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)