The Evolution of Little Red Riding Hood


“Little Red Riding Hood” by Warwick Goble.

In the beginning, fairytales were not intended for children.[1] Rather, they were a way for adults to pass the time as they labored, keeping their minds occupied while their hands were busy crafting, spinning, or mending. Consequently, the content of the tales was a great deal bawdier and more unsettling than the docile literary versions to which we have become accustomed. As they evolved from oral tales swapped among laborers to works penned by scholars to stories told to children, they became stripped of many of their darker elements and sanitized into something fit for the nursery.

Few tales epitomize this transformation better than “Little Red Riding Hood.” In early versions, she is bereft of her signature accessory. Rather, she’s just a peasant girl with an ordinary sort of fashion sense, off to visit her grandmother to bring her bread and milk.[2] Along the way, she encounters a werewolf who asks her where she’s going, and if she’ll get there by the path of pins or the path of needles. When she replies that she’s taking the path of the needles, the werewolf tells her that he intends to travel by the path of pins. He then hightails it through the forest to beat her to Grandma’s house and gobbles the old gal down. He saves a portion of her flesh in a bowl and some of her blood in a bottle.

When the girl arrives, the werewolf pretends to be her grandmother, beckoning her in and offering her some of the meat and drink he’s left out. The girl enjoys the proffered meal while a nearby judgmental cat observes, “For shame! The slut is eating her grandmother’s flesh and drinking her grandmother’s blood.” Somehow, the girl does not hear this. The werewolf then suggests that the girl undress, with instructions to remove each item of clothing (apron, bodice, dress, petticoat, shoes, and stockings) and throw it into the fire because she won’t need it anymore. The girl obeys, and after she’s stripped down, she climbs into bed with “Grandma.” Up close, the girl is taken back by her grandma’s appearance. They engage in the familiar litany of questions and answers unique to the tale, which occasionally gets bawdy depending on who is telling the story and what body parts they mention. The more civilized versions might go something like this:

“Oh, grandmother, how hairy you are!”
“The better to keep myself warm, my child.”
“Oh, grandmother, what long nails you have!”
“The better to scratch myself with, my child!”

And so on and so on, continuing until the inevitable, “Oh, grandmother, what big teeth you have!” and the ensuing, “The better to eat you with, my child!” At this point, the girl belatedly realizes she’s in trouble. Thinking quickly, she begs to go outside to answer a call of nature. Not wanting to lose his meal, the werewolf ties a bit of rope around her leg before he agrees to let her leave. Outside, the girl unties herself, reties the rope to a tree, and runs away. Meanwhile, the werewolf is lying in bed, wondering if she’s going number two, until it’s too late to catch her. Indeed, in some versions, when he does attempt to pursue her, he is outwitted again when she persuades laundresses washing sheets in the river to hold out a sheet as a bridge to help her cross.[3] The werewolf attempts to cross the sheet after her, and the laundresses let go of it before he’s reached the other side, causing him to drop into the river and wash away. So the girl saves herself, and the werewolf does not get his tender young meal.


“Little Red Riding Hood” by Arthur Rackham.

When Charles Perrault published the first literary version of the tale, his intended audience was likely still an adult one.[4] After all, Perrault was a scholar, writer, and poet, and in his time, fairytales were recited in literary salons to peers. Furthermore, he had become embroiled in a literary war over whether France should take a classical approach to the arts, following in the footsteps of the Greeks and Romans, or, as he advocated, take a more modernist approach, incorporating pagan beliefs and folklore to adopt an enlightened view. While King Louis XIV ultimately ended the argument in 1697 by ruling in favor of the classicists, Perrault published his collection of fairytales, “Histoires ou contes du temps passé,” or Stories or Tales of Past Times, that same year. It was his intent to transform old folktales through his more modern approach to literature, and thereby have the last word in the argument, after all.

