Once upon a time there was a forest, and into that forest, once upon a time, there skipped a little girl in a red cape.
Stop right there. You think you know this story. I suggest that you don’t.
What do you know about the forest? It’s dark and tangled, obviously; a backdrop, definitely; a metaphor for the subconscious, if you want to be smart. One can assume some kind of path winding through it but really, are we talking widely spaced trees filtering dappled sunlight onto grassy clearings strewn with flowers? No, we are not. The forest is ancient, twisted, and so full of shadows that the coat stands out like a poison berry, a startling drop of blood. Many creatures live there but the crucial ones to this story are a wolf, a grandma, the little girl, and a woodcutter. Yes, they are all human – even the wolf, really, who is so anthropomorphised he talks. They bear closer examination.
First, the wolf. He is dangerous but also sly; no impulsive roaring and biting for him. He is a cross-dressing psychopath with a penchant for the sinister wisecrack. His hobbies are lurking, building up tension, and introducing an element of fear into an otherwise bland tale. Vegetarianism is his dirty little secret. No, really. He threatens and controls but all the time he has Grandma stashed in the cupboard. Why not eat her? Even if he wanted to save his appetite for a tastier morsel, he could have a nibble. Blood is blood, surely. Sinews are sinews. While we’re on the subject of the wolf, there’s another gaping plot hole in the bedroom. Did you notice it? The clothes. How does the wolf, with his ripping teeth and his wolfish paws, effectively don a bonnet and/or a dress? Collusion? Is Grandma really who she says she is? Is the whole story a cover-up for unnatural acts between Grandma and the wolf? Is it possible that, when her innocent granddaughter unexpectedly arrived, Grandma had just popped out of bed (naked) to fetch something? Lubricant. Leather. Just a thought. She wouldn’t be the first guilty adult to duck into the nearest wardrobe.
Grandma, narratively speaking, is barely there. She must have a back story but we never hear it. (Why was she living in the forest? Was she born there? Banished? Did she kill a witch when she was a child and steal the house?) In her old age she has been reduced to a plot device, her sole purpose to lure the child into harm’s way. She also provides the costume. Thanks, granny. Still useful to society.
The woodcutter, male of course, swoops in at the last moment and heroically saves the day by brutally murdering the wolf with his axe. It’s a gruesome image, generally skipped over. Blood spattered walls, clumps of hair sticky on the axe blade, the guts and faeces of freshly dead animal soaking into the mattress. We don’t like to think of it, so we glorify the rescue instead. I, for one, would not be sleeping in that house any more, at least not until it had been industrially cleaned and fitted with proper security. Not much of a personality, the woodcutter – not even necessarily a speaking part – yet he does all the dirty work including some pretty intense manual labour. Perhaps he is a migrant worker.
Are we ready for the girl yet? Surely not. Let’s spend a moment on the coat. Sometimes it’s a riding cape, which does beg the question – where’s the horse? Too spooked to enter the forest? I like to imagine that grandma made the cape, perhaps just for dress-ups; we’ve already discussed her interest in such things. Whatever the design, we know it had a hood and we know it was bright scarlet. Why red? Because it was rare and bright and fabulous, of course. Oh, there are the obvious references, but really, it’s a coat. Do we need it to be anything more? It is gorgeous, warm, brightly coloured and desirable even from this distance. Let’s sigh over it and move on.
So finally, the title role. Little Red Riding Hood, named for her clothes. It must be said that the girl is none too bright. For one thing, she skips blithely through a clearly dangerous forest looking neither to right nor left whilst being stalked, tracked, and hunted by an undefined number of animals but at the very least one swift and sinister wolf. Not that she shouldn’t be in the forest. She has every right to be there, wearing whatever she pleases. Presence in the forest in a blood red cloak does not imply consent to be eaten. But still. Then there is the frankly unbelievable scene with her ‘Grandma’, who looks, speaks, and smells like a wolf, while Little Red Riding Hood completely fails to notice. There are two plausible explanations for this strange behaviour. First, that Little Red Riding Hood has Autism: she is unaware of social/ contextual cues that would make her nervous in the forest and her eye contact is so fleeting that she fails to take in the whole picture when she sees the wolf in her Granny’s bed and relies for far too long on the false evidence of the bonnet. Alternatively, that she is older than we have been led to believe and already suffering from teenage ennui. In possession of an electronic device that demands 95% of her attention at all times, she is plugged in and oblivious on her walk through the forest and when she gets to Grandma’s, she is so desperate to access the wifi that she does not look up from the screen until she has checked all her texts, likes, and notifications. However, she knows some kind of interaction is required, however desultory, so she fobs Grandma off with random and frankly sarcastic comments on her appearance: ‘My, what big eyes you have.’ You can just hear her reporting back to her parents: ‘I DID talk to her. I said she had big teeth. WOT???!’ True, it might be neither of those things. Perhaps she is simple, or enchanted, or fey. But you have to admit, her behaviour is questionable.
Speaking of questions, here is the big one. Why this story? Of all the legends and fairy tales ever written, why is this one so loved, so frequently reproduced, so well-remembered? We could have dancing princesses, glass slippers, princes turning into swans, but this is the one we choose. Is there something elemental about the forest? Is it the simplicity of the innocent child vs the cunning wolf? Sick of royalty, are we instead drawn to the fate of the common people?
We may never know, but here is a theory. Once upon a time there was a forest, where now there are streets. Once upon a time there was a skipping child, simple and unencumbered. Once upon a time, we were apex predators who protected our young. Once upon a time there was poor life expectancy and limited food security and people never left the area they were born in and most were illiterate – yes – but against the dazzle of once upon a time we are inclined to forget such details. The gift of this fairy tale is as follows: that it has been so handled and smoothed and worn and retold, that the minutiae have been shaken loose, revealing underneath the shape of our true desires. And what have we really wanted all this time? It turns out to have been simply this: food; a family; a common enemy; a sense of mystery, and a fabulous scarlet coat.