Little Red Riding Hood
Fairy tale is the only genre that has been able to captivate the imagination of people from all walks of life and in any parts of the world through centuries now (Solovyeva, 2015). However, the essence and purpose of fairy tales have evolved over time as they were reconstructed and retold by many in various countries. This statement is verified through discussion and analysis in this essay, which is based on the two most popular literary versions of the Little Red Riding Hood — the Charles Perrault version (French) written in 1697 and the Grimm Brothers version (German) published in 1812 (Bonner, 2005). The versions are similar and dissimilar at the same time, making them an interesting case for comparison in literary studies.
The story of Little Red Riding Hood is an old fairy tale, which perhaps originated in the Middle East in the 1st century (Kidworldcitizen, 2016). It has been inspired by many cultures and bears the footprints of its time and traditions in its narrative reconstructions. Although the basic story of the wolf and the young girl remains the same in almost all versions, a closer look makes it clear that each version of this fairy tale is different and can be interpreted differently by readers.
A traditional fairy tale narrative would have certain key elements in it (Anderson, 2013; SurfTurk, n.d.; George A. Spiva Library, n.d.). These are:
- Tension between good and evil.
- Good characters and bad characters
- Motifs like nameless talking animals, tricksters, kings and queens, poor people, monsters, use of supernatural or magic powers, glorified human virtues, etc.
- A problem which is solved at the end. So a happy ending always.
- A moral or lesson at the end.
Both Perrault and the Grimm Brothers retold the fairy tale of Little Red Riding Hood keeping these elements to varying degrees in their narratives, with Perrault marking a complete departure from this traditional structure in his ending. While the fairy tale convention is to have a happy ending, Perrault’s Red Riding Hood is eaten and remains eaten in the end. She is, however, saved by the woodcutter in the Grimm Brother’s version, restoring the archetypal happy ending.
The similarities in Perrault and Grimm Brother’s versions are mostly in their plot, which is a sequence of interconnected events that lead to a climax (Clugston, 2010). Both the narratives had the hungry wolf, the small girl (in the red hood/cap), the grandmother and the mother. Both also start off in the same manner where Little Red was sent by her mother to visit her sick grandmother across the forest. She meets a wolf on the way who distracts and dupes her to reach her grandmother and eats her up. The wolf disguises as Little Red’s grandmother and in the end, eats up Little Red Riding Hood too. Perrault’s narrative stops at this point and ends with a morale. However, the Grimm brothers introduce a passing woodsman here who saves Little Red and her grandmother and kills the wolf.
Fairy tales are conventionally told in third persons — “Once upon a time there lived…” — to maintain a narrative distance with the readers (Shmoop Editorial Team, 2008). The idea is to speak not about you and me, but about someone else. Perrault and Grimm brothers are similar in this aspect as well. However, they differ in their choice of words while story telling. Perrault used words like la bobinette (meaning wooden latch) and la chevillette (meaning page), which were typical children’s language and were not normally in use at that time in written works (Shavit, 1999). This was perhaps intentionally done to instil and old and antique fairy tale charm in his version, as well as to clearly indicate that his story was meant for the children. But Perrault also used a sophisticated structure, departing from convention folktales, to attract the upper class readers of his time. The Grimm Brothers directed their work towards the adults of their time from the very first edition and made no effort to make it suitable for children until the revised second edition. Stylistically speaking, the Grimm brothers’ Little Red Cap was more appropriate for children than Perrault’s Little Red Riding Hood.
At a macro level, these two versions look similar, but they differ structurally in many ways. While the Grimm brothers stayed as close to the original as possible, Perrault’s version not only changed the ending, but also the tone of narration. He was more satirical than the Grimm Brothers, especially in the end moral.
“Who does not know that these gentle wolves
Are of all such creatures the most dangerous.” (Rouger)
With this, Perrault clearly indicated that the wolf he mentioned in the story represented all such dangerous people in the society who pose threats to pretty innocent girls (Rouger).
In terms of ideas, values and cultural reflections, Perrault and the Grimm Brothers’ versions hardly resonate. Set in 17th century France, Perrault’s version represented children and childhood as a source of amusement, much in contrast to Grimms’ educational approach of punishment and reward for bad and good conducts, respectively (Shavit, 1999). A hint of sexuality is apparent in Perrault’s version too (Dudley, 2015), which is entirely untraceable in the Grimm Brothers version. Perrault reflected France in those days, which was marked by increasing rape, violence and violation of women’s modesty by men (Johnson, 2003). Men were accused of being werewolves, harming women and children (Zipes, 1983). Women were blamed for being raped — any woman reporting rape was either banished or killed, observed Vidani (n.d.). That is why Perrault’s Little Red Riding Hood dies in the end, justifiably punished for sleeping with the wolf. The use of the red hood symbolism is also purposefully placed by Perrault. Red cloaks were usually worn by French prostitutes in 17th century France (Vidani, n.d.). Hence, Perrault immediately makes the connect for his upper class audience, who would be pleased to have such girls duly punished. Perrault’s version strongly reflects the values and ideologies existing in France at that time.
The red cap in Grimms’ version however, stood for her grandmother’s love. The Grimm brothers focused more on family ties and importance of relations while recreating the old fairy tale. In Shavit’s (1999) words, “there are only slight hints” to family relations in Perrault, whereas familial bonds are “quite explicit” in the Grimm version (p. 330). Just a century apart, the Grimm Brothers’ version completely omitted such an event where Little Red Cap is asked to undress and come to bed with the wolf. Rather, the Grimms add the element of a father figure in the end, the woodcutter, who brings back Little Red and her grandmother into life. Grimms’ view of childhood and children is clearly different from Perrault’s. The idea of school was practically absent in 17th century France. But in 19th century Germany, it was a reality, as is evident from the wolf telling Little Red, “You are walking along as though you were on your way to school in the village”. The concept of education, punishment and reward was important at that time and Grimms’ version mirrors that. There is a scope for learning in Grimms’ version — Little Red realises her mistake of straying from her path. Values around child’s education and upbringing, the adult’s responsibility towards children in teaching them manners and asking them to be obedient and polite are all explicitly found in the Grimm Brother’s Little Red Cap. As Zipes (1983) rightly says, “…adults are duty-bound to guide their children”. Now if one reads between the lines, Perrault suggests that it is dangerous to be a beautiful young girl in 17th century France because there are wolves all around who would like to eat her up at the first opportunity. So, if one talks to strangers (as the mother warned), she will be punished. But in Grimms, the girl finally learns a good lesson and becomes wiser. The outlook of children for Grimms was distinctly different from Perrault.
Although basic structure and plot-wise the two versions are similar, the fact that these two versions are set apart by a century and in different countries with different cultural climates, goes to justify the thematic and ideological differences in approach embedded in them. As Dudley (2015) noted, fairy tales are not purely imaginary plots and characters; they do reflect everyday lives, the dominant culture and the societal norms at the time they were written. In that respect, both the versions under discussion sufficiently mirror their times (17th century France and 19th century Germany) in their fairly tale reconstructions, but in their own individual ways. While Perrault primarily had the upper class adult in mind as his audience, the Grimm brothers’ work centred around children and the need for educating them. And while Perrault projected children as a mere source of entertainment in his text, the Grimms considered children from an educational perspective. The new image of the child is definitely worth studying in Grimms. Finally, it is safe to conclude that both the versions, with their similarities and differences, provided a very interesting literary case to study.
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