Who Is Little Red Riding Hood?
As I recounted the story of Little Red Riding Hood to my young daughter years ago (pausing for dramatic effect after each ‘What big whatevers you have’ and feeling her snuggle closer to me), I could still recall my own wide-eyed horror on hearing the story as a child.
It’s a pretty grim tale. After all, there can’t be many more terrifying things for the young psyche than the idea of a person from who normally provides love and comfort turning out to be a ravening beast who wants to eat you. It’s betrayal personified.
And that’s the point. Fairytales exist to bring us face to face with our deepest fears.
Little Red Riding Hood is a tale that spans the globe, resonating with people from vastly different cultures and generations. It’s impossible to say when the story first began, but an anthropologist from Durham University, Jamie Tehrani, who published a paper in the journal PLOS ONE, believes it may date back to an 11th-century Belgian poem that was recorded by a priest. In it, peasants tell of a local girl wearing a red baptism tunic who wanders off and encounters a wolf.
The Wolf and The Kids
In other traditions, a fox, hyena or big cat might take the place of the wolf and in parts of Iran, the protagonist is a boy because no little girl would be permitted to wander off alone. One variant of the story – The Wolf and the Kids – tells the story of a nanny goat who warns her kids not to open the door to anyone. She is overheard by a wolf who tricks the kids into letting him in and then eats them. The distraught nanny goat tracks him down, kills him and cuts open his belly to free her children. What unites all of the versions of the story is that the innocent protagonist is tricked by a wily opponent and is only saved by the rapid actions of another. The moral of the story? Be careful who you trust.
Ancient and precious
Little Red Riding Hood and other folk tales hold an almost visceral appeal for me. As we tell and retell the story, it’s like we’re holding something ancient and precious and worn in our hands, turning it over and over as countless generations before us once did, examining and re-examining it.
I’m not the only writer to be drawn to its rich symbolism – the wolf, the dark forest, the safe path, the red cape. As a teenager I read and reread Angela Carter’s story The Company of Wolves – part of her amazing book The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, all of which are inspired by fairytales.
1,000 years on
Like all fairytales, Little Red Riding Hood is a simple, no frills tale. The characters are one-dimensional, the settings depicted with almost no descriptive detail, the world only hinted at. How extraordinary, therefore, that this short, simple tale continues to capture the imagination almost 1,000 years on.
Why do you think this might be?
For me, the sparsity of the story allows me to fill in the gaps using my own imagination, the symbolism hints at all kinds of different meanings and interpretations. For my debut novel – The Wolf-Slayer’s Daughter – the tale of Little Red Riding Hood has provided a springboard, allowing me to tell my own version of events. I’ve often wondered, for example, why a loving grandmother would make her granddaughter a bright red cape. In a forest teeming with wolves, wouldn’t brown have been a more prudent choice, or dark green? Unless, of course…
Our fears unite us
Fairytales matter because they explore what it means to be human and they shine a light on our deepest fears. For all our cultural differences, for all our technological advances, for all our sophistication, the same stories that spoke to our fears 1000 years ago are still being told today in different corners of the globe.
Stories unite us. Our imagination unites us. Our fears unite us.
I hope you will join me as I explore the as-yet untold aspects of Little Red Riding Hood and play – with the greatest reverence and respect – with this ancient and much-loved tale to craft something new.
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