Did you know that from as early as the 16th century fairytales (originally an oral tradition) were collected in written form: with Le piacevoli notti (The Pleasant Nights 1550-53) by Giovan Francesco? This past week I have been stuck into critiquing different versions of the Little Red Riding Hood fairytale for an essay I am writing. Not much novel writing has taken place, but plenty of other writing.
One of my favourite versions of Little Red Riding Hood is also one of the earliest:
- Conte de la mère-grand’s The Grandmother, is a France tale from 1870, collected by the folklorist Achille Millien (1838-1927). You can find D.L. Ashlimann’s English translation of this fairytale at Little Red Riding Hood and other Tales of Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 333.
I particularly like this version because it is steeped in domestic lore that feels archaic now. And some aspects seem quite shocking to our modern sensibilities!
Little Red Riding Hood has the choice of following a path of needles or a path of pins and we have to look at the historical cultural connotations to decipher this reference. This sets the tale squarely within domestic activities of the seamstress. Pins symbolised the novice or apprentice sewer, the maiden, whereas needles indicate a technical and sexual maturity. In The Grandmother, Little Red Riding Hood takes the path of needles!
While The Grandmother follows a storyline that we have all become familiar with, this is a less censored version and sees Little Red Riding Hood eating some of her dead grandmother’s flesh and drinking her blood while her grandmother’s cat says, “For shame! The slut is eating her grandmother’s flesh and drinking her grandmother’s blood.”
As with the pins and needles, there is clearly reference to sexuality, but some also say this indicates a sacrifice; the cycles of life, death and rebirth; Little Red Riding Hood gaining Grandmother’s knowledge by eating her – the novice sewer becomes the seamstress as one generation takes over from another.
The Grandmother contains an undressing of Little Red Riding Hood that is evident in a number of versions of this tale (such as Charles Perrault’s version), but was omitted in the Grimm’s version. It is quite evocative, with Little Red Riding Hood removing her clothes one by one and throwing the items on the fire at the command of the (wolf disguised as Grandmother), then climbing into bed with the wolf where the so familiar ‘What big eyes you have…What big teeth you have’ routine takes place.
In this version, Little Red Riding Hood begs the wolf to let her go out to the toilet, where she then makes her escape. So we see a much smarter Little Red Riding Hood than is portrayed in many versions of this tale, Grimm’s included.
If you have never come across an early version of this tale, it is definitely worth a read!
Here are the points I have developed so far to discuss in my essay, along with the critique of three versions of Little Red Riding Hood:
- The fairytale is the written version of a once oral folk tale. Originally conveying motifs and desires of common, mostly illiterate folk, these written tales formed the genre of literary fairytales. These fairytales were adapted to convey a new ideology in keeping with the culture within which they were recorded.
- The continued production of traditional fairytales perpetuates readers’ indoctrination into an outdated and redundant patriarchal ideology that serves no positive function within today’s society. Each author of fairytale selects and omits what they feel relevant to their cultural era, however, most still adhere to outdated modes of gender. This can be seen by looking at three versions of one fairytale across an historical period.
- Conte de la mère-grand’s The Grandmother appeared in France in 1870, Angela Carter’s The Company of Wolves was copyrighted almost 100 years later in 1979, and Barbara G. Walker’s Little Red Riding Hood was first published in 1997. While these fairytales have their differences, both subtle and explicit, all take their impetus from early oral traditions or written tales which recorded something from those oral traditions.
- Feminist theory portrays gender, gender roles and gender inequality as being socially constructed. Feminist theory has paved the way for a critical reading of traditional fairytales that brings gender into focus.
- The appeal of fairytales was, in part, due to their ability to deliver a moral lesson within story form. The genre of fairytale still holds appeal to contemporary readers.
- The development of feminist theories has resulted in the writing of a new kind of fairytale, one that calls for a change in the ideological status quo and empowers readers to become causes of that change and autonomous in their own lives. In this way, some contemporary versions of fairytales have the capacity to free all genders from the constraints of patriarchal ideologies so prevalent in traditional fairytales.
I am so excited, this will form the final essay of my Master degree!
Photo credit: Forest
Photo Credit: Cottage