Little Red Riding Hood, An Insanely Popular Tale from France

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.

Little Red Riding Hood, Doré
Little Red Riding Hood, Gustav Doré, 1862

A Collector of Stories

Charles Perrault
Charles Perrault, by Philippe Lallemand

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.

Little Red Riding Hood, Fleury-Richard
Little Red Riding Hood, François Fleury-Richard, circa 1820

Countless Versions

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.

Little Red Riding Hood, Prisu
Loup Y Es Tu, by Kim Prisu, 2016

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.

Little Red Riding Hood, Kubel
Little Red Riding Hood, by Otto Kubel, 1930

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.

Little Red Riding Hood, Watts
Little Red Riding Hood, by George Frederick Watts, 1890

Darker Versions

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.

Little Red Riding Hood, Madden
Little Red Riding Hood, by Shane Madden, 2007, c/o of Deviant Art

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.

Little Red Riding Hood, Rojankovsky
My favorite depiction of Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf, taken from the worn pages of my childhood copy, illustrated by Fiodor Rojankovsky.

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.

Little Red Riding Hood, Peele
Little Red Riding Hood, by John Thomas Peele, 1851

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Red Hot Riding Hood (1943)
Little Red Riding Hood Cartoon
Little Red Riding Hood Cartoon
Little Red Riding Hood, Urbantoons
Little Red Riding Hood, Book Cover by Urbantoons, by King Ki’el
Little Red Riding Hood, Rackham
Little Red Riding Hood, by Arthur Rackham, 1909
Little Red Riding Hood, puppets
Little Red Riding Hood Puppet Set
Little Red Riding Hood Meme
Little Red Riding Hood Meme
Li’l Red Riding Hood: Sam The Sham & The Pharaohs (1966 TV performance)

Other Resources

  • FranceInter, Allusions sexuelles, cannibalisme et habit de fer : découvrez la véritable histoire du “Petit Chaperon Rouge”
  • PLOS ONE, The Phylogeny of Little Red Riding Hood
  • Le français farçant, Le Petit Chaperon rouge
  • Youtube, Histoires ou Contes du temps passé avec des moralités

About Carol A. Seidl

Serial software entrepreneur, writer, French to English translator, mother, and lover of: books, travel, history, cultures, art, cooking, fitness, nature.

19 Comments

  1. Fabulous and so thorough!
    If you haven’t yet, I highly encourage you to read this book by Lucy Pollard-Gott: https://www.amazon.com/The-Fictional-100-Influential-Characters/dp/1440154392/
    Little Red Riding Hood is not in it, but other main characters of fiction. It was so fascinating to learn that the origin of Cinderella is actually Chinese. Which actually makes sense with the story of the tiny foot!

  2. Interesting analysis. Perrault’s closing poem makes the “moral” explicit, warning girls about the dangers posed by predators of a not-literally-wolfish type, some of whom may clothe themselves in the appearance and speech of something benign. That’s a warning which remains relevant for girls in all cultures and times. But of course that’s his interpretation. Since the story long predates him, he may have come across it and seen that it could be adapted for the message he wanted to convey.

    I can see why the Grimm version has become most popular. Not only does it have a happier ending, but the unreality of it (the victims couldn’t have been saved in real life, since people eaten by a wolf are not swallowed whole) keeps it obviously in the realm of a fantasy story and thus less, er, grim.

    I can’t imagine what was intended by the variant involving tricking the girl into eating her grandmother’s reproductive organs. Some people are just weird, and that has doubtless always been true.

    • Yes. The best morals have that timeless quality.

      I link to a podcast in French where a literary historian talks about the sexual underpinnings of various versions of the story. According to her, eating the older woman’s organs was like a rite of passage, transforming LRRH from girl to woman. After doing so, she’s prepared to climb into bed with the wolf. So, she had that going for her at least.

      It’s funny to think that Grimm’s tales are actually less grim. I like the gruesome nature of many of the old folktales. Hans Christian Andersen is another who served up plenty of horror. I admit to reading them to my kids when they were quite little, just as they were read to me. Hopefully, no permanent scaring took place.

      • I suppose that literary historian’s interpretation has logic to it, though LRRH as depicted in all the art examples is clearly too young for an initiation into womanhood. Still, I’ve heard of analogous things in other cultures.

        It is interesting how gruesome and horrific so many traditional folk tales are. People today don’t realize how cold and cruel the pre-modern world was. I suppose the folk tales served as mental preparation in a way, training children’s minds for survival in the brutal society that was all anybody knew.

        I’ve thought about your question of why LRRH became so popular and widespread, but no obvious answer comes to mind. People are always fascinated by sex, but any sexual undertones this story has are, I think, too subtle to register as such to the average person. Maybe Perrault and Grimm were just very good writers? A well-told story was a great treasure in pre-mass-media days.

        • Good points. Also, I think that children’s literature has come a long way. There is a huge difference between what was available to my kids and what was available to me growing up. When my grandparents were children, there were even fewer options. So, everyone heard the same stories when they were small and naturally wanted to pass them on to their own kids. Plus the stories were read and reread because there wasn’t a lot of alternative content.

          Still, like all successful trajectories, there is probably a certain amount of luck involved.

  3. I’m guilty of writing about that particular tale…

  4. Enjoyed your article very much, Carol. Hope you and Andy are doing well!

  5. Very popular indeed. And in the French school system, they keep teaching such tales and nursery rhymes of a time long gone. I sometimes wonder what my grandson tells me how much he understands of a world so different. Strange.

    • I like the fact that so many French people have familiarity with French literature (and history for that matter) from centuries back. I feel the French do much more to keep their heritage alive. Americans could stand to do more. The problem is that we don’t have as much common history to draw from.

      • True. Your history is shorter. But then you could include history of the Western world. Actually in France, the first classes of history cover the Antique world: Sumer, Babylon, Persia, the Greeks, Rome.
        And as for French Lit, it used to be that way, now I don’t know. Matter of fact I am reading my daughter’s French text books. one period a yeat: Middle age to 15th century, 16th, 17th. I’ve read all plus 20th century. On 19th century right now. We’re missing the 18th. So important..

        • Yes. I think you do a much better job in France instilling a basic understanding of history and literature. In the case of my kids, their education in such matters was much richer than mine. Since we don’t have a nationalized curriculum, educational experiences vary widely across the U. S.

          In general, however, we don’t do much as a nation to keep history alive. In France, you find reminders everywhere. Case in point, the Festival de Loire that a friend was just telling me about, celebrating the history of boat travel. So cool!

  6. I haven’t given pause to think about the old folk stories that were read over and over in such a long time and much enjoyed your thought provoking post.

    • Thanks Karen. I enjoyed revisiting them when my kids were young. It will be interesting to see if they pass them on to their children. So many more options in kids books these days.

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