Changes in the representation of Red Riding Hood over time

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The story of Little Red Riding Hood  though based on folklore in European oral traditions since the middle ages was first circulated in written form in Perrault’s French version of 1697. Like many other stories passed down through oral traditions, there are several versions. Perrault only provided one of them, with his own emendations and embellishments. Since the Middle Ages, the story has embedded itself in storytelling traditions and become an integral aspect of human consciousness in terms of its cautionary message, the main difference being in whether the girl or young woman depends on others or becomes more self-reliant, a characteristic in later feminist versions. Its conventions have been transformed across time to reflect shifts in values and purpose where tropes such as “following the designated path”, the red cloak and the wolf have been reworked across a diverse range of socio-cultural paradigms. There seems to be a re-envisaging of the tale in popular culture as political and societal constructs have been reworked to challenge patriarchal pressures and promote female independence and liberty. Its timeless power to fascinate with its sense of mystery, as a young woman awakens to her own budding sexuality and the desires she arouses in philanderers typified by the wolf, as well as protectors like the woodcutter. Red Riding Hood is not necessarily an innocent, but one who flirts with transgression as she decides which path to take through the forest. The possibilities open to her provide the various authors of different versions didactic purposes that attempt to explain human behaviour, including the eternal struggle between the sexes and the conflicting needs of men and women. The essay examines the symbolism within some of the story’s version, accounting for and evaluating points of difference and similarity. The analysis will encompass the early French version, an Italian variation, reworking of the tale during the 19th century in England, and feminist interpretations in the works of Carol Ann Duffy and Angela Carter.
Thus my Research question How has the symbolic significance of the characters in Little Red Riding Hood been shaped by context and values across time? inquires into the significance of gender constructs and relationships, the nature of power and the insidious source of threat and corruption function as universal themes that have been melded to shape the various composers’ vision and draw audiences across time into an engagement with a story that continues to “call to us” with its possibilities dilemmas and lingering messages. There has been a re-envisaging of the tale in popular culture as its ideological constructs while retaining its timeless power to fascinate with its sense of mystery and transgressive possibilities has been blended with a didactic purpose that attempts to shape human behaviour.

Little Red Riding Hood

Little Red Riding Hood, as a character, begins each version of her story as an embodiment of the innocence and purity of young girls. This persona was produced in print for the first time by Charles Perrault in 1697 for the purpose of admonishing against straying away from the safety created by patriarchal society. The red colour of her hood invites the audience to associate Little Red Riding Hood with indiscretion through emerging passion and sexual vibrancy, implying her movement away from the safety offered by the patriarchal society, under the tutelage of her grandmother. Scholars such as Eric Fromm consider the red riding hood to be a “symbol for menstruation”[1]: that Little Red Riding Hood is approaching puberty, bringing forward the idea of her entry into womanhood, growing away from the waning influence of her aged and asexual grandmother. This idea of maturation is juxtaposed with her almost naive interaction with the wolf and her child-like fascination with nature as she entertains herself by “gathering nuts, running after butterflies, and gathering bouquets of little flowers.” Yet the sexual undertones are evident to the reader as Perrault subverts the familial bond between Little Red Riding Hood and the Grandmother, ultimately leading to her demise. Perrault’s remorseless ending in which both the Grandmother and Red Riding Hood are devoured by the wolf is a representation of the inescapable consequences of leaving the safety of the patriarchal society. A young woman in the 17th century who permits herself to be deflowered is as damning as death for her socially, and can also have ramifications for her family that loses its social position when their child tarnishes her reputation.
Characterisation of Little Red Riding Hood.
Little Red Riding Hood is depicted as a naive, innocent girl- inherently gullible and as a result, subject to the power held by the wolf. It highlights the patriarchal dominance within society at the time, and it is the subversion of this child-like naivety that leads to feminist interpretations of this tale. In some versions her innocence combined with intuitive curiosity brings tragedy. Elsewhere, her innocence is a harbinger of awakening to the world around her and even of self-reliance.

Significance of colour in characterising Little Red Riding Hood.

