Fairy tales give us an insight into the values of the society in which they were written. In different appropriations, we are presented with the author’s reaction to the values of their society and/or the values of previous societies. Through the study of these appropriations we observe the relationship between the values of author and context, and are able to compare these values to those of a changing world. This concept of value in fairy tales can be applied to a study of the various appropriations of Little Red Riding Hood. The purpose and value of the tale has been altered through aspects of the narrative that have been added, omitted or transformed over time.
The authors either reinforce or challenge their society’s values through their use and subversion of the conventions of the fairy tale genre, specifically in relation to the role of women and through the use of allegorical techniques such as symbols, archetypes and motifs. The following appropriations of Little Red Riding Hood are key examples of how value is shaped by the author’s specific context and how values change through time: The Grandmother’s Tale – the ‘original’ tale from French Oral Tradition; Little Red Riding Hood by Charles Perrault and The Company Of Wolves by Angela Carter.
It is important to establish what the values of each culture were to discover how they are reflected or challenged in each appropriation. The Grandmother’s Tale is believed to have originated in the oral traditions of rural France, as early as the 15th century. In her article on Little Red Riding Hood, Terri Windling points out that at this time, ‘France was positively rife with werewolf trials.’ (1) As a result, the peasant society, in which the tale was originally told, had very primal fears of wolves, evil, death and damnation. In 1796, Charles Perrault published his Little Red Riding Hood. Perrault’s context was very different to that of the peasant storytellers who preceded him. Perrault’s society was the court of Louis XIV, a court that ‘was famed for its wealth, its intrigue, and its sexual excesses…’ (1) More specifically, Perrault wrote in the Parisian salons where the affluent men and women ‘could mix more casually… and meet on more even terms.’ (1) In spite of the flamboyant sexuality expressed among the Parisian bourgeoisie, the majority of the population still had a very conservative and a very religious view on femininity and the role of women in society.
Perrault used his fairy tales to comment on the social behaviours of his colleagues and peers in the upper class. Perrault was critical of the sexual freedoms enjoyed by the upper-class and used his tale as a warning that women who are not chaste and pure are going against what it means to be feminine. By the time Angela Carter wrote The Company Of Wolves in 1979 the notion of feminism had emerged. Some would argue that this society was very near gender equality while others, particularly feminists, would argue that the patriarchal system was still oppressive of women. Carter herself was a feminist and she wrote her appropriation to challenge her society’s value of women and the challenge the notion of femininity in an attempt ‘to enforce the idea that women…can actually be just as aggressive, violent and sexually assertive as men.’ (2)
The author of each appropriation either reinforces or opposes their society’s values based on their own beliefs. The value of women; how they are viewed in society, what their role is and their value in relation to men; is one that has changed over time and this change has been represented in each of the appropriations of Little Red Riding Hood.
The Grandmother’s Tale, as we have already been told, was embedded in the oral tradition of rural France. This society was one in which the men were the ‘law’ keepers and hunted for food and provided for the family. The women of this society undertook the monotonous but necessary domestic chores of housekeeping, sewing, cleaning and such things. The peasant women of the time, however, formed a matriarchal subculture that instigated and sustained the story telling and oral tradition – the women were the storytellers and thus had power over the values that were expressed in the tale(s).
There are certain aspects of the tale that are obvious reflections of this matriarchal subculture. The heroine is, at first, too nave to realize the dangers of talking to the wolf (bzou). This naï¿½vety results in the death of her grandmother. Later on, though, when she is cornered and seemingly trapped by the bzou, the girl outwits him and escapes. ‘She sees through the bzou’s tricks at last, takes his measure, and shrewdly escapes.’ (1) Jack Zipes has this to say of the oral tale: ‘Clearly the folk tale is not just a warning tale but also a celebration of…the self-reliance of a young peasant girl.’ (3) In this he refers to the double purpose of the story. Not only does it reflect the fear of the society and the belief in the vulnerability of young girls, it celebrates the resourcefulness and wit of the heroine and reflects the value that women can fend for themselves once they have come of age.
