Hannah Holyoak

Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf?

A 23-year-old’s take on a 300-year-old fairy tale.

There are a lot of things in Perrault’s fairy tales that go unsaid and it is often these unspoken ideas that pose the most questions and that prove to be the most provocative. Le Petit Chaperon Rouge is full of little holes where perhaps, in the lack of detail, one can find nuggets of meaning. For example, Perrault does not specify the age of the girl, but just that she is young. Similarly, very little is said of clothing except that she wears a red “chaperon” and she is surprised by her “grandmothers” (that is, the wolf’s)  lack  of proper attire when s/he is in bed half dressed . We could ask a million questions about why certain things are missing and get carried away by a tornado of hypothetical reasons for everything, but when we focus on what Perrault actually says and the words he actually uses, we find our best chance for meaning that sheds new light on Perrault’s Little Red Riding Hood.  My interests lie in the identity of the girl named for her clothing, which I will investigate through speech patterns and important language linked to her in the text.

A Chaperone

Bossy is as Bossy Does

To begin, an interesting thing to note is that when Little Red Riding Hood is spoken to throughout the tale, she is only ever commanded to do things instead of asked to do things. A first example appears in the mother’s speech at the very beginning of this short tale: “va voir comme se porte ta mere-grand, car on m’a dit qu’elle estoit malade, porte luy une galette & ce petit pot de beurre” (Go see how your grandmother is doing, because I was told that she was sick, take her a cake and this small jar of butter). The wolf commands her indirectly as well once she meets him in the forest: “je m’y en vais par ce chemin icy & toy ce chemin-là & nous verrons qui plûtot y sera” (I will go this way and you will go that way and we will see who gets there first) Of course the grandmother calls out the story’s most famous command from her sick bed: “tire la chevillette, la bobinette chera” (pull the lever, the latch will open)—unfortunately, the grandmother mistakenly gives this command to the wolf who then uses the same command for Little Red Riding Hood when she arrives at the house. One last significant example from the grandmother that leads to the terrible climax of the story is: “mets la galette & le petit pot de beurre sur la huche & viens te coucher avec moy,” (put the cake and the jar of butter in the hutch and come to bed with me).

One can see that with all these examples there is no wonder that the girl listens to the wolf so willingly because he is actually commanding her to do something rather than asking her to do something. Clearly Little Red Riding Hood has become accustomed to following and believing every command given to her because that behavioral response is suggested numerous times for her by her mother and grandmother.

Babysitting is a Dangerous Job

The word “chaperon,” although a seemingly simple detail, is also important to the fairy tale, so much so that the tale is even entitled “Le Petit Chaperon Rouge” and the girl is only identified by her “chaperon.” The word “chaperon” can be broken down to mean “little cape” and with the adjective “petit” which means “little” with it as well, this cape is not just any old cape, it is a very teeny tiny one. An interesting note is that one of the definitions of “chaperon” in Furetiere’s 1690 dictionary is as follows: “On appelle aussi une vielle, un grand chaperon, sous la conduite de laquelle on met les jeunes filles. Il n’est pas honnête à des filles de s’aller promener, si elles n’ont quelqu’un qui leur serve de grand chaperon” (We call older women “head chaperones” who are in charge of young girls. It is not proper for young girls to take walks if they are not accompanied by a head chaperone.) “Head chaperone” means something very close to what it means in English today. We can draw an interesting parallel to the fact that Little Red Riding Hood is given a “petit chaperon” by her grandmother who would most likely be considered her “grand chaperon.” All that Little Red Riding Hood is equipped with is a tiny little chaperon (both in the sense of a small protective cape and also in the sense of a guardian) because her “grand chaperon,” the giver of the chaperon, that is, the grandmother herself, is sick in bed and the young girl is walking off into the forest to go visit her. The irony of the situation is very interesting and begs the question of why the “petit chaperon” is not enough to protect the girl while she goes through the forest if it was given to her by her own “grand chaperon” to provide protection? We can conclude by the story’s unfortunate ending that the grandmother (again, the grand chaperon) fails her granddaughter by giving her a meager substitute for the lessons that she should have taught her.

What of the mother?, one might ask, and my response is, EXACTLY! What about the mother? Another conclusion we can draw from this is that if the grandmother failed at teaching her granddaughter, perhaps she even failed at teaching her own daughter. The cycle of not teaching, either by forgetting the necessity or by simply not knowing that certain things need to be taught, ends with a big lesson for everyone involved. This lack of teaching culminates in the ultimate doom: the vicious way in which their precious child is eaten by a wolf.