In Perrault’s hands, the cannibalism and the detailed striptease vanished.[5] There were no more bawdy jokes about Granny’s body parts. No more rude cat who can’t seem to have an opinion loudly enough to be useful. It is Perrault who introduces the girl’s vividly-colored headwear, only in his version, she sports a red cap, not a hood.[6] Otherwise, the beginning of the story is much the same: the young girl sets off to see her grandmother and bring her something to eat.[7] Again, she bumps into a charming wolf, who asks where she’s going. Because she doesn’t know not to talk to wolves, she not only tells him where she’s headed, but how to get there.

She looks like a tasty treat to the wolf, but he’s reluctant to eat her out in the open while there are woodcutters about. Instead, he challenges her to a race to see who can get to Grandma’s first. When she agrees, he rushes off while Little Red Cap dawdles along, chasing butterflies and picking flowers. He beats her by a good margin and tricks his way into Grandma’s house by pretending to be the girl. Gaining entry, he devours the grandmother and climbs into bed to wait for the girl to arrive.

When Little Red Cap enters the cottage, he asks her to undress and climb into bed with him. She obeys. Again, upon closer examination, she realizes how odd her grandma looks, and she goes through the dialogue about big arms and big legs and big ears, leading up to big teeth that are all the better to eat her with. In Perrault’s tale, however, she does not escape her fate. Rather, the wolf gobbles her up, and so the tale ends with her death. Perrault includes a moral at the end:

Children, especially attractive, well bred young ladies, should never talk to strangers, for if they should do so, they may well provide dinner for a wolf. I say “wolf,” but there are various kinds of wolves. There are also those who are charming, quiet, polite, unassuming, complacent, and sweet, who pursue young women at home and in the streets. And unfortunately, it is these gentle wolves who are the most dangerous ones of all.


By Jessie Wilcox Smith.

Subsequently, the tale came to the attention of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. A scholarly pair who studied law, worked in libraries, and in Jacob’s case, got involved diplomacy and politics, their true passion lay in trying to reclaim Germany’s national identity in the wake of the Napoleonic occupation.[8] To this end, they collaborated on various works such as a book about German grammar, a German dictionary, and most famously, a collection of German fairytales entitled Kinder- und Hausmärchen, or Children’s Stories and Household Tales.

First published in 1812, their fairytale collection started out as a scholarly work. However, the brothers’ attempts to be faithful to their source material were ill-met, critically speaking. The oral versions of the tales were often plain, unornamented, and in some cases, nonsensical. Add to that the often scandalous content, such as Rapunzel giving away the handsome king’s visits to her tower by innocently commenting to her stepmother that her clothes were getting tight. This was, of course, due to the pregnancy that resulted from her trysts. Outraged commentaries pointed out both perceived shortcomings.

In response to these criticisms and in recognition of the fact that the stories were being read to children, the brothers revised the tales. Wilhelm, in particular, transformed the mundane words into more readable prose and erased the bawdiness and mentions of pregnancy and premarital sex. However, the violence in their stories remained intact. For example, Rumplestilskin still rips himself in half at the end of his tale. Furthermore, Wilhelm added in the birds pecking out the eyes of Cinderella’s stepsisters in a subsequent volume. Sales figures suggest that these revisions paid off—nowadays, the Grimms’ fairytale collection is said to come in third on bestseller lists after the Bible and Shakespeare’s works.[9]

In the Grimms’ collection, the story of “Little Red Riding Hood” provides children with a model of good behavior.[10] The titular heroine’s mother gives her cakes and wine to bring to her grandmother, cautioning her to stay on the path and keep focused straight ahead. When the girl meets the wolf, she is too naïve to know he is evil, and tells him where she’s going. This time, her dawdling is occasioned by his artifice—keen to beat her to Grandmother’s house, the wolf encourages her to stop and pick flowers. She strays from the path to do so and the wolf runs ahead to make a meal out of her grandmother. He then puts on the old woman’s nightclothes and gets into bed. Little Red Riding Hood arrives to find her grandmother looking strangely, and begins the usual series of questions and answers that culminate in her being eaten, too.

