A Fairy Tale Warning: Little Red Riding Hood

In most of the pictures, she looks so innocent. So young. So adorable, with her little red hood and basket. (Though in some adult costuming contexts, she looks more than ready to party.) In some illustrations she’s six, at most, in others, ten—old enough to be sent on errands through the forest, especially errands of mercy to a beloved grandmother.

In the original tale, she dies.

That first literary version of “Little Red Riding Hood” was penned by Charles Perrault, who included it and ten other stories in his Histoires ou Contes du Temps passé, or Les Contes de ma Mère l’Oye (Mother Goose stories), originally published in 1697. As we discussed in the Disney Read-Watch, Perrault was one of the French salon fairy tale writers, who stood out from his contemporaries in several important respects. Unlike nearly all of them, his life was mostly scandal free. He did marry a much younger woman later in life, but that was hardly unheard of for the period, and nothing compared to his fellow fairy tale writers, who were frequently involved in court intrigues, adultery and (alleged) treason. And unlike nearly all of them, he enjoyed a highly successful career at Versailles, a position that enabled him to establish and patronize academies dedicated to the arts—perhaps at least partly thanks to his ability to avoid scandal.

And at least partly thanks to his career at Versailles, he was one of the very few French salon fairy tale writers who thoroughly approved of his patron Louis XIV and had no interest in critiquing royal absolutism. With the sole exception of the king in “Donkeyskin,” his kings are not evil. Helpless against the powers of evil fairies and the hunger of ogres, perhaps—as in “Sleeping Beauty“—but not evil, or overthrown, or manipulated, or deceived. For Perrault, kings and aristocrats are not dangers who need to be removed, or obstacles to happiness, but figures his characters aspire to become.

Above all, Perrault differed from most of his fellow fairy tale writers, with the exception of his niece, Marie-Jeanne L’Heritier, in that he was not born into the aristocracy. He was, granted, hardly a peasant. His family was wealthy enough to be able to pay for excellent educations for their sons, and later purchase government positions for them, and fortunately, Perrault was skilled and talented enough to attract the attention and patronage of the Minister of Finances of France, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, who himself was not born an aristocrat, although he was eventually able to purchase a baronetcy and become one. Still, Perrault’s rapid rise to advising Louis XIV on artistic matters and fountains for Versailles, combined with his comparatively low birth and lack of “noble” blood made Perrault, by the standards of Versailles, a social climber. It also meant that, unlike most of the other French salon fairy tale writers, he had at least some interest in the lower classes.

That interest is reflected in “Little Red Riding Hood,” a story specifically about, as Perrault puts it, “a little country girl.” That is, a peasant. A fairly well off peasant—that, or Perrault had forgotten, or never knew, what starving peasants ate—but still, a peasant. Lacking servants, a mother sends the girl off with a small cake and some butter to check on her grandmother. Along the way, the girl runs into some woodcutters (this is kinda important) and a wolf, who decides not to eat her because of the woodcutters (thus their importance). They have a lovely conversation, because, as Perrault notes, Little Red Riding Hood has never been told not to talk to wolves. The wolf races ahead, tricks his way into the grandmother’s home, and consumes her, quickly, since he is starving.

Then he climbs into bed, and waits.

The minute Little Red Riding Hood enters the house, the wolf tells her to put the food down and come into bed with him. She does, removing her clothes first.

In full fairness to the wolf, his specific request was “come get into bed with me,” not “strip and then come get in bed with me,” though possibly, given the hug that follows, Little Red Riding Hood did interpret the wolf’s thinking correctly. Or, although the story doesn’t mention it, it’s possible that Little Red Riding Hood’s little detour to gather nuts and chase butterflies left her clothes in the sort of condition that no one, even a wolf, would want to put on a bed, especially in these pre-laundry machine days. Or maybe Little Red Riding Hood just preferred to go to sleep without her clothes on. Or possibly this was the grandmother’s household rule: No sleeping with Grandma until you take off your clothes, a rule I’m pretty sure that we don’t want to look at too closely.

Especially since Perrault, at least, had something else in mind, something he made clear in a moral often left out of later editions (including the translation collected by Andrew Lang), but attached to the original version:

Moral: Children, especially attractive, well bred young ladies, should never talk to strangers, for if they should do so, they may well provide dinner for a wolf. I say, “wolf,” but there are various kinds of wolves. There are also those who are charming, quiet, polite, unassuming, complacent, and sweet, who pursue young women at home and in the streets. And unfortunately, it is these gentle wolves who are the most dangerous ones of all.

