When I was a child, my grandma used to tell me fairy tales. My favourites were Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, but most of all, Red Riding Hood. Ever since then, the story about a girl who meets a wolf captivated my imagination with its grim beauty. The first mentions of Red Riding Hood are from the year 1000 from a manuscript called fecunda ratis, a ship filled with riches. This was a collection of poems written by a French man called Hegbert. His poems contained moral lessons and they were read in monasteries.
One poem stands out. It is about a girl who receives a red dress as a baptism gift from her godfather. One day when the girl is five years old she is walking in the woods and gets kidnapped by a mother wolf. She takes the girl into their cave, where the little wolves start licking her face. The girl says to the wolves, “I forbid you to tear my dress. It was a gift from my godfather”.
The poem is based around a Christian idea of God being the creator of predators and he is the only one who can tame their wild nature and so the girl is safe because she is baptized.
This poem is believed to be one of the inspirations for Charles Perrault when he wrote his own version of Little Red Riding Hood, which first appeared in his famous fairy tale collection, Tales from mother goose (1697). Perrault’s fairy tale has similarities to the French poem but he did not include Christian elements to the fairy tale.
In Perrault’s version, a girl gets a beautiful red hood as a gift from her grandmother. At the beginning of the story the girl’s mother tells her to take a piece of bread and jar of butter to her grandmother who is ill. Red Riding Hood meets a wolf on the road and tells him where she is going. The wolf says, “I’ll go see your grandmother too, but I’ll take the other road and will meet you there”.
Grandmother opens the door and wolf is allowed in after telling her that he is Red Riding Hood; after that, he kills the grandmother and eats her. The Wolf gets into the bed pretending to be the grandmother. He tells Red Riding Hood to put bread and butter into the table and then he asks her to take off her clothes and come to the bed with him. She asks:
“Grandmother, why do you have such strong arms?”
“So I can hold you better,” the wolf replies.
“Grandmother, why do you have such big feet?”
“So I can run faster.”
“Grandmother. why do you have such strange-looking ears?”
“So I can hear you better.”
“Grandma, why your eyes are so wide?”
“So I can see you better.”
“Grandmother, why your teeth are so sharp?”
“So I can eat you!”
The Wolf eats the girl and this is where Perrault’s story ends.
There are many ways to analyse Perrault’s Red Riding Hood. There are several ways to categorize fairy tales:
Happily ever after
The underdog wins
Fairy tales with moral lessons
Frightening/ shocking fairy tales
Red Riding Hood belongs in the category of frightening fairy tales. These are fairy tales that are meant to be read aloud for the audience in order to scare them. In the original script of Perrault’s edition, he wrote that the storyteller must scream the last words of the wolf.
Charles Perrault was the official fairy tale writer in 17th century France in the court of the Sun King, Louis XIV. Many of his fairy tales were meant for aristocratic children and the teenagers of the court.
After its release, Perrault’s fairy tale was translated into several different languages. A writer called Ludwig Tüg translated the story into German and created the character of the hunter. In his version, the hunter kills the wolf but he cannot save the little girl and in the end, there is only a hand left from poor Red Riding Hood.
The Brothers Grimm first became familiar with the German translation and decided to add it into their collection of fairy tales. The Brothers gave their story a happy ending. The hunter was about to shoot the wolf but instead, he took scissors and cut open the wolf’s stomach. Red Riding Hood and grandmother came out alive and the girl said:
“It was so dark and I was so scared the whole time”.
The wolf died and its stomach was filled with stones.
There is also a German folk tale where the wolf drowned in a pool where the drinking water was kept for the farm animals. There are also folk tale versions of Red Riding Hood where the girl hides in her grandmother’s closet. The hunter comes to look out for the wolf but the wolf manages to escape.
Compared to the original French poem where the girl seems to be more self-conscious, Perrault’s Red Riding Hood is weak and helpless. The story is an example of the ideology of the time where children were seen as more naive and innocent and considered to belittle people who were created to amuse the adults. In the 19th century, attitudes changed and it became the parent's job to protect the child and teach them moral lessons.
In the Brothers Grimm version, the moral lesson imparted is that curiosity can be deadly. The mother gives Red Riding Hood a cake and wine to take to the grandmother. She says to Red Riding Hood:
“Don’t break the bottle and when you meet grandmother be polite and don’t run around.”
“I can do it”, she says, then they shake hands. At the end of the fairy tale, after being saved by the hunter, she thinks to herself:
“From now on, I will never look away from the road, nor will I talk to strangers”.
Many folk tales and fairy tales of the 17th century were cautionary tales. They were warnings for children not to go too far away from home because wild animals could take them. Most of the time wild animals avoided people but predators such as bears and wolves did sometimes kill farm animals which caused great anger and created fear towards untamed nature.
In the 18th century in Sweden, Norway and Finland Lutheran churches started to pay extra for people for killing wolves. This so-called “wolf hate” was part of the church process of “taming nature” and its purpose was to eliminate the old pagan beliefs. Before the spread of Christianity, the wolf was not demonized but it was one of the most respected animals of the ancient world. Among Romans, Etruscans, several native American tribes, Slavs, Vikings and other cultures, wolves were worshipped as divine beings.
The story of Red Riding Hood is often connected to folk tales told about werewolves. A person who had the ability to shapeshift itself into a wolf was a widely popular mythical creature in folk tales all over Europe. Werewolves of the 16th and 17th centuries were part of the witch-hunt phenomenon (Accusations of lycanthropy however were a small part of the witchcraft trials).
Within past years there have been several film adaptions made of Red Riding Hood in which the girl is a werewolf. In ABC’s Once Upon A Time, the character of Ruby goes through several physical and spiritual transformations before she can fully accept herself. Amanda Seyfried played the part of Red Riding Hood in a movie made in 2011.
You might be surprised to find out that one of the reasons why the story of Red Riding Hood is still very popular is because of the color red. For centuries in Europe, red was seen as an unholy color because of its connection to women and the menstrual cycle.
Red was connected to love, power, attention, sex and sexuality. It was the color of blood and therefore the color of life. Red hood has several meanings in the fairy tale. Red can represent life whereas wolf can represent death. If a girl is seen as a werewolf red hood can represent rebirth. It can represent a girl’s awakening or suppressed sexuality and her ability to shapeshift herself as a wolf is another metaphor for a person owning their body.
Red Riding Hood is not just a fairy tale about a wolf and a girl. It is a metaphor for how we can face our own fears and how we react to them. The magic and the thrill of the story makes it one of the most exciting, visually appealing, and horrifying fairy tales ever told.