Red in the Words

I decided to leap back into prose by taking a look at the drafts I wrote for the flash nonfiction course I took in July. While I was searching for those in my closet, I ran across a few of my Red Riding Hood books.

As a fictional character, she’s been quite an influence on me and my writing.

But who is she?

There are hundreds of versions of the story and they come from many different countries. Some are old versions from traditional literature and some are contemporary retellings of the tale. Some are children’s stories; some, such as those that spring from the oral tradition, are for the general public; and some, usually feminist or sexualized versions, are for adults.

I’m guessing that most of us are steeped in the European tradition of red hooded cloak, little girl, wolf, grandmother, and woods. We might or might not think of a huntsman. Our Little Red might get a warning from her mother–or she might not. She might get eaten up just before the reader is left with a strong “moral.” She might kill the wolf in a gruesome manner. Or the wolf might run into the woods, never to return. Pinterest is full of images that resonate, so I started collecting them onto a “Red in the Woods” board. I’ve only got 35 pins so far, but there are some beauties. Many of the classic book illustrators have created Little Red art.

Arthur Rackham’s Little Red Riding Hood

Every culture incorporates some of these elements in their little red stories, but the most important part is that a little girl is threatened by a dangerous animal (usually a wolf, but in Asian countries, sometimes a tiger) and either she becomes a victim, is rescued by someone else, or she is victorious over the “bad guy.” The undercurrents involve a girl going out into a threatening world on her own for the first time and the possibility of sexual violation. But those are adult readings, of course.

Sometimes Little Red is a bad ass. Those are the best versions! One of my favorite picture books for children is Ed Young’s Lon PoPo where the Little Red protagonist is a smart, strong oldest sister who outwits the wolf and protects her siblings.

Have you ever seen Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical Into the Woods? In this version, Little Red is definitely a sexual target for the wolf, but the question becomes: is she complicit? Does she  in some way lead on the wolf? Is the red hood to draw attention? (And where does the red garment come from? Not from the girl herself). Or is that an adult male (pervert) reading–a Humbert version of Lolita? Another adult reading is that the red hood is a metaphor for Red’s vagina/clitoris/youpick.

In this clip of the 1991 Broadway show, the lyrics say a lot about our culture’s interpretation. It becomes clear that this version is about the loss of innocence.

In the Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs’ song, the wolf leers at Red.

There are other strange bits and pieces that show up in some Little Red stories. The wolf tricks Red into eating her Granny’s flesh. Red tries to get out of bed with the wolf by telling him she has to go pee. At that point he tells her to pee in the bed, but she says she can’t and he lets her go outside tied to a long rope. Some of these elements that seem vulgar  or creepy have been edited out of the most popular versions published in the last few hundred years. The confusion between wolf and grandmother is still with us, though. And that alone is pretty strange. Dangerous wolf looks like beloved grandmother? Beyond strange.

Is the wolf a perv or is Red a Lolita? Or is that a red herring (sorry)? Is the story really about something else?


Filed under Books, Characterization, Children's Literature, Fairy Tales, Fiction, History, Inspiration, Writing

45 responses to “Red in the Words

  1. As a child I disliked all those weird stories. Not a fan of the Brothers Grimm. They gave me nightmares. In my version, the wolf would become a friend and they would have a mocha latte together and perhaps some strudel!

  2. I’m confused!! Maybe the red cape has to do with Little Red’s first menstruation, as in “now she is a woman.” Ha! What 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 year old is a woman? But in some countries girls are married then — and earlier — to much older men.

    Yesterday, I saw the opera “La Cerenertola” — Cinderella. She had a wicked stepfather (not stepmother) and was helped by a male wizard (not a fairy godmother).There were few roles of women in this Rossini opera. Even the chorus was all men. My favorite characters in this production were the rats! It was this production:

    • Yes, I forgot about the menstruation angle. You are right. Thanks for catching that.
      Hmm, so take a story where there the women are the most important characters (forget the prince) and turn them into men so that you can give men the roles? As if opera doesn’t have enough male roles? APPROPRIATION!!!! Interestingly, Marina Warner (see From the Beast to the Blonde above) connects the character of the wolf in Little Red to some of the evil women in other tales.

  3. I’ve read some of the literature you have above–I have Orenstein’s book on my shelf, too. I have a short entry on “Fairy Tales” in my Encyclopedia of Rape.
    Sondheim’s wolf is creepy. He always seems like a child molester to me, and there is definitely a loss of innocence for Red. (Actually for all of the characters, I suppose.)

    • Child molester for sure, especially today when we are very aware of that type of predator and also because we view kids as kids and not as little adults (as in the old-old days). When I was a kid somehow I wondered if there was some connection between Red and the wolf but I couldn’t articulate it or even fully form the thought. Now I think it must be the sexual component that I couldn’t comprehend.

  4. I was going to ask if you’d seen “Into the Woods”, and then I saw later on in the post you mentioned you had. I enjoyed the movie, and I thought both Little Red’s character and the Wolf’s were well done. Johnny Depp played him perfectly, and yes, perhaps a bit pervertedly too. 🙂

  5. I’ve had a fascination with Little Red for years and years and years. She always comes to my mind when I’m out in the woods. Great to read this brilliant post about her.

  6. Do you know Neil Jordan’s 1984 film ‘The Company of Wolves’, based on an Angela Carter story?

  7. All I ever wanted was a cape like little Red’s. It’s a wonder that women ever ventured outside with these awful tales drummed into our heads. I LOVE Ed Young! His were among our favourites repeatedly read (red?). The illustrations were always so simple and poignant.

  8. I think the dangerous wolf looking like Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother can be interpreted to mean the wolf looked like someone she could trust. Who wouldn’t trust their grandmother? Remember, the real wolves of this world that prey on innocent children usually disguise themselves as totally harmless people.

    • Lynette, I think you must be right. Who would she trust more than her dear grandmother? That bond kids have with a beloved grandparent. And yet she wouldn’t know her grandmother as well as her mother because she didn’t live with her, so what a perfect character to pretend to be. Pretty smart wolf! And, yes, they are the coach, mentor, babysitter, etc.

  9. Oh my goodness, Luanne — I have read much of the research and collective perception about this, but the book I loved about it is Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked by Catherine Orenstein. Check it out! 🙂
    Yes, the wolf is a perv and her own sexuality and her innocence lost and so many many layers of symbolism.

    • LOL, look at the book titles in the photo ;)! Yup, I love that book. It’s really one of the most amazing of the fairy tales for the symbolism and for the timeless quality to it. Out of curiosity, have you ever seen Freeway with Reese Witherspoon? Wondering what you thought about it.

  10. Maybe the wolf-as-grandmother is really Little Red’s elderly self, and she is there as a warning or cautionary tale? Representing the end of her youth, perhaps?

    • THAT is a new one! Or a really scary warning not to get old because you too will have big scary teeth and big hairy ears!!! The end of her youth. She is now at the beginning of her womanhood and the cycle has moved on, granny must be eaten.

  11. This is fascinating Luanne. I never thought in a million years that Little Red Riding Hood had so many connotations, ha!! It used to scare me though, not that keen on these kind of Grimm fairy tales. I love the way the girl is drawn in the first piece of art. Anything to do with getting lost and then threatened in the woods though gives me the shudders…think Blair Witch, lol. You bring up some fascinating questions here, but sadly I have no answers. Something I would have to give a lot of thought to…but I will say that as a girl the main thing I obsessed about was what kind of food she had in her basket and why she couldn’t figure out that the wolf wasn’t really her grandmother at all. Strange…very strange…

  12. I like that fairy tales are like life, full of good “guys” and bad guys or gals, Luanne. Many feel the process is similar in all stories, depending on the challenges the hero faces, most stories turn out “happily ever after.” There is comfort in this but also, I can see why some people don’t like the fantasy of fairy tales. One of my favorites is “Sleeping Beauty.” My grandchildren like “Snow White” because of the dwarves who protect and enjoy having a mother figure. She is sleeping, too in this story.
    I used to have a few small sized Madame Alexander fairy tale dolls, Luanne. I gave or sold them. I kept my “Little Women” set with Marme, Meg, Beth, Amy, Jo and neighbor boy named “Laurie.” Another great piece of literature but sadly, not all live. . .

  13. Lon Po Po is by far my favorite version of this story! (And the illustrations are wonderful, too.) A few years ago, a couple of the high school marching bands here in the state did shows around the Red Riding Hood story. One ended with the wolf triumphant and the other ended with the wolf defeated – both were wonderfully envisioned and performed, and I really enjoyed how the contrasting story lines played out in the music, drill, and colorguard work.

  14. There’s something I really love about Red Riding Hood. My favourite version and one of my favourite short stories ever is Angela Carter’s The Company of Wolves.

  15. Luanne I think this timeless story can be anything you want it to be. Love the different versions but the traditional one is my favourite. The one i grew up with, yes probably from the Little Golden Book too.

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