Little Red Riding Hood: Pick Your Moral

Michelle McNally
March 21, 2011

I have a book I treasure; it was originally published in 1927. It's a book of fairy tales, nearly four inches thick. The cover is holding on by mere threads. According to it's inscription, it was a gift to my grandmother (born in 1923) from a favorite aunt for Christmas, 1928.

The fairy tales my grandmother read that Christmas morning are a far cry from what my five-year-old daughter is reading today. 

Little Red Riding Hood, for example, is a story that dates back to France in the late 1600s. It's been told a various number of ways over the years by Charles Perrault, the Brothers Grimm, and many modern day authors.

The classic story, like most fairy tales, is gruesome, and can be disturbing to young children. In it, Little Red Riding Hood is taking a basket of goodies to her ailing grandmother. Along the way she meets the wolf, whom she tells her destination. The wolf dashes ahead, eats the grandmother and then meets Little Red again in disguise. This seems to be the basis for all classic tellings.

From there, one of a few things can happen: either the wolf eats Little Red and that is it (as it is in Perrault's version), or somewhere along the way the woodman arrives to save Little Red (after she's been eaten, as in the Brothers Grimm telling). Sometimes Grandma comes back (usually by having the wolf sliced open or opening the wardrobe) and sometimes she doesn't. Usually, Little Red is okay in the end, except for in stories where the wolf eats her.

The moral in these tellings is clear: Don't talk to strangers!  

As times have changed, the telling of Little Red Riding Hood has as well. The Brothers Grimm are credited with adding the woodsman as the savior, but the moral of don't talk to strangers stayed the same. Having Grandma being eaten, though, was apparently too disturbing to some. So many authors have set out to reform the role of the wolf. 

In Little Red Riding Hood: A Newfangled Prairie Tale, author Lisa Campell Ernst introduces a tractor-driving grandma who isn't afraid of the wolf. This comical version of the story ends with the wolf being enlisted as a baking assistant. It's a fun story, but the lesson of not talking to strangers is still present. 

In The Wolf's Story, What Really Happened to Little Red Riding Hood, author Toby Forward actually lets the wolf speak. He tells the story from the wolf's side of the tale, which explains perfectly why Grandma was stuffed in a closet. Or does it? This version can be a the springboard for a discussion in honesty. 

In looking through our own library at home, I came across a Scholastic book of my daughter's called Littlest Red Riding Hood, written by Quinlin B. Lee, featuring my daughter's favorite set of characters: the Littlest Pet Shop animals. In this version, the wolf isn't out to eat anybody, rather the trick he plays gets him the picnic in Littlest Red's basket. In talking with my daughter, when I asked her about the ending, or if she was familiar maybe another ending of the story, she said no. When I asked her what the lesson of this particular story was, she told me, "It's nice to share." It's a far cry from don't talk to strangers, but it's still a good message.

For adults who want to learn more about this classic tale, check out Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality, and an Evolution of a Fairytale by Catherine Orenstein.This book explored fairy tales through the social norms of the time they were written and how they have evolved as society has evolved.

At some point, I will introduce the original version of this classic tale to my daughter. But I think I'll wait until she's old enough to appreciate them in the now antique book of her great-grandmother's. And old enough not to be haunted by visions of a wolf eating her own beloved grandma! 



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