Colours are used throughout the different texts in order to aid in the characterisation of Little Red Riding Hood, adding to the underlying tones that lie beneath the seemingly-simple tale. The colour red is the most pronounced throughout all the texts, contrasting with the white and green of nature. It hints at the sexual tones that are implied in Perrault’s version as she is asked to “come get into bed” with the wolf. It is still maintained in the latter versions, notably in the Grimm Brothers, despite the general desexualisation of the story as it turned into stories for children, and could be considered as a symbol for reaching puberty, representing the menstrual cycle. Yet for the Grimm Brothers, Red Riding Hood and her Grandmother are not only saved by the woodcutter but gain experience and are able to preserve themselves from a second wolf[2]. Thus the pubescent girl preserves her innocence, and seems saved in the sense that she can preserve her virginal innocence indefinitely.
The most vivid use of colours, however, is in the True History of Little Golden-Hood  by Andrew Lang. We see a replacement of the red hood with an enchanted cloak and hood “gold and fire-coloured” and as a result, the girl is given a name of “Blanchette”, no longer named after the hood that she wears. Blanchette is derived from the word “blanche” which means white in French. Here it is evident that there is Lang associating the girl with purity and innocence, and his use of the golden hood removes the sexual undertones created by the red hood in the original story. This is consistent with the progression of the fairy tale, as they become more adjusted towards a younger audience. “The tales in this volume are intended for children, who will like, it is hoped, the old stories that have pleased so many generations.”[3]
However, there is an evident shift in target audience in the contemporary feminist texts of Little Red Riding Hood. The colour adds depth to Little Red Riding Hood’s character, constructing another side to the naive innocent persona that Perrault portrayed in his story. Angela Carter, in Company of Wolves, describes the redness of her hood as having the “ominous if brilliant look of blood on snow.” (Carter. A. 1979).  Her use of the metaphor, comparing the image of the protagonist with her red hood with “blood on snow.” suggests almost a corruption of the purity of the white snow: that there is almost a forbidden seductive quality beneath this young girl who is approaching womanhood.  It hints at her potential to subvert the power of the dominant patriarchal society which is represented by the wolf, emulating the feminist purpose that Angela Carter was recreating.

The colours of red and white are utilized in Carol Ann Duffy’s Little Red Cap, however are not explicitly used to describe Little Red Riding Hood. Instead they are used to describe objects which are symbolic of aspects of her character. She willingly follows the wolf, losing “scraps of red from her blazer” and searches for “a living bird- white dove-”. The red colour here is used to maintain inter-textual integrity, alluding to the original story, but also again adds to the idea of a maturing girl and the seductive power that she may hold, as she willingly enters into moral danger. The image of searching for the “white dove” can be paralleled with her attempt to rediscover the innocence that she has lost by intimacy with the wolf [4].  The colour white of the dove that Red Cap unintentionally ushers into the wolf’s maw emphasizes to her that the virginity she lost to him is irretrievable. But though Red Cap treasured her virginity, it is as trivial to the wolf as the dove he devours dismissively: “One bite, dead. How nice, breakfast in bed, he said”. Ironically in Little Red Cap, the colours are used to depict Little Red Riding Hood in a submissive manner which is completely undercut in her killing of the wolf. It reflects the feminist ideology that Carol Ann Duffy is trying to create, highlighting the power of women, despite being in what used to be a patriarchal-dominated society. Though Red Cap takes revenge on the Wolf, she has also learned much from him, including passion and death. The Wolf’s lair was a school “where a wall was crimson, gold, aglow with books”.


The Wolf

The Original Tale:

The wolf in Little Red Riding hood is used as a physical manifestation of the dangers of the unknown. He represents the consequences within the cautionary tale, the threat that is posed by the males in Perrault’s patriarchal-dominated society to young girls. Perrault makes the danger explicit in the moral of his story[5]to express the purpose of the cautionary tale, and placing it into context for the society within his time, when fallen women could be destroyed by premarital sexual intimacy.  The Wolf is invariably an agent of moral corruption, but he can also be a teacher who develops Red Riding Hood towards independent womanhood.

