Know the tale of Little Red Riding Hood?
You may think it’s just a very old story for children. But most folk and fairy tales are much darker and more sinister than the versions you know. They were tales told to other adults, for entertainment while working or during long winters. Although children would have been exposed to these stories, terrifying as they may have been, they were never the intended audience.
While science is trying to track the true origin of Little Red Riding Hood, Charles Perrault first published his version of the story in 1697—a tale that had roots in 17th century oral folklore.
The early part of the story is quite familiar. However, after the wolf eats the grandmother, dons the grandmother’s nightgown and tricks Red into getting undressed and into bed with him, he eats her too. There’s no happy ending and no heroic woodsman to rescue Red and her grandmother from the insatiable wolf. Nor is Red able to rescue herself, as she is in some other versions of the story. Instead, it’s a dark, sexually suggestive warning for pretty girls not to speak to strange men. In fact, in French, the slang for losing one’s virginity is “Elle avoit vû le loup” or “She'd seen the wolf.”
So what changed? First of all, Perrault was using this story as a vehicle for his social commentary on the scandals in the French Court of Versailles. (He wasn't impressed, apparently.)
And then came the Brothers Grimm. In the early 1800s in what would become Germany, worried that oral storytelling was in danger of being lost, the Brothers Grimm recorded as many stories as they could find. They talked to peasants, farmers, craftsmen and young men and women who recounted tales from their grandmothers or nannies. Over 150 stories were collected, many full of murder and cannibalism and lust—and worse. However, over the next 50 years, the Brothers Grimm embellished, adjusted, edited and censored the stories they'd gathered. As the stories became less violent and more suitable to be read to and by children, their collected works became a bestseller, transformed into the stories we know today.
In fairytales, time, place and message are all easily adaptable to suit the teller of the tale, which is one of the reasons they're still around. While the setting varies and the beast changes (from wolf to werewolf, from tiger to ogre) and there are numerous fates for both Red and her grandmother (and even a sequel!), the tale of Little Red Riding Hood is so old, it’s part of a shared experience in cultures throughout Europe, the Middle East and Asia.
Which is why this girl or woman in red is so enduring in advertising, movies, television and books, almost 1000 years after her story was first told.