Little Red Riding Hood – Life off the Path

This is an article I wrote – it formed part of my Masters “Black-Winged Angels” – and it appeared in Apex Science Fiction and Horror Digest #12 (March 2008). For when boredom strikes and one is feeling particularly nerdly … it has appalling bad footnotes and a bibliography, for which I apologise profusely – my academic streak is thin, if not skeletal.

It’s been an interesting journey for Little Red Riding Hood. She started life in a tribal tale about a girl who outsmarts a wolf – all on her own, no outside help. A few centuries later, she gets a red cap, loses about twenty IQ points and gets eaten by a transvestite wolf. Add another hundred or so years, the cap becomes a hood, she loses a few more brain credits, gets molested, and then eaten by the same cross-dressing wolf but is rescued by a big, strong man and learns never to disobey the rules again. Adding insult to injury, in the 40s Tex Avery turned her into a stripper. Bruno Bettelheim looked at Gustave Dore’s 1867 Little Red Riding Hood illustrations and saw dirty pictures – Little Red in bed with the wolf, giving him the eye. A red leather-jacketed Reese Witherspoon (oh, puhleeez!) played her in an Eighties film version, Freeway, in which a friendly neighbourhood serial killer fulfils the role of the wolf. Just when you thought it was all over, Angela Carter came along, reclaimed her and set her free.

So, Lil’ Red – what happened?

Traditional versions of Little Red Riding Hood were oral tales about a young girl’s initiation into womanhood. The Italian version, which contains the crack-a-lackin’ lines: “Why is your chest so hairy, Grandmother?” “From wearing too many necklaces around my neck,” and replaces the wolf with an ogress, pitches Little Red as a girl on the cusp of growing up. In the French oral tales (often known as The Path of Needles or Pins) the heroine must choose one of two paths when she meets the wolf (or bzou) in the woods. There is no exact explanation of the difference between the Path of Needles and the Path of Pins; however, Yvonne Verdier, who studied manifold variations of the Little Red Riding Hood tale, believed the paths were symbolic of two periods of growth in a young girl’s life. When a girl was sent off to be apprenticed to a seamstress, this was the path of pins (learning a trade as part of growing up [i]) and is regarded by Verdier as the path of maidenhood, the path of change from child to young woman. The path of needles was the next stage and implied sexual maturity,[ii] the needle being emblematic of sexual penetration. Terri Windling suggests that girls who choose the path of needles before the path of pins are trying to “grow up too soon.”[iii]

Jack Zipes refers to the original tales as having a “narrative perspective … sympathetic to a young peasant girl … who learns to cope with the world around her.”[iv] The girl meets the wolf on the way to Granny’s house and discloses where she’s going (but makes no wager). The wolf kills and eats Granny, takes her place in bed, and induces the girl to eat and drink Granny’s flesh and blood before climbing into bed with him. Recognising her danger, and with no one else to turn to, the girl uses her wits to save herself. Before she can be devoured, she claims she needs to relieve herself, the wolf (after first suggesting that she do it in the bed), ties a rope to her leg and lets her out. When outside, she ties the rope to a plum tree and runs home safely.         

The heroine in the oral tale eats her grandmother’s flesh and drinks her blood. Gruesome though it is, this can also be seen as a metaphor for the revolution of the life-cycle. The young replace the old, the girl is coming into the fullness of her womanhood, she is all “power in potentia;”[v] the grandmother is at the end of the cycle, she is no longer fertile, no longer desired, no longer agile and active. Although the young girl has a traumatic experience (an education in the dangers of life), she has been independent and saved herself with no help from either a prince or woodsman, nor any other male figure.

However, under the pens of Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm,  the tale became one of a girl’s rape and murder, for which she herself is blamed.[vi]

Operating in the salons of France in the mid to late seventeenth century, Charles Perrault was one of the leading proponents of literary fairy tales. Although by no means the only “recorder” of tales – female authors vastly outnumbered the males working in the genre at the time[vii] – it is his versions of fairy tales that have survived and dominated the Western fairy tale tradition. Perrault, who also claimed to be supportive of women’s rights (at least for women of his own class), nevertheless managed to infuse his tales with patriarchal notions of how girls should behave.

