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)

Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
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.

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
    Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

    Marian Keyes

    The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

    Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

    Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
    Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

    Rodgers fights for his reputation

    Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick