Last week I went with some friends to an improv show. For one of the segments, the improv group had to act out a fairy tale suggested by a member of the audience—Little Red Riding Hood—in increasingly shorter time spans. What fascinated me about this was how they, along with some audience members, remembered the story: a girl visits her grandmother and is almost devoured by a wolf masquerading as the old lady (“what big teeth you have”) but is rescued by a woodsman who bursts onto the scene, slices the wolf in half, and pulls the grandmother safely out of the wolf’s stomach.
While I don’t remember ever hearing about the grandma emerging from the disemboweled wolf, I do recall seeing a website a number of years ago hosted by the University of Virginia that contained a large collection of all sorts of versions of the tale. Unfortunately, all I can find there now is a reference to its physical collection in their special collections library:
Collection consists of approximately 480 books, 100 pieces of print ephemera, 50 works of art , ten magic lantern slides, and more than a hundred objects, including tableware, figurines, vases, pottery, tile, crystal, glass, cloth, dolls, puppets, tinware, prints, and recordings.
Anyway, I found a set of 16, some written as prose and some as poetry, on the University of Southern Mississippi’s website, with versions spanning from 1729 to 1916. Both the narrative itself and the moral of the story, when there is an explicit one, change significantly through these versions.
In the first few, the wolf eats both the grandmother and the girl and doesn’t get caught. In the 1856 version, though, everything changes. The wolf has presumably killed the grandmother, but before he can kill Red, a wasp stings the wolf on the nose, which makes the wolf sneeze, thus alerting a bird who alerts the mysterious green huntsman who then shoots the wolf with an arrow and kills it. All of these creatures rallied to her defense, we learn, only because Red had already been so kind to them.
In the 1863 version the huntsman becomes Red’s sole savior and the lesson she learns is that she should never disobey her mother. By the 1890 version they’ve managed to sanitize the story to the point where neither the grandmother nor the girl is harmed. That isn’t to say, however, that the story’s transformations occur in a linear or predictable pattern. An 1893 version’s narrative ends with this abrupt line: “So saying, the wicked wolf leaped on Little Red Riding Hood and gobbled her up.”
The lessons that Red learns range from stranger danger to the harmful effects of gossip, but my favorite moral has to be the one from the 1916 edition:
AND so, we learn that, like the bad wolf, there are evil beings who will never listen to reason, and, who can not be persuaded to do right. That is why we must have policemen and prisons.
According to an article on the Journal of Mythic Arts website, before the tale was called “Little Red Riding Hood” it was simply “The Grandmother’s Tale,” passed on through oral tradition in rural France. Apparently it had a lot more to do with the girl’s ingenuity and cleverness than either the gothic horror or the bourgeois moralism of the stories I scanned. It almost sounds like a good feminist tale for the twenty-first century.
Update: This 1969 film of a Little Red Riding Hood story book, presented by the National Film Board of Canada, was recently published on YouTube: