Little Red Riding Hand
I have chosen this classic, unsanitised, reading of the story to begin my podcast because it made sense to coincide with the current film Red Riding Hood which is a dark film about virginity, rape and incest, not suitable for little children.
“Sexuality definitely plays a role in Red Riding Hood,” concludes (Amanda) Seyfried of her new movie. “I think it teaches young audiences to get in touch with their sexuality, to not fear that piece of themselves. I was very disconnected when I was a teenager and young adult, and I think that the film shows you have to be connected and always to be true to yourself, and trust yourself.” – Herald Scotland, 4/4/2011.
As with many fairy tales, the story has been adapted and used in different media ranging from advertising lipstick to Broadway musicals, novels to the fractured tales of Angela Carter and others. And of course the stories have been sanitised over the years too, rendering them almost useless as the wise, nourishing, full-of-meaning, rich stories they should be.
There are many variants of the tale, dating back to Greek and Norse myth, and French, German and Italian versions. The seventeenth century French courtier Charles Perrault was the first to print his version of the story in 1695, having almost certainly heard versions of it as a child. It appeared in English print for the first time in 1729.
In addition to giving wolves a bad name, interpretations abound, from warning young girls not to talk to strangers, to the sun being swallowed by the night, to the ritual awakening from young girl to womanhood. Indeed, “seen a wolf” was French slang for having lost one’s virginity. Then there’s the whole idea of being eaten which is so deliciously scary!
Red is the colour of blood, passion, vitality, rage, danger and all their connotations. It stands out.
Go to your Grandmother’s – In Perrault’s version the girl is instructed to take food. He only adds the moral at the end. In the Grimm’s version she is told not to stray from the path.
Food - In other versions of the story, Little Red Riding Hood is given other foods to take with her, and in one the wolf requires the girl to eat parts of her grandmother. Cannibalism is too big a topic to go into here, but it is mentioned in the ABC’s Re-enchantment site (see links). Suffice to say that eating is often thought of as erotic; the female breast is after all both a sex organ and a source of nourishment.
Flowers and butterflies – some people say the girl is indulging in the pleasure principle rather than reality by straying off the path to gather flowers and watch butterflies. Or is she relishing the timelessness of being lost in nature? All too soon the innocence of childhood is over and she must face the emotional tasks of growing up and being in the world of adults.
Wolf – People had good reason to fear this predator in olden times, especially when there was famine and the wolf came prowling for food, hence the saying “keeping the wolf from the door” to denote having enough to eat. They feature in many British and European stories; compare The Wolf and the Seven Kids and The Three Little Pigs, for instance.
Wolves were held in such fear that in medieval times people believed in werewolves, men who changed into wolves and ate children, who were believed to be the male counterpart of witches. The witch and werewolf trials were going on around the 16th and 17th centuries when these stories were committed to print.
Wolves represent male wickedness, sly and sleazy, or charming and seemingly innocuous on the outside, like a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”. Marie-Louise von Franz has a lot to say about them in “Shadow and Evil in Fairy tales”.
On the other hand, we know a lot more about wolves these days, and can learn from them, as has Calrissa Pinkola Estes – in her book Women Who Run with the Wolves, which is highly recommended. She evokes the wolf as representing women’s wild nature, and compares the qualities of healthy wolves and healthy women.
“Where are you going?” – asks the wolf. Little Red Riding Hood gives him far too much information, thereby, inadvertently perhaps, inviting the dark side into her life?
He ate her all up. Perrault’s version of the story does not provide a rescuerlike the Grimm’s version does (the woodsman). And in still other versions the girl and or her grandmother devise the wolf’s demise themselves.
The next worse thing to being eaten is being raped, and the story of Little Red Riding Hood is seen by some as a metaphor for rape. In the 17th Century men had rights over women’s bodies and rape was not the crime it is known to be today. And currently there’s the disturbing development of ‘raunch culture’, where norms of sexuality are being turned upside-down.
The terror of being devoured is innate in humans. The idea of being in the belly of another comes up in all sorts of stories, from Jonah and the Whale to Jack and the Beanstalk. Mythologists and psychologists have written about this in terms of representing rites of passage, death and re-birth, and the journey into the abyss.
Jack Zipes, The trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood, 1984 Bergin & Garvey Publishers Inc. Massachusetts.
These questions are for your own personal reflections on the story. Perhaps you don’t relate to the whole story, but parts of it do resonate with aspects of your experience. Those are the parts you can work with. And if you find a question disturbing, do seek out a wise and trusted friend or therapist to talk it over with.
I would encourage you as you reflect on these questions to have your favourite creativity materials or a visual journal nearby. Be open to any images that may come to you and concretize your reflections in some sort of art-making.
- How do you feel when you wear the colour red? What does the colour mean for you?
- What do you think Little Red Riding Hood’s qualities are? Make a list. How do you see these qualities in yourself, or not?
- For parents: How do you go about warning your children against modern-day predators? How do you feel about the sexualisation of children in the media? How do you compare the freedom you might have had as a child to play unsupervised to the freedom your children have today?
- How much information about yourself do you give away without thinking, which could be stolen or used against you?
- What is more important to you, the journey or the destination? Do you ‘stop and smell the roses’ along the way, or can you only stop and relish the results of a job well done? What’s your favourite way of taking time out?