The bet
In Angela Carter’s Company of Wolves the Wolf dares Rosaleen out of her childhood with a wager. The Huntsman is also a werewolf and an amalgamation of the Wolf and the Woodcutter who tempts Rosaleen into sharing her basket intended for her  Grandmother. He coyly toys with her as he describes a remarkable object in his pocket. He talks with her and they start walking together, Rosaleen uncertain whether he regards her as a child or a woman and uncertain of her own feelings towards the werewolf. She gives him her basket to carry, even though her knife is in it, as the huntsman has a rifle. She has surrendered her defences to his phallic strength. He shows her a compass, impressing her as he would an ignorant child. He tells her he knows a shortcut to her grandmother’s house if she will leave the path. The child challenges him, and the huntsman bets that he can reach her grandmother’s house before she does. If he does, the child has to kiss him, the kiss being just the first of many expected intimacies.
The huntsman is the lustful “beast” of this story, yet Rosaleen, as the heroine is not afraid of him, but confident in her own sexuality. The metamorphoses of wolf to man and child to woman are associated with the heroine’s budding sexuality and courtship with the huntsman. When she repeats her Grandmother’s warning about werewolves, he playfully pounces on her as punishment. Though she is a bit anxious, she certainly enjoys this play and the attention from such a gentleman far more graceful than the silly village boys. He gives her his plumed hat as a token of good will as they begin their race. She pauses not to pick flowers and play with butterflies as in the Perrault version of the fairy tale but to examine her reflection once again in the hand mirror.
Though Rosaleen is able to match the werewolf’s cunning, Red Riding Hood’s wolf is portrayed as a deceitful character, disguising himself as the girl’s grandmother and lying to her in order to maintain his masquerade. The famous interchange between the wolf and Little Red Riding Hood: “”Grandmother, what big arms you have!” “All the better to hug you with, my dear.”…” conveys the dominance of the wolf through his deceit of Little Red Riding Hood by assuming the authority of the trusted grandmother. Perrault creates a binary opposition between appearance and reality, and the wolf’s ability to alter Little Red Riding Hood’s perception of reality is strongly indicative of his power within the earlier texts. The use of dramatic irony, as well as the anaphora from both the wolf and Little Red Riding Hood heightens the tension within the text before culminating in the eating of the girl in many of the earlier texts. The deceit not only serves to demonstrate the power the wolf holds over the girl, but also characterises the girl as  naïve and gullible, further heightening the idea of the dominance of patriarchal society.
Like Carter’s Wolf, the Grimm Brothers’ wolf entices Riding Hood to stop, smell the flowers and enjoy nature. During her distraction, the cunning wolf beats Red to her Grandmother’s house. But neither the Grandmother nor Little Red are cannibalized or raped but are saved by a huntsman. As Zipes stresses, “Only a strange male figure can rescue a girl from herself and her lustful desires”[6]. Carole Zucker observes that Perrault revised these fairy tales adding morals as well as sanitizing the references to cannibalism beyond the wolf eating the heroine’s grandmother[7]. The Huntsman not only saves the females’ lives but their virtue. Similarly, the later version by The Brothers Grimm directed at children removes the sexual threat by implementing the valiant huntsman to save the girl with the red cap.
The feminist texts undercut this power of the patriarchal society through the removal of the wolf’s ability the deceive Little Red Riding Hood. In Carol Duffy’s  Little Red Cap, the protagonist identifies the wolf directly, describing him with: “What big ears/ He had! What big eyes he had! What teeth!” The lack of the wolf’s response places Little Red Riding Hood in a position of power, able to see the wolf without the deception of a grandmotherly disguise. Riding Hood is an informed protagonist able to take control. However it is ironic in that in seeing the Wolf, she is also unable to see beyond the physical aspects of the wolf, and the possible harm that may come to her. Here Duffy is making explicit, that it is not her gender that forces her into a submissive position, but instead her inexperience and youth that have caused this to happen. The power of the wolf has been subverted and reflects the change in values within the society as equality between genders is established.  The gold, as the colour of lucidity, as well as fire, is the means by which Riding Hood is able to destroy the Wolf in Lang’s True History of Little Golden-Hood . Though written in the 1890s and predating feminist approaches to the memetic story, Lang’s narrator explicitly states that the story had been mistold earlier [8]. The girl is saved, but not by the huntsman; when the wolf tries to eat her, its mouth is burned by the golden hood she wears, which is enchanted.
The Grandmother