Afterwards, as the wolf is snoring contentedly in her grandmother’s bed, a huntsman stops by to check on the old gal. Finding the wolf instead, the huntsman cuts open his belly and extricates both women, who are miraculously unharmed. They fill the wolf’s belly with rocks, and when he wakes and tries to flee, he collapses and dies. Appreciating her near escape, Little Red Riding Hood promises herself, “Never again will you stray from the path and go into the woods, when your mother has forbidden it.”

Not only did the Grimms give Little Red Riding Hood a happy ending in their version, they also gave her a sequel.[11] In the second story, another wolf approaches her in the forest and tries to distract her from her task. Red Riding Hood, who has learned her lesson, doesn’t stray from the path. Instead, she hurries to Grandmother’s house and they lock themselves inside. When the wolf follows, they either trick him into jumping into a trough full of water, where he drowns, or get him to jump down the chimney into a pot of boiling water. Either way, Grandmother and Little Red Riding Hood are not fooled again.

Through the course of these iterations, the story has slowly transformed from the tale of a confident young heroine who survives by her wits into the tale of a foolish girl who either comes to a bad end due to her own naiveté or is rescued though the intervention of a passing man. What’s more, the sexual undertones of the story have evolved nigh into nonexistence.

Early versions of the story are often seen as a metaphor for sexual initiation.[12] Indeed, an old French idiom for the loss of a girl’s virginity was “elle avoit vû le loup,” or “she has seen the wolf.”[13] The wolf was often used to symbolize a seductive man.[14] Even the questions in early versions of the story about taking the path of pins or the path of needles may come back to sexual initiation.[15] As Terri Windling discusses in “The Path Of Needles And Pins,” the question may stem from a tradition in French villages of sending pubescent girls to spend a winter with seamstresses, learning how to outfit themselves properly. This period in their lives signaled their entry into courtship and maidenhood, and young men who sought to woo them would offer them pins. Similarly, threading a needle has a sexual symbolism, and at that time, some European prostitutes wore needles on their sleeves to signal their trade. Thus, the girl in the early version of story seems to be faced with the choice between maidenly courtship and sexual maturity. Fortunately for her, while an ill-intentioned male figure might have initiated this choice, it is other women—the laundresses—who see the girl through this rite of passage.[16]

Some versions of the story are viewed as an allegory for rape. Additionally, some interpret the interplay of the wolf versus the huntsman in the Grimms’ version as the struggle between male sexual desire and male governance.[17]

For Perrault’s part, his story does appear to include some commentary on sexual morality. But as Mari Ness suggests in her article, “A Fairytale Warning: Little Red Riding Hood,” Perrault was not necessarily passing judgment so much as warning the unwary. [18] His version of the tale and its ensuing moral might have come from his experiences watching scandals unfold in the court of Louis XIV in Versaille. There, Ness surmises that he would have witnessed the fallout from the seductions of commoners and noblewomen by elite Frenchmen, leaving some women ruined, exiled, pregnant, or dead. Thus, Perrault sought to alert young women to the dangers of succumbing to the charms of a seductive stranger, which may end in disaster. On the other hand, the Grimms stripped away the sexuality of the early tale and transformed the tale of sexual initiation turned warning of the dangers of seduction into a moral lesson about being obedient and diligent.

Bailey as LRRH

Beagle Bailey dressed as Little Red Riding Hood. Because, reasons.

I recently found myself mulling over the various iterations of “Little Red Riding Hood” after seeing the movie version of “Into the Woods.” In the movie, our red-caped heroine sings about how she should have listened to her mother’s warnings and been more careful, and how the wolf showed her things she would have never dared explore on her own, which made her excited but scared. This reminded me, obviously, of the sexual undertones of the story. I also thought of Perrault’s moral and the warnings given by Little Red Riding Hood’s mother in the Grimms’ version of the tale.

