"Who's that I see walkin' in these woods?"
(Ron Blackwell, "Li'l Red Riding Hood," popularised by Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs)
Among the best known and most popular fairy tales is "Little Red Riding Hood." There are actually several variations on the story, but all of them involve a girl who is going through the woods to deliver food to her grandmother and the wolf who lays a trap for her at her grandmother's house. Just as there have been several variations on the basic tale behind "Little Red Riding Hood," so too have there been a number of different interpretations.
The earliest printed version of "Little Red Riding Hood" was "Le Petit Chaperon Rouge (literally "Little Red Riding Hood")" by Charles Perrault, included in his Histoires et contes du temps passé, avec des moralités. Contes de ma mère l'Oye in 1697. Interestingly, in Mr. Perrault's version Red Riding Hood is said to be an "attractive, well-bred young lady." This would seem to run counter to the image presented in more recent versions of "Little Red Riding Hood" which present her as a child, the words "young lady" implying she is either a teenager or a young woman. At any rate, it would indicate she has come of age. Here I must point out that the French word petit, like the Engish word little, may be more indicative of Red Riding Hood's size than it is of her age. It must also be pointed out that in Charles Perrault's version, no woodsman arrives to save Red Riding Hood and her grandmother. The story simply ends with the wolf devouring Red Riding Hood.
Of course, it seems likely that the tale of "Little Red Riding Hood" pre-dates Charles Perrault's printed version. There is a story from Chinese folklore, "Grandaunt Tiger," that superficially resembles "Little Red Riding Hood," but it is very doubtful that it is the original source of the story. Indeed, in "Grandaunt Tiger" the tiger devours the father and mother of the family before arriving at the family's house and trying to gain entrance in scenes more reminiscent of "The Three Little Pigs" than "Little Red Riding Hood." It seems much more likely that "Little Red Riding Hood" has its origins in Europe itself.
Indeed, in the early legends and myths of various European peoples, wolves often figure as voracious and vicious predators. The most famous example of this widespread belief may be found in Norse Mythology, in which Fenrir was a monstrous wolf so huge that he threatened even the gods. Indeed, not only did the early Germanic peoples apparently believe wolves were a threat to society, but they also believed in werewolves--shapeshifters capable of assuming the form of a wolf. The Norse Vatnsdœla saga, Haraldskvæði and the Völsunga saga all mention the úlfhéðnar, warriors who donned wolf skins and behaved as wolves (and perhaps became wolves literally). The Angles and Saxons may have an equivalent to the Norse úlfhéðnar. Our modern word werewolf goes all the way back to Old English werewulf (literally "man wolf"). Belief in werewolves survived among the various Germanic peoples beyond the conversion to Christianity. Indeed, in the 16th century individuals were still being tried for allegedly being werewolves. The most famous werewolf trial may have been German farmer Peter Stumpp, who was accused of being a serial killer, cannibal, and a werewolf. He was executed in 1589. Another famous werewolf trial occurred in France over a decade before the Peter Stumpp trial. French hermit Giles Garnier was convicted and executed in 1573 for allegedly being a werewolf.
The belief in wolves as threats to humanity is also found in legends from the Celtic peoples. In Irish mythology the hero Cas Corach slew the three wolf like daughters of Airitech. In Welsh legend Lylwelyn the Great of Gwynedd mistakenly killed his faithful dog Gelert after finding him covered in blood that he thought belonged to his infant son. Lylwelyn later learned Gelert was actually defending his son against a vicious wolf who tried to attack the boy.
