The Path of Needles or Pins:

Little Red Riding Hood

by Terri Windling

Illustration by Walter Crane: Little Red Riding Hood and Wolf

Illustration by Walter Crane

Little Red Riding Hood is one of the best loved fairy tales of all time — yet few now know the original story as it was told in the French countryside long before Charles Perrault penned his famous version in 1697. The oral version, called The Grandmother's Story, has its tap roots in ancient Asian tales*, but was largely shaped by the rural traditions of France from the Middle Ages onward. The heroine of The Grandmother's Tale does not wear the famous red cap (or hooded cloak), which was a detail added by Perrault; nor does she require rescue by a passing hunter, which was added by the Brothers Grimm. Little Red Riding Hood, as we know it today, is a cautionary tale warning little girls of the perils of disobedience, but the older story is a complex one of female initiative and maturation.

The Grandmother's Tale comes in a variety of forms, but in general the story goes like this:

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A woman had finished her baking, so she asked her daughter to take a fresh galette and a pot of cream to her grandmother who lived in a forest cottage. The girl set off, and on her way she met a bzou [a werewolf].

The bzou stopped the girl and asked, "Where are you going? What do you carry?"
"I'm going my grandmother's house," said the girl, "and I'm bringing her bread and cream."
"Which path will you take?" the bzou asked. "The Path of Needles or the Path of Pins?"
"I'll take the Path of Pins," said the girl.
"Why then, I'll take the Path of Needles, and we'll see who gets there first."

The girl set off, the bzou set off, and the bzou reached Grandmother's cottage first. He quickly killed the old woman and gobbled her up, flesh, blood, and bone - except for a bit of flesh that he put in a little dish on the pantry shelf, and except for a bit of blood that he drained into a little bottle. Then the bzou dressed in Grandmother's cap and shawl and climbed into bed.

When the girl arrived, the bzou called out, "Pull the peg and come in, my child."
"Grandmother," said the girl, "Mother sent me here with a galette and a cream."
"Put them in the pantry, child. Are you hungry?
"Yes, I am, Grandmother."
"Then cook the meat that you'll find on the shelf. Are you thirsty?"
"Yes, I am, Grandmother."
"Then drink the bottle of wine you'll find on the shelf beside it, child."
As the young girl cooked and ate the meat, a little cat piped up and cried, "You are eating the flesh are your grandmother!"
"Throw your shoe at that noisy cat," said the bzou, and so she did.
As she drank the wine, a small bird cried, "You are drinking the blood of your grandmother!"
"Throw your other shoe at that noisy bird," said the bzou, and so she did.
When she finished her meal, the bzou said, "Are you tired from your journey, child? Then take off your clothes, come to bed, and I shall warm you up."
"Where shall I put my apron, Grandmother?"
"Throw it on the fire, child, for you won't need it anymore."
"Where shall I put my bodice, Grandmother?"
"Throw it on the fire, for you won't need it anymore."
The girl repeats this question for her skirt, her petticoat, and her stockings. The bzou gives the same answer, and she throws each item on the fire. As she comes to bed, she says to him, "Grandmother, how hairy you are!"

Illustration by Charles Robinson: Wolf as Grandmother

Illustration by Charles Robinson

"The better to keep you warm, my child,"
"Grandmother, what big arms you have!"
"The better to hold you close, my child."
"Grandmother, what big ears you have!"
"The better to hear you with, my child."
"Grandmother, what sharp teeth you have!"
"The better to eat you with, my child. Now come and lie beside me."
"But first I must go and relieve myself."
"Do it in the bed, my child."
"I cannot. I must go outside," the girl says cleverly, for now she knows that it's the bzou who is lying in Grandmother's bed.

"Then go outside," the bzou agrees, "but mind that you come back again quick. I'll tie your ankle with a woolen thread so I'll know just where you are." He ties her ankle with a sturdy thread, but as soon as the girl has gone outside she cuts the thread with her sewing scissors and ties it to a plum tree. The bzou, growing impatient, calls out, "What, have you finished yet, my child?" When no one answers, he calls again. "Are you watering the grass or feeding the trees?" No answer. He leaps from bed, follows the thread, and finds her gone.

The bzou gives chase, and soon the girl can hear him on the path just behind her. She runs and runs until she reaches a river that's swift and deep. Some laundresses work on the river bank. "Please help me cross," she says to them. They spread a sheet over the water, holding tightly to its ends. She crosses the bridge of cloth and soon she's safe on the other side.

Now the bzou reaches the river, and he bids the women help him cross. They spread a sheet over the water — but as soon as he is halfway across, the laundresses let go. The bzou falls into the water and drowns.

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Numerous variants of The Grandmother's Tale were collected by French folklorists in the 19th and 20th centuries in the Loire basin, the Nivernais, the Forez, the Velay, the northern Alps, and the Italian Tyrol. Italo Calvino published a version from Abruzzo in his collection Italian Folktales (1956). Called The False Grandmother, in this story a hungry ogress takes the place of the wolf - but in other respects, the story is quite similar to the French folktale. Just as in the French story, the girl is offered a grisly meal — beans (really teeth) boiled in a pot and fitters (really ears) in a frying pan; and she, too, escapes by feigning the need to relieve herself outside. Calvino had doubts that The False Grandmother actually came from the Italian oral tradition, suggesting it may have derived instead from published versions by Perrault and the Brothers Grimm. Yet the Abruzzo tale contains elements that link it clearly to the older folk tradition: the cannibal meal, the toilet ruse, the heroine who plots her own escape... all things that disappeared as the tale moved from oral transmission to print.

In the oral tales, the girl must chose between two paths of needles and pins. In some versions she chooses pins, in other versions she chooses needles, and in a few versions the bzou chooses the path for her. Folklore scholars have different theories on what precisely these paths are meant to represent. Sewing and spinning terms are ones we find often in fairy tales, for the making of cloth and clothes was a constant part of women's labor prior to the 20th century. Such work was often done communally, in spinning rooms and around the evening fire, when gossip was shared and tales were told to relieve the monotony of the tasks at hand. Small wonder then that needles, pins, distaffs, spindles, and other symbols of women's work make frequent appearances in folk stories largely told by female storytellers, and some folklorists attach no more significance to the two different paths than this. Paul Delarue and Marc Soriano viewed the choice between pins and needles as a nonsense question, a false choice (for both are equally prickly), a deliberate absurdity. Yvonne Verdier disagreed in her fascinating essay "Le petit chaperon rouge dans la tradition orale," first published posthumously in 1995. Verdier had extensively recorded and studied the folklore, traditions, and rituals of rural women in remote areas of France, and she brought her wider understand of traditional women's stories to her examination of The Grandmother's Tale.

Illustration by Paul Woodruffe: Little Red Riding Hood and Wolf

Illustration by Paul Woodruffe

In villages Verdier studied, she found that girls were sent at puberty to spend one winter with local seamstresses — a passage of time that marked a girl's change from child to young woman. Writing about a village in the Châtillonnais, she noted "This had less to do with learning to 'work,' to sew and use needles, than with refining herself, with polishing herself and learning to adorn herself, to dress up. The seamstress expressed this by saying of her young apprentices, 'They have been gathering pins.' When they reached the age of fifteen, both the winter with the seamstress and the ceremonial entry into the age group consecrated to St. Catherine signified their arrival at maidenhood (la vie de jeune fille), that is, permission to go dancing and to have sweethearts, of which the pin seemed to be the symbol. It was by offering them dozens of pins that boys formerly paid court to girls; it was by throwing pins into fountains that girls assured themselves a sweetheart."

While pins marked the path of maidenhood, needles implied sexual maturity. "As for the needles," wrote Verdier, "threaded through its eye, in the folklore of seamstresses it refers to an emphatically sexual symbolism." Indeed, in some parts of Europe, prostitutes once wore needles on their sleeves to advertise their profession. The versions of The Grandmothers Tale where the girl chooses to take the Path of Needles might well imply that the heroine is trying to grow up a bit too quickly.

At the end of the path, the werewolf awaits, disguised as the heroine's grandmother. We assume that he's wearing his human shape now, which makes the deception a bit more convincing, and yet — as Marina Warner points out in her fairy tale study From the Beast to the Blonde — it's odd that the granddaughter can't tell the difference. Perhaps, Warner suggests, it's because there's a similarity between the wolf and the crone. The grandmother lives apart in the forest — an unusual place for a helpless old woman, but a common dwelling for wise-women, witches, herbalists, and other femmes sauvage. Warner writes, "In the witch-hunting fantasies of early modern Europe they [wolf and crone] are the kind of beings associated with marginal knowledge, who possess pagan secrets and are in turn possessed by them. Both dwell in the woods, both need food urgently (one because she's sick, the other because he hasn't eaten in three days), and the little girl cannot quite tell them apart."

We're not surprised when the bzou slaughters the grandmother-that is, after all, what werewolves do. But the granddaughter's gruesome meal is shocking-particularly in those versions of the tale where the method of cooking and seasoning is elaborately described. Yvonne Verdier likens this ritual meal to a sacrificial act, a physical incorporation of the grandmother by her granddaughter. Such a scene is reminiscent of a wide variety of myths in which a warrior, shaman, sorcerer, or witch attains another's knowledge or power through the ritual ingestion of the other's heart, brain, liver, or spleen. But Verdier looks at this part of the story in more symbolic terms. "What the tale tells us," the scholar conjectures, "is the necessity of the female biological transformation by which the young eliminate the old in their own lifetime. Mothers will be replaced by their daughters and the circle will be closed with the arrival of their children's children. Moral: grandmothers will be eaten."

Illustration by Doré: Little Red Riding Hood and Wolf in bed

Illustration by Doré

The slow striptease then demanded by the wolf hints at another kind of appetite, as does the fact that the bzou is not just a wolf, but also a man. Though focusing on those aspects of the tale that speak the language of female initiation, Verdier also acknowledges the powerful role of the wolf at the center of the story. He is more than just a symbol of the dangers of sexual deception; he is the agent of change. "At the crossroads when she chooses the pins, he is at the origin of the choice; it is when she is face to face with him, under his gaze and at his demand, that she incorporates her grandmother and undresses. This is as much to say that he leads the game...." He leads, but he does not win-for in the folktale (unlike Perrault's retelling), she is not eaten by the wolf. She sees through the bzou's tricks at last, takes his measure, and shrewdly escapes him.

The werewolf is finally destroyed not by a passing woodsman or hunter, but by a group of women engaged in traditional women's labor. Verdier comments: "This double role held by the laundresses — on the one hand allowing the girl to pass, thereby rescuing her, on the other drowning the wolf, killing him — is consistent with their role in the social reality of village life. In fact the job of assisting in 'passages,' of helping in childbirth and helping people to die, is held-at least in the Châtillonnais-by one and the same person, an aged woman, a woman who can at the same time handle the swaddling and the shroud, who washes infants as she washes the dead....If the laundresses bring about the death of the wolf, they bring about the [re-]birth of the girl."

Looking at The Grandmother's Tale within the context of rural French history, we should also remember that the story comes from a time when wolves were still a real danger, and when people of all classes still believed in the existence of werewolves. As German folklorist Marianne Rumpf has documented, France was positively rife with werewolf trials in the 15th to 17th centuries — a masculine counterpart to the witch hysteria of the time. In werewolf trials, men stood accused of shape-shifting, killing and devouring children, as well as of incest and other unnatural acts. These men transformed into wolves, it was said, with the help of salves purchased from the Devil. Any man might be a wolf in disguise, and any wolf, a man. In 1598, to give just one example, a man named Jacques Raollet was tried as a werewolf in Angers, Touraine — which was a time and place when Perrault's own mother might have witnessed these events. Raollet was eventually declared insane and placed in a metal hospital, but other men were hung and burned for crimes supposedly committed as wolves. Rumpf points out that the regions of France where folklorists found The Grandmother's Tale being told were also the very regions where werewolf trials had once been widespread.

