book report #10: evolution of a fairy tale

We all know the story of Little Red Riding Hood.


Girl goes into the woods to bring her poor grandmother some sustenance, wolf tries to eat her…

But there’s a whole book about that “yadda yadda yadda”.

Little Red Riding Hood UNCLOAKED: Sex, Morality and the Evolution of a Fairy Tale by Catherine Orenstein is an entirely readable book about…well, look at the title.

We can all agree that Red’s mother sent her with supplies to see her grandmother.  But then you have to pick your era to find out what happens next.


Charles Perrault wrote a version for adult entertainment at the court of Louis the XIV.  It’s full of innuendos and sly allusions that we don’t get.  Red represents the naïf at court who had better watch out for the ravening roué that will ruin her reputation and chances for a profitable marriage.   (Ravening is really hungry.  A roué is a manslut.  A naïf is an airhead.  That’s right.  I own a thesaurus.)  In the end, the wolf eats her without so much as a burp.

The Brothers Grimm version has a better outcome.  Grandma and Red get eaten, sure, but the brave woodsman comes and slits the wolf open, extricates the poor defenseless females and kills the wolf.

Yay, men!

I bet you don’t remember that Red meets a second wolf later, and she and Grandma are on guard this time.  They kill the wolf in a pre-emptive strike.  Why the different ending?  Different audience.  This rendition was told to Victorian children, who needed to learn the value of minding their elders.  Girls were helpless, and if they didn’t follow their parents’ instructions they would come to no good.


But the Grimms collected stories from a different demographic than they claimed.  The source for Little Red Riding Hood was their fellow gentry, not the folk they supposedly interviewed.

The story told by the peasants was a little different.  In it, the wolf commands that Red strip naked and come to bed with him.  When he gets fresh, Red feigns (that thesaurus again) a need to relieve herself.  She escapes.

Sounds like the perfect story for girls that have to fend for themselves, not sit around the parlor like hot house plants, smocking.

Orenstein shows us Red Riding Hood as victim, vixen, bitch, empowered woman, cross-dresser…

Seems Red changes with the times.

Little Red Riding Hood UNCLOAKED is more than a study of fairy tales, it’s a real-life example of storytellers knowing their audience.

Something every writer needs to do.


About Lisha Cauthen

Lisha Cauthen writes YA novels for guys that girls like to read too.

Posted on January 12, 2009, in book report, childrens' literature and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on book report #10: evolution of a fairy tale.

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