And You Will Come to No Harm

When we were girls, our mothers told us again and again to be careful—we were advised to travel in pairs, to stay alert, to keep an eye out for ourselves and for each other. Don’t talk to strangers, they said. Don’t smile, don’t even make eye contact if you can help it—as if any sign of interest might be interpreted to be an invitation. Don’t get into anybody’s car. Don’t accept gifts, candy, money, toys. Stick to the main road, go the long way around and avoid that shortcut through the alley, even if it does save you precious time.

At school we heard rumors of a man in the park who might open his overcoat to expose his naked self to you, and some girls saw this and were horrified, even traumatized, but others of us were curious, scandalized, titillated, we thought it was creepy and funny, and we wanted to see the spectacle for ourselves. Considering the rules we broke, counting all the times we ignored our mothers and left the beaten path to wander off on our own, forgetful of the warnings or even deliberately defiant of them, it’s a wonder we survived—and some of us didn’t. We were supposed to be smart enough to know better, it wasn’t as if we hadn’t been told, and yet we still allowed ourselves to be charmed by the wolf or tempted by the snake—because we were attracted to him, we wanted a chance to talk with him, spend some time, get to know him better, and then be allowed to judge for ourselves whether the threat he supposedly posed to us was real or just more smoke that the over-cautious adults were blowing in our eyes, to trick us and scare us and keep the leash tight, in their control.

Why are they so protective of us? we asked. What are they protecting? And why can’t we be relied upon to defend it for ourselves? Why can our brothers and our boyfriends all come and go as they please, but we have all these rules? Why can’t I go to the movies by myself? Why can’t I ride my bike through the park alone? Why can’t I walk to my friend’s house after dark? Don’t you trust me? The answer: It’s not you we don’t trust, Daughter, it’s the world. It’s dangerous out there, especially for a girl—everybody knows, the world is full of wolves who would like nothing better than to be given half a chance to eat you up alive.

Little Red Riding Hood is skipping down the path with the deep woods dark and wild and enchanted all around her. She’s pretty and she’s sweet and she’s loved by everyone who sees her, which makes her think that she has nothing to fear. The whole world loves her so, she’ll be looked after, won’t she? In fact, Charles Perrault describes her as dangerously over-loved—”a little country girl, the prettiest creature who was ever seen. Her mother was excessively fond of her; and her grandmother doted on her still more.”[1]   This Red is so special, so clearly marked, that extravagant red hood of hers makes her an easy target. She might as well be wolf-bait, and maybe what a girl like that gets is nothing more than just what she deserves.

We know that the folk and fairy tales we read now were originally told as cautionary tales, lessons for living dreamed up among French peasants of the 16th Century as they gathered around the fire for an evening of adult entertainment—what John Updike has called the “television and pornography of their day, the ‘life-lightening’ trash of preliterate people”[2]—and if the little ones were around to listen in, no one bothered to cover their tender ears, because children were not thought of then as the innocent creatures we imagine them to be now. And anyway, it wasn’t the girls who needed to be told to stick to the path, it was the women, as French society of that time offered to them a social order in which even as adults they needed masculine protection and guidance, where any woman who dared to choose to make her way through the social forest on her own placed herself in great danger, outside the norm, unnaturally independent, and on a path of iniquity which was likely to end up in prostitution or witchcraft—sin, heresy, disease, death. And all the worse for her if she just happened to be beautiful besides.

The original girl-meets-wolf story that the peasants told each other after dark is a weirdly familiar, yet strangely twisted little narrative of cannibalism and pedophilia that reads like Little Red Riding Hood on acid. It’s called “The Story of the Grandmother,” and in it a little girl is told to take a basket of bread and milk to her grandmother who lives on the other side of the woods. There’s nothing special about this little girl—no pretty face and no red hood—but the wolf is not just any wolf, he’s a bzou, or werewolf. He seems friendly enough, though, as he strikes up a conversation, and when she tells him that she’s on her way to her granny’s house, he wants to know which path she’ll be taking, the path of needles or the path of  pins? She says needles, but too bad because he’s going by pins, and so they must part ways. She dawdles along, gathering needles as she goes, while he hurries on to the grandmother’s house, where he kills the old lady and cuts her up into little pieces, putting some savory bits away in the cupboard alongside a nice fresh bottle of blood. When the little girl arrives, the wolf, disguised now in granny’s nightie, serves up the vittles and when, in a perverted kind of Communion, she eats and drinks of the flesh and blood of her murdered grandmother, the old woman’s cat spits and calls her a slut. At which point the wolf makes his move, inviting said slut to undress and join him in bed. She performs a little striptease for him—does she still think he’s her grandmother?—taking off one item of clothing at a time—apron, dress, petticoat, and stockings—and throwing each piece into the fire. But it isn’t until this dim girl is lying naked in the wolf’s hairy arms that she finally notices anything strange about him—his big snout and long nails and sharp teeth—and that’s when she gets smart and tells him that she has to go pee. He doesn’t want her to make a mess in the bed, so he asks her to go outside and do her business there, and by the time he’s started to wonder what’s taking her so long, the little girl is gone, back home with her mother again, safe and sound.