By the end of the 17th century, when Perrault published his Little Red Riding Hood, popular belief in werewolves had dwindled, at least among the upper classes. Educated people generally disdained the "backwards" folklore of the countryside-but that was about to change, due to a group of Parisian writers. These writers, congregating in the influential literary salons of Paris, created a vogue for magical stories, for which they coined the name contes des fées, or fairy tales. The salon writers drew inspiration from peasant tales of magic and enchantment—but they reworked this material, dressing it up in rococo language and aristocratic clothes, penning stories that commented on life in the court of Louis XIV. In many respects, the salon fairy tale movement was the fantasy genre of its day—lively, inventive, popular with readers, and held in suspicion by the literary establishment (in particular because it was a movement dominated by outspoken women authors). The salon tales proved to be so popular that they were eventually collected in forty-one volumes in the Cabinet des fées, and were also reprinted and translated in smaller editions across western Europe. Simplified versions of the stories reached the lower classes in the pages of the Bilbliotheque Bleue—inexpensive chapbooks sold by traveling booksellers-and many tales then filtered back down into the groundwater of the oral tradition.

Illustration by Adrienne Segur: Little Red Riding Hood and Wolf in the forest

Illustration by Adrienne Segur

Although not the first or the only successful fairy tale writer to emerge from the Paris salons, Charles Perrault is the author whose tales were most often reprinted, and are still read and loved today. Perrault was an influential civil servant in the court of Louis XIV, as well as a prolific writer on a variety of subjects and a member of the French Academy. He wrote his fairy tale collection, Histoires ou contes du temps passé, during the final years of a busy life-and probably little dreamed that this is what he'd be remembered for three hundred years later. Like the other salonnières, Perrault used themes and characters drawn from peasant tales, turning them into droll little stories for adult readers of the upper classes. Unlike a number of the other salon writers, however (including his niece, Marie-Jeanne L'Héritier), Perrault maintained traditional ideas about the role of women, and his tales demonstrated the "correct" behavior expected of women of his class. His heroines are uniformly beautiful (whereas we know nothing of the appearance of the granddaughter in The Grandmother's Tale); they also tend to be hapless creatures — either passive saints or active fools.

The heroine of Little Red Riding Hood, one of the eight stories in Perrault's Histoires, is a pretty, naive child, doted on by her mother and grandmother. Perrault gives her a red chaperon to wear — a fashionable little hat, not a hood, that was generally made out of velvet or satin. Red would have been an unusually flamboyant color choice for an unmarried girl; more modest attire, the text implies, might not have attracted the attention of the wolf. But attract him she does, and worse, she stops to talk with him, "not knowing any better." She tells him where Grandmother lives, whereupon he suggests a race to the house. He runs, while she foolishly dawdles, amusing herself with butterflies and flowers. (Here again the text implies that the heroine's fate is her own blessed fault.) Perrault eliminates the cannibal meal, and the details of the girl's striptease, merely telling us that the girl undresses and climbs into bed beside the wolf. When she says, "Grandmother, what big teeth you have," the wolf gives his well-known reply: "All the better to gobble you up!" And then he pounces, eats her up, and there the story ends. Perrault finishes with a moral, making the point of his story crystal clear. "Now there are real wolves, with hair pelts and enormous teeth," he writes, "but also wolves who seem perfectly charming, sweet-natured and obliging, who pursue young girls in the street and pay them the most flattering attention. Unfortunately, these smooth-tongued, smooth-pelted wolves are the most dangerous of all."**

Once again, let's look at this tale within an historical context, for it was published in 1796 for a very particular audience: aristocratic readers in the court of Louis XIV. The Sun King's court was famed for its wealth, its intrigues, and its sexual excesses, particularly as practiced at the King's sumptuous playground of Versailles. (Read the letters of the Marquise de Sévigné for a glimpse of this fascinatingly decadent society.) At the same time, virginity in young brides was absolutely insisted upon — for marriage was a business arrangement contracted between two families, and a girl's market value decreased sharply if her virginity was compromised. Perrault's story addressed the subject of seduction and rape — but rape as it was understood at the time, not as we define today. Fathers had the absolute legal to right to determine whom their daughters would marry — and a man who seduced or married a young woman without her father's consent was guilty of rape, regardless of the wishes of the woman in question. To avoid this occurrence, daughters were often kept locked in convents until they married in order to avoid romances and elopements. Perrault's own wife had been raised in a convent, emerging shortly before their marriage, and Perrault had laid eyes on her only once before the wedding.

At the same time, certain women were agitating for greater freedom for their sex — particularly the influential women who hosted the Parisian salons. Within the salons, men and women could mix more casually than was possible at court; they could converse about art and politics, and meet on more equal terms. Perrault himself was a frequenter of the salons (one of them run by L'Héritier); and as an academician, he championed Modern culture, which was generally more favorable to women. But in his tales he consistently stripped folk heroines of the power of self-determination, holding up modesty and demur good manners as the feminine ideal. By lacking these things, Red Riding Hood walks blindly into the jaws of the wolf; and her fate is as merciless as that of girls seduced by wolves in human skin. The wolves are only doing what comes naturally; it's female behavior that is under scrutiny here. As Catherine Orenstein writes in Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked, "Perrault's 'girls' are bien faites and gentilles: of the aristocracy. His warning is not simply to girls, but to the well-bred, educated women of high society who, in inviting men and women together in mixed company, set a dangerous precedent. Perrault's wolf is the dapper charmer of Parisian high society, seducer of young women and a threat to the family patrimony-he is, as one folklorist has called him, the 'unsuitable suitor," who insinuated his way into the best beds in town, deflowering young women and robbing their value as virgin pawns in the marriage de raison."

Illustration by Arthur Rackham: Little Red Riding Hood and Wolf

Illustration by Arthur Rackham

Little Red Riding Hood was a popular tale, and it soon spread beyond the borders of France. As it became well known, elements from Perrault's story (such as the red chaperon and the foolish heroine) slipped into the oral tradition just as though they'd always been there. When the Brothers Grimm published their version of the story, Little Red-cap, one hundred years later, they convincingly proclaimed it as part of the oral folk tradition of Germany. Contrary to public perception, however, the stories published by Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm in their famous collection of German folktales did not come straight from the mouths of stout German peasants. Many tales came from their circle of middle class friends, who had heard them from nursemaids and governesses (some of whom were French), and whose re-tellings bore the influence of literary tales from France and Italy. The Grimms collected Little Red-cap from Marie Hassenpflug, an educated woman of French Huguenot ancestry; it's a tale complete with red hat and gobbling wolf that clearly derives from Perrault. They then altered the story for publication, as they did with many of their tales — particularly in the later editions of the collection, aimed more and more at children. (The first edition had been geared toward scholars.) The Grimms begin their tale with a warning from the mother instructing Little Red-cap to stay on the path, which subtly shifts the emphasis of the story to the girl's disobedience. Whereas Perrault had warned girls to be modest and chaste lest they be gobbled up by the wolf, the Grimms warn them to mind the rules and stay on the straight and narrow. They also changed the ending, adding a hunter who comes to save the day. He cuts the wolf's belly open, and out steps Grandmother and Little Red-cap, as good as new. The wolf's belly is then filled with stones, which causes him to fall down dead. Just in case we don't get the point, there's a second ending appended to the Grimms' re-telling in which Little Red-cap encounters a second wolf, but this time she's a good little girl. She stays on the path and reaches her Grandmother's house in safety.

