Grandma, what big complexes we all have

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The Independent Online
When my children were small they adored a book called Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf. Catherine Storr's tales subverted the standard version of Red Riding Hood by making the wolf slow-witted and the little girl confident and ingenious. Clever Polly used the wolf's greed and gullibility to trap him and extricate herself.

Red Riding Hood has been a source of delight to children for centuries, but it was first written down by Charles Perrault in 1696. Today it is perhaps the best-loved of all children's stories. The reasons for its popularity are analysed by Jack Zipes in a fascinating book called The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood (published by Routledge at pounds 40 in hardback, pounds 13.99 paperback).

The origins of the story go to the heart of adult preoccupation with emerging female sexuality and its challenge to the family and society. Zipes argues that Perrault and his contemporaries used fairy stories quite deliberately to indoctrinate children and rein in their sexuality. (That of the adult was presumably uncontrollable.) The stories were a subversive way of making little girls conform, controlling them by threats and rewarding docility and obedience.

One need not be a fully paid-up Freudian to see the truth of Zipes's argument. The little girl in the red hood (she can also, in more far-fetched interpretations, represent the rising sun, the wolf the darkness, the ego, the id, and many other things as well, but let us stay with pre-adolescent sexuality) is sent out into the dangerous wood, after dire warnings about keeping to the path and not talking to strangers. (Today her mother would be prosecuted for negligence and vilified by the Tories, but that's by the by.) Her curiosity and innocence enable the wolf to beguile her into revealing her destination.

The wolf (child-molester/ predatory male) goes by a quicker path, kills the grandmother, dresses up in her clothes, gets into bed and devours (rapes) the little girl. In some versions an avenging hero arrives in the shape of a hunter and shoots the wolf after he has eaten the grandmother, but before he can gobble up Red Riding Hood. (Who cares about the rape and murder of old women, is the message here.)

The moral is do as you are told or be deflowered. Similar stories exist in Chinese and Asian versions. A mother's desire to protect her darling daughters is as universal as the male desire to rape them.

I have outlined the original version, but Zipes rivetingly demonstrates that each period produces its own interpretation. The Sixties gave us the little girl who was nobody's fool, as in Clever Polly. The Seventies gave us Angela Carter's The Company of Wolves, wherein the folk tradition of the werewolf is emphasised, but the smart little girl proves a match for him. She consents to, even takes the lead in, her own seduction, asserting her equal sexuality and adding female tenderness to male ferocity. (Carter's inventive reworking of fairy stories in The Bloody Chamber takes female complicity in sado-masochism much further.)

The Nineties have produced the most far-fetched yet: a lesbian Red Riding Hood, a vegetarian wolf and a grandmother bent upon euthanasia in Sally Miller Gearhart's absurd but politically- correct Roja and Leopold.

Revealing as is Zipes's deconstruction of the original folklore, there is another way of looking at fairy stories, more fascinating still. Robert Darnton, in an essay called Peasants Tell Tales: The Meaning of Mother Goose from his book The Great Cat Massacre, chooses instead to analyse what they can tell us about the world from which they came. 'Folktales,' he says, 'are historical documents . . .' and he goes on to prove it. From stories such as Puss in Boots, Darnton brilliantly and plausibly deduces more than you would think possible about the common man in the 18th century.

He shows that oral tradition (and Perrault got his tales from his son's nurse) has unconsciously preserved the peasants' world for us, in all its harshness and poverty. The youngest son setting off with only his cat (the booted Puss) to make his fortune, for instance, represents all the superfluous children of poor families who, with too many mouths to feed, must often have been turned out and abandoned to their fate.

Darnton's examples are many, and utterly convincing. Marina Warner, currently examining myths and sex in the Reith lectures offers another set of interpretations. Listen to her, read these two books, and you'll never look at a fairy story in the same light again.