Lady in Red

Why the color red? I think the question is, why not the color red? Red is a beautiful color; fun, vibrant, even youthful. The girl was meant to be noticed, even though sending a girl out into a forest of greens and browns, literally, is not the safest thing to do, it is still understandable that a girl so beautiful would only wear a lovely color such as red. An interesting detail about the color red appears in Furitière’s 1690 dictionary:  “Les Magistrats avoit [des chaperons] de rouges, fourrez de peaux blanches” (The judges had red cloaks / capes, with white leather / fur accents). Now, if the chaperon is not simply a guardian, but refers also to the garment worn by a judge could it be that the girl is being compared to a judge? Let’s run with this idea for a moment: What does it mean to say she is like a judge and why is she eaten by a wolf? Judges are impartial, they interpret and weigh evidence. A judge would have the final say on a situation and because of that holds a certain power. If Little Red Riding Hood is to be compared to a judge, then the face that she is eaten in the end takes her power away: denies her the final word. That is literally true in the story, where the wolf speaks last and then eats her. If she represents judgment and the wolf takes that possibility away, perhaps Perrault was making a statement about power. What happens when the power to choose rests in the hands of something or someone so vulnerable? And if this is about her lack of power to discern and judge, then we might ask how she ended up so naïve.

Bob’s your Uncle

On that subject, another very important word that proves easy to overlook (and has been eliminated from many later versions of the tale) is “compere.” The wolf is first introduced in the tale as “compere le Loup.”  “Compere” in seventeenth-century French means godfather, so in other words, basically an uncle or someone very close to the child. Because the wolf is called “compere le Loup” he is actually someone that would be close to Little Red Riding Hood which also explains why she was not afraid of him when she first saw him in the woods. He would not have been a stranger and it would have been perfectly acceptable for her to tell him exactly where she was headed and for what reason. In fact, since this compere turns quickly into some kind of suitor who stalks her in the tale (drawing on the Moralité), then Little Red Riding Hood would logically have let herself be seduced into speaking to him. As the text implies, the wolf is at first inquisitive of the girl, asking her where she is headed, feigns interest in her life, and gains her trust in order to infiltrate her perfect little world. Again, the problem here is that she has no apparent reason to fear what she tells this “wolf” if she believes what he says to be in her best interest.

In short, not knowing that neighborly men can become suitors, and not knowing how to navigate the nuances of courting and social propriety lands the girl in a terrible place, which is in the belly of the wolf because this “wolf” is such a charming man. I would argue that the problem all comes down to the fact that because her mother and grandmother were “folles” or crazy about Little Red and how beautiful she is, they forget an all-important lesson: how to speak and act around men, what to divulge and what to withhold. I have to say that what Perrault seems to want us to learn from this story is that seventeenth-century French society made sure young women were not capable of handling “wolves”! Ending the story with the girl being eaten represents what happens to a girl who was raised by a foolish mother and an even more foolish grandmother, both of whom never taught her to be careful around charming men—and perhaps even taught her to be attracted to them, thus condemning her to death all along!

In fact, at the very end of the story, in perhaps the best known (and certainly one of the best known) refrains in the wide world of fairy tales, we see this “charm” play out in grammar. The girl becomes so entranced by the question and answer routine that she has no time to react when the wolf says “c’est pour te manger” and then eats her up. The words hold the power to manipulate the girl into becoming or doing whatever the wolf wants.

And the Moral of the Story…

Last but not least, if the moral brings light to the meaning of this tale, then we should consider how unlike the story of the deep dark woods it seems.

Here we see how young children,

Especially young girls,

Beautiful, attractive, and sweet,

Get into trouble giving their attention to all sorts of people.

And it is not surprising if so many fall prey to the wolf.

I say the wolf because not all wolves are alike.

There are those with courteous personalities,

Not loud or nasty or hotheaded,

But reserved, compliant, and calm,

Who follow young ladies into their homes, all the way to their bedrooms.

And yet! Who among us does not know that the saccharine wolf, of all wolves, is the most treacherous?

(C. Jones translation)

Based on what Perrault includes in this moral, one sees neither a cautious scolding about talking to strangers nor anything about going into wooded areas, but rather references to court life during the seventeenth century. A “ruelle” (captured here by the word “bedroom”) is often translated to mean “a small street” but according to the period dictionary, it also refers to the bedside where aristocratic women could receive guests. One would want to be extremely cautious about whom one allows into that space. Yet, if this was a common place to receive guests, avoiding “wolves” at court would have been nearly impossible. Instead, Perrault seems to say, the real trick was learning how to navigate those situations, being both social and prudent at the same time. I would even go as far as to say that the wolf in fact represents seventeenth-century French society itself. According to the moral, being weary of the men you might meet at court or anyone who might attempt to lead off the “path” you are on is the most important thing of all to learn. So again I ask, with a little twist, who’s afraid of which big bad wolf?