Another aspect of the oral tale that empowers women is the ‘destruction’ of the werewolf. ‘The werewolf is finally destroyed not by a passing woodsman or hunter, but by a group of women engaged in …women’s labor [sic].’ (1) Unlike the appropriations preceding it, the original tale sees the wolf – male superior; the epitome of evil/lust – overthrown by humble workingwomen. This is symbolic of the indirect power women had in this society. The women in the story ‘bring about the death of the wolf [and] the re-birth of the girl.’ (1) This is a reflection of a society where women ‘[had] the job of assisting in the “passages”, of helping in childbirth and helping to die.’ (1) New life is given the to girl when she is saved by the women. Women played a vital role in this society. The power that the real peasant women had in their culture is reflected in the importance of the peasant women in the escape of the heroine. In the original tale to be feminine is to be obedient and chaste but it is also being witty, resourceful and strong…all reflections of the matriarch’s value of women at that time. But the heroine’s fate would not always be thus…
In Perrault tragic twisting of the tale our heroine is redressed into a dazzling red chaperon and she shifts from witty to naï¿½ve, peasant to wealthy, powerful to submissive. Perrault wrote his story with the specific intention of ‘maintain[ing] traditional ideas about the role of women…his tales demonstrated the “correct” behaviour of women in his class.’ (1) Perrault’s Little Red Riding Hood is a naï¿½ve and ‘hapless creature’ whose loss of innocence ‘is her own blessed fault.’ (1) The beautiful young girl wandering through the woods attracts the lustful attention of the wolf.
Her navety is stressed when, ‘The poor child, who did not know that it was dangerous to stay and talk to a wolf, said to him, “I am going to see my grandmother and carry her a cake and a little pot of butter from my mother.”‘ (4) The heroine is ‘foolish’ enough to talk to the wolf, which leads to her death and the death of her grandmother. Perrault also played with the idea that the girl’s disobedience played a part in her downfall, the girl was asked to go ‘directly to grandmother’s’ (4) but instead, she stops and talks to the wolf. In his appropriation, Perrault has shown a definite shift in the value of women. Assuming the values of Perrault’s story, the values of 18th century France, women are naï¿½ve ‘hapless creatures’ for whom the impending loss of innocence awaits, should they stray from the path of righteousness and morality. The literal value of women, as commodities, is one that was also important to this society. Women had to be chaste and virginal to assure they married well. To be woman was to be chaste, obedient and pure.
Jumping forward nearly two hundred years to 1979 and Angela Carter’s The Company Of Wolves. This appropriation falls ‘into the category of feminism that many call “beast feminism” or “Bitch feminism.”‘ (2) In her reworking of the ‘classic’ tale, ‘Carter blends the past with stark notions of sexuality and social behaviour from the present.’ (3) Carter ‘manipulate[s] the themes, the symbols and the very language of Little Red Riding Hood’ (1) to create an allegorical tale that empowers the heroine and ‘frees’ her from a fate of obedience, submission and defeat.
Carter explores the sexual awakening of a young virgin and, in doing so, questions her society’s notion(s) of what it means to be feminine. Carter highlights the sexual appetite of the wolf and parallels this to that of all men, ‘Carnivore incarnate, only immaculate flesh appeases him.’ (5) When the heroine is cornered, she does not get eaten by the wolf, nor is she ‘saved’ by her own wits, instead she ‘becomes the beast’. Carter empowers the girl and makes her ‘the physical or sexual aggressor’. (2) The girl tames the wolf while becoming beast-like in the sexual act. Carter emphasizes her belief that “If there’s a beast in men, it meets its match in women too.” (2) Carter’s heroine challenges the ‘social fiction of…femininity’ (6) – the values of previous societies as well as her own. Her belief is that women are equal to men and that this equality can be achieved through the act of sex. A belief that women need no longer live in fear of rape and that, in spite of the penetrative physicality of sex; women, as sexual beings, can assert themselves and be equally as aggressive and ‘beastly’.
