One is hard-pressed to think of a tale as widely known and with as many versions as Little Red Riding Hood. First published in France, in 1697 the story remains popular to this day. It’s difficult to imagine any piece of modern-day writing receiving as much recognition. What is it about the simple plot that sticks with us? Most of us are introduced to the book’s central characters before we begin school. Yet, this is hardly our last exposure. Throughout our lives, countless depictions of Little Red Riding Hood and the dastardly wolf will leave their imprints on our brains.
A Collector of Stories
Charles Perrault is most often credited as the author of the famous tale, which has given rise to numerous variations over the centuries. Born in 1628, Perrault grew up in the secure and nurturing embrace of a wealthy bourgeois family. He was a versatile writer who penned works from many different genres: religious, scientific, political, and literary. Viewed by his contemporaries as one of the greatest authors of the 17th-century, Perrault was elected to the Académie française in 1671. However, today people know him largely for the folk tales he collected, edited, and published for his grandchildren near the end of his life.
Perrault’s version of Little Red Riding Hood (in French, Le Petit Chaperon rouge) is hardly the first. Researchers trying to determine the story’s origins can trace comparable tales going back to 11th-century Europe. They’ve also located strikingly similar narratives from folklore as far away as East Asia and Africa. Perrault is considered the author of many other popular stories that he collected from oral tradition, transcribed, and edited. These include Cinderella, The Sleeping Beauty, Puss in Boots, and Bluebeard.
The Brothers Grimm
Most of us grew up with versions of these stories that were popularized by the Brothers Grimm 100 years after Perrault published his accounts. In the Grimm retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, the young girl is sent to deliver a basket of food to her ailing grandmother. En route, she must pass through a forest where she encounters a wolf. She reveals to the sinister creature that she is on her way to her grandmother’s house. The wolf takes an alternate path through the forest, arrives before Little Red Riding Hood, eats the grandmother, dons her nightgown, and waits in bed for Little Red Riding Hood to show up. Once aside her tucked-in granny, Little Red Riding Hood finds the old lady’s appearance to be rather odd. She asks several questions to determine why this might be so. But, before Little Red Riding Hood realizes the danger she’s in, the wolf springs from the bed and eats her as well.
The Intended Moral
In the Grimm account, a soldier arrives, cuts open the wolf’s stomach, and saves the two feminine protagonists of this preschool thriller. Ever the realist, I prefer Perrault’s version, which is slightly more plausible. In Le Petit Chaperon Rouge, the gullible females are never saved. The wolf remains satiated and unscathed and Little Red Riding Hood is never seen nor heard from again.
Perrault’s retelling ends with a short poem, moralizing about the importance of avoiding conversations with strangers:
On voit ici que de jeunes enfants,
Surtout de jeunes filles
Belles, bien faites, et gentilles,
Font très mal d’écouter toute sorte de gens,
Et que ce n’est pas chose étrange,
S’il en est tant que le Loup mange.
Je dis le Loup, car tous les Loups
Ne sont pas de la même sorte ;
Il en est d’une humeur accorte,
Sans bruit, sans fiel et sans courroux,
Qui privés, complaisants et doux,
Suivent les jeunes Demoiselles Jusque dans les maisons, jusque dans les ruelles ;
Mais hélas ! qui ne sait queue ces Loups doucereux,
De tous les Loups sont les plus dangereux.
Here we see that young children,
Especially, young pretty girls,
Attractive, and nice,
Do great harm by listening to all sorts of people,
And that it isn’t a strange matter,
If the Wolf chooses to eat them.
I say the Wolf, because not all Wolves
are of the same sort;
Some are good-natured,
Without rancor, bark, or bite,
Who secretly, complacent and sweet,
Follow young maidens into houses,
into back alleys;
But alas! who doesn’t know that these gentle wolves,
Out of all the other wolves, are the most dangerous.
While Perrault’s version may be harsher than that of the Brothers Grimm, many accounts are even crueler. In an earlier rendition, the wolf leaves bits of the grandmother uneaten, namely her reproductive organs. When Little Red Riding Hood arrives, the wolf offers the weary girl some food and drink. This she gladly accepts, unwittingly eating her grandmother’s body parts and drinking the murdered woman’s blood before crawling into bed with the wolf. Perrault apparently felt compelled to remove some of these more salacious details, toning the story down in order to make it suitable for children.
Why so Popular?
I remember my mother regularly reading a 20th-century version of the story to me well before I attended school. There were definitely stories that scared me but I don’t recall feeling afraid after hearing this one. Probably because Little Red Riding Hood’s powers of discernment were not a bit relatable and despite her dimwittedness, both she and her grandmother were saved in the end. Today, what I find interesting about the tale is how popular it remains with adults despite its unrealistic simplicity.
Gallery of Little Reds
Perrault died five years after he published his book of reworked folktales, Histoires ou contes du temps passé. Little did he know how popular these stories would become. What follows is a minuscule sampling of the depictions that succeeded that first written account. If you have a theory about why Little Red Riding Hood became so popular or can remember how you first reacted to the story, please leave a comment below.