Beyond the figure of the wolf, other elements of "Little Red Riding Hood" can also be found in earlier beliefs among the Germanic peoples. A recurring theme in the myths and legends of the Germanic peoples was the opposition between the safety of human society versus the dangers of the wilds. Indeed, this opposition is obvious in the Old English epic Beowulf. in which the mead hall of Hroðgar, Heorot, is the bastion of human society and Grendel the monster from the wilds. Grendel is called mearcstapa, "stalker of the marshes" and the poem often refers to Grendel dwelling in the fens. The opposition between the security of human society and the dangers of the wilds (the woods, the fens, the heath, and so on) is also reflected in the Germanic languages. In Old Norse another word for outlaw (the word itself deriving from Old Norse útlagi) was vargr, a word also meaning "wolf." Outlaws are said to be skoggangr, "dwelling in the woods." In Old English another word for outlaw was wulfheáfod, literally "wolf's head." The wilds were not simply the dwelling space of outlaws and wild animals such as wolves, but the dwelling space of ettins (creatures like Grendel), malignant spirits, and other threates to mankind.
In Iona and Peter Opie's book The Classic Fairy Tales, they point out that the exchange between Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf (in which Red Riding Hood says "My, what big eyes you have...") superficially resembles a dialogue between Loki and the giant Thrym in the Old Norse poem "Þrymskviða." In the poem Thrym has stolen the thunder god Thorr's hammer and demands the hand of the goddess Freyja in marriage before he will return it. Not wishing to marry Freyja to a giant, the gods dress Thorr as Freyja and send the thunder god and Loki to meet with Thrym. When Thrym observes that Freyja's eyes are a blazing red, Loki states that "she" has not slept in many nights. When Thrym observes that Freyja has an enormous appetite, Loki replies that "she" has not eaten for a long while either. While it would be ludicrous to theorise a relationship between "Little Red Riding Hood" and "Þrymskviða," ""Þrymskviða" does show that the exchange between Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf has a precedent in European folklore.
While it would appear that "Little Red Riding Hood" has its roots in European folk beliefs, it is impossible to know precisely when it emerged. It seems likely that the fairy tale had existed for some time before Mr. Perrault published his version. Indeed, many variants may have existed, some under the title "The Story of the Grandmother," in France, Italy, and other parts of Europe. In "The Story of the Grandmother" the villain is not always a wolf. In a French version of the tale, the villain was a bzou, a werewolf. In an Italian variant of the tale, the villain was an ogre rather than a wolf. In some variants the wolf actually feeds the flesh of the grandmother to Red Riding Hood, making her an unwittng cannibal. In others the wolf tells Red Riding Hood to remove her clothing and pitch it into the fire before getting into bed with him. Some versions of the tale end much as Charles Perrault's version did, with the wolf eating Red Riding Hood. In other versions the grandmother and Red Riding Hood trick the wolf, in others it is Red Riding Hood alone who tricked him and survives. The best known version may be that published by the Brothers Grimm in 1812, in which a huntsman arrives to kill the wolf, so that Red Riding Hood and the grandmother emerge from the animal unscathed. For much of the 19th Century, the sanitised versions of "Little Red Riding Hood," in which Red Riding Hood and her grandmother are saved, predominated.
Being a fairly old and popular fairy tale, there have been several different interpretations of "Little Red Riding Hood" over the years. One of the earliest interpretations of the fairy tale was put forth by anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor. He theorised that Red Riding Hood's scarlet cloak represented the sun and the wolf represented the night, so that the fairy tale was essentially an expression of the daily cycle of the daylight giving way to night. If this sounds a bit far fetched today, as hard as it is to believe, explaining myths and fairy tales as solar myths was very popular in the 19th Century.
Biologist Dr. Valerius Geist much more recently argued that "Little Red Riding Hood" was based on the danger of actual wolf attacks. Dr. Geist maintains that wolves are in fact dangerous predators who present a risk to human beings. This is quite possible given reports of wolf attacks in Europe. Jean-Marc Moriceau in Histoire du méchant loup : 3 000 attaques sur l'homme en France noted that in France alone there were 3069 people killed by wolves, of which 1857 were not rabid, from 1580 to 1830. That having been said, wolf attacks in modern Europe are a rarity. Indeed, from modern observations of the animal it would seem wolves are shy animals who will actually abandon a kill when approached by humans. While it is possible that "Little Red Riding Hood" was based on the fear of actual wolf attacks, the data on wolves would seem to be conflicting as to how likely that is to be the case.
