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Fairy Tale Origins: Little Red Riding Hood

By Edited May 21, 2015 7 16

Walking in the Spooky Old Woods Alone

Hey, there, Little Red Riding Hood,
You sure are looking good.
You're everything a big bad wolf could want.
     -Ronald Blackwell*

Pedophilia, cannibalism, seduction, animal ravishment – many fairy tale origins contain these disturbing subjects.  The quaint mental picture of a young girl blithely skipping through the woods, taking a care package of goodies to her ailing grandmother is known universally.  But the real story of Little Red Riding Hood perhaps has some elements not so innocent and blithe.

Littel Red Riding Hood (oil, detail, ca 19th C)

French Folk
French author Charles Perrault (1628-1703) single-handedly invented the literary genre of the fairy tale.  Folk tales or morality tales (what are called "fairy tales" today) certainly had been written earlier (forms of Cinderella and

Charles Perrault (detail, 1672)
Sleeping Beauty existed in Renaissance Italy).  But Charles Perrault made the fairy tale a force unto itself, and he also gave the world the fairy tale's best-known symbol, Mother Goose (a completely fictional character not based on any human who ever lived).

Perrault, as a French man in the early years of The Age of Enlightenment, likely did not feel the compulsion to unreasonably censor either himself or his work. Also, the stories he created (some based on existing oral traditions) were sometimes cunning little gems that adults could read and appreciate as well.  He used quirks of the French language to create double-entendres, and other carefully chosen language to slyly describe sexual seduction. 
Riding Hood leaving mother

The standard story of Little Red Riding Hood exists now in an exceedingly "clean" version.  Red (a young girl, perhaps about 10 years old or younger), wearing her trademark hooded cape, is sent on an errand with a basket of goodies for her ailing grandmother.  Walking through the woods, Red is stopped for a chat by a wolf that wheedled her destination from her.  He races ahead, eats the grandmother, puts on her bedclothes, and awaits Red's arrival.

Little Red Riding Hood shows up at Granny's.  She inspects her grandmother to find she looks very different from usual, and comments upon her altered features.  The wolf gives oblique explanations for his appearance.  To
Little Red Riding Hood (meets wolf in forest)
"What big eyes you have!", the wolf  replies, "The better to see you with, my dear." Finally, once the comment about the wolf's teeth is uttered, he rallies, "The better to eat you with, my dear," and gobbles up the little girl.  A passing hunter, hearing the ruckus, charges in.  Knowing what bad wolves do, he cuts the wolf open and both Red and her Granny spring out of his stomach unharmed, to live happily ever after.

The current story could be used as a cautionary tale for young children about the consequences of talking to strangers.  It, unfortunately, ruins that message by including the hunter as a rescuer – children may be inclined to take that lesson less seriously if they believe some heroic adult is always on hand to save them.  That's not Perrault's story, nor is it the one passed orally around Europe (and a version from the Orient that predates Perrault), either.

Really Red
The Perrault version of the tale (and to a lesser degree the earliest Brothers Grimm version) allows that Red has some character flaws.  Red, in these earlier stories, is not a mere child
Little Red Riding Hood (at Grandma's door)
but a nymphet, blossoming on the edge of womanhood.  She is also vain – she is very attractive and she knows it.  Perrault goes to great lengths to remark upon how beautiful she is, and it sparks an air of sexual tension that carries throughout the rest of the story.  [Additionally, there was an element of the lecher to Charles Perrault as well – in 1672, when he was 44, he married a 19-year-old girl (who died six years later).]. 

Red's family lived in a village near a forest.  She pestered her mother for new clothing. In the French version, her mother made a chaperon (a half-cape or bonnet) for the girl.  She exacted a promise from Red not to wear it out as the material was very dear.  Red, of course, did not heed her mother's words, and because of her vanity, and how pretty she thought she looked in her new
Little Red Riding hood (with wolf)
cape, she wore it everywhere.  The townspeople began calling her by the sobriquet she bears today: "Little Red Riding Hood". [And it was Perrault who made her hood "red" – in stories before then, the color was never mentioned. The red is highly suggestive of virginity and of blood from deflowering]. 

