“Little Red Riding Hood” is a classic fairytale. Its beginnings can be traced to folk art and it has made the transition to literature. InThe Classic Fairy Tales, there are six versions of the tale, a snippet of a seventh, and an eighth story that does not follow the typical structure of a Little Red Riding Hood type story, but does feature the girl as a character. Each version is wildly different from the others, reflecting cultural differences, though each story remains recognizable for what it is: a retelling of a folk tale in which a young girl with a sick grandmother encounters a creature who means to eat her for supper.
The version recorded by the Grimm brothers is one of the most well known in the United States, and, in fact, is the one I first read as a child. As a child, I found this version utterly boring, and now I can put my finger on the reason for that boredom. With this variant of “Little Red Riding Hood,” the Grimm brothers put significant effort into teaching lessons to the children who will read their story. In this story, they give a worse lecture than any real life mother ever would. The character Little Red Cap is also incredibly naive, and much of the blame for her misfortune falls on her. If she had only listened to her mother’s instructions, a wolf would not have attempted to murder her and her grandmother.
This is a striking contrast to “The Story of Grandmother,” in which the young girl is clever enough to escape the wolf’s clutches before he eats her. In this version, there are no maternal lectures on manners and the proper way to behave while in the wood. The girl does not learn to obey authority or anything like that, but the audience learns to appreciate her qualities, such as her quick-wittedness and intelligence. The audience also is able to appreciate a sense of humor that is not present in the variants by the Grimm brothers, Perrault, Calvino, or Chiang. With bawdy humor, the story can be enjoyed as simple entertainment rather than as a lesson, because with subject matter such as nudity and cannibalism, this tale certainly will not be helping to cleanse the souls of Puritan children needing to escape damnation.
Similarly, Dahl’s version of the character is neither sweet, nor obedient, nor naive. First of all, this Little Red is a girl who never travels without a gun. In fact, she keeps it in her knickers. When the wolf insults her intelligence by thinking he can trick her into thinking he’s her grandmother, she pulls out her pistol and kills him. She personifies cunning and strength. These qualities, as well as brutality, are shown in Chiang’s variant, too. The young girl, Goldflower, throws a spear down a bear’s throat in that version. In fact, most variants of the story show the young girl herself conducting her own escape.
The Grimm’s story is different in regard to the young girl’s escape. In their variant of the tale, the action of killing or deceiving the beast is attributed to a huntsman. In folk tales, the actions and functions of a dramatis personae cannot change, yet in this story, the actions of the young girl did change. Has this variant, then, strayed away from the conventions of folk tales? And can it even be considered a folk tale at this point? The same could be asked of Perrault’s variant. In his tale, the young girl never escapes the belly of the wolf that consumes her. The antagonist wins this story, and that is not how the sequence of actions is supposed to be carried out.
The example that is most fully literature, however, is Dahl’s poem “The Three Little Pigs,” which follows an entirely different series of actions, referencing Little Red Riding Hood by name, but not incorporating her in the manner that a folk tale requires. The only similarity to the fly tale is in the girl’s murder of a wolf who was eating others.
The variants of the Little Red Riding Hood type tale range from raw entertainment to mere vessels for the lessons adults wish to instill in children. In ways, the story type wavers along the line between folk tale and literature, if only because of the liberties authors have taken with the actions and functions of the dramatis personae.