(translation by D. L. Ashliman)

A successful career at court may have left Perrault a defender of royal absolutism, privilege, and Louis XIV, but it had also allowed him to witness the many courtiers who had preyed upon younger women, aristocrats and commoners alike. Some women, admittedly, had been able to use this to their advantage—Francoise d’Aubigne, Marquise de Maintenon, had even managed to marry the king in secret—but others, including those who had dallied, willingly or not, with Louis XIV, had been left ruined or exiled or dead after illicit pregnancies. Others were preyed on for their fortunes. Nor was this behavior, of course, confined to the court of Versailles. It is also likely that Perrault had encountered, in person or through rumor, incidents of child abuse. He could warn, through entertainment and morals.

And in his story, the girl, having willingly entered the wolf’s bed, is consumed, with no one showing up to rescue her.

The undressing, and the bed, and the moral have led most commentators to interpret this as a story about the dangers of seduction, but in fairness, I should note that the tale has also been interpreted as a moral lesson about the importance of obeying parents. Little Red Riding Hood, after all, fails to go straight to her grandmother’s home, instead deciding to go running after nuts and butterflies, and then ends up dead, but I think this is at best a secondary theme. Perrault’s story emphasizes charm, trickery, pursuit—and a wolf waiting in a bed for a young girl to join him.

The story was immensely popular—possibly because the horrifying ending made it the exact sort of story that could be told as a terrifying bedroom or fireside story by parents or elder siblings to small wide eyed children. (I can neither confirm nor deny at this time doing something of this sort to a younger brother.) Versions appeared in Poland, where the story was later interpreted as an old lunar legend of the wolf swallowing the bright, and sometimes red, moon; in Italy (where the wolf was transformed into an ogre—possibly because several Italian cities, following the example of Republican and Imperial Rome, often portrayed wolves in a more positive light, or possibly because ogres featured in other tales of forbidden or dangerous sexuality) and elsewhere. One French writer, Charles Marelles, dismayed at the unhappy ending, wrote a version of his own, “The True History of Little Golden-Hood,” which began with the reassurance that the girl lived, and the wolf died—reassuring to children, if perhaps less reflective of what Perrault had seen at the court of Louis XIV.

The Grimms, however, agreed with Marelles, publishing a version of the story where Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother are both saved at the last minute by a huntsman who just happens to be wandering by and who just happens to overhear suspicious snoring, like, um, huntsman, I mean, yay for knowing just what your neighbors sound like when they snore, but that said, exactly how much time are you spending listening to your neighbors sleep, hmm? And how fortunate that Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother were swallowed up whole and not, say, chewed, and not particularly damaged from staying inside a wolf’s belly and, presumably, digestive juices, other than feeling a bit freaked out about staying in the dark for a bit.

The Grimms also added a second ending, considerably less well known, where a considerably wiser Little Red Cap, having learned her lesson about wolves, went straight to her grandmother’s and locked the door. It ends with the grandmother tricking the wolf into drowning himself in the trough outside her house—at the risk, I might add, of nearly getting little Red Cap eaten up, since she’s the one that has to put water into the outside trough in order for the trick to work—but it does work, giving the grandmother more power than she has in other versions of the tale.

Andrew Lang turned down both of the Grimm versions, instead choosing the Perrault version—with Little Red Riding Hood quite, quite dead—for The Blue Fairy Book (1889), and the happier Charles Marelles version for The Red Fairy Book (1890). But for once, his chosen versions did not become the best known English versions of the tale. Instead, translations of the Grimm version, with its happier ending, were turned into picture books and placed into various fairy tale books (it was the one used by the lavishly illustrated fairy tale book I poured over when small), slowly becoming the accepted English version.

Not that every American found the tale particularly plausible, particularly American humorist and The New Yorker writer James Thurber, whose story “The Little Girl and Wolf,” arms Little Red Riding Hood with some common sense and an automatic weapon. It ends, as does Perrault’s, with a nice little moral, but a moral that is rather less a caution to young girls and women, and more a reassurance that 20th century girls were harder to trick.

But Perrault was not worried about the plausibility of his tale: this was a man, after all, that had told stories of pumpkins turning into carriages and cats that could talk and walk in elegant boots and girls that could cough up diamonds and toads. A child’s inability to distinguish a grandmother from a wolf was nothing to this, and in any case, Perrault had seen all too many human wolves, and knew all too many grandparents who had not been able to save beloved daughters. His Little Red Riding Hood may not have had a gun, but then again, neither did many of the young girls and women that he had seen at court.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida.

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