Household Tales: A Read Through
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.