BOOK REVIEW / Twisting a wolf's tale: 'The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood' - Jack Zipes: Routledge, 13.99

In this book Jack Zipes collects some 35 versions of Little Red Riding Hood, from 1697 to the present day, and up to a point they all have the doomed inevitability of myth. Time after time the little girl sets out for her grandmother's, the little girl meets the wolf, the little girl talks to the wolf, the wolf gets to the grandmother's, eats the grandmother and gets into bed, the girl arrives, the rhetoric begins, the climax - 'What big teeth you have, Grandmother]' - hovers within their grasp. And then what? Well, the wolf kills the girl. Or is stopped from killing her by another man, or rapes the girl, or is killed by the girl, or becomes her lover, or becomes the girl. Was any other fairy-tale ever so uncertain about its ending?

It all adds up to quite a lot of confusion for the little girls reading the story. They know very well that it is about themselves, for one thing because in 1697 Charles Perrault told them so. 'One sees here that young children, Especially young girls, Pretty, well-brought up and gentle, Should never listen to anyone who happens by, And if this occurs, it is not so strange, When the wolf should eat them.' And they can't help but feel that the tales where the wolf kills them, or is only just stopped by the arrival of the hunter, are the 'right' ones.

In other words, the Little Red Riding Hood tradition as we usually understand it represses girls, quite violently. It reminds them that they are small, that they are weak, that they are slow, that they will not escape from rape and death unless a good man saves them. The most striking thing that Jack Zipes uncovers in his brilliant, clotted book, is that it doesn't have to be like that. Not just because Angela Carter or James Thurber say it doesn't have to be, but because Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm - the first writers to put the tale into print - were not tapping into a unchanging, phallocentric myth that had existed for centuries. They got it 'wrong'.

The 'original' Little Red Riding Hood didn't get eaten. Her story trotted along just the same until she got to the grandmother's cottage, got into bed and said: 'What a big mouth you have, Grandmother]' And then, quick as a flash, she realises what is going on. ' 'Oh Granny, I've got to go badly. Let me go outside.' 'Do it in the bed, my child]' 'Oh no, Granny, I want to go outside.' 'All right, but make it quick.' The werewolf attached a woollen rope to her foot and let her go outside. When the little girl was outside, she tied the end of the rope to a plum tree in the courtyard. The werewolf became impatient and said. 'Are you making a load out there?' When he realised that nobody was answering him, he jumped out of bed and saw that the little girl had escaped.'

That was the tale that was apparently told from woman to woman in the oral traditions of France throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. And that was the tradition that Perrault and Grimm violated, just as they violated the independence of the girls who heard their stories. Once the reader knows that, the ground seems to shift. If you can see a beginning to a tradition you can imagine an end, and suddenly all the ironic and comic rewritings look less flimsy and more buoyant. Take the dry anticlimax of Thurber's version: 'She had approached no nearer that 25 feet from the bed when she saw that it was not her grandmother but the wolf, for even in a nightcap a wolf does not look any more like your grandmother than the Metro-Goldwyn lion looks like Calvin Coolidge. So the little girl took an automatic out of her basket and shot the wolf dead. Moral: It is not so easy to fool little girls nowadays as it used to be.'

That little girl is closer to the spirited original in many ways than Perrault's passive child. But having said that, there is nothing in all the swinging American versions - where the girl nearly runs over the wolf in her fast sports car, for instance, or where she hangs out with him and smokes dope, or where she and the wolf plot euthanasia for her cancer-ridden grandmother - that will ever give them the resonance of the folk sources.

After all, what do we want from our fairy tales? Perhaps more than ever now, in our strange new world that often seems closer to science fiction than folklore, we want them to remind us of the dark, irrational codes of death and sexuality and of the heartbeat of the wild, through tense metaphors and that keynote repetitive rhetoric that swings from a childish sing-song into a thudding note of doom. The apparently matter-of-fact oral story also included the little girl drinking the blood of her dead grandmother and then ritually undressing in front of the wolf. ' 'Where should I put my apron?' 'Throw it into the fire, my child, you won't be needing it any more.' And each time she asked where she should put all her clothes, the wolf replied: 'Throw them into the fire, my child, you won't be needing them any more.' '

The feminist, empowering retellings are vital to us if we are to resist the repressions practised on girlchildren through unconscious or semi-conscious aspects of our culture. But to resist and recuperate, we mustn't clean the story up too much. We mustn't pretend that we don't, in a way, still love the wolf - perhaps now more than ever - with his silent, elegant step through the woods, his smooth double-talk, his wild desires, his fierce body subdued into the bed, his gnawing hunger that only we can appease.

Would we be entirely happy in the world as told by the 'Merseyside fairy story collective', where the girl never talks to the wolf in the wood at all, and kills him easily with the help of her grandmother? We shouldn't pretend that the wolf-girl double-act doesn't hold the key to something more mesmerising than safety-after-dark lessons.

On that level the last word lies with Angela Carter, the only modern teller who can find a way to do it all. In The Company of Wolves she manages to give the girl her voice without silencing the wolf and to recast the violence with tenderness but without timidity. Her little girl uses the slow, erotic strip of the original to bring herself and the wolf together, until: 'It is Christmas Day, the werewolves' birthday; the door of the solstice stands wide open; let them all slink through. See] Sweet and sound she sleeps in granny's bed, between the paws of the tender wolf.'

(Photograph omitted)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions