I’ve been following the reading list on an online syllabus for “Fairy Tales Then and Now,” a course at Rutgers. The first two units focus on versions of Little Red Riding Hood and disobedience tales like Bluebeard, in versions from Charles Perrault to Margaret Atwood.
Note: There will be spoilers for all of the stories I discuss. Also, these are pretty adult stories, with mature themes and all.
illustration by Divica Landrova
According to Robert Darnton, pre-Grimm versions of Red Riding Hood reflected the brutal reality of French peasant life, in which good people did not always get happy endings, and the wicked did not always get punished. In some of these earlier versions of the story, whether the girl strays from the path or not, she and her grandmother still get eaten by the wolf, and no woodcutter comes to save them. Even Perrault, in his fairy tales for the more elite members of society, retained this un-happily ever after ending.
The Grimms, on the other hand, provided two happy endings – the familiar one in which the huntsman rescues the girl and grandmother, and a second ending in which the girl outsmarts another wolf at her grandmother’s house, this time by drowning him in a trough full of water used to boil sausages.
Though Perrault is more explicit about his message, both his and the Grimms’ versions make use of the stereotypical man-eating wolf to caution young women against trusting strangers. “I call them wolves,” says Perrault,
but you will find
That some are not the savage kind,
Not howling, ravening or raging;
Their manners seem, instead, engaging,
They’re softly-spoken and discreet.
Young ladies whom they talk to on the street
They follow to their homes and through the hall,
And upstairs to their rooms, when they’re there
They’re not as friendly as they might appear:
These are the most dangerous wolves of all. (1)
illustration by Gustave Dore
Then there are the twisted Red Riding Hood tales by Angela Carter, Jim C. Hines, and Tanith Lee. These authors blend human and wolf nature together in three werewolf tales. Carter’s “The Company of Wolves” draws from Perrault’s characterization of human wolves as the most dangerous creatures, with their seductive charm that lures the young woman out of the realm of innocence, into a sexual awakening.
Is it a bet? he asked her. Shall we make a game of it? What will you give me if I get to your grandmother’s house before you?
What would you like? she asked disingenuously.
Commonplaces of a rustic seduction; she lowered her eyes and blushed. (2)
But in the end, Carter shows how the human side of the werewolf can be tamed through the same technique of seduction. As in some of the old French versions of the tale, Red Riding Hood does a strip-tease for the wolf, only in this version, the tactic saves the girl from being eaten, because the werewolf, unlike the ordinary wolf, can think of other things besides his stomach.
In Hines’ and Lee’s stories, it is the grandmother herself who is the werewolf, rather than a helpless victim of nature, and when she passes her gift on to her grauddaughter, it is the wolf inside that will save Little Red from the human (or fey) world. Hines’ Grandmother in “The Red Path” is a deviant from a religious order known as the Church of the Fey; she’s a human illegally using magic reserved for the fairies. Her granddaughter, Roudette, visits with the intention of saving Grandmother from her wicked ways, but it is Grandmother who saves Roudette in the end, passing on her magic wolf skin so Roudette can save herself and the rest of her family from the Church’s wrath.
Lee’s Anna the Matriarch in “Wolfland” is an eccentric widow who lives in a chateau in the middle of a forest watched over by a wolf goddess. By eating the goddess’ yellow flowers that contain the wolf magic, Anna gives herself the means to save herself, and her daughter, from an abusive husband. Now it is her granddaughter Liesl’s turn to receive the gift, explicitly to save Anna from the goddess’ price at the end of her life, but also, implicitly, to protect Liesl herself from unworthy men.
Both Lee’s and Hines’ versions of “Little Red Riding Hood” show that the wolf is something not to be avoided or feared by women, but embraced. It is humans, or faeries and their human followers, who must be feared instead.
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(1) Charles Perrault. “Little Red Riding-Hood.” The Complete Fairy Tales. New York: Oxford UP, 2009. Pg. 103.
(2) Angela Carter. The Company of Wolves. New York: Harper & Row, 1979. Pgs. 148-49.