From Red's leaving home to her arrival at her grandmother's house, Perrault's version followed tradition.  She met the wolf in the woods, and he wanted to eat her (but was afraid to do so publicly).  So, he took a shortcut to her grandmother's house.  There, he ate the grandmother (in the most politically-correct version today, Granny is frightened into hiding in a closet).  He then climbed into bed and waited for Red – he did not, however, don any of Granny's bed-clothes in Perrault's story.  He remained naked.

Red Riding Hood arrived, and in his gruff voice the wolf bade her come in. Red, believing her Granny's voice was edgy from illness, and because the wolf hid under the blankets and sheets, was
Little Red Riding Hood (getting in bed)
not alarmed at the wolf's tone. She told him of the basket of food she brought; the wolf told her to set the basket aside and to climb into bed with him. Red thought little of the request (people routinely used body heat to help the ill and to simply keep each other warm).  She took off her clothes and climbed into bed with her grandmother.

Red had never seen or felt her grandmother naked before, and she commented upon her granny's physical abnormalities.  All the bases are covered: "My, what big arms you have," etc..  The most interesting part of this exchange is the following:

"Grandma, what big legs you have!"
"The better to run with, my child."

It is in this seemingly innocuous banter where Perrault left many French adults snickering, and it was intentional.  His punning in this story focused on the sexual desirability of this girl.  In French, the word for "leg" is "jambe", and other writers of the era also used the word as a slang term for penis ("middle leg").  Similarly, Perrault spun the word "courir" ("to run") in the wolf's reply.  "Courir" also meant "sexual intercourse" for French people of the period.  So, in essence, Perrault had Red talking innocently about legs, with the wolf subverting the chat into a sexual conversation.

Little Red Riding Hood (in bed with wolf)

Red Riding Hood reached the climax with, "Grandma, what big teeth you have!"  The wolf exclaimed, "The better to eat you with!"  Then he gobbled her up. 

And that is the end of Perrault's story.  There is no errant hunter, no rescue of Red.  The wolf had his meal and that was it.

This story was told in the French countryside as early as the 14th century.  The version of the Far East had a tiger and a great-aunt instead of the wolf and the grandmother.  In other early versions of the tale, an ogre or a werewolf was the bad character.  Some of these stories have the girl wearing a cape or hood, some do not. One version of the story incorporated cannibalism: the wolf didn't eat Red's grandmother; he cooked her and fed her to Red when she arrived.

Charles Perrault's story first appeared in 1697 in his book Tales and Stories of the Past with Morals subtitled Tales of My Mother Goose.  In the deepest Mediaeval times up through The Enlightenment and beyond, Europeans lived on the edges of wilderness and primeval forests.  Wolves were a very real threat, and wolf attacks were not uncommon.  Thus, the surface caution about woods and wolves is met in a literal reading.  But Charles Perrault ended his tragic tale of Little Red Riding Hood perhaps not about real wolves at all:

"From this story one learns that children, especially young lasses, pretty, courteous and well-bred, do very wrong to listen to strangers, And it is not an unheard thing if the Wolf is thereby provided with his dinner. I say Wolf, for all wolves are not of the same sort; there is one kind with an amenable disposition – neither noisy, nor hateful, nor angry, but tame, obliging and gentle, following the young maids in the streets, even into their homes. Alas! Who does not know that these gentle wolves are of all such creatures the most dangerous!"

"Well-bred" in Perrault's time also meant having a well-developed female body.  This is obviously a warning about sexually aggressive men (the scene in grandma's bed when Red gets eaten is clearly a metaphor

Little Red Riding Hood
for rape).  Perrault intended for this tale to read that way – it was meant for adults to enjoy as well as children (who weren't so overprotected in The Age of Enlightenment as they are today).

