“Little Red Riding Hood” has proven to be a very interesting story to analyze. On the one hand, we don’t tend to think of it in relation to the other prominent fairytales. Red Riding Hood as a character does not have a definitive interpretation the way the other heroines do; she doesn’t have a Disney movie, or an attempt-to-be-Disney movie, and she’s very rarely brought to the forefront in works that reinterpret fairytales as a whole. But, despite this, her story has permeated our culture; there are any number of shorter, smaller, less-significant works based on the story that we’ve all seen at least a handful of. While she’s rarely the main character, she is never not included in fairytale mash-ups, and her story is almost solely responsible for much of the characterization of wolves as antagonists and predators.
Where many of the other fairytale heroines are identifiable by their respective symbols, Red Riding Hood herself is a symbol. Her story isn’t consistent, the details and meaning of it have changed more drastically over the years than most. She doesn’t have a persona, she can’t really be classified as a passive or active character, and her actions depend on the version of the story and what other characters are present. But we know the hood, the grandmother, the wolf, and the woods. We all know the basic elements of the story, and it doesn’t often seem that the details make a difference.
But let’s take a look at how those details have come and gone. In it’s oldest form, “Red Riding Hood” was a story told by French peasants in the oral tradition, as most fairytales began. This was at a time when it is important to note that the concept of the child did not exist as it does for us today. Red Riding Hood was described as being young, but whether she was meant to be a literal child or a young adult doesn’t matter, and this ambiguity set the groundwork for a lot of the coming changes. These early versions of the tale, as is the case with most fairytales, were much darker and more violent than the one we know today. Often instead of just eating the grandmother, the wolf would trick Red Riding Hood into eating some of the unrecognizable meat. The wolf was also sometimes a werewolf, and frequently the story contained some sexual aspect either of outright rape or implied through convincing the girl to disrobe and get into bed with him. In many ways this was more horror story than fairytale; there was a monster, and victims, and gore—and the story would often end with Red Riding Hood getting into the bed, or being eaten.
Charles Perrault published the first written version, and added a lot of the aspects most well known today. This is the version of the tale that popularized the red color of the hood, and brought the wolf away from lycanthope horror tropes in favor of an Aesop-ish talking animal. This was also where the story gained a more moralistic tone, with Perrault including an outright explanation at the end for how the story shows the dangers of young women speaking with unknown men, and that the wolves in our daily lives are not always recognizable. We’re still not necessarily looking at a story that’s been watered down for children, as the lesson applies to pretty women of any age. The wolf is the focus. Most obviously he represents any strange man, being someone that a young woman needs to fear. But he doesn’t have to attack her, he never has to force her to enter the house or get into bed with him. This could represent the dangers of being deceived, but it could just as easily be interpreted as a girl entering into a sexual relationship before she’s fully ready. The story could even be seen as a metaphor for puberty and sexual awakening, starting with the girl leaving her mother’s home and ending with her coming out of the wolf’s belly, being a kind of rebirth.
The Grimm Brothers, despite being known for darker versions of fairytales, gave us a comparably tame version of the story. Here, the heroine is undeniably a child, and the sexual connotations are removed. This version leans heavily on the lesson to obey one’s elders, and was the first version to introduce the huntsman as a rescuer; before, if Red Riding Hood survived the story, she escaped on her own. This is the most definitive example of the story specifically teaching children not to talk to strangers. While the connections to it’s roots are still clear, this version is far removed from a story about a werewolf, cannibalism, and rape. The danger is a lot less gruesome and a lot more attractive: the wolf appears as a friend, and coaxes the girl to stray from the forest path.
In this version the wolf is the antagonist simply for what he is. But, there is also support, by cautioning the girl not to stray from her path, that he is a manifestation of the dangers of the unknown, the dark woods, and what may happen if one disobeys their elders.
The interpretation that I love the most but seem to see the least, is that the wolf actually represents something within the girl. There are traces of this thought in recognizing that the tale could be about her transition into womanhood, and that the whole story is an internal struggle. The wolf can represent her fear, of the forest or of growing up. And he can represent her very sexuality, something that is both frightening and fascinating. In this sense, her agreeing to go with him in the beginning is a key aspect of the metaphor. We see something like this in Once Upon a Time, which twists the tale so that Red Riding Hood herself is the wolf. Her character arc is not just about learning to overcome this aspect of herself, but to accept and understand it.
Once Upon also provides a minor example of a final point I’d like to make, regarding the many re-imaginings of the tale that turn the wolf into a love interest. Unaware of her condition at first, Once‘s Red fears that her lover is the wolf. It seems like a counter-intuitive way to view the story, as the wolf is undeniably the antagonist–but this interpretation sees love and relationships as a different kind of threat. It hearkens back to the sexual awakening aspects of the story, using the wolf to represent something that isn’t necessarily bad, but still frightening. Any romance plot with a werewolf borrows elements of this theme, allowing the girl to desire the man but fear the wolf—that element of the unknown, of an adult world that she is not prepared for.
When you look at everything has a whole, maybe the reason the story is so effortlessly iconic is because those ever-changing details really don’t matter in the end. Whether Red Riding Hood is a small child or a young woman, and whether the wolf sleeps with her or eats her, and whether the huntsman and the grandmother live, die, or aid her rescue, the essential struggle is the same. Red Riding Hood is an innocent, faced with the dark realities of the world. They can seem friendly and even attractive to her, and she won’t recognize them when she must face them the first time. But however dangerous or confusing they may be, she must face them; and however afraid she is, she does have a chance to succeed.