According to Charles Dickens, Little Red Riding Hood was his first love as she was his favorite character. It is one of the most famous fairy tales and if you ask 100 people to name a fairy tale, Little Red Riding Hood would be one of the most popular answers.
And much like a number of other fairy tales, which seem to have originated around older oral stories (Rumpelstiltskin, for example, is thought to be an incredible 4,000 years old), Little Red Riding Hood can be traced back to the 10th century when it circulated as a French oral story, and it also existed as a 14th-century Italian story called The False Grandmother. It was popular under that name only during the 1690s, when the French folklore writer Charles Perrault published it in his tales collection. It quickly set itself as one of the most precious and famous fairy tales in the western world.
But what does Little Red Riding Hood mean? Before we dare to answer this - by analyzing the key features of the story - it is worth reading a brief summary.
Since it is eventually eaten by a wolf, it is worth asking what the moral of this fairy tale should be - considering it has morals.
Numerous fairy tales tell of the dangers of going into the woods alone and talking to strangers (or, in this case, wolves), also seen in Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Little Red Riding Hood goes into a big bad world without supervision and is used by a predatory wolf who, thanks to her loose tongue, kills both her and her grandmother.
Little Red Riding Hood is too innocent: she doesn't realize that discovering the whereabouts of a bad wolf could put her grandmother in danger, and then fails to escape as soon as possible, hoping to warn her grandmother or thwart the wolf's plans.
The Brothers Grimm are morally clearer, with their Little Red Riding Cap being told by her mother not to stray from the path. The girl's failure to follow her instructions leads to her encounter with the great evil wolf and later fate (although, as we have seen, she is brought back from the dead, or at least from the wolf's belly, in Grimm's version).
But that last conversation between the wolf and Little Red Riding Hood remains an icon. It turns out that this is also older than the version of the fairy tale from the 1690s published by Perrault. Opies draws a connection between this exchange and the one in Old Edda (13th century), which shows the Nordic night god Loki explaining the somewhat unfeminine attributes of the "woman" offered to the giant Thrym as his bride. The bride is actually a disguised Thor (the similarities between this story and Little Red Riding Hood are already becoming apparent), so the mischievous Loki here has to make a serious sales pattern.
We called her 'Little Red Riding Hood', but of course it's just a nickname. In the version of the fairy tale that Opies included in their indispensable The Classic Fairy Tales, the Christian name Little Red Riding Hood was given as 'Biddy'.
As Dickens recalled in his short sketch Christmas Tree: "I felt that if I could marry Little Red Riding Hood I would have to experience perfect bliss. But it shouldn't have been."
In short, Little Red Riding Hood is one of those fictional characters that we encounter in childhood and that remain as archetypes drawn in our imagination. How we should analyze the ultimate moral of the story remains unclear, but it may have stemmed from that ancient advice parents give to their children: don't talk to strangers. Or wolves. But somehow we lost that last part.
At first glance, Charles Perrault's Little Red Riding Hood seems to be a story that warns children of the dangers of talking to strangers, but as the reader further studies the text, it becomes a story of adulthood.
Little Red Riding Hood is a beautiful, young girl whose mother tells her to take a cake and a pot of butter to her sick grandmother. She puts on her red hood her grandmother gave her, goes her own way, and enters the woods. The hood that covers her hair symbolizes that she is inaccessible to men, but the red color represents sin and sexual impurity. Entering the forest symbolizes danger and transformation.
Upon entering the forest, the girl encounters a hungry wolf who deceitfully asks her where her grandmother lives. The wolf tells the girl that he will run her to her grandmother's house, giving himself a shorter route and running as fast as he can. The wolf should symbolize a manipulative man.
Little Red Riding Hood gets in the way and collects nuts and chases butterflies along the way. Interfering with the environment is a display of childish behavior, reminding the reader that she is young and naive.
The girl finally arrives, after the wolf has already eaten her grandmother, and enters the hut. The wolf, dressed in her grandmother's clothes, tells the girl to leave the goods, take off her clothes and go to bed with him. She does as she is told and begins to comment on the size of the wolf's arms, legs, ears, eyes and finally teeth, to which he replies he has big teeth to better eat her. Undressing before climbing into bed additionally proves the previously mentioned sexual insinuations. A wolf eating an innocent, young girl represents an evil man who exploits her.
