unsettling wonder

Household Tales: A Read Through

Arthur Rackham's Little Red Riding Hood

Little Red Cap

There has been so much written about this tale, it seems daunting to the point of silliness to try to write more. You know the tale, of course–or bits or versions of it. You know it without a summary.

Little Red Riding Hood, or Little Red Cap in the Grimms, inundates the fairy tale market with adaptations and criticism and spoofs and (saints preserve us) movies. And then spinoff movies and spoof spinoffs. And that Sky commercial.

In one sense, its appeal is predictable, even logical. It’s a story about a child who goes off on her own and faces unexpected dangers and heartache. It’s a story about dying grandparents. It’s a story about growing up.

In some versions, too, including that of the Brothers Grimm, it has a nice moral appended. Don’t run off of the path or the wolves will eat you. Don’t disobey your parents or you’ll really, really, wish you hadn’t. The Grimms, and others, have successfully transformed the tale into the sort of moral parable the Victorians and many other parents and school teachers especially like.

There seems to me, however, to be a startling monochromatism in much criticism of this tale. The general consensus is that ‘Little Red Cap’ and variants are, to put it bluntly, about sex.

The reading, once you’ve seen it, is fairly straightforward. The wolf is a predator in that sense–an aggressive male. Red Riding Hood is female innocence, in that sense. Critics fuss a little about the grandmother but tend to agree on either general depictions of the Woman in Society, or some sort of initiation rite. The question and answer scene is identfied–rather cagily–as discovery, and the devouring is unsuitable for a family-friendly blog.

The subjugation of the female by the aggressive male is, quite properly, condemned. Earlier variants of tale–such as the second version in Grimm, or older French folktales used by Perrault–are displayed as evidence of male hegemony. The grandmother is never eaten but instead tricks the wolf into boiling to death. The child is sharp-witted and cunning, using tact and deception to evade the wolf. The male narrators changed a folktale that could healthily explore aspects of sexuality, critics say.

As an interpretation goes, it’s not a bad one. It holds together under its own assumptions, and generally makes sense; those, after all, are the first tests of any criticism. That, in fact, is its chief weakness as a bit of fairy tale criticism. It’s almost too consistent. It’s almost too simple. It’s almost too clever.

Most troublesome still is how this theory has been received: with enthusiasm. If any of you know a serious fairy tale scholar cogently arguing against this interpretation, please let me know. It’s everywhere, really. And when it hit the culture fan, it went berserk. Little Red Cap was–and I’d say still is, in fact–a symbol of childhood innocence. When she became instead a symbol of female sexuality, retellers seized upon the tale with rather too much eagerness. The tale became eroticised, sexed-up, perverted. At its worst, it became an almost irrelevant frame story for the very voyeurism and male gaze that the critics said it denounced and/or propagated (depending on critic and version).

The difficulty with all this is twofold. First, the sexed-up Little Red Cap is hardly recognizable as the girl from the story we all know and love. The mythic centre–the feel of the story–has been lost. In fairy tale criticism especially, I would argue that that is a serious problem. Unless we are restricting ourselves to a single linguistic version of the tale, what we’re trying to do is get behind the telling to the mythic centre that is the tale itself. When that is gone, we’re potentially dealing with something else entirely. In other words, I’m not convinced that this reading, or resulting deviantions, have much to do with the actual Story.

Second, equally coherent interpretations could be quickly assembled. The insistence on the sexual maturation is, I think, a potential hindrance to future study of the tale, and for future retelling. It seems to me that it’s a reading that has run its course and can reveal no more than is already seen. Should we abandon the tale as read dry? Or should we instead unearth new ways of considering it?

Why, for instance, do we need symbolism in the tale at all? A real little girl wanders off the  real path into the real forest, and finds a real wolf. Wolves rather famously run in packs, but this wolf is alone and it is hungry. It is thus likely a yearling male, chased away from its pack by the Alpha male; lone males will wander very long and very far before either finding a new pack or starting its own. Set this in the year 1000 or so, and our yearling male wolf is the size of a yearling male horse. Location (far from human habitation) and circumstance (unfamiliar territory, fright, hunger) render the child little more than an unwary small animal.

Wolf eats child. Really. No symbolism needed.