Little Red Riding Hood became popular with English language readers in the middle of the 19th century when the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm took Victorian England by storm. The red cap then became a red cloak and hood like those worn by English country women, and it's in this guise that the heroine of the tale has been known to us ever since. Advances in printing methods led to the rise of the children's book industry, and Victorian editors-following in the footsteps of the Grimms-continued altering fairy tales to make them suitable for younger and younger children. Some publishers found even the Grimms' edited renditions of fairy tales too harsh, and soon there were versions of Little Red Riding Hood in which the huntsman comes to the rescue before the wolf pounces on the girl. "In England and America," notes folklore scholar Jack Zipes, "sweet, innocent, and helpless Little Red Riding Hood suffered through hybrid adventures. That is, the Perrault and Grimms versions were often mixed together, and, whether the plot was developed in verse, prose, theatrical scenes, or illustrations, there was a general tendency to make Little Red Riding Hood into a Victorian middle-class lass whose virtue is threatened because she forgets to control her sensual drives and disobeys her super-ego mother."

Illustration by Terri Windling: Little Red Riding Hood

Illustration by Terri Windling

With a few exceptions, it was not until after World War I that writers began to examine the fairy tale anew-whereupon we begin to see it used in literary works that were not expressly aimed at younger readers, such as Charles Guyot's The Granddaughter of Little Red Riding Hood (1922), Milt Gross's Sturry from Rad Ridink Hoot (1926), and James Thurber's wonderful, wry tale The Girl and the Wolf (1939.) [For an in-depth look at early 20th century versions of the tale, see The Trials of Little Red Riding Hood by Jack Zipes.] By the end of the 20th century, the pendulum had fully swung, and fairy tales could be found once again on the shelves of adult literature. Echoing the fairy tale movement of 17th century France, the writers of the new contes des fees were largely (but not exclusively) women, using the stories to comment on life in the 20th/21st centuries. Two primary texts of the new movement were Transformations by Anne Sexton (1971) and The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter (1979), both of which contained powerful re-workings of Little Red Riding Hood. In Transformations — a volume of seventeen poems based on the themes of Grimms' fairy tales — Sexton used Little Red Riding Hood to explore the subject of deception—the lies we tell and the lies we believe. In The Bloody Chamber, Carter's "The Company of Wolves" was a sensual fever-dream of a story that skillfully manipulated the themes, the symbols, the very language of Little Red Riding Hood. In "The Werewolf," in the same collection, Carter re-examined the fairy tale from a different angle, taking a more historical, less psychoanalytical approach in this dark rendition.

In the years since Sexton's and Carter's ground-breaking volumes, the field of fairy tale literature has become a lively one-but to seek out its treasures, readers must travel to many different parts of the bookstore. Due to the idiosyncrasies of the modern publishing industry, this type of literature is published under a variety of labels: mainstream fiction, fantasy fiction, historical fiction, horror fiction, feminist fiction, and young adult fiction. A number of novels and stories make use of the themes of Little Red Riding Hood, including the following:

Novels: Wolf by Gillian Cross (1990), winner of the 1991 Carnegie Medal, is a rich, engrossing novel set in contemporary London, involving wolves, IRA terrorism, and the complexities of family relationships. Little Red Riding Hood in the Red Light District by Manlio Argueta (1998) is another award winner, this one set on the streets of El Salvador. It's a brutal, haunting political novel with tenderness at its heart. Darkest Desire: The Wolf's Own Tale by Anthony Schmitz (1998), is a quirky little novel in which the wolf meets the Brothers Grimm and tells them his story.

