Fairytale Fallacies is an ongoing series in which we here at Animal School will separate fact from fiction in our favorite childhood stories, especially those that feature animals as main characters in some form. Our first installment is of course, Howler’s least favorite story: Little Red Riding Hood.
A Little Background on the Story:
This story was made famous by the Grimm Brothers around the 1850s, but several versions of the story existed prior to this, including some that date back to the first century, originating from the Middle East. Later versions emerged from all across Europe and even China, with the earliest published version coming out in 1697 in France. It was written by Charles Perrault.
Since then, the story has been retold, rewritten and changed quite a bit. The original versions of the story were very dark in tone, violent and graphic. Over the years, that’s been changed considerably into the more kid-friendly incarnations that we’re more familiar with.
The Story Itself:
While the beginning and the end of the story seems to differ greatly depending on who is telling it, the true meat of the story remains fairly similar. Little Red takes a trip toward her Grandmother’s house and meets a stranger through the woods, who turns out to be the wolf. She tells him about what she’s doing and unintentionally gives him information about the location of her Grandmother’s house. So, he steers her off the main path to give himself some time and dashes over to the house, and eats up poor Granny. Oddly enough, he’s still hungry and thus, disguises himself as Granny and waits for Little Red to arrive. And upon her entering the house, he eats her up as well. Usually at the last second, the woodsmen/huntsmen rushes in and saves them, pulling them out of the belly of the wolf.
The morals of the story are:
- Don’t wander off the path if you’re not sure where you’re going
- Don’t talk to strangers and certainly don’t let them into your home.
- Even charming strangers can be dangerous, especially to young girls
The Point of the Story:
As I pointed out in the morals of the story, this tale serves as a “stranger danger” type of story, originally intended to warn young girls of the dangers of prowling older men. The Perrault version of the story even says:
“From this story one learns that children, especially young lasses, pretty, courteous and well-bred, do very wrong to listen to strangers, And it is not an unheard thing if the Wolf is thereby provided with his dinner. I say Wolf, for all wolves are not of the same sort; there is one kind with an amenable disposition – neither noisy, nor hateful, nor angry, but tame, obliging and gentle, following the young maids in the streets, even into their homes. Alas! Who does not know that these gentle wolves are of all such creatures the most dangerous!”
Essentially, this means that it’s not so much real wolves you should be afraid of, but rather, people (or men in this case) who are wolves in sheep’s clothing.
The Unintended Consequences:
Despite this being a cautionary tale, folks took it literally and their fear of wolves reached an unprecedented apex. A lot of people thought that the story was about the dangers of real wolves and that they could actually eat you. While in reality, worldwide, wolves don’t normally attack humans. They’re often so afraid of people that they’ll do anything they can to avoid them. But obviously, if you ever ran into one in the wild, it is best to give them space and respect.
Sadly, this fear of wolves spread across the world and it had its most devastating affects here in North America, where the US Government for a while actually paid people to exterminate wolves for fear of loss of livestock, and loss to human life.
Truth be told, wolves do look intimidating. Their sharp teeth, large body size, their loud and haunting vocalizations and the fact they travel and live in packs that can number between three to fifteen but can reach up to near 60 members, is rather sobering. The reality is, however, wolves rather keep to themselves than bother people. I won’t deny, however, that livestock could make a meal for a hungry and desperate pack but that aside, you haven’t much to worry about from wolves.
Truths from Fiction:
- Again, wolves don’t normally like interacting with people. The wolf in this story is a metaphor or even an allegory for predatory people and predatory behavior.
- The Grimm Brothers’ version, along with other earlier versions, featured a lot of violent, gory and morbid scenes that at first glance, might not have much to do with the story as a whole. It’s possible these scenes were intended to serve as metaphors or symbolism for puberty, night and day, or even death and rebirth.
- There is a sequel to this story in which Grandmother and Little Red intentionally lure a wolf into their home and kill it in a pot of boiling water. This can be found in various collections of Grimm’s works.
- It’s interesting to note that the wolf character is alone in each version of the story. Wolves tend to live and hunt in packs. A wolf alone is either looking to start a pack on its own or is sick and is distancing itself from their pack. If I wanted to be more critical, the “solo-hunting” this character exhibits is more akin to a coyote or any type of large wild cat than a wolf.
It’s important to know that all fairytales and fables are fiction but are intended to teach a lesson. The characters, including the villains, are symbols, metaphors, or even allegories to real life situations, problems and behaviors. The wolf, in this case, is just that and does not reflect real wolves in the wild. So while it might be fun to dress up as the Big Bad Wolf for Halloween, you can at least have some peace of mind that no one will actually be eaten up!
Stay tuned for our next episode of Fairytale fallacies!
Stay wild, my friends!