That this scenario may be more than hypothetical can be demonstrated by considering similar accounts where, as the suburbs encroach on the wilds, coyotes and foxes have attacked house pets and small children. Set it in another time of encroachment and expansion, where the peasantry is venturing further into the forest–that place of magic and danger and beasts and thieves. Then ‘That poor wee Margaret got et by that wolf what Goodman Justice saw.’ And parents tell their children, stay out of the forest! The neighbor girl was eaten. My mother knew a girl who was eaten…My grandmother…my father’s grandmother…I once heard about this girl…

Fact becomes legend. The forest is tamed and the wolves hunted into mere memory of terror, the meaning of the tale is gone. But the tale is told again, and again, because now it’s become an experience–not just a parable. And children laugh–then as now–at silly Red Riding Hood as the teller warms to his tale.

‘What big eyes you have!’ [laughter] ‘All the better to SEE you with–ahem, my dear.’ [more laughter] ‘Grandma, what big EARS you have!’ [continued laughter–isn’t it obvious to her that it’s the wolf?] ‘All the better to HEAR you with, my dear.’ [Still more laughter, and the chubby boy in the front starts yelling ‘It’s the wolf! It’s the big, bad wolf!]

Until the inspired story has a stroke of genius–‘What big teeth you have!’ ‘Well, all the better to EAT YOU ALL UP WITH! ARRMM NOM NOM NOMNOMNOM!’–and chases the shrieking audience around the fire until everyone collapses with laughter and delight.

And of course it must be told again the next night. And the night after. Until the children are telling it to grandchildren and grandchildren’s children and no one remembers poor wee Margaret what got et five hundred years before–they just remember to anticipate the thrill of being scared again by the Big Bad Wolf…

Of course, we’re getting into question of origins, where fairy tales come from. And that’s beyond the matter of this post. But, regardless, to read the story without symbols is just as coherent as reading it as with them. Tales grow and change and endure in the telling; the Great Tales are never finally or perfectly told, or read.

Sometimes, a wolf is just a wolf.

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11 thoughts on “unsettling wonder

  1. I think you have a very good point, though I’d like to raise an objection. You said that the sexual reading of RRH/LRC (which always makes me think of red-cap goblins) is “hardly recognizable” as the story we know, and that the feel of the story has been lost. I would agree with you, if we were only talking about the versions we grew up with. But the versions we know may have been as “cleaned up” just as in the Grimm’s second edition version of Rapunzel, where it is no longer her pregnancy that gives her away. (See, for instance, the version on pages 3 and 4 of the Prologue** of Zipes’ “The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood,” which was translated and adapted from Delarue. This includes the cannibalism, the striptease, and a partially different version of the dissonance sequence.) (Or, for another example, the “moral” at the end of Perrault’s version warns of “gentle wolves” who would follow young maids into their homes–almost certainly a warning against the advances of men.)

    I emphatically agree with you, however, that the sexual theme has been overdone as a retelling. I don’t think it’s wholly depthless–I think of the versions in which RRH is not saved by a hunter, but by two washerwomen, and think there is something to be said for the tale as an induction into the society of women, a maturation from girlhood. But even so, it’s been done!–and done to death. Any anti-tale of RRH must now be an anti-anti-tale, rejecting both the traditional innocent telling and the traditional sexual re-telling in order to find new caves to mine.

    (** – Zipes’ book: http://books.google.com/books?id=areW3sCQf1YC&pg=PA4&lpg=PA4&dq=%22red+riding+hood%22+need+fire+stockings&source=bl&ots=yy7TUKa51O&sig=p3Fu5Z-QwzUK1aRuXBgYvgKpWP8&hl=en&ei=JOtjTYjOOsP78AbQpbiPDA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CBcQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=%22red%20riding%20hood%22%20need%20fire%20stockings&f=false )

  2. Thanks for such a thoughtful and thought-provoking comment, Chris. I want to read the story with the washer women–that’s amazing!

    I’d decided in the main text of the post not to get involved with specific critics and their various interpretations of the tale and its daunting array of variants, so I’m thrilled you’ve brought it up in the comments. Jack Zipes has, of course, done outstanding work on the Grimms, Perrault, and their sources. One thing I find very interesting on the link you provide is his observation that the happy endings to the LRRH tale are predominant in folklore, and the tragic endings seem to be the domain of literature. (He reproduces a similar variant, but with a happy ending, in Why Fairy Tales Stick [Routledge, 2006].)