Short Stories: "Wolfland" by Tanith Lee, first published in her fine story collection Red as Blood (1983), is a deliciously gothic tale set in 19th century Scandinavia. "I Shall Do Thee Mischief in the Woods" by Kathe Koja, from Snow White, Blood Red (1993), is a dark, sharp story that forces us to re-examine the roles of predator and prey. "Little Red" by Wendy Wheeler, from Snow White, Blood Red (1993), is a disturbing contemporary tale about wolves whose skin is on the inside, and the ways that young girls can be preyed on. "The Apprentice" by Miriam Grace Monfredo, from Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (November, 1993), mixes fantasy, mystery, and fairy tales in a poignant exploration of the subject of child abuse. "The Good Mother" by Patricia Galloway, from Truly Grim Tales (1995), reworks the fairy tale into a post-nuclear-disaster science fiction story. "Riding the Red" by Nalo Hopkinson, first published in Black Swan, White Raven (1997), is an extraordinary story about sex and female power, influenced — at least in the rhythm of the language — by the author's Caribbean background. "Wolf" by Francesca La Block, from her urban fairy tale collection The Rose and the Beast (2000), is another story using the fairy tale to explore the subject of childhood sexual abuse. "Little Red and the Big Bad" by Will Shetterly, from Swan Sister (2003), is a sly urban version of the story, street-wise and sassy.

Illustration by G.P. Jacob Hood: Little Red Riding Hood and Wolf in Grandma's house

Illustration by G.P. Jacob Hood

There are also many good rewordings of Little Red Riding Hood over on the poetry shelves. Olga Brooms explores familial relationships between women in her "Little Red Riding Hood," from Beginning With O (1977). Roald Dahl's "Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf," from Revolting Rhymes (1983), is a hilarious poem in which the wolf is no match for a little girl with gun. Gwen Strauss's disturbing poem "The Waiting Wolf," from Trail of Stones (1990), is one that should not be missed. "Waiting in this old lady's ruffled bed, I am all calculation," says the wolf as he justifies his behavior and awaits his tender prey. Alice Wirth Gray's "On a Nineteenth Century Color Lithograph of Red Riding Hood by the Artist J.H.," from What the Poor Eat (1993), turns the tale into a police report, examined from multiple points of view. "In a tupperware wood, mix child and hood. Stir slowly. Add wolf," begins "Journeybread Recipe" by Lawrence Schimel, from Black Thorn, White Rose (1994). "....Serve swaddled in a wolfskin throw, cradled in a basket and left on grandmother's doorstep." In the same volume, the narrator of "Silver and Gold" by Ellen Steiber is asked how it was that she could not manage to tell her grandmother from a wolf. Perhaps, her doctor suggests in the poem, she was actually living with wolves all along. The heroine of Carol Ann Duffy's "Little Red-Cap" knows precisely why she followed the wolf. "The wolf, I knew, would lead me deep into the woods, away from home, to a dark tangled thorny place it by the eyes of owls." The poem comes from Duffy's splendid collection The World's Wife (1999). In Lawrence Syndal's "Grandmother," from Conjunctions #31 (1999), the old woman muses on her time in the belly of the wolf: "I lay me down between his ribs and let each sighing lung massage the ache from these old bones." Sinking happily into the dreams of the wolf, she is not pleased to be rescued. Other Little Red Riding Hood poems can be found the following two excellent collections: The Poets' Grimm, edited by Jeanne Marie Beaumont and Claudia Carlson, and Disenchantments, edited by Wolfgang Mieder.

Dramatic adaptations of Little Red Riding Hood include Tex Avery's wickedly salacious cartoons: Little Red Walking Hood (1937), Red Hot Riding Hood (1945), and Little Rural Riding Hood (1949), as well as Disney's first animated short, Little Red Riding Hood (1922). Shelley Duvall's Faerie Tale Theatre: Little Red Riding Hood (1983) starred Malcolm McDowell as the Big Bad Wolf and Mary Steenburger as the heroine. Angela Carter's story "The Company of Wolves" became a wonderfully evocative film of the same title, directed by Neil Jordan in 1984. Carter wrote the screenplay with Jordan, and is reputed to have disliked the end. (In the film, a dreaming young girl is awakened when a pack of wolves bursts into her home. In the story, the heroine tames her wolf lover and sleeps safely in his arms.) Cannon Movie Tales: Little Red Riding Hood (1987), a rendition set sometime during the Middle Ages, tells the story of the daughter of a village lord, her evil uncle, and an enchanted wolf. Freeway (1986) is a rather dreadful film that turns the story into a contemporary serial killer flick. Rees Witherspoon plays the heroine, and Kiefer Sutherland plays the urban wolf. Far more worth seeing is Little Red Riding Hood, a short film directed by David Kaplan (1997) — a surprising and sensual version of the story that's definitely not for children.