“The Story of the Grandmother” by Paul Delarue contained a much more suggestive tone.   The child takes off her clothes piece by piece.   The wolf is described in much more details, as is the death of the Grandmother, the superstitious mentor who draws a link between wolves, werewolves and the Devil, using the term bzou, laden with menace, to provide a terse but powerful climax to his version. “Meanwhile the bzou arrived at the grandmother’s, killed her, put some of her flesh in the pantry and a bottle of her blood on the shelf” It is the Grandmother’s Story because she is the primary victim of her grand-daughter’s waywardness.
Red Riding Hood’s visit to her Grandmother is not merely a casual visit or an act of kindness. When the girl encounters the wolf along the way to visit her grandmother in one variation on the oral tale, and later in Carter’s Company of Wolves, he ask her to choose the path of needles or pins. Before the Industrial Revolution, the majority of women’s labour revolved around making cloth and clothes. Women sewed and spun yarn and yarns to earning a living. At puberty, girls would be apprenticed for one winter season with local seamstresses, like Red Riding Hood’s Grandmother, a rite of passage, symbolizing a girl’s transformation from a child into a young woman[9]. This time was not merely about learning a trade but gathering of pins as love tokens. By the time the girls reached fifteen, they were of an age both for courting and for work. The Wolf invites Red Riding Hood to choose between love and work.
Carter’s Grandmother perpetuates superstition in werewolves to cause Rosaleen into distrusting men and relations. Rosaleen counters these fears with tales about outsiders that need love to end their marginalization. Rosaleen’s mother offers earthy interventions as she encourages Rosaleen to find her own way through the woods. Thus, “To a certain extent, the film “justifies” the werewolf’s devouring of the bigoted grandmother, whose aggressive storytelling is antiquated and needs to be replaced by her granddaughter’s” [10].
But Carter’s treatment is at odds with Duffy’s, whose heroine takes on the role of the woodcutter to avenge her Grandmother:

To see how it leapt. I took an axe to the wolf

As he slept, one chop, scrotum to throat, and saw

The glistening, virgin white of my grandmother’s bones.

Little Red Cap notes the contrast between the virgin white of the Grandmother’s bones with the obscenity of the Wolf’s chopped scrotum. As in Perrault’s story, the Grandmother is not saved, but she is avenged, but by a grand-daughter who has sacrificed her own virginity to do so. Unlike the Grimm Brothers’ version, Red Cap has no need of a woodcutter to save herself and her Grandmother; though in Duffy’s poem, the Grandmother’s death serves as evidence of Red Cap’s culpability and provides an opportunity to atone through vengeance. Her death also obliges Red Cap to find her own way out of the woods and to make her own way into the world. Even so, though she is deflowered, Red Cap rejoices, singing

Out of the forest I come with my flowers, singing, all alone.

She still has the flowers of her youth, beauty and independence, as well as the knowledge she had gained in the Wolf’s lair.
Perrault had made changes of his own to the oral tale including the race with the wolf to Granny’s house that Little Red perhaps wanted to lose, dreading the humdrum security of the old woman’s dull company. There may be a hint she hoped the Wolf would devour her oppressive grand-parent, though she does not anticipate her own death. She is denied salvation because she is neither filial nor industrious.  Instead, Perrault ironically moralises in verse form warning little girls to beware of strangers lest they are punished for waywardness. For Perrault’s point-of-view, sex is sinful and playful sexual relations outside of the institution of marriage are no substitution for learning a trade or caring for asexual, elderly relatives. But in each version, the Grandmother is rendered helpless by ignorance, superstition, infirmity and the need to trust others, like her grand-daughter. She exemplifies for Perrault the responsibilities of dutiful children. But for later writers she typifies the stultifying gap between generations, where the elderly impose values on youth that it resists or resents or seeks to overthrow to find its own way.