Little Red Riding Hood has been re-imagined thousands of times in almost any media imaginable, from literature, to film, to pop music, to pop art.  Interestingly enough, most people subconsciously understand the sexual undercurrent of the story, and the character Little Red Riding Hood sometimes features in erotic cartooning and erotic art.  Red's nymphet status (as a girl-woman) was best presented in the 1966 classic by the garage rock Tex-Mex outfit Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs:

Little Red Riding Hood
I don't think little big girls should
Go walking in these spooky old woods alone.

No, little big girls should not, indeed, go walking in the spooky old woods alone. 

Little Red Riding Hood (web art)

*From the 1966 MGM single "Li'l Red Riding Hood" (Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs).

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Jan 5, 2012 3:38pm
So many amazing facts about such an old favourite fairy tale. I was aware of the darker edge of most fairy tales or rather as you say, folk tales.Your facts are quite easily digestible to me as someone who loves their history, and to know that centuries ago pedophilia was more than acceptable, I am surprised that there is not a version where Little Red is a boy and not a buxom teenager.Another amazing job on your side once again Vic.
Jan 5, 2012 3:42pm
Thanks, but you and I both know then as now, sex sells (at least, heterosexual sex). A boy just wouldn't be "stimulating" or tittilating enough (unless the Greeks wrote it!)

I will have a good one later this month for Goldilocks (she started out as -- get this -- a haggard old crone before being transformed into the nymphet burglar of lore!)
Jan 5, 2012 3:44pm
Also, I quickly found a lot of the Web art on her was amazing (two examples above in the piece) -- you should graze through some of it some time.
Jan 5, 2012 3:48pm
I am on my way to bed Vic, but tomorrow I will take a look at the rest of your series on this so far, I find it truly interesting. I do find the art on these amazing.
Jan 8, 2012 11:37am
Amazing article. Kinda calls into question my views on the somewhat puritanical attitudes of that era.
Jan 8, 2012 10:51pm
They kept it real, pulled no punches, back when. Thnanks for reading.
Jan 8, 2012 12:18pm
This is good, if not one of the best articles I've seen here on InfoBarrel. Very informative. Your writing style is cool as well, not to mention the pictures and formatting.
Jan 8, 2012 4:25pm
Red's story is a metaphor for so many things. Enjoyed your take on it.
Jan 8, 2012 10:51pm
Thanks for checking her out.
Jan 9, 2012 4:52am
"Little Red Riding Hood" by Sam The Sham and the Pharaohs is my all-time 'signature' karaoke tune. I always thought the lyrics made it the creepiest, stalkerish song I've ever heard in my life - so this article further entrenches my assertions.

Great article man.
Jan 10, 2012 5:01pm
This is a very good and interesting article Vic Dillinger. Always been fascinated with the earlier versions of fairy tales. They were actually dark and forthright, unlike today's sanitized version. I enjoyed reading this one.
Jan 10, 2012 10:37pm
I don't mind that the cleaner versions exist, I just want to be able to have access to the original, more ribald things (just as the "unrated" version of any movie is ALWAYS better than its theatrical release). Thanks for reading.
Jan 11, 2012 9:53am
This feature makes it an old familiar tale fresh and new. :)
Jan 11, 2012 10:31pm
Thanks for reading. I try ot be interesting (sometimes I fail)
Jan 11, 2012 10:44pm
I mean, 'this feature makes an old familiar tale fresh and new. :)' and yes it is. I'm sure not everyone knows most of the details you mentioned here about that old legend.
Jan 11, 2012 10:59pm
That's the fun part -- the little surprises.
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  1. Dave Marsh The Heart of Rock & Soul. New York City, New York: New American Library, 1989.
  2. "Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs." robert-kruse.com. 22/12/2011 <Web >
  3. Richard Zacks An Underground Education. New York City, New York: Doubleday, 1997.
  4. "Charles Perrault." en.wikipedia.org. 22/12/20 <Web >
  5. "Little Red Riding Hood." en.wikipedia.org. 22/12/2011 <Web >
  6. "Age of Enlightenment." en.wikipedia.org. 22/12/2011 <Web >

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