There are characters whose name reveals their skin color (Snow White), their ability (Spiderman), their size (Thumbelina). Others, their dress. A short blood-colored cape defines the adventurous girl dreamt up by Charles Perrault towards the end of the seventeenth century. She has a whiff of the guileless temptress, this creature who is at the same time polite and daring, and who exudes something so subtly attractive that it made the adult Charles Dickens confess that she had been his first love. “I felt that if I could have married Little Red Riding Hood,” he admitted, “I should have known perfect bliss.”
Her story is well known: the errand on which her mother sends her (to deliver a cake and a pot of butter to her sick grandmother), the meeting with the treacherous beast (pivotal to the story), the distractions she finds on her way (picking up acorns and pursuing butterflies), the tragic fate of the grandmother (reminiscent of the fate of both Jonah and Gepetto), her questioning of the impersonator and the cross dressing wolf ’s answers that end up revealing the true identity of the fiend (a catechism commonplace in folktales).
A precursor of the story is tucked away in the Prose Edda, composed in Iceland in the thirteenth century. It tells how Loki, the trickster, must explain to the giant Thrym why the giant’s betrothed (who is none other than Thor, the god of thunder, in disguise) has such a decidedly unfeminine aspect.
“I’ve never seen a bride eat and drink so much,” says the bewildered Thrym after watching the supposed lady devour eight salmons and a whole ox.
“That’s because she was so anxious to see you,” Loki answers, “that she didn’t eat anything for eight days.”
“Why does she have such a terrible look?” asks Thrym, perceiving the fierce thundering eyes behind the bridal veil.
“That’s because she was so anxious to see you,” Loki answers once more, “that she hasn’t slept in eight long nights.”
Our stories are full of travestied characters: female into male is commonplace in Shakespeare—Rosalind, Portia, Imogen, Viola—as is male into female: Falstaff as Mistress Ford’s fat aunt. Huckleberry Finn dressed up as a girl called Sarah or Mary, Mr. Rochester as an old gypsy fortune-teller, Toad in The Wind in the Willows as an old washerwoman: all survive by playing the catechism of conventional identity against itself.
Little Red Riding Hood’s credo is that of Thoreau: civil disobedience. Her mother’s autocratic orders must be followed, this she knows, but she will follow them in her own sweet time. Not for her the shortest path between A and Z, not for her straight and narrow. Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye would have approved. “I like it when somebody digresses,” he says. “It’s more interesting and all.” Because of her digressions, the woods come into being, and also the wolf, the woodcutter, the grandmother’s romantic adventure. Without Little Red Riding Hood’s digressive spirit there would be no story.
Zeno argued that movement was impossible because in order to proceed from any given place to the next, we have to reach a point halfway between the two, and to reach that we have to reach another halfway between the first and the intermediate one, and so on throughout eternity. Little Red Riding Hood proves Zeno wrong. Movement is possible exactly because of all these intermediate points: points in the landscape in which the berries are ripe, the acorns plentiful, the flowers ready to be picked. Even the presence of the wolf is only one more intermediate point on the way to her grandmother’s house (which she will eventually reach) because this disobedient girl (disobedient of both maternal and pre-Socratic laws) chooses the points at which she will stop of her own free will. Little Red Riding Hood is emblematic of individual freedom, which is perhaps why the hood of France’s revolutionary Marianne is the same color as hers.
Little Red Riding Hood’s story changes according to who is telling it. In Perrault’s tale, she is devoured by the wolf and that is the end. Later versions, more compassionate, bring in a heroic woodcutter, who appears at the last moment to save the child from the wolf ’s maw and, by means of a sort of caesarean operation, rescue the grandmother as well. Perrault does not describe the scene where Little Red Riding Hood gets into bed with the fake grandmother, but thanks to the moral that concludes the tale it becomes clear what type of wolf Perrault had in mind. “Not all wolves are the same,” he writes. “There are those who cunningly, without trumpeting their intentions, neither hot-blooded nor spiteful, very discreetly, complacent and well-behaved, follow young ladies to their homes and even to their beds. But, beware! Who ignores that these sweet-sounding wolves are, of all the wolves, the most dangerous?”
The strategy of the wolf is employed more often than we know. The notorious abbot of Choisy, Perrault’s contemporary, behaved in this ungentlemanly manner. Even as a boy (he tells us in his memoirs) he liked dressing up in women’s clothing. In Bourges, where he had gone to spend a short cross-dressing holiday, he met a certain Madame Gaillot, whose youngest daughter was a very pretty child. One evening, Madame Gaillot suggested that her daughter sleep in the same bed as her guest. The abbot, in his frilly nightgown and ribboned cap, readily agreed. After a time, the girl shouted out: “Ah me! What pleasure!” “Are you not asleep, my daughter?” the mother called out upon hearing her moan. “It’s just that I was cold getting into bed,” the clever girl replied. “But now that I’m warm I feel very, very content.”
Almost a century after the abbot’s escapade, the Marquis de Sade understood that Little Red Riding Hood’s story could bear a different reading. “There is no infamy that the wolf does not invent in order to capture his prey,” he warned from his cell in the Charenton Asylum for the Insane. If this is true—if almost whatever Little Red Riding Hood does, she is likely to end up in the wolf ’s bed—she still has two possible strategies for escape. The first is to resign herself to her condition of victimhood (a theme Sade developed in Justine; or, The Misfortunes of Virtue), the second to become mistress of her own fate (as he explored in Juliet; or, The Prosperities of Vice).
Both these strategies have produced descendants. Daughters of the former are Dumas’s Camille, Galdós’s Marianela, Dickens’s Little Dorrit; of the latter are Shaw’s Mrs. Warren, Nabokov’s Lolita, and Vargas Llosa’s Bad Girl. Little Red Riding Hood, however, is both types at once. Seduced seducer, worldly innocent, she keeps on roaming the woods, free and unafraid of disingenuous wolves.
From Fabulous Monsters by Alberto Manguel. Published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced with permission.
Alberto Manguel is a writer, translator, editor, and critic, but would rather define himself as a reader. His previous books include The Library at Night and Packing My Library.