Werewolf? Needles? Pins? This story is so bizarre that it seems like nonsense to us when we read it now, although it has become fodder for plenty of literary analysis and argument. Some have said the girl’s choice of path was one of occupation: wife or seamstress. Others, that pins are puberty and needles are menopause. Or, the pins are witchcraft, the needles prostitution. The girl is a whore, the wolf is the devil. The girl is a witch, the grandmother’s cat is her familiar. However we decide to read it, in this first version of the story it’s not the fact that our girl leaves the path that puts her in danger, it’s that she’s out there in the woods by herself in the first place, having to make an impossible choice. Women needed men for their protection (from sex) and their guidance (from evil), and without that they were likely to threaten the whole social order with their waywardness: deviance, murder, cannibalism, lust, incest, prostitution, witchcraft, insanity, and sin. It’s important to remember that this was a story told not to children, but to adults, and so the story’s lesson was meant to teach the women who were listening something about the world and their place in it, not that of  their young daughters.

Charles Perrault’s intended audience was children, though, and in his telling of the story (“Le Petit Chaperon Rouge,” 1697) there is only one path that leads from one end of the woods to the other, there is no cannibalism or striptease, and the warning about not talking to strangers along the way comes at the end, where it is put into a moral and addressed to the reader, too late for poor unprepared Red herself. Her mother, who probably should know better, sends her lovely daughter off into the woods in her conspicuous hooded cloak, and when the wolf approaches, “not knowing it was dangerous to stop,” she does.[3]

This Red is a good girl, she’s polite and cooperative, and she innocently answers truthfully all the wolf’s nosy questions about her errand, the contents of her basket, the health of her grandmother, and the details of her destination. This is her first mistake. The second comes when she dawdles in the sunlight, gathering nuts and chasing butterflies and picking flowers, having a girlish good time of it out there in the forest by herself while giving the wolf a chance to get to Grandmother’s house first, with time to spare for a meal, a wardrobe change, and a nap. Then it’s not until the story’s over, after Red’s been gobbled up and is down in the dark belly of the wolf with Grandmother, that we finally get the warning: “…children, especially young girls…do wrong to listen to strangers.”

In the Grimm Brothers’ version, written one hundred years later, the mother does tell Red to keep to the path, but not on account of any perceived or imagined danger. Here the worry is simply that she might be distracted, clumsy and careless enough to lose her footing and fall and break the bottle of wine that’s meant for her grandmother to enjoy. So when Red meets the wolf this time, she still doesn’t know “what a wicked creature” he is, and she has no reason to be afraid. She’s as polite and cooperative as ever as they chat about her comings and goings, and he sees that she’s a “tender young creature,” marvels at “what a nice plump mouthful” she’ll be. He suggests she linger, take in the beauty of the forest and the singing of the birds, which she does. She thinks that while she’s at it she’ll make a nice nosegay for her grandmother, and it’s then that she disobeys her mother and leaves the path, off to find the more exotic flowers that grow out of the way, until she’s gone off deeper and deeper into the wilds of the wood. The wolf again takes advantage of this delay to get to the cabin, gobble up Grandmother, and climb into bed to wait for the more delectable Red. He’s able to swallow her up in one bound, as before, but this time his postprandial nap is interrupted by a hunter who uses a pair of scissors to perform a surgery on the belly of the sleeping wolf that will set both Red and Grandmother free. He replaces them with stones, and that might be the end of it, except that now that Red has been reborn, now that she’s learned her lesson, she can be given a second chance, a final opportunity to save herself and be redeemed.