    There is, though, an element of the unsuprising in these variants; as Zipes stridently points out, these are male-oriented stories with salacious bits in, twisted for the purpose of a) voyeurism and b) oppression and denigration of women. It’s not too startling that the linguistic versions of the tale as told in 18th century French salons were as racy as the 19th century anthologies were prudish. That’s just audience demand, really. And Zipes admits elsewhere that it is difficult for him to explain why LRRH continues to have appeal to families and children.

    Still more interesting (to me) than the accounts of the variants is Vaz da Silva’s discussion of how the variants are actually absorbed and reflected in the culture; he relates several fascinating cases where people recalled scenes from their youth (maturation and initiation) by using the frame of fairy tale, LRRH in particular. These individuals, he argues, are defining themselves and their experiences through the tale; I argue, then, that the discrete linguistic versions, salacious bits or prudery and all, seem to be thus transcended and subsumed by the mythic version’s relation to humanness.

    The point is that the versions we hear are meant to affect us, to help us make sense even of traumatic things like the death of a child or sexual abuse. Zipes’s solemn proclamation that ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ is either a defense of rape or a celebration of sexual exploration seems to me as needlessly restrictive as if I were to say it were an ecological argument against the destruction of habitat or a parable about the natural world overrunning civilization. You can see both interpretations in the tale in various versions, I think, verbal or not. (The Rackham illustration above seems very ecological to me.)

    The severe difficulty is finding a single interpretation encompasses, as it were, the mythic centre of the tale itself. Frankly, I’m not sure that can be done; we’re unable to encounter the tale without the cloak of a version anyway.

    So it becomes a sword that cuts both ways. Is LRRH a sexual story that bowdlerized and veneered? Is it a simple, non-symbolic story that was symbolized, sexed-up, and made racy? Actually, probably in various stages of history it’s been both. I think your notion of the anti-anti-tale is spot on–the tale’s been done to death in all directions, and deserves a fresh examination. That’s the central point I’m trying to make.

    Thanks again.

  3. Interpretations of LRRH as a sexual story speak, I think, to certain versions of the tale. I would argue, for example, that the Grimms’ version is decidedly without a sexual element. I suspect that no one has outright refuted sexual readings of the tale because, as you and Mr. Russo have already pointed out, certain variants are quite blatantly sexual (especially those written and/or recounted by Perrault and Delarue). I have read some non-sexual interpretations of the tale, although many of them are somewhat odd. I vaguely recollect some psychoanalyst writing about how the wolf has a sort of womb-envy, as he is always swallowing or being filled with things, and longs to give birth. Frankly, I didn’t think the theory made much sense but found it most entertaining.

    To digress, briefly: I remember reading (or being read) Little Red Riding Hood when I was young. I never found it especially interesting. The woodcutter struck me as out-of-place, the wolf’s bottomless appetite implausible (this from a dreamy and rather gullible child) and LRRH herself struck me as irritatingly foolish. (Not that I used those words. I probably just implored my mom or dad to read aloud some gloomy Hans Christian Anderson tale.) As a teenager I discovered Neil Gaiman’s illustrated retelling of the version of LRRH that Delarue collected (cannibalism, striptease and foul-mouthed cat all included). I was immediately enthralled by this darker and decidedly more adult version of the story, which is why I (eventually) became interested in scholarship related to that variant.

    This quest for the “mythic center” of the story is quite intriguing. I am not convinced stories possess a fixed meaning. I tend to think that certain motifs are potent to the psyche. They may not have fixed meanings (Jungian Archetypes are a fun idea that rarely work in application), but they have some sort of power, hence the persistence and popularity of features such as the titular red hood. My suspicion is that story structures themselves are used to corral motifs into structures that make some depending on epoch, culture, et cetera. Motifs can be added or removed as their relevance to the story changes, and the fabric of the story itself can be altered to fit cultural changes. It seems that the most popular fairy tales and folk stories are “lowest common denominator” — for whatever reason, their motifs and the arrangement thereof can be interpreted in myriad ways. Thus LRRH can be A Fun Story when told aloud for children, a piece of absurdist humour for adults, a disturbing tale of sexual assault, et cetera. It has many variations and thus many interpretations. The sexual interpretation has spread throughout so many other aspects of American culture that it is the subject of a great deal of scholarship. I agree, however, that it would be most intriguing to see an anti-anti-tale version. What would it look like, I wonder?