Something about it all that struck me as absurd—the implication that if you follow the rules and stick to the path, the hungry wolf won’t devour you. In both the sexual metaphor and the literal reality, predators don’t tend to confine their activities within civilized boundaries. Whether you follow the rules or not, sometimes the wolf is simply hungry, and he is going to feast. Failing to be cautious doesn’t invite that fate. Certainly, Little Red Riding Hood didn’t deserve to be devoured. Rape, metaphorical or otherwise, is a steep price to pay for behaving in a natural fashion for a young girl by being trusting and distractible. Any evil in the equation belongs solely to the wolf.

It was this line of thinking that gave rise to the need to give my own spin to the character of Red Riding Hood. I did not want to depict her as a tender young girl who is apparently in the wrong for being young and innocent. No, I wanted an adult Red Riding Hood who hunts the predators, seeing justice done on behalf of those who had been injured as she once was. A survivor who is a force to be reckoned with. And so Jenny Redcape was born, her name stemming from her trademark accessory, much like Little Red Riding Hood’s does, but also from my desire to mimic the music of such folkloric names as Jenny Greenteeth. Additionally, as I mentioned in my previous two blogs, Jenny’s blood magic was inspired by redcaps, so it pleased me to have her name be so close to theirs.


Cover art by Natasa Ilincic.

If you’re interested in seeing how these influences came together, the resulting short story will be released as an ebook on July 20, 2017. Check back on this blog for details. For further reading about Little Red Riding Hood, check out the sources in my footnotes. I particularly recommend the blogs written by Windling and Ness.


[1] Grimm, Jacob, Wilhelm Grimm, and Maria Tatar. The Annotated Brothers Grimm. New York: Norton, 2004. Print. p. xxxii. (Hereinafter “Tatar”). See also Windling, Terri. “The Path Of Needles And Pins.” JoMA Archives: Nonfiction. 2004. Web. 12 July 2017. (Hereinafter “Windling.”)

[2] Ashliman, D.L. “#5- The Grandmother” in “Little Red Riding Hood.” University of Pittsburgh, 1996. Web. 12 July 2017; See also  Zipes, Jack. “Little Red Riding Hood.” The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. Print. p. 301-02 (Hereinafter “Zipes, ‘Little Red Riding Hood.’”); Tatar at p. 141.

[3] Windling.

[4] Zipes, Jack. “Charles Perrault.” The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. Print. p. 379-81.

[5] Zipes, “Little Red Riding Hood” at p. 302; Tatar at p. 141.

[6] Zipes, “Little Red Riding Hood” at p. 302; Tatar at p. 140.

[7] Ashliman, D.L. “#1- Little Red Riding Hood.” University of Pittsburgh, 1996. Web. 12 July 2017

[8] Tatar at p. xxiixlix, 387-96.

[9] Tatar at p. xxx.

[10] Tatar at p. 142-48.

[11] Tata at p. 148; Zipes, “Red Riding Hood” at p. 302.

[12] Tatar at 142.

[13] Temple, Emily. “The Disturbing Origins of 10 Famous Fairy Tales.” Flavorwire. 2012. Web. 12 July 2017.

[14] Tatar at p. 143-44, FN4; Heiner, Heidi Anne. “Surlalune Fairy Tales: Annotations for Little Red Riding Hood.” N.p., 2013. Web. 12 July 2017. FN5.

[15] Windling (discussing the essay “Le petit chaperon rouge dans la tradition orale” by Yvonne Verdier).

[16] Id.

[17] Tatar at p. 142; 146, FN9.

[18] Ness, Mari. “A Fairy Tale Warning: Little Red Riding Hood.” 2017. Web. 12 July 2017.


About amandakespohl

Daydreamer. Fantasy writer. Care Bear filled with razors. Oh, and I'm a lawyer.
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One Response to The Evolution of Little Red Riding Hood

  1. Pingback: “Jenny Redcape” is here. | amandakespohl

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