“Now there’s a tasty little dish…”
– Reggie V. Lupin as he first lays eye on on our heroine
CONTENT WARNING: This review contains several allusions to rape throughout.
You know her the moment you see her, the girl in the red cape and hood walking through the woods. Maybe she’s an innocent child, maybe she’s a bit older and looking for some excitement, but there is always a wolf watching her just out of sight, drooling at the the thought of making her his next meal. When you’re a kid it’s easy to understand this story on the surface level, but as an adult, you begin to notice certain dark undertones – ones which were deliberately planted there from the very start.
Little Red Riding Hood is another fable that was born from oral tradition, but for once, it wasn’t the Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, or even Giambatta Basile who got to her first. That distinction belongs to Egbert of Liège, who recorded the earliest known version of her tale around 1023 AD in Fecunda Ratis (The Richly Laden Ship). The scarlet-clad lass in that story receives a red dress from her godfather as a baptism gift. The dress attracts the attention of a mother wolf and she kidnaps her. The other wolves start licking her face, but the girl demands they don’t besmirch her dress because it was a present from her godfather. The poem emphasizes the heavily Christian theme of God holding dominion over animals and protecting those baptized in his name, thus the wolves don’t harm her.
While variations such as Italy’s La finta nonna and Taiwan’s Aunt Tiger existed as early as the fourteenth century, scholars believe it was this poem that would inspire the version Perrault wrote almost seven-hundred years later. It’s similar to the one we all know, but with one cruel twist – the story ends with Red being devoured by the Wolf. No last-minute huntsman to the rescue here, it’s explicitly stated that she is dead (I still remember how shook I was when I discovered a book that kept that ending). German author Ludwig Tüg translated Perrault’s retelling and added the character of the huntsman, but kept the grim conclusion: he kills the wolf but is too late to save Red from her grisly fate. Ironically, it was the Brothers Grimm who gave the story a happy ending, as well as a denouement where Red and her grandmother work together to stymie a second wolf, and more context in the beginning for the underlying moral. The story starts with Red’s mother insisting she stay on the path and beware of strangers, stressing the importance of listening to the wise, experienced mother figure; I’d hail it for being a Grimm fairytale that finally gives some women a bit of respect, but one could argue that the main character needing to be rescued by a strong man in the end renders it moot.
And what of this moral, you may ask? Well, remaining wary of flattering strangers is the obvious one, but strip the tale of all fantasy elements and you have an aggressive male figure stalking and charming an attractive young woman, then taking advantage of her when she’s at her most vulnerable (in a bedroom, no less). The lesson posted at the end of Perrault’s story leaves no doubt that it’s a warning for women to be on their guard around men, lest they consume their bodies in more ways than one. Thankfully, unlike Sun, Moon and Talia, this is clearly portrayed as a bad thing.
There’s plenty of symbolic resonance that backs up this reading of the story. Think of the color red and what it represents: passion, fury, blood. Once the Wolf has youthful, vivacious Red in that pretty cloak within his sights, he marks her as his next victim. Then there’s the wolf himself. Folks growing up in Europe before the Industrial Revolution had good cause to beware of wolves. They would kill their livestock if prey was scarce, and you as well if you strayed too far into the forest. As wolves were also revered animals at the height of paganism, the rise of Christianity saw them marked as creatures of the Devil. Anti-wolf hunts – which Perrault happened to take part in – became the means to drive wolves to near-extinction, as well as demonize and destroy all traces of the old gods. In fact, some early versions dating before Perrault feature our heroine outwitting not an anthropomorphic wolf, but a werewolf. Witches were often accused of shapeshifting into wolves among other animals in order to commit evil deeds such as, oh, tricking a girl into getting eaten.
With that in mind, it’s not shocking that later retellings sanitized Red’s misadventure for fear of scaring kids, even though that was the point of the story in the first place. My introduction to it was a pretty safe version, one where the Wolf merely locked Granny in the closet and the Huntsman chased him away before he could eat anybody. It wasn’t until I was a little older that I was given a book that was truer to the Grimms’ text, vore and all. While I’ll always find the story nostalgic, I find Faerie Tale Theatre’s truer-to-text depiction…interesting.
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