The use of allegorical techniques, especially motif, in the appropriations of Little Red Riding Hood reflects the changing values of the different societies. The recurring motif of the red hood is the most obvious and important of these. The hood was never a part of the oral tale, which in itself is of no consequence. It is the addition of the red hood in Perrault’s version that is perhaps on of his most significant ‘reworkings’ of the tale. Use of the red chaperon serves a double meaning in Perrault’s tale. The colour conjures up images of lust, passion and desire. It is perhaps this colour choice that attracts the wolfs attention in the first place, ‘red would have been an unusually flamboyant colour choice for an unmarried girl; more modest attire, the text implies, might not have attracted the attention of the wolf.’ (1)
This suggests that women should feel guilty about questioning the chaste notions of femininity that this time; that to be flamboyant and slightly risquï¿½ would attract the attention of sexual predators and should thus be feared. The red cloak also serves as a warning of the danger the heroine will experience and in dressing her the way he does, Perrault seals her fate from the moment she leaves the protection of her home. The chaperon of silk is also a sign of implied affluence further evidence that Perrault’s Little Red Riding Hood is merely the Grandmother’s Tale ‘dress[ed]…up in rococo language and aristocratic clothes…[a] penning stor[y] that commented on life in the court of Louis XIV.’ (1) From this, we gain an insight into Perrault’s specific context and his values. The inference is yet another restating of society’s morals: that young women who are overly flamboyant and/or sexually curious will lose their virginity and with it, their virtue.
Parallel to this motif of the red cloak, is the archetypal symbol of the wolf’s fur or pelt. The wolf has come to represent temptation and evil – to be wolf is to be feared and dominant. His pelt therefore, is a representation of that fear so, when one assumes the cloak of the wolf, they become wolfish and acquire his power. In more recent 20th century versions the heroine does just this, she loses her read cloak and dons the pelt of the wolf. It is interesting that in these versions, the heroine either kills or tames the wolf and her power shifts so she is either equal or above the him. A prime example of this is Roald Dahl’s Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, from Revolting Rhymes 1982. In this children’s tale, the heroine kills the wolf with a pistol. She is in no way submissive to the wolf and Dahl humorously adds at the end of the tale: ‘A few weeks later, in the wood/I came across Miss Riding Hood./But what a change! No cloak of red,/No silly hood upon her head./She said, “Hello, and do please note/My lovely furry wolfskin coat.”‘ (5)
Many academics view The Red Riding Hood Tales as rape parables. This is significant because, in this light, the encounter with the wolf in all three tales is symbolic of a sexual encounter and reflects the fear of rape within each society. In the peasant society, the fear of incest can be linked to the fear of wolves presented in the story. An incestuous sexual act was morally wrong and feared amongst the rural French peasants. The warning aspect of the tale is representative of the fear young girls should have of incestuous ‘rape’. In Perrault’s tale the society’s fear of ‘rape’ is also expressed through the encounter of the girl and wolf. In this society, the fear was of the intrusion of a sexual encounter but also of the loss of chastity associated with sexual acts outside of marriage. A woman’s virtue was defined by her sexual purity; any indication of a loss of this purity put a woman’s virtue in jeopardy. Carter completely subverts the notion of the fear of rape that had been instilled in women long before her time. Reflective of her ‘bitch’ feministic beliefs, the heroine in Carter’s appropriation loses her fear of the wolf. Carter’s reflection of her context is that women do not have to be submissive to men and that they need not feel guilty for exploring and enjoying their sexuality. This challenges the fear of rape and the guilt that was thrust upon the women of both her society and the societies that preceded her.
Attitudes have changed through the ages. Different societies have had different opinions and attitudes towards sex, violence, evil and the notions of femininity and masculinity. Different appropriations of Little Red Riding Hood had a variety of agendas, ranging from celebrating a young women’s resilience to warning girls of the dangers of promiscuity and even to empowering women through sexual aggression. Through the study of these appropriations, we learn to appreciate the values of the author and try to understand how these values were shaped in relation to those of the society. When values have been established, we can compare them and see how changes in attitudes, over time, are reflective of a changing world.
(1) Terri Windling – The Path of Needles and Pins: Little Red Riding Hood – Article
(2) Beast Feminism Article
(3) Jack Zipes – The Trial and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood – Article
(4) Charles Perrault – Little Red Riding Hood – Appropriation
(5) Angela Carter – The Company of Wolves – Appropriation
(6) Angela Carter Article
(7) Roald Dahl – Little Red Riding Hood And The Wolf – Appropriation