Various versions of Little Red Riding Hood can be read online at D. L. Ashliman’s folklore site from the University of Pittsburg or from the Little Red Riding Hood Project from the University of Southern Mississippi. I have also been reading them from The Classic Fairy Tales, Second Norton Critical Edition, edited by Maria Tatar.
In which she dies in the end…
- “Little Red Riding Hood,” Perrault (France)
In which she tricks the wolf…
- “The Story of Grandmother” (France)
In which she is saved by a hunter…
- “Little Red Riding Cap,” Grimm’s (Germany)
In which she is saved by her cape…
- “The True History of Little Goldenhood,” Charles Marelles, Andrew Lang’s Red Fairy Book
In which the wolf is not a wolf…
- “The False Grandmother,” Calvino (Italy)
- “The Tale of the Tiger Woman,” (China)
- “Tsélané and Marimo,” (South African)
Themes and Interpretations
Charles Perrault makes it clear in his version that this story is to be read a tale of seduction. The wolf is a sexual predator who deceives and devours the guileless young woman. Other versions that are written more directly for children take on more of a “stranger danger” tone.
Stick to the path. Don’t dawdle. Don’t trust strangers. Anything could happen to children who don’t heed the warnings.
Overall, the story type is one in which an innocent is threatened by something monstrous. Sometimes there is no saving the innocent. Sometimes a kindly parental figure intervenes, such as the huntsman. Sometimes the innocent saves herself by becoming savvy enough to outwit the monster with trickery.
The story has been told around the world. Charles Perrault was the first to publish it in Europe with his 1697 version, but there is evidence that oral folktales involving little girls wearing red hoods being attacked by wolves are much older than that–perhaps dating back at least as far as the 11th century.
The story variations might have their twists and turns, depending on whether they are written with young children or older children or even adults in mind, but the themes are universal because our human fears and vulnerabilities are universal.
Maybe the predator is an actual wolf that might gobble up a child who wanders away from home, or may it is a stranger who might cause that child harm, or maybe it is a man who might seduce and abandon a young woman to social and financial ruin. Regardless, Little Red Riding Hood helps us work through our own deepest fears (and fantasies of defeating our own monsters), and for that we will perpetually tell her story.
Criticism and Analysis
Aisha Anwar provides analysis of recent movies and fiction based on the “Little Red Riding Hood” tales in “In the Shadow of the Wolf: Little Red Riding Hood in the Contemporary World,” published in The Los Angeles Review of Books.
Mari Ness, in “A Fairy Tale Warning: Little Red Riding Hood,” published at Tor.com, offers a good overview of the history of this tale and of Perrault’s approach to it in particular. Perrault, as an advisor in the court of Louis XIV, would have seen more than a few young women “gobbled up” and ruined by sexual predators. In Perrault’s “Little Red Riding Hood,” no one comes to the rescue, and he ends the tale with a moral about the dangers for young women of trusting seemingly gentle and smooth-talking wolves.
Catherine Orenstein discusses the sexual history and sexual/gender politics of “Little Red Riding Hood” in “Dances with Wolves, Little Red Riding Hood’s Long Walk in the Woods,” published in Ms. Magazine.