  4. I’ll have to see if I can find the version with the washerwomen in it. It was in an article in the magazine Realms of Fantasy, I think, at least two years back.

    Ah, here we go: http://www.endicott-studio.com/rdrm/rrPathNeedles.html

    *nod* I know what you mean about the difficulty in finding that all-encompassing mythic telling. There are so many variations to this story, it’s like looking at a thousand funhouse reflections, trying to imagine the one figure that could cast such divergent images.

  5. irreverently–welcome, and thanks for such a great comment! I loved your account of hearing LRRH read as a child. Quite interestingly, Andrew Lang anthologized Perrault’s version in The Blue Fairy Book, but harrumphingly left off the woodcutter, because, he insisted, children prefer Riding Hood to get eaten. (And Lang liked gloomy Anderson tales, too. Hmmm…)

    What I appreciate about the Delarue version is the wily and clever heroine, who is not only not afraid of the wolf but outwits him and rescues herself. Zipes is quite right to point that out. I do have to wonder, though, all psychological elements aside, how many of the conventions and repetitions in the tale (‘What should I do with my dress?’ ‘Throw it in the fire, you don’t need it anymore.’ etc.) emerge simply from the facile and mnemonic components of storytelling? Even the darker version began when storytelling was acceptable social discourse, by no means only for children (and then, not every culture has the same taboo of discussing sexual maturation with children). I think this would be evident particularly in the earlier, oral versions–which we simply don’t have. All speculation then, really, but I think story–and the conventions of story–emerge primarily from the telling.

    Also, I feel I should specify: by ‘mythic centre,’ I’m not wanting to imply a single proper meaning. By the mythic centre I mean the Story itself, the rhythm of events and the imaginative feel of the tale–that element which makes us recognize that Delarue and Grimm are, at some level, telling the same story.

    Thanks again!

  6. Chris–Thanks! I’ll look forward to that. I love Neil Gaiman’s use of the funhouse mirrors in The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch, btw.

    And to both Chris and irreverently, I’m also very intrigued about what the anti-anti-variant would look like. No idea, to be honest. Although Enchanted Conversation is going to have a LRRH themed issue this fall, so maybe we’ll find it then? Alternatively, if anyone wants to email me an attempt at an anti-anti-retelling of LRRH, I’ll be happy to post my favourite(s) here at Paradoxes. So, have at it.

  7. I’d just like to say that if it wasn’t for LRRH we wouldn’t have the awesome song by Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs. And we wouldn’t have some great Bugs Bunny cartoons either. 🙂

    Anyway, regarding the anti-tale anti-tale, I’ve been thinking for some time that this sort of thing needs to start happening in regard to post-modernism, subverting the subverters & deconstructing the deconstructionalists as it were.

  8. Interesting comment on Rackham above– I hadn’t quite considered it in those terms before but can immediately see it when you say it. “Ecological” is almost an understatement: the picture could be called “Study of a gnarled and somewhat mutilated tree, a pool of ominous-looking water, and oh yeah, a girl and a wolf.” Compositionally, the alleged main characters are stuck so low that it’s a good thing she has a bright red riding hood, or we might miss them. (Contrast Doré’s disturbingly close view of the two faces as she warily climbs into bed with “Granny.”)

    Meanwhile, yon wolf has a lean and hungry look, which makes perfect sense– animals usually attack humans only when they are extremely desperate from hunger or fear. It would be very easy to read a blatant environmentalist allegory into the painting, but I fear that would be me looking at it from my late-20th-century paradigm…. Anyone know whether Rackham was an early adopter of environmentalist views?

    Mightn’t the anti-anti-tale be Thurber’s? “…She had approached no nearer than twenty-five feet from the bed when she saw that it was not her grandmother but the wolf, for even in a nightcap a wolf does not look any more like your grandmother than the Metro-Goldwyn lion looks like Calvin Coolidge. So the little girl took an automatic out of her basket and shot the wolf dead. (Moral: It is not so easy to fool little girls nowadays as it used to be.)”

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