So then it’s sometime later that once again she sets off on her errand, taking cakes and wine to Grandmother, and once again a wolf comes along, and he too tries to trick her into leaving the path by encouraging her to linger and pick flowers, take her time, enjoy herself, so that he can hurry on ahead and be waiting for her when she finally does get to where she’s going. This time the girl’s got some experience and she knows better, so she doesn’t dawdle but makes it to Grandmother’s house first. When the wolf finally shows up, our Red is ready and waiting for him, and after some conniving she manages to drown him in a trough of boiled sausages. Now there is no moral tacked onto the end, instead the lesson learned has been dramatized, and this Little Red Riding Hood knows not to dawdle and can take care of herself. Now that the story is over, she can go “joyously home, and no one [will ever do] anything to harm her again.” Lucky Red, a girl forever.

Read in the 20th Century, the Little Red Riding Hood story becomes a lesson not so much about the girl in the world, as it is about the world in the girl. Now it’s a story that starts with pubertal sex (the red hood) and ends with the triumph of the ego (the girl) over the id (the wolf) with the help of the superego (the wood-cutter). Erich Fromm interpreted the tale as an adolescent girl’s confrontation with adult sexuality, with its meaning showing through its symbolism: the red riding hood stands for the menstrual blood of a pubertal girl, the bottle of wine is the chalice of her virginity, and the wolf is the ravishing male. No wonder the mom in the Grimm tale tells careless Red not to leave the path, lest that precious bottle be dropped and broken.

In The Great Cat Massacre, Robert Darnton complains that this reading is blind to the historical dimension of folktales, but for our purposes here that’s exactly the point. That is, it doesn’t matter that Fromm got it wrong in terms of what the story meant to the French peasants who heard it first. What is important is what the tale means to us now, and what our particular reading of it can tell us about ourselves and our own cultural obsessions.

For Bruno Bettelheim writing in the 1990’s, it is the resolution of the story that’s its most important effect, as it allows childish readers to “confront their unconscious desires and fears and to emerge unscathed, id subdued and ego triumphant.”[4]  For Darnton, who reads Bettelheim with some scorn for what seems to him to be a typically 20th Century over-interpretation of a simple 16th Century peasant tale, such a Freudian reading casts the villain of the story as the id, in wolf’s clothing. “It is the pleasure principle, which leads the girl astray when she is too old for oral fixation and too young for adult sex. The id is also the wolf, who is also the father, who is also the hunter and, somehow, the superego as well. By directing the wolf to her grandmother, Little Red Riding Hood manages in oedipal fashion to do away with her mother, because mothers can be grandmothers in the moral economy of the soul and the houses on either side of the wood are actually the same house. This adroit mixing of symbols gives Red an opportunity to get into bed with her father, the wolf, thereby giving vent to her oedipal fantasies. She survives in the end because she is reborn on a higher level of existence when her father appears as ego-superego-hunter and cuts her out of the belly of her father as wolf-id, so that everyone can live happily every after.”[5]

An even more recent interpretation of the story by psychologist Sheldon Cashdon[6] casts it as what Joseph Campbell calls a threshold crossing, with a message for young readers—both boys and girls—advising them that they need to explore, examine, and take chances if they’re ever going to grow. According to Cashdon, the danger in the story is not the wolf or the id but forbidden desire, and his reading is not about social constraints, like “stick to the path” and “don’t talk to strangers,” but about encountering sin. Specifically, the “seven deadly sins of childhood,” in this case gluttony—the literal wolfing down of food—and lust, which he reads not just as sex, but as sex before its time. Now, for both the wolf and for Red the transgression is one of appetite—especially dangerous for a girl, who jeopardizes her very girlhood if she ever dares to indulge in her desires.

[1] The Project Gutenberg Etext of Andrew Lang’s Blue Fairy Book, April, 1996. Internet: Available from

[2] Maria Tatar, ed., The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales, (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002), p. xiii.

[3] With all the fairy tales featuring wicked stepmothers and starving parents who send their children off into the woods just to get rid of them, we might suspect this mother’s motives and wonder just what she thinks might happen to a little girl who is allowed to wander around in the forest on her own. Is that Granny who lives so far away her own beloved mother, or is it her insufferable mother-in-law? And is Red a sacrifice to some kind of daughterly resentment of her own?

[4] Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History,  (New York: Basic Books, 1999), p. 12.

[5] Darnton, pp. 12-13.

[6]Sheldon Cashdon, The Witch Must Die: How Fairy Tales Shape Our Lives, (New York: Basic Books, 1999).