In preparation for running a short course on fairy tales, I have become interested by the difference in ending between Perrault’s Little Red Riding Hood and the Grimm Brothers’ Little Red Cap. In Perrault’s, the story ends with the wolf devouring Little Red with the attributive moral that ‘Children, especially attractive, well bred young ladies, should never talk to strangers, for if they should do so, they may well provide dinner for a wolf.’ The Grimms’ tale, on the other hand, introduces the huntsman who rescues Little Red and her grandmother, Little Red’s killing of the wolf, her subsequent meeting with a second wolf who tries the same trick, and the final death of the wolf at the hands of the grandmother and Little Red. But what are we to make of these differences?
Other than the Grimms’ tale having a happy ending, unlike Perrault’s, the most important difference between them is symbolised by the pathway through the forest. In Perrault’s seventeenth-century version, no mention is made by the mother of not keeping to the pathway through the forest. In the Grimms’ tale, however, this is made explicit: ‘when you are going, walk nicely and quietly and do not run off the path.’1 The pathway in both tales is the figurative pathway from the naivety and protection of the childhood home through the unknown predatory wood to the refuge of experience, as embodied by the grandmother. In Perrault’s tale, Little Red is distracted by the beauty of the woods after meeting the wolf, and it is her naivety that causes her delay in getting to her grandmother, resulting in the death of them both. The mother in the Grimm version is explicit about the importance of the pathway, and it is the wolf’s purposeful manipulation of Little Red that causes the subsequent events:
“Little Red-Cap, how pretty the flowers are about here—why do you not look round? I believe, too, that you do not hear how sweetly the little birds are singing; you walk gravely along as if you were going to school, while everything else out here in the wood is merry.”2
In Perrault’s tale, we are encouraged to learn of the importance of adhering to the pathway that will guide us through the symbolic chaos of the unknown, avoiding naivety that will result in our demise. The world, he seems to be saying, is predatory, and there are no second chances to learn from one’s mistakes, so one must learn from the mistakes of others.
In the Grimms’ tale, however, the huntsman appears, rescuing the grandmother and Little Red from the wolf. This can, and has, been viewed by feminist critics as the patriarchal perspective of the necessity for women to be saved by men. I believe, though, that this is a somewhat limited perspective. It would be foolish to view the majority of the tale in its necessary symbolic terms but view the huntsman solely as representative of men.
This is especially significant as the Grimms’ tale has a much stronger focus on the importance of community. In Perrault’s tale, we are told that Little Red is loved by mother and grandmother. In the Grimms’ tale, Little Red is described as ‘a dear little girl who was loved by everyone that looked at her.’3 This hint at the significance of Little Red, and children generally, to the wider community foreshadows the importance of said community, so it is no surprise that the more isolated figures in the Perrault tale die while the Grimms’ survive and thrive.
The huntsman is also the symbol of that which hunts the manipulative and sinister evil presence within the world, and it is again no coincidence that it is after the wolf has eaten both grandmother and Little Red, is satiated and snoring contentedly that the huntsman arrives. The wicked wolf has the potential to manipulate and deceive, having avoided the huntsman for a long time; now he lies unguarded and oblivious, and he is therefore vulnerable, much like the elderly and ill grandmother.
Yet it is not the huntsman that kills the wolf:
Red-Cap, however, quickly fetched great stones with which they filled the wolf ’s belly, and when he awoke, he wanted to run away, but the stones were so heavy that he collapsed at once, and fell dead.4
The Little Red that was manipulated away from the path by the beauty of nature is now capable of quite a hideous act of vengeance, and the weighing down of the wolf is the symbolic unburdening of Little Red’s innocence and naivety. She has woken up to the world, and this is shown through the subsequent story in which a second wolf tries the same trick and more quickly meets his demise through the deceit and manipulation of the grandmother and Little Red.
What both tales seems to suggest is that naivety and weakness will cause one’s own demise at the hand of the wicked or the predatory. It is not only experience of the world but an ability to accept and harness elements of these characteristics that is required to thrive. There is some merit in deceit, in manipulation, in the ability to destroy that which would seek to destroy us.
1 Taylor, Edgar, and Marian Edwardes, translators, Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Maynard, Merrill, 1905.