yarns
Little Red Riding Hood
Once a little girl was told by her mother to bring some bread and milk to her grandmother. As the girl was walking through the forest, a wolf came up to her and asked where she was going.
"To grandmotherās house," she replied.
"Which path are you taking, the path of the pins or the path of the needles?"
"The path of the needles."
So the wolf took the path of the pins and arrived first at the house. He killed grandmother, poured her blood into a bottle, and sliced her flesh onto a platter. Then he got into her nightclothes and waited in bed.
"Come in, my dear."
"Hello grandmother. Iāve brought you some bread and milk."
"Have something yourself, my dear. There is meat and wine in the pantry."
So the little girl ate what was offered; and as she did, a little cat said, "Slut! To eat the flesh and drink the blood of your grandmother!"
Then the wolf said, "Undress and get into bed with me."
"Where shall I put my apron?"
"Throw it on the fire; you wonāt need it any more."
For each garment ö bodice, skirt, petticoat, and stockings ö the girl asked the same question; and each time the wolf answered, "Throw it on the fire; you wonāt need it any more."
When the girl got in bed, she said, "Oh grandmother! How hairy you are!"
"Itās to keep me warmer, my dear."
"Oh grandmother! What big shoulders you have!"
"Itās for better carrying firewood, my dear."
"Oh grandmother! What long nails you have!"
"Itās for scratching myself better, my dear."
"Oh grandmother! What big teeth you have!"
"Itās for eating you better, my dear."
And he ate her.
Youāve just been treated to the oldest known version of Red Riding Hood, though of course it didnāt go by that name in the days it was first told. Folk fairy tales began as an oral tradition, with poor illiterate peasants having no other way to transmit stories from one generation to another. Remember, fairy tales are short, memorable narratives for a reason: if they are not easily forgotten, then so too will the social lesson be remembered. Like all folk fairy tales originally told by peasants, this one is a warning to children. In this case, the warning is to "be like the wolf" if you want to survive, and beware the world out there, which is full of people who want to take advantage of you.
This version of the story was collected in 1874 by French anthropologists. The illiterate woman who told the story to the researchers had been born in 1794 and had heard the same story from her grandmother a century earlier, making this story the closest thing we have to an "original" unsullied version of the story. With that in mind, letās look at the specifics. What did you notice?
Were you struck by the level of violence and bluntness? Thereās murder, cannibalism, poverty, and sexual predation all packed in here, wrapped in the guise of childrenās literature (though most of the reason we think of it as childrenās literature has to do with the 20th century re-tellings of this same story).
Did you notice that this story of Red Riding Hood has no actual hood, red or otherwise? Weāre just told itās a "little girl," which reinforces to the peasant children hearing it that this story can happen to them. This little girl is poor ö she brings grandmother bread and milk (typical peasant fare).
What of the meat and cannibalism? Not so surprising, really. Peasants didnāt have much meat; what farm animals they had were needed to produce milk and eggs. So an innocent, nave girl wouldnāt likely have ever tasted meat in her life, and she wouldnāt have known the difference. This, however, is part of the storyās lesson: donāt be so nave.
She shows her naivet again by agreeing to remove her clothes and get in bed. In fact, she readily burns her clothes! Peasants had two sets of clothing: one for church, and one for everyday life, so this is a truly nave girl. Lastly, make note of the body parts identified on the wolf: body hair, shoulders, nails, and teeth. The implied imagery is simultaneously sexual, predatory, and threatening. Just follow the young girlās "gaze" as she examines the wolf: from the body itself to the broad, masculine shoulders, then down to the hands ö focal point of both sexual aggression and danger ö and finally to the wolfās mouth (where the imagery is obvious).
That the girl is ultimately consumed may be surprising for us, if weāve grown up hearing that the girl is ultimately rescued, but itās the whole raison d'etra for this version of the story. The bottom line of the tale is quite simple: this "Any Girl" was eaten for being nave. The lesson for children who are the intended audience is equally simple: donāt be like this girl.
As you might suspect, both Perrault and the Grimms alter their versions of the Red Riding Hood story, but our look at them will have to wait until next time. We will also relate our findings to the general cycle and movement of Disney tales to the source material, setting the stage for our upcoming examination of that first Disney film, Snow White.
Hang in there, weāre getting to Disney. In the meantime, enjoy the gore.
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.