Indeed, it seems to me as likely that "Little Red Riding Hood" may have more to do with the fear of werewolves than the actual animal. As noted above, the werewolf trials of Giles Garnier and Peter Stumpp took place in 1573 and 1589 respectively. In Estonia from 1610 to 1650 there were a number of witch trials in which accusations of lycanthropy often predominated rather than accusations of magic. It would seem that in the 16th and 17th Centuries the belief in werewolves in Europe was still very strong, strong enough that individuals were tried and executed for being werewolves. Given that in one variant of "Little Red Riding Hood" it was a bzou, a werewolf, rather a mere wolf who stalked Red Riding Hood, this likely seems the case.
Of course, in the 20th Century the most popular interpretations of "Little Red Riding Hood" have delved into the subject of sex. It is hard to argue against such theories especially given Charles Perrault describes Red Riding Hood as a "attractive, well-bred young lady,." words which bring to mind a teenager or a young adult rather than a little girl. It was as early as 1912 that psychoanalyst Otto Rank provided a sexual interpretation of "Little Red Riding Hood," seeing the fairy tale as an expression of the infantile thought of cutting open the stomach to induce birth. In 1951 Erich Fromm, in The Forgotten Langauge, would go even further. He explained the red hood as representative of menstruation, and the fairy tale essentially being about a young woman who is confronted by sex for the very first time. Rather than wanting to eat Red Riding Hood, the wolf wants to seduce her. The fairy tale then serves as a cautionary tale for young women. The number of theorists putting forth the idea that the red hood is the hymen and the tale essentially about the seduction of a virgin are far too numerous to list here. In her 1975 book Against Our Will, Susan Brownmiller also saw "Little Red Riding Hood" as essentially about sex, but cast the fairy tale in much more sinister terms. Quite simply, Miss Brownmiller sees "Little Red Riding Hood" as a tale about rape.
Regardless of how it is interpreted, "Little Red Riding Hood" may be the most referenced fairy tale in pop culture. Indeed, there have been several modern variations of the fairy tale in the form of short stories and novels. James Thurber altered the fairy tale dramatically in "The Little Girl and The Wolf," in which the little girl dispatches the wolf with an semi-automatic pistol hidden in her basket. In 1940 Howard L Chace wrote "Ladie Rat Rotten Hat," where the story in told in English, but not using the right words. In 1979 Angela Carter published the story "The Company of Wolves" in her anthology The Bloody Chamber. In "The Company of Wolves" the wolf is in reality a werewolf, who in the end is seduced by Red Riding Hood. As far as novels, in Wolf, published in 1990, Gillian Cross updated the story to modern times in a loose adaptation. In Laurence Anholt and Arthur Robins's children's novel Little Red Riding Wolf, the roles of the wolf and Red Riding Hood are reversed, with the Big Bad Girl stalking Little Red Riding Wolf.
As might be expected of a fairy tale, "Little Red Riding Hood" has been adapted as an animated cartoon several times. Among the earliest animated versions of the fairy tale is also among Walt Disney's earliest cartoons. In 1922 Mr. Disney produced a "Little Red Riding Hood" cartoon for Laugh-O-Gram Cartoons.In 1931, Walt Disney's archrivals the Fleischer Brothers produced their own animated shorts based on the fairy tale. "Dizzy Red Riding Hood" featured Betty Boop as the woman in the red hood. Surprisingly for an early Betty Boop cartoon, it largely eschewed a more sexual interpretation of the fairy tale. The wolf wanted to eat Betty, not seduce her.
While the Fleischers may have avoided touching on the subject of sex in their adaptation of "Little Red Riding Hood," Tex Avery certainly would not. In 1943 Tex Avery produced "Red Hot Riding Hood," in which Red is a sexy nightclub entertainer and the Big Bad Wolf a patron of the night club who openly lusts after her. The short would prove so popular that he would make three sequels: "Wild and Wolfy," "Swing Shift Cinderella," and "Little Rural Riding Hood." In 1944 Friz Freleng directed "Little Red Riding Rabbit," in which Bugs Bunny is what Red Riding Hood is delivering to her grandmother. Mr. Freleng would also eschew sex in this animated short, with the wolf concentrating instead on eating the tasty rabbit Red Riding Hood brought her grandma.