If you are looking for good versions of the tale adapted for children, I recommend these three picture books: Little Red Riding Hood, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman (1988); Little Red Cap, illustrated by Lizbeth Zwerger (1995); and Little Red Ridinghood: A Classic Collectible Pop-up Book, illustrated by Marjorie Priceman (2001).

If you'd like to know more about the history of Little Red Riding Hood, there are quite a few good books to chose from. For an introduction to the tale, including a primer on fairy tale history, I recommend Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality, and the Evolution of a Fairy Tale by Catherine Orenstein (2002). It's a lively, entertaining book, written for casual readers rather than folklore scholars. Jack Zipes presents numerous versions of the tale from Charles Perrault's to Angela Carter's, along with an excellent essay on the subject, in his useful book The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood (Second Edition, 1993). In Little Red Riding Hood: A Casebook (1989), Alan Dundes presents critical writings on the tale from a wide range of folklorists, including Wolfam Eberhard's essay on Asian variants, "The Story of Grandaunt Tiger". For a general history of fairy tales, including Little Red Riding Hood, try From the Beast to the Blonde by Marina Warner, Twice Upon a Time by Elizabeth Wanning Harries, and Touch Magic by Jane Yolen. Recommended articles: "Little Red Riding Hood in the Oral Tradition" by Yvonne Verdier, Marvels & Tales: Journal of Fairy-tale Studies, Vol. 11, Numbers I-2 (1997); "Red Riding Hood: An Interpretation from Anthropology" by Mary Douglas, Folklore, #106 (1995); and (for fun)"Little Red Riding Hood Revisited" by Russell Baker, The New York Times Magazine (January 13, 1980).

The characters in familiar fairy tales have a way of sinking deep into our psyches. Charles Dickens claimed Little Red Riding Hood as his first love, and felt that if only he could have married her, he would have known perfect bliss. Yet Little Red Riding Hood was changed through the years, diminished, punished, literally gobbled up. By knowing and retelling older versions of her story, and by re-imagining her in fiction and poetry today, we reclaim the spirit of girls everywhere who can face down the wolves in their lives, and outwit them.


* GreatAunt Tiger, a story found in various forms in China, Japan, and Korea, is clearly related to Little Red Riding Hood. Heinz Insu Fenkl will explore the Asian version of the story in a future Folkroots column, so for now we'll limit ourselves to the Western history of the tale. return to text

** Translated by Marina Warner, From the Beast to the Blonde, pgs. 182-183. return to text

Little Red Riding Hood and Wolf

Further Reading

On the Web:
Little Red Riding Hood text, history, and annotations:

Little Red Riding Hood on Heidi Ann Heiner's Surlalune Fairy Tales website
Little Red Riding Hood on D.L. Ashliman's Folktexts website
The Red Riding Hood Project, The University of Southern Mississippi
Red Riding Hood: A Multi-Media Edition, The Fairy Tale Project

Little Red Riding Hood Art:
Little Red Riding Hood Illustrations, on the Surlalune Fairy Tale website
Little Red Riding Hood illustrated by Sarah Moon
Kiki Smith: Prints, Blooks, and Things

About the Author:
Terri Windling is a writer, painter, editor, and the founder of the Endicott Studio. For more information, visit her website.

Copyright © 2004 by Terri Windling. This article first appeared in Realms of Fantasy magazine, August 2004. This material may not be reproduced in any form without the author's express written permission. The end illustration is by H.J. Ford.

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