By Charlotte Trinquet du Lys
Everyone remembers the story of that poor little girl sent by her mom to her granny through the forest. There she meets the wolf and tells him where the grandma lives. He gets there first, eats the granny, the girl comes, gets eaten. Thanks to the huntsman, she gets out with her granny from the wolf’s belly without harm, and everything gets back to normal. The girl disobeyed her mom by talking to the wolf and straying from the path, but she got a big scare out of it and now she learned her lesson. And the nasty big wolf got punished because he’s a glutton, bad wolf!!
Now here is where the problem lies. This is the Grimms’ version, published in the 1850s, intended to show how women are feeble creatures who cannot take care of themselves, and thank god for the men who rescue them at the end. The brothers Grimm were two eminent scholars from a middle-class bourgeois family of Calvinist background. They were politically interested in bounding the German peoples together, and sought evidence of their unity in their laws, customs and oral traditions. Their book of fairy and folk tales was part of that plan. However, a critical step in their life was the death of their father when they were young, which greatly influenced their work by focusing their attention on the notion of the family and especially on the patriarchal father figure. The story takes another path altogether when you check older stories that have been written down or retold through oral tradition.
Staying with literature, we travel now back from the mid-1800s Germany to the court of his supreme majesty the Sun King, at the end of the 1600s in France. Now it gets more interesting. The most famous version of Little Red Riding Hood in France was written by Charles Perrault, one of the most renowned fairytale authors of the period, and member of the government of Louis XIV and the French Academy. He is credited for being the first one to write the story down.
Once upon a time there was this little village girl everyone was ‘crazy’ about, especially her grandma. The word ‘crazy’ has a double entendre, implying insanity but also immense love. In both cases however and in the context of the late 1600s, when you love too much, you lose your reasoning, so you are crazy! The grandmother made for her a red cape with a hood, and that’s how she got her name, Little Red Chaperon (for now, ‘Chaperon’ means ‘Hood’). Then her mom sends her on the other side of the forest to her sick grandma with a ‘galette’, sort of a flat bread, or focaccia but sweet, along with a little pot of butter. Off she goes, mom forgets to tell her to be a good girl. Of course, she meets the wolf, and tells him where she is going. Well, he’s very hungry, because he is a wolf, so he wants to eat her right away, but there were some wood cutters nearby and he gets scared. He also thinks that perhaps he can eat both the grandma and the girl if he gets there first, because he is such a clever wolf. So he runs to the grandmother’s cottage, devours her, and gets into bed, naked. When Little Red Chaperon arrives, she knocks on the door, gets scared by the strange deep voice of her grandma, but goes in anyway, equating the voice with her granny’s sickness. The wolf tells her to put the food on a cupboard, and come to bed with him. Now, this is not too surprising because at the time, people shared beds to keep warm, and an entire family would sleep in one bed surrounded by their farm animals during winter months. Though, you might think, it’s day time, and the grandma is sick, so really, there is no point for the little girl to get in bed. Nevertheless, the good, or ‘crazy’ little girl takes her clothes off, and gets in bed with the wolf. I am not sure why she takes her clothes off, but anyway, she does. At that point, she sees the naked wolf and is very surprised at the sight of her grandmother!! So she says to him: Oh granny, you have such big arms! And him to answer, It’s to better hug you, my child, and then, Oh granny, you have such long legs! It’s to better run my child, and then, not entirely convinced yet, Oh granny, your ears are huge! It’s to better listen, my child! And then again, Oh granny, you have such big eyes! It’s to better see, my child! All these comments can be related to sexual acts, arms to cuddle, legs to run after a girl (in French, running usually means courting in this context), ears to overhear private love conversations, and eyes to stalk. And finally, Oh granny, you have such big teeth! It’s to better eat you! And at that moment, he jumps at her and eats her. End of Story.