"Little Red Riding Hood" has been referenced in a few films, most notably Neil Jordan's 1984 movie adaptation of the same name of Angela Carter's "The Company of Wolves," in which the wolf is in actuality a werewolf. Beginning with La Caperucita Roja in 1960, Roberto Rodriguez would direct three films based around the fairy tale. The others were Caperucita y sus tres amigos (1961) and Caperucita y Pulgarcito contra los monstruos (1962). The 1996 film Freeway was a modernised version of the tale, recasting the wolf as a dangerous serial killer and Red Riding Hood as a sexually abused teenager. In 1996 David Kaplan directed a short based on the fairy tale, entitled "Little Red Riding Hood," starring Christina Ricci in the title role. In the 2001 short Falsehood, director Kenneth Liu recast the story as a legal drama, with the Big Bad Wolf on trial. In 2003 Giacomo Cimini directed Red Riding Hood, a horror film loosely based on the fairy tale in which the "wolf" is the imaginary friend of an obviously psychotic Jenny McKenzie (the "Red Riding Hood" of the title). The 2010 SyFy television movie Red recast "Red Riding Hood" as a werewolf hunter.
"Little Red Riding Hood" has also been referenced in at least one play. Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's musical Into the Woods sent up many fairy tales, among them "Little Red Riding Hood." In Into the Woods, the wolf clearly lusts after Red Riding Hood and has no intention of simply eating her...
"Little Red Riding Hood" has also figured in various advertisements over the years. In 1953 in print ads Max Factor advertised a lipstick colour called "Riding Hood Red," which they boasted "would bring the wolves out." A commercial from the Fifties for Snowdrift Shortening parodied the fairy tale. In a 1963 print ad Hertz portrayed Red Riding Hood as a nubile young woman driving to her Grandmother's house in her "little red Hertz." A 1997 commercial for Sprint Caller ID service featured the Big Bad Wolf calling a beautiful, young woman (Red Riding Hood), who ignores the call when she sees it is from "B. B. Wolf." In 1998 movie director Luc Besson directed a commercial for Chanel No. 5 featuring actress Estella Warren as "Red Riding Hood," who retrieves a bottle of Chanel No. 5 before going out for the night. As she leaves, her pet wolf howls. Another 1998 advert, this one for Honey Nut Cheerios, featured Kesley Grammer as the voice of the wolf and actress Carrie Fletcher as Red Riding Hood. In a 2001 advert for Pepsi One, actress Kim Cattrall played Red Riding Hood.
"Little Red Riding Hood" has also been referenced in several songs, where there should be no surprise that the sexual element dominates. In fact, sex permeated the first song about Red Riding Hood, "How Could Red Riding Hood (Have Been So Very Good)" by A. P. Randolph, to such a degree that it became the first song ever banned on radio when it was published in 1926. In 1958 "Little Red Riding Hood" was the Big Bopper's B-side to his single "The Big Bopper's Wedding." While the sexual element dominates the Big Bopper's "Little Red Riding Hood," the song actually owes as much to "The Three Little Pigs" as it does the fairy tale "Little Red Riding Hood." The most famous song about Red Riding Hood could well be "Li'l Red Riding Hood," written by Ron Blackwell and released by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs in 1966. The song is sung from the point of view of the wolf and draws upon lines from the fairy tale to make it clear that the wolf has something other than in mind that eating Red Riding Hood....
Over the years "Little Red Riding Hood" has been explained as a solar myth, as the result of actual wolf attacks, as a tale of sexual awakening, and in a number of other ways. Regardless, it remains one of the most famous and popular fairy tales of all time. Regardless of which interpretation of the fairy tale proves to be the most predominant in the future, it seems obvious that "Little Red Riding Hood" will remain one of the most beloved fairy tales of all time.