Fairy Tales: Meanings of Little Red Riding Hood

Most people are told ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ as children. It’s one of the classic tales that contains has a clear social agenda: Obey your parents, and don’t talk to strangers. In most versions there is also a woodcutter or huntsman who comes to rescue Red Riding Hood and her grandmother from the wolf, reassuring children that good people exist as well as bad ones.

However, like with most fairy tales, there are numerous versions of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ and it has been intervened with by many authors. Whilst the main components of the story are always present in order for it to be recognisable, the events in the narrative have been altered to draw out different meanings.

Charles Perrault and the Grimm Brothers both published versions of ‘Little Red Riding Hood,’ but in different centuries and under different circumstances. Perrault was writing for literary salons, in the court of King Louis XIV at the Palace of Versailles. The Grimms were seeking to collect and preserve their culture, and were notorious for editing their material (their later editions are noticeably more sanitised than their earlier ones). The impact these circumstances had on ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ is clear to see.

Charles Perrault – Little Red Riding Hood (1697)

Read it here.

Little Red Riding Hood illustration by Gustave Doré. Image in the public domain – source

In Perrault’s tale, there is no-one to save grandmother or Red Riding Hood. They are devoured by the wolf, and that’s the end of the story. An afterword in the form of a poem entitled ‘Moral’ is included. This states that ‘mainly pretty girls with charm do wrong and often come to harm’ and ‘it is no surprise that they are caught by wolves who take them off to eat.’ It also mentions that not all wolves are ‘the savage kind’ and ‘these are the most dangerous wolves of all.’

Whilst clearly still a warning, the context here is slightly different. This version of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ carries the message that some men, who may initially appear harmless, are actually ‘wolves’ in disguise and seek to steal the virtue of young ladies. The absence of the saviour makes it clear that if you are taken in by one of these men, it is your own fault for not being cautious and there will be no chances for redemption. For ladies at the Palace of Versailles, this was a valid warning. If they fooled around with unsuitable lovers, then it could damage their social standing and make it harder for them to secure a respectable marriage.  

 

Grimm Brothers – Little Red Cap (1812)

Read it here.

Little Red Riding Hood illustration by Arthur Rackham. Image in the public domain – source

The Grimm version warns children that bad people exist and to listen to their parents. However, it differs in that it has an epilogue where Red Riding Hood is once again approached by a wolf but is not distracted by him. Instead, she goes directly to grandmother’s house and tells her of the encounter. Together, Red Riding Hood and grandmother await the wolf and hatch a plan to defeat him which is successful. Red Riding Hood becomes sensible and fearless, and the grandmother quick-witted and ruthless. They have no trouble with dispatching the wolf.

This extra section shows how it is okay to make mistakes so long as they are learned from. Also, there can be joy in overcoming enemies yourself as opposed to having a metaphorical huntsman or woodcutter come to your aid. In later versions this epilogue was dropped, possibly because of dominant gender ideals during the 19th and early 20th century. Women single-handedly killing wolves went against the idea that females should be domestic and caring, which at the time was what society wanted them to be.

‘Little Red Riding Hood’ is such an iconic and well-known fairy tale that has been used in many contexts to convey a variety of messages. It has also altered over time, and consequently has undergone many shifts. My favourite retellings were written by Angela Carter in her anthology The Bloody Chamber, which I have written about in my post Fairy Tales: Angela Carter and Little Red Riding Hood.

 

Sources

  • Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment (London: Penguin, 1991)
  • Charles Perrault, ‘Little Red Riding-Hood’ in Charles Perrault: The Complete Fairy Tales, translated by Christopher Betts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010)
  • Jacob & Wilhelm Grimm, The Annotated Brothers Grimm, ed. by Maria Tatar (London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012)

 

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Amelia Starling is a writer and folklorist. She graduated from the University of Winchester with a degree in Creative Writing, and is Senior Editor for Folklore Thursday. She loves travelling and collecting stories, and spent 15 months living in Japan doing this alongside teaching English. Currently she is living in Scotland and studying for a masters degree in Ethnology & Creative Writing. Amelia blogs about folklore and fairy tales at The Willow Web. You can follow her on Twitter @amyelize.

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