The Tale and its History
Perrault was the first to write down “Little Red Riding Hood,” but the tragic ending of this version has caused some to question whether it has a genuine folk origin. The version most widely known today is based on the Brothers Grimm version.
It is not so much a story about werewolves because there is no real metamorphosis but disguise by the wolf. However, we have listed here for its popularity.
It is about a girl called Little Red Riding Hood, after the red hood she always wears. The girl walks through the woods to deliver food to her grandmother. A wolf (often identified as the Big Bad Wolf) wants to eat the girl but is afraid to do so in public (sometimes there are woodcutters watching). He approaches the girl, and she naïvely tells him where she is going. He suggests the girl to pick some flowers, which she does. In the meantime he goes to the grandmother’s house and gains entrance by pretending to be the girl. He eats the grandmother, and waits for the girl, disguised as the grandmother. When the girl arrives he eats her too. A woodcutter, however, comes to the rescue and cuts the wolf open. Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother emerge unharmed. They fill the wolf’s body with heavy stones, which kills him.
The tale makes the clearest contrast between the safe world of the village and the dangers of the forest, conventional antitheses that are essentially medieval, though no versions are as old as that. It also seems to be a strong morality tale, teaching children not to ‘wander off the path’.
The theme of the ravening wolf and of the creature released unharmed from its belly is reflected in the Russian tale ‘Peter and the Wolf,’ and the other Grimm tale The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids, but its general theme of restoration is at least as old as Jonah and the whale.
The origins of the Little Red Riding Hood story can be traced to oral versions from various European countries and more than likely preceding the 17th century, of which several exist, some significantly different from the currently-known, Grimm’s-inspired version. It was told by French peasants in the 14th century as well as in Italy, where a number of versions exist, including La finta nonna (The False Grandmother).
These early variations of the tale differ from the currently known version in several ways. The antagonist is not always a wolf, but sometimes an ogre or a ‘bzou’ (werewolf), making these tales relevant to the werewolf-trials (similar to witch trials) of the time. In the French tale “The Story of a Grandmother, the villain is a bzou – explicitly, a kind of werewolf.
The wolf usually leaves the grandmother’s blood and meat for the girl to eat, who then unwittingly cannibalizes her own grandmother. Also, once the girl is in bed with the wolf she sees through his disguise and tries to escape, complaining to her ‘grandmother’ that she needs to defecate and would not wish to do so in the bed. The wolf reluctantly lets her go, tied to a piece of string so she does not get away. However, the girl slips the string over something else and gets away.
It has been noted that in these stories she escapes with no help from any male or older female figure, but instead utilizes her own cunning. The woodcutter/huntsman figure, added later, would limit the girl to a relatively passive role. This has led to criticisms that the story was changed to keep women “in their place”, needing the help of a physically superior man such as the woodcutter to save them.
Other cultures’ names for Little Red Riding Hood
* German: Rotkäppchen (red cap)
* Finnish: Punahilkka
* French: Le Petit Chaperon rouge (little red hat)
* Spanish: Caperucita Roja
* Italian: Cappuccetto Rosso
* Portuguese: Capuchinho Vermelho
* Portuguese (Brazilian): Chapeuzinho Vermelho
* Dutch: Roodkapje
* Swedish: Rödluvan
* Slovak: Červená čiapočka
* Czech: Červená karkulka
The earliest known printed version was known as Le Petit Chaperon Rouge and had its origins in 17th century French folklore. It was included in the collection Tales and Stories of the Past with Morals. Tales of Mother Goose (Histoires et contes du temps passé, avec des moralités. Contes de ma mère l’Oie), in 1697, by Charles Perrault. As the title implies, this version is both more sinister and more overtly moralized than the later ones.
The story had as its subject an “attractive, well-bred young lady”, a village girl of the country being deceived into giving a wolf she encountered the information he needed to successfully find her grandmother’s house and eat the old woman while at the same time avoiding being noticed by woodcutters working in the nearby forest. Then he proceeded to lay a trap for the Red Riding Hood. The latter ends up eaten by the wolf and there the story ends. The wolf emerges the victor of the encounter and there is no happy ending.
Charles Perrault explained the ‘moral’ at the end so that no doubt is left to his intended meaning:
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!
In this version the tale has been adapted for late 17th century French salon culture, an entirely different audience from what it had before, and has become a harsh morality tale warning women of the advances of men.
The Brothers Grimm
In the 19th century two separate German versions were retold to Jacob Grimm and his younger brother Wilhelm Grimm, known as the Brothers Grimm, the first by Jeanette Hassenpflug (1791–1860) and the second by Marie Hassenpflug (1788–1856). The brothers turned the first version to the main body of the story and the second into a sequel of it. The story as Rotkäppchen was included in the first edition of their collection Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales (1812)).
This version had the girl and her grandmother saved by a huntsman who was after the wolf’s skin. The second part featured the girl and her grandmother trapping and killing another wolf, this time anticipating his moves based on their experience with the previous one.
The Brothers further revised the story in later editions and it reached the above mentioned final and better known version in the 1857 edition of their work. It is notably tamer than the older ones which contained darker themes. Modern scholars and audiences have often dismissed it as a mere watered-down version of the older story.
In comparison to the French story, the Grimms’ version is less satiric, more naive, and directed to the child alone – for educational purposes. This shift in focus more to the child authorizes the restoration of the happy ending; certainly the history of the story’s evolution from a bawdy tale told to mixed audiences to an admonitory tale primarily directed against children reflects the development of a clear sense of distinction between child and adult.
After the Grimms
Numerous authors have rewritten or adapted this tale.
Andrew Lang retold the story as “The True History of Little Goldenhood” in The Red Fairy Book, explicitly saying that the story had been mistold. The girl was saved, but not by the huntsman; when the wolf tried to eat her, its mouth was burned by the golden hood she wore, which was enchanted.
Bruno Bettelheim, in The Uses of Enchantment, recast the Little Red Riding Hood motif in terms of classic Freudian analysis, that shows how fairy tales educate, support, and liberate the emotions of children.
In the twentieth century, the popularity of the tale appeared to snowball, with many new versions being written and produced, especially in the wake of Freudian analysis, deconstruction and feminist critical theory. See below for a number of modern adaptations.