The Huntsman
Charles Perrault had no need to provide a Huntsman because he is writing a punitive tale wherein there is no protagonist worthy of rescue and no protagonist to redeem the miscreant Riding Hood, physically or spiritually. The Grandmother dies as a consequence of her grand-daughter’s indiscretion. The story is a cautionary tale to naughty children and even more so to teenage girls who stray from the path of moral righteousness, making themselves unworthy of champions. Such girls, by surrendering themselves to rakish wolves have no claim on worthy suitors. In the story’s historical and cultural context, Perrault was writing when his contemporaries included the rakish Salon-Wolves foppishly attired in Baroque finery who were fashionable at the court of Louis XIV. Charles Perrault set down his version of Red Riding Hood and other contes de fees, or fairy tales as they were called, and gained recognition in the literary salons where aristocratic parents were concerned about the good reputation of their families. Red Riding Hood serves as a stern reminder to young ladies at court that they faced ruin if they granted their favours to paramours like the predatory Salon-Wolves.

The Brothers Grimm directed their tale at prepubescent children by removing the sexual threat, though the temptation to lewd pleasures remains beneath the surface. Riding Hood is bowdlerised by implication through the implementation of the Grimms’ valiant huntsman to save the girl with the red cap[11], that may symbolise the unbroken hymen. The predatory wolves of Perrault are balanced in the Grimms’ story by the chivalrous huntsman, who is cognisant of Riding Hood’s intact virtue. Because she has not been adulterated the hunter may save her. He in turn is rewarded not with Riding Hood’s sexual favours but with the glory of a saviour, and the gratitude of the wolf’s victims, as well as the wolf’s pelt. The Grimm Brothers’ earlier parts of the tale are very similar to Perrault’s composition so that it is almost certainly the source of the tale [12]. However, they modified the ending greatly by providing the rescuing huntsman; the little girl and her grandmother saved by a huntsman who was after the wolf’s skin; this ending is identical to that in the tale The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids, which appears to be the source, wherein the girl is prepubescent so that the audience can assume her innocence. But as the Red Riding Hood character becomes older, and less likely to be innocent, she has to save herself and wreak her own vengeance.
Curiously, a lumberjack is used in French versions of the story but in the Brothers Grimm and traditional German versions, a hunter is used, to come to the rescue cutting open the sleeping wolf’s belly. The lumberjack may have more of the spirit of revolutionary France which valued equality along with fraternity and liberty. In Germany, the hunter could more readily be identified with the courts of princes, hunting being an aristocratic pastime. Hence, Red Riding Hood could be saved by a prince and aspire to a fairy tale happy ending. But in either version, Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother emerge unharmed. They then fill the wolf’s body with heavy stones. The wolf awakens and tries to flee, but the stones cause him to collapse and die. Logically the hunter would have already killed the wolf, but the Grimm Brothers empower the victims by letting them wreak their vengeance with the aid of the princely hunter.  Less violent versions of the story have the grandmother shut in the closet instead of eaten, and some have Little Red Riding Hood saved by the lumberjack as the wolf advances on her, rather than after she is eaten[13], but in both cases they must be rescued by a virtuous male who imparts to the audience the contrast between the safe world of the village and the dangers of the forest, a mediaeval antithesis that survives in the grandmother’s superstitions, and validated by the wolf’s malevolence.