Although Perrault claimed to be “a mere conduit of past wisdom,”[viii] not creating stories but simply taking the tales from a “pristine source,”[ix] (nurses, gouvernantes, grandmothers, random old female gossips) he did not leave the tales intact. He changed them, transformed them to suit his own purposes. Marina Warner notes that he “set aside aspects which struck him as crude,”[x] and Zipes, in relation to Perrault’s version of Little Red Riding Hood, points out that the author’s “[own] fear of women and his own sexual drives are incorporated into his new literary version, which also reflects general male attitudes about women portrayed as eager to be seduced or raped.”[xi]

Perrault’s tales became moralising stories, warning women and children that if they did not conform there would be consequences. Perrault introduces into the literary tale the red cap/hood and the element of a wager between the wolf and Little Red Riding Hood. He also implies that she is somehow careless in taking her time to get to Granny’s house – that she is complicit in Granny’s death because she wants to lose the bet,[xii] and thus invites the wolf’s sexual advances.[xiii] When she arrives at Granny’s house she is raped and eaten. Perrault lays the blame very squarely on her shoulders (just in case anyone should miss the point):

                                 From this story one learns that children,

                                 Especially young lasses,

                                 Pretty, courteous and well-bred,

                                 Do very wrong to listen to strangers,

                                 And it is not an unheard thing

                                 If the Wolf is thereby provided with his dinner.[xiv]

Sharon Johnson has noted that Perrault’s version of the tale reflects not only his assumption about gendered behaviour but also that of the society in which he lived – even in terms of how rape was regarded by French jurisprudence in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Johnson argues that “Men are represented as naturally aggressive, and their ravishing of women is often eroticized.”[xv] In a society where sexual violence was viewed as ‘desire, women were often blamed for inciting male sexual aggression by being objects of desire.[xvi] Perrault’s central message is that she was “asking for it” and got what she deserved: “She was wearing red, Your Honour, and you know what that means!”

Warner also notes Perrault’s fusing of Granny with the wolf – the “crucial collapse of roles”[xvii] – may show that he was associating Granny, as a solitary old woman of the forest (the traditional place for witches, those with occult knowledge and therefore suspect) with the wolf, also a creature of the forest, natural, uncontrollable and an object of fear.[xviii] Perrault implies, consciously or otherwise, that those who associate with nature and the uncivilised get what they deserve.

A century or so later, the Brothers Grimm gave the story a happy ending and removed the sexual bawdiness and overt violence. Little Red is shown as a silly little girl who gets herself and her Granny into trouble by disobeying her mother, dawdling, and talking to hairy strangers. The wolf once again wins the race to Granny’s house, where he eats the old woman and then her foolish granddaughter. Luckily, there is a woodsman, a big strong man, to get them out of trouble. In this version, Little Red’s warning from her mother is more explicit than in Perrault, and although she still ignores it, she and Granny are rescued nonetheless.[xix] Zipes interprets the message as “Only a strong male figure can rescue a girl from herself and her lustful desires.”[xx]

Little Red, who in the oral tradition was a brave, resourceful little girl, is no longer able to get herself out of trouble; the only virtues allowed her are passivity and dependency, and the hope that a male will always be around to rescue her. She was pulled back onto the path, made to be safe, turned into an object requiring rescue.

When fairy tales began to be written down and published, they gradually became static after being subjected to an editing process to take out anything that wasn’t sanctioned. When their form became “satisfactory,” they became “Good Girls’ Guides on How to Behave.” In Germany, at the time of the Grimms, Jeanine Blackwell observes that the phenomenon of young mothers reading to their children from the new books of sanctioned Grimms’ tales replaced the oral tradition of tale telling in the evening. Old women – nurses, grandmothers, servants – were suspect as tellers of tales; they were the kind of old wives who would change the tales, who would improvise, and who would not conform.[xxi] The mutability of old women’s tales was due at least in part to the fact that many of them were illiterate, so the oral tradition was the only one open to them. The power of the literary tale for the patriarchy lay in its static nature – the pattern did not change, the end did not change, girls stayed girls and boys, boys. If female tellers changed the stories, they were behaving independently and subverting the patriarchy.[xxii]

Blackwell summarises Ruth Bottigheimer’s quantitative survey on the speech patterns of women in the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm.[xxiii] The tales collected by the brothers came directly from the oral tradition, from a variety of women whom they met on their travels (indeed, Wilhelm married one of his sources: Dortchen Wild). The Grimms’ fairy tale collections went through many editions between the early 1800s and 1856, and across these editions significant changes were made: “good” girls spoke less and less from edition to edition; silence as a task for men lasted up to three days, but for women it was often seven years; the female’s voice was frequently taken away from her, whereas the male willingly stopped speaking to achieve a goal; girls spoke when spoken to and generally did not ask questions unless invited; and, perhaps most tellingly, those characters who spoke most were witches (bad women who did not conform) and boys (in whom activity and curiosity were lauded).[xxiv]

The editing of female speech in fairy tales by male authors/transcribers shows in a very real way how tales have been used as a means of training women how to behave in a socially (i.e., patriarchally) acceptable fashion.

Blackwell makes the assessment that “authority is removed from the oral female voice to the male editor/author, but returned to her in a sanitized form, when she is the properly behaving dispenser of his tale.”[xxv] The story “teller” is no longer the old wife but the nurturing figure of the mother. The voice of the mother is used to enforce ideas of sanctioned behaviour – girls are quiet, pretty, submissive and there to be rescued. The power of maternal voices enforces the edicts of the ruling order, and with the hand that rocks the cradle co-opted by the other side, mothers as models of, and conduits for, female behaviour were now complicit in the subjugation of their own daughters.[xxvi] Women told their children through the medium of static bedtime stories: I have no value beyond beauty, passivity, silence and fertility. My daughter, you are like me. My son, you are not like me, you are special!

Fairy tales also teach girls about reward and punishment – those who conform are rewarded, those who do not are punished, ridiculed and subjugated, or worse, killed. Under the pens of male transcribers Little Red Riding Hood became such a tale.

The tales in Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber are reclaimed from the patriarchy and stretched out of their sanctioned shape – Carter has firmly placed herself on the side of the “old wives” under whose hands tales were mutable and malleable. Warner says that Carter “deliberately [draws the tales] out of the separate space of “children’s stories” or “folk art” and into the world of change.”[xxvii]

Carter’s work restores female agency, independence, intelligence, and allows the heroine freedom to be a sexually active desiring object – in direct contrast to the “approved” condition of literary fairy tale heroines as passive, dependent, virginal and self-sacrificing. Warner refers to The Bloody Chamber as Carter’s “answer to Perrault’s vision of better things.”[xxviii] 

Carter’s Little Red (in the Bloody Chamber tale “The Company of Wolves”) is described as “an unbroken egg; she is a sealed vessel; she has inside her a magic space the entrance to which is shut tight with a plug of membrane; she is a closed system; she does not know how to shiver. She has her knife and she is afraid of nothing.”[xxix] This is possibly the best summary of the strengths of Carter’s heroine: she is brave and independent (a closed system), she has the power of an intact virgin, she is fearless and ready to protect herself – no waiting around for the woodsman for this girl. She can and will look after herself. She is confident and when she meets the wolf/huntsman (in Carter, the huntsman and wolf suffer a similar “critical collapse of roles” to Granny and the wolf in Perrault’s version) on the path to Granny’s house she is in no way intimidated. In fact, she decides “she’s never seen such a fine fellow before, not among the rustic clowns of her native village;”[xxx] she will not settle for any old village boy.

They make a wager with a kiss the prize, and she happily dawdles so he may reach Granny’s house first. When she arrives, Granny is a rattling bundle of bones wrapped in a napkin under the bed, and the wolf makes no real attempt to pretend to be the grandmother. Their exchange, informed by knowledge rather than fear, breaks the traditional pattern. She undresses quite willingly, combs out her hair, and stands “up on tiptoe and unbutton[s] the collar of his shirt.”[xxxi] Upon hearing “All the better to eat you with” she laughs: “she knew she was nobody’s meat. She laughed at him full in the face, she ripped off his shirt for him and flung it into the fire, in the fiery wake of her own discarded clothing.”[xxxii] There is no fear of sex, or of male desire, or even a hint of shame about her own desires. This girl is no one’s victim.