And now you tell me “But, Author, that’s so sad!” Or “That’s so unfair!” And either you want to come and save the girl, or demand an explanation. And now, I will tell you why she’s not coming back. We have to start with the hood. You know that Chaperon also means to chaperone, like when public schools ask moms to go to the zoo trip with the kids so they have more eyes, arms and ears to take care of little crazy kids who would get lost and eaten by a wolf, or abducted, or even raped. Yes, it is scary, and therefore moms take the role of chaperones every time they are asked to do so. It sounds reasonable, and even our duty to do this. In 1600s France, unmarried girls from good families never went outside without their chaperone, and most of the time it was their grandmother who took the protective role. Families had to make sure their daughters were pristine when they got married! But here you have a sick grandma who, instead of doing her duty herself, relies on a piece of fabric, and a red one at it, to make sure everyone spots her miles away. And you have a completely absurd mother who sends her child through the forest without even telling her to be careful. No, she just sends her with an order, and no advice. The red hooded child is therefore alone and has to rely on her knowledge of life. You can guess that with a mom and a grandma so inefficient, she doesn’t know much at all of the tricks of the world. Besides, the forest is where civilization disappears to let the rules of the jungle apply, its nature against culture, a well-known fact. And that’s where the mom sends the naïve girl.
Now we come to the wolf. He is no ordinary wolf because as you know, he can speak. There were a lot of speaking wolves in France at the time, many of them living at the court of Louis XIV, and the most renowned one was Racine, the successful playwright who wrote many tragedies for the king. He used to call himself a wolf, and everyone knew that a wolf meant a man who loves women, and would stop at nothing to get them all in his bed. Wolves were always very well educated, good mannered gentlemen, and parents made the mistake of trusting them at first glance. The author of the tale, Charles Perrault, specifically explains at the end of the story that the most dangerous wolves are these elegant young men who follow damsels into their houses, and into their bedchambers. There the unsupervised naïve gentle ladies listen to them and get caught by their eloquence. A girl, once she has been ‘eaten’ by a wolf, loses her market value (her virginity), since she will never find a husband without being pure, and therefore needs to be eliminated from society: she can either go to a convent, or die. Both were the same because in the 1600s, being forced into a convent equals social death. How do I know she’s not a virgin anymore, well, besides the fact that she got ‘eaten’? Because of the food she brings to her grandma. The galette and little pot of butter were common wedding gifts from the wife to her husband in the 1600s peasant society, pretty obvious to everyone living in that age. Also, remember that she gets naked before entering the bed…
So whose fault is it that she dies? Yours, mine, the parents, who are not careful where they send their daughters unaccompanied to strange places. This is a cautionary tale for adults, who need to take their responsibilities as caretakers, instead of complaining that their daughters have been given a rape pill, or a dishonest tête-à-tête… It’s 10 o’clock; do you know where your children are? was the BBC’s 10 o’clock news slogan back in the 1990s.
Now that the kids got their scare with the Grimms’ tale, the parents got their lesson with Perrault’s, there is more to this story than meets the eye, and we have to go dig into the anonymous folklore to have the best version of the tale. Here is a third story, mined from the rich 35 French folk versions, that is worth retelling for all its rite of passage from childhood to adulthood. There is no moral to it; it’s just how things are. And it is timeless because it applies to every girl, everywhere on the planet, at any given time in history. It is an initiation tale, and here is how it goes. Careful, it’s gruesome, and parental guidance is advised.
