“Little Red Riding Hood” is our cultural story about innocence and seduction, and the story about a girl, a wolf, and an encounter in the woods has shape-shifted with surprising expressive intensity ever since it was first written down by Charles Perrault. Perrault’s “Little Red Cap,” published in 1697 in a fairy-tale collection called Tales from Times Past, ended with the wolf swallowing the girl: “Upon saying these words, the wicked wolf threw himself on Red Riding Hood and gobbled her up.” End of story–no huntsman, no opening up of the belly, and no rescue scene. The Brothers Grimm arranged for the girl’s survival in 1812, and they added a coda in which the protagonist lectures herself about never again straying from the path “when your mother has forbidden it.” They were aware of alternate versions, in which the girl outwits the wolf, and they offered a sequel in which Little Red Cap partners with her grandmother to outwit the wolf. Since then, Little Red Riding Hood has found her way into works as varied as Tex Avery’s cartoon Red Hot Riding Hood, Angela Carter’s The Company of Wolves, and Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars. In her latest incarnation, she continues to reverse the role of predator and prey, but, as the NYT review of Catherine Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood suggests, she seems to have lost some of her mythic power. She has become nothing more than the girl who “sighs” wolf.
Italo Calvino was right to emphasize how fairy tales are not just for the nursery. Stories like “Little Red Riding Hood” enable us to talk about and work through cultural contradictions. “Through the forest of fairy tale, the vibrancy of myth passes like a shudder of the wind,” he wrote.