The tale ends “See! Sweet and sound she sleeps in Granny’s bed, between the paws of the tender wolf.”[xxxiii] Carter’s heroine is fearless on many levels: she has sex outside the bounds of the approved space of marriage, she chooses it for herself (it is not imposed upon her as a marriage duty or as an act of rape), she acts without deference to anyone, and with no thought for society’s sanctions. And there are no consequences for her actions, no societally enforced punishment for being a “loose” woman.

Importantly, when she does break her “unbroken membrane,” she does not become a broken or ruined “thing.” Her virginity is not an economic asset, the removal of which devalues her. Carter’s heroine exchanges the power of a virgin for that of a knowing woman – her “power in potentia” has been realised. She retains the core of who she is; sex has merely added to her experience, not soiled her in any way – she has not lessened.

Sex, desire, and independent female action, hinted at in the oral tradition, primly covered and clothed by the patriarchy, are all on glorious, rapturous, almost pornographic display in Carter’s works. There is no room for the “good” girl in her revisionist fairy tale.

I like to think that Carter reclaimed Little Red and gave her the chance to be more Buffy and less Little Bo Peep. She reclaimed the idea of “power in potentia,” which was the thing that frightened men: female independence and power and freedom of choice. These were precisely the things that were stripped away over time through editing and re-writing by patriarchal transcribers. Blackwell writes: “…when the brothers wrote down the tales, they omitted some of the magic words, and they jumbled up parts of the plots.  They even left the wise women out of the stories they told, or changed them to be wicked, bossy, and ugly.  Still, they left some of the magic in the stories.”[xxxiv] There is still magic left in the tales, and Carter found it – Little Red is now back on the path less travelled, and having a better time for it.  



Carter, A. 1995. The Bloody Chamber. London: Vintage.

Blackwell, J. 2001. Fractured Fairytales: German Women Authors and the Grimm Tradition. The Germanic Review, 162-174.

Johnson, S. P. 2003. The Toleration and Erotization of Rape: Interpreting Charles Perrault’s ‘Le Petit Chaperon Rouge’ within Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Jurisprudence. Women’s Studies, 32: 325-352.

Rowe, K. E. (1986) “Feminism and Fairy Tales”, in Zipes, J. (ed.) Don’t Bet on the Prince: Contemporary Feminist Fairy Tales in North America and England, Aldershot, England: Gower, pp. 209-226.

Verdier, Y. 1978. Grands-meres, si vous saviez…: Le Petit Chaperon Rouge dans la tradition orale. (accessed 22/12/2005).

Warner, M. 1995. From the Beast to the Blonde: on Fairytales and Their Tellers. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Windling, T. 1997. Women and Fairytales (accessed 7/05/2005).

Windling, T. 2004. The Path of Needles or Pins: Little Red Riding Hood. 18/04/2006).(accessed

Zipes, J. 1986. Don’t Bet on the Prince: Contemporary Feminist Fairytales in North America and England. Aldershot, England: Gower.


[i] Windling, 2004, p.3

[ii] Verdier cited in Windling, 2004, p.4

[iii] Windling, 2004, p.4

[iv] Zipes, 1986, p.229

[v] Carter, 1995, p.97

[vi] Zipes, 1986, p.227

[vii] Windling, 1997, p.2

[viii] Warner, 1990, p.4

[ix] ibid

[x] Warner, 1995, p.181

[xi] Zipes, 1986, p.229

[xii] ibid

[xiii] Johnson, 2003, p.329

[xiv] cited in Zipes, 1986, p.242

[xv] Johnson, 2003, p.326

[xvi] ibid

[xvii] Warner, 1995, pp.181-2

[xviii] ibid

[xix] Zipes, 1986, p.230

[xx] ibid

[xxi] Blackwell, 2001, p.165

[xxii] ibid

[xxiii] Blackwell, 1986, p.164

[xxiv] ibid

[xxv] Blackwell, 2001, p.165

[xxvi] Rowe, 1986, p.214

[xxvii] Warner, 1995, p.308

[xxviii] ibid

[xxix] Carter, 1995, p.114

[xxx] ibid

[xxxi] Carter, 1995, p.118

[xxxii] ibid

[xxxiii] ibid

[xxxiv] Blackwell, 2001, p.162

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