The meaning, or moral, behind Little Red Riding Hood may vary depending on the interpretation being read. In some versions, the mother gives the girl special instructions to keep track and not to wander. Mother's instructions emphasize the moral importance of listening to and following instructions. However, this is not the case in Perrault's story. Instead, Perrault's version urges beautiful, young girls not to talk to strangers, because the wolf isn't always "noisy or angry" and is easy to spot; the most dangerous are "tame, helpful and gentle" wolves.
Perrault's version of Little Red Riding Hood ends up more threatening than many other adaptations. In this performance, the wolf cheats on both the old woman and the girl, devouring each of them to the end of the story. No hunter comes to their rescue and they die in the wolf's belly. Perrault then goes on to write poetic morals for the story, warning beautiful, young girls of wolves intending to prey on them, warning them that "tame, helpful, and gentle" wolves are the most dangerous of all.
The story of "Little Red Riding Hood" is full of symbolism indicating that Little Red Riding Hood is a story about growing up, and not just a children's story.
Genre: fairy tale
Setting: once upon a time, beyond the mill, the first house in the village was where the Little Red Riding Hood's grandmother lived
Point of view and Narrator: third-person with an omniscient narration
Tone and Mood: at first, it was happy because Little Red Riding Hood was heading to her grandmother's whom she loved the most, and after it became suspenseful resulting in the reader experiencing fear and concern for her grandmother and the little girl.
Style: eerie, serious
Protagonist and Antagonist: the protagonist is the little girl named Little Red Riding Hood while the antagonist is the bad wolf who wants to eat the little girl and her grandmother.
Major Conflict: Little Red Riding Hood was asked by her mother to take a cake and a pot of butter to her ill grandmother
Raising action: Little Red Riding Hood doesn't listen to her mother's advice not to stray from the path going deeper into the wood catching butterflies and collecting nuts where she meets big bad wolf
Climax: the wolf tries to eat Little Red Riding Hood
Ending: the wolf manages to eat Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother
Symbols and Metaphors
The hood - in the 17th century, when Little Red Riding Hood was written, the hair of an adult girl was the most powerful attribute when it came to attracting a man. A hood covering a girl's hair should send a message that she's not available, making the wolf's progress even more disturbing. It also symbolizes the "growing up" of the little girl and her grandmother gives her a red hood meaning she's entering adulthood.
Red color - red color in fairy tales is often used to symbolize passion, source of life, maturity, and love. Since Little Red Riding Hood is covered with the red hood she's covered in the maturity color meaning she's ready for a passionate and intimate relationship.
Forest - in many fairy tales the protagonist goes deeper into the forest. Trees seem to be an endless source of inspiration in folklore. There is much speculation as to why the forest is so important in fairy tales, but we can also stick to the obvious: most people in medieval or pre-medieval times lived near forests. The existence of people is almost always closely linked to wood, but forests also pose an unknown, albeit very serious, danger.
In psychoanalysis, the forest symbolizes unconsciousness. Leonard Lutwack goes even further and marks it as untamed female sexuality. Why? The forest is a very fertile place, but also wild, uncultivated, and unpredictable.
It is no coincidence that many popular heroes and heroines (Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, Goldilocks) have to get lost in the woods just to return as more responsible (and we can say domesticated) people.
Important transformations of characters within folklore always take place in the forest.
Cake and pot of butter - while Brothers Grimm opted for a few cakes and a bottle of wine, Charles Perrault opted for cake and butter. Erich Fromm explained that the pot or the bottle in Little Red Riding Hood is a symbol of innocence. The shape of the bottle is phallic, but as a bottle it is fragile. In dream analysis, a bottle can also represent suppression of feelings: instead of letting them out, they are bottled. The bottle must also be opened (or broken) to release the trapped spirit.
Wolf - the wolf symbolizes chaos and death. There are other stories with wolves included such as The Three Little Pigs or The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids and apart from these examples, the clearest sign of the wolf symbolizes such negative attributes of the material world, and animal desires arise from various questions posed by Little Red Riding Hood. Every question she derives from growing consciousness; it is her consciousness or soul that sees, hears, and feels. And that her senses have led her to a misperception of reality, because now she sees through the wolf's disguise - a little too late - but wakes up in the truth.