There is this nameless girl, sent to her grandma by her nameless mother, really, they are very generic. It could be you and me. She has no hood, and brings to her grandma a little bread made generally for children out of the scraps of bread dough, and a bottle of milk. We don’t know if the grandma is sick, and for the sake of the story, she’d better not be. The little girl goes on her way and at the fork of the road, she meets a werewolf. Same thing, Where are you going? To my grandma, What path are you taking? The werewolf asks, The one of the pins or the ones of the needles? She chooses the needles, and this is an important fact, because it means that right away, she takes the decision to become an adult. On the other hand, had she chosen the pins, she would accept to be courted. The pins were a common tool to attach hats on women’s heads, or decorations on their dresses, but also to scratch young pretentious males who would come too close to their prey. In the 1600s peasantry, it was common to send a 15 year old girl to a seamstress for a year, in order for her to learn sewing as well as good manners. When she came back to the village, she was ready to be courted. The needles on the other hand, represent the tool of an important task in the domestic work of a mature woman. So basically, she doesn’t want to be courted, she chooses the path of becoming a woman.
Back to the story, the werewolf arrives at the grandmother’s house, kills her, and cooks her flesh as a ‘fricassée’, and old French folk dish prepared (normally) with pig cuts, and he puts her blood in a bottle. Then arrives the girl, and the werewolf commands her to put the food she brings on the mantle, and to serve herself a glass of ‘wine’ and some fricassée. She sits to eat, and each time she takes a bite, there is a little she-cat in the corner of the room telling her: Stink, whore, who eats the flesh, who drinks the blood of her grandma! She doesn’t pay attention to it and when she’s done with her meal, the werewolf tells her to get undressed and come to bed with him. She takes off her garments one by one in a manner of a stripper, and each time she asks her companion where to put her attire. He invariably replies to burn it in the fire for she won’t need them anymore, and they continue this ritual until she is completely naked. When she gets to bed, she shares the same astonishment as Perrault’s Little Red Chaperon looking at the body of her grandma. She goes to a series of questions like in the other stories, except that in this one they are more numerous (in the Grimm’s’ version, four questions, five in Perrault’s, and six here). All the questions she asks are related to the masculinity, or the virility of the wolf, for instance his hair (to keep warm), his big nose (to sniff tobacco), and his finger nails (to scratch himself). When it comes to the big mouth, it’s obviously to eat her, but before he has time to gobble her up, she pretends to be ‘hungry to go outside’, meaning to go to the bathroom, and he responds to do it in bed… She refuses, so he attaches a wool string to her leg to make sure she doesn’t escape. I guess werewolves are less clever than wolves because the girl tricks him by attaching the string to a prune tree and takes off. Meanwhile, still in bed, the werewolf gets impatient and by the time he realizes she’s gone, she’s far away. Here folk versions differ, sometimes she gets home before he catches her, sometimes she gets where the laundresses are washing clothes at the river side, and gets a safe passage across on top of a sheet, and when the werewolf arrives, the laundresses drop the sheet and he drowns. And in a few versions, she doesn’t outwit him and gets eaten, but that’s rarer.
So what does it all mean? According to specialists, the fact that she indulges in a cannibalistic meal is actually a way for her to acquire the knowledge of the grandmother: once the grandmother is eliminated and her knowledge is past to the adolescent, the latter can become a mother and the mother the grandmother, a bit like the British monarchy, you cannot have two queen mothers. The reason why the grandmother is the keeper of childbearing is that in European peasant societies, the mothers seldom fed their babies, and after giving birth, went back to the fields while the grandmothers were the milk providers. It makes sense therefore that her knowledge is passed down via food, no matter how gruesome it is! But really the most important element of this tale is that it happens in the realm of women, and men are absent, except for the werewolf, who is a pretext to acquiring knowledge. In the folktale, the women win in the end, not the wolf as in Perrault’s, and not the huntsman as in the Grimms’. Here we are confronted with a women’s tale, told by women to soon-to-become women. This is the one we should tell our girls, and teach them that in case of adverse situations, don’t rely on male strangers but learn as much as you can, and use your wits to get out of trouble!
Charlotte Trinquet du Lys has a PhD in French Literature from UNC Chapel Hill and is an academically recognized specialist on fairy tales. She has taught at UCF and Rollins and her new radio show is on WPRK91.5FM and is called “Secrets of the Fairies” (Wednesdays 9-10am).