In Carter’s Company of Wolves, the grandmother’s bedroom is the bloody chamber of this story. Sexual intercourse occurs next to her dead body. The wolf has had his way, devouring the savaged grandmother, and is seduced by the willing, having sex next to her grandmother’s dead body. Her act of lustful disrespect may have begun as a ruse as she waits for rescue by huntsman who is also the wolf. But in the course of intercourse she surrenders to the joys of the animal magnetism of the Wolf, and the ululations of his brethren. Red Riding Hood’s traditional phrases, such as “what big eyes you have”, have been hinted at throughout the book, but now they come to fruition, providing allure rather than inspiring dread. The wolf is a beast because of his hunger, but the child has her own wildness too.
The child realizes that her fear is not helpful, so she discards it. She takes off her red shawl – “the colour of her menses” – along with the rest of her clothes, and throws them into the fire. She stands there naked for a moment and then goes to the wolf. He is drooling with hunger but she embraces him and kisses him, laughing, as “she knew she was nobody’s meat.” She takes off the wolf’s clothing and seduces him. Afterward the blizzard dies down, and the child and the wolf lie peacefully together in the grandmother’s bed.
To conclude, in Lang’s True History of Little Golden-Hood  the heroine is without any hope of a protector, but she is equipped from the outset to confront and defeat males that menace her. Riding Hood is a greater menace than the Wolf. In The Company of Wolves, Riding Hood surrenders herself to adult pleasures exemplifying Carter’s themes and a powerful illustration of the psychological and sexual drives she has derived from old fairy tales making them pertinent to today. Similarly, Perrault had exploited folklore for a more sophisticated world that was emerging from the Middle Ages. The Grimm Brothers wrote for a more rapidly changing world hoping to keep magic alive during the Industrial Revolution. Duffy and Carter further modify the story of Red Riding Hood, using motifs of the bloody chamber, nakedness, the blood of menstruation and lost virginity, and transformation return. For Duffy, the child becomes the Wolf’s nemesis, by becoming a Wolf, as a sexual being and robbing the Wolf of his power. Duffy destroys her Wolf, while Carter’s Wolf joins the pack of werewolves. The story of Red Riding Hood demonstrates how a story can be renewed by appropriation, how similarities can survive over the centuries to be applied in various cultural contexts.


[1] Fromm, Erich. “Little Red-Cap.” The Forgotten Language: An Introduction to the Understanding of Dreams, Fairy Tales and Myths. New York: Grove, 1955. CUNY Composers. Ed. Corbett Treece. .

[2] Harry Velten, “The Influences of Charles Perrault’s Contes de ma Mère L’oie on German Folklore”, p 967, Jack Zipes, ed. The Great Fairy Tale Tradition: From Straparola and Basile to the Brothers Grimm

[3] Referenced Lang, A. (Ed.). (1889). The Blue Fairy Book. London: Longmans, Green & Co.

[4] “I clung till dawn to his thrashing fur, for/ What little girl doesn’t dearly love a wolf?” (Duffy C. A., 1999)

[5] “Children, especially attractive, well-bred young ladies, should never talk to strangers, for if they should do so, they may well provide dinner for a wolf. I say “wolf,” but there are various kinds of wolves. There are also those who are charming, quiet, polite, unassuming, complacent, and sweet, who pursue young women at home and in the streets. And unfortunately, it is these gentle wolves who are the most dangerous ones of all.” (Lang A. 1889)

[6] Zipes, Jack. Fairy Tale as Myth. Lexington: The University of Kentucky, 1994. Pp. 36-7.

[7] Zucker, Carole. “Sweetest Tongue Has Sharpest Tooth: The Dangers of Dreaming in Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves.” Literature Film Quarterly. January 2000, p.66- 71.

[8] Andrew Lang, “The True History of Little Goldenhood“, The Red Fairy Book, 1890.

[9] Windling, Terri. “The Path of Needles or Pins: Little Red Riding Hood”. Realms of Fantasy Magazine, 2004.

[10] Zipes, Jack. The Enchanted Screen. Abingdon: Routledge, 2011, p. 149.

[11] Zucker, ibid, p. 1.

[12] Harry Velten, “The Influences of Charles Perrault’s Contes de ma Mère L’oie on German Folklore”, p 966, Jack Zipes, ed. The Great Fairy Tale Tradition: From Straparola and Basile to the Brothers Grimm,

[13] Spurgeon, Maureen (1990). Red Riding Hood. England: Brown Watson.

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