We’ve always taught the youth our morality through parable. The power of symbol communicates complex ideas with high efficiency and great pizzazz.
Some fairy tales have obvious lessons. Toddlers learn better about a job well-done through a story about wolf-besieged pigs than they will through a parental lecture. A maiden with a fresh-rent heart is more cheered by the insinuation that her beau’s a frog than, “Expect to hook up with a lot of unworthy boys before you find a good one.” Goldilocks and the Three Bears is entirely on-the-nose in its sermonizing against abusing bear hospitality.
Other fables are subtler, esoteric.
Little Red Riding Hood is a strange one. Trying to make meaning from it is bonkers. There is nothing universal about wolves that want picnic baskets OR who dress as grannies. Also, suggesting that a hunter should gut one to release a granny and granddaughter live and whole is…
…well, that’s nuts.
So what’s the story about? Why do we keep telling it? Surely there’s more to it than a warning about talking to strangers; its weirdness insists it. Before I analyze this with you, visualize a grandmother telling this story to a granddaughter who is Red’s age—maybe thirteen. See Granny in her bed, granddaughter nestled beside her.
Now look at the title: RED Riding Hood. That red part is consistent as far back as Greek mythology. Red, symbolically, can represent passion, heat, the sun—and blood.
Put a pin in that last for now: blood.
Red Riding Hood quests from her childhood home to her granny’s house, tasked with keeping a precious basket intact by staying on the path. In some versions the basket holds wine, in others, sweet, sweet cakes (wine, like red, traditionally represents blood; cakes and bread represent flesh and nourishment).
Whenever I see a child traveling towards aged-ness in a story, I start looking for a bildungsroman, a legend about coming-of-age and how a life should be lived. This looks like a story about how a girl may move from childhood to old age. This makes the blood symbol make more sense.
These elements turn the story into a lesson that grandmothers would tell to their granddaughters about puberty and what their menses is all about. Know this and the whole fable falls into sense.
Red (the menstrual girl) will travel to Granny’s (old age). The wolf (predatory men) wants the goodies in her picnic basket (virginity/chastity). The wolf won’t be obvious and snatch it on the road (at least, one hopes!), but will use charm and false civility to woo the treasures from the girl.
What’s worse: when she finally makes it to grandmother’s house (maturity), she won’t find the safety of her Granny’s nurturing cuddles. She’ll find—disguised as the security of maturity—that same predatory wolf waiting in her nuptial bed, ready to take those goodies after all!
The wolf (rapacious husband) will eat up Red and Granny until the woodsman/hunter (mature husband) comes along to slaughter the wolf and release the two. They feed the wolf full of stones (work? nagging? food?) which weighs him down to death.
They all live happily ever after—eventually.
Now: remember that grandmother telling the story to her granddaughter. Imagine that little girl, terrified by the blood of her first period that day, seeking consolation.
See the grit of a woman who reveals the nature of the patriarchy in these terms to a child.
Come visit Micah at Zionsville Books & Brews. He’s there a few times a week in the evenings.