Tag Archives: traditional literature

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?

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

The Influence of Fairy Tales

After reading Robin’s post about her granddaughters and the new Cinderella movie the other day, I was thinking about how I’ve always been influenced by fairy tales and folk tales. The Disney version of Sleeping Beauty was my earliest film-version fairy tale–and I loved both Flora and the music passionately. Not to mention how the colors changed! I mentioned Flora’s influence here.

When my daughter was little I had mixed feelings about the movies and illustrations of these old tales because I began to see the stories through my Korean daughter’s eyes. I’ve written both on this blog and on our adoption blog about these subjects in the past. The story of race in fairy tales was here where I wrote about my daughter’s notion of Cinderella as a blonde.

There are over 700 versions of Cinderella from around the world. The only countries that didn’t have true Cinderella stories were African countries, but there have been more contemporary Cinderella stories remedying that “deficit.” The oldest version of Cinderella is Chinese and developed when people still lived in caves. The size of the shoe was added in when foot binding entered the culture. Lots of icky little cultural “shoulds” like foot binding or fetishizing the size of women’s feet enter our stories without us realizing what we are teaching our children.

The tales, particularly the European ones, feature cannibalism, dismemberment, incest, and other immoral activities. Stepmothers are usually nasty creatures out to, at best, neglect their charges and, at worst, to murder them. Of course, there is a reason for mean stepmothers. There were a lot of stepmothers in the days when many women died in childbirth. And with limited incomes or primogeniture, women wanted to ensure the inheritance (and therefore survival) of their own children, not the older children of first wives. In my own family, over 150 years ago in the Netherlands, my great-great-grandfather and his brother were sent by their stepmother to live in the orphanage when their father died.

We can deny the horrors and sometimes the violence or we can delete it as Disney did, but the old tales spring from difficult lives. Does the grit and nastiness deter me from reading them? Hah. No. And, like most of us, there are certain tales that have stuck with me. Become part of who I am. I’ve written about the role of “The Princess and the Pea” in my life here and the role of Little Red Riding Hood here.

In Doll God I explored some of the tales that influenced me in my life. Not all, by any stretch, but some. Snow White, for instance. I had no idea she did influence me, but for some reason she showed up in two poems in my book! “Snow’s Locked Box” was just published in Grist Journal, which is mainly a print journal, so you would need to get a copy to read it at this time. The poem features Snow White in her coffin out in the woods. There is also a poem in the book about the Japanese tale of the stone cutter, relating it to the artist wishing to be both art and artist.

The older I get, the more I dislike violence and unhappy endings. I’d rather see Ariel end up with her prince than see the Little Mermaid as mere foam on the ocean, as Andersen first wrote her ending. I haven’t seen the new Cinderella movie or Frozen because I’m always behind in my movie viewing. But I loved Tangled and Puss in Boots, which reminds me of my cat Mac.

Nevertheless, the older tales, with all their horrors, have their grip on me. Once read, I can’t unread them. And there is no doubt that they have shown me a more complex world than Disney ever could.

What tales influenced you?

 

 

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Filed under Children's Literature, Essay, Fiction, Poetry Collection, Writing