Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf? It’s become so much of a metaphorical threat over the centuries, at least for urban dwellers, that modern retellings often recast the ‘wolf’ as an all too human threat. As Vanessa Bates wrote in her play The Magic Hour, “all the animals around here walk on two legs”. Be it present day stranger danger or ancient fear, it’s always wise to be wary of what hides in the deep dark woods.
The story begins by introducing us to ‘a sweet little maiden’ preparing to visit her beloved grandmother with a basket of cake and wine, the old lady having been ill and in need of familial TLC. The girl’s mother sends her off with a litany of instructions, ranging from ‘don’t stray from the path, otherwise you’ll fall and break the glass’ to ‘don’t go peeping in all the corners’ when she gets to Granny’s, but no mention is made of wolves. The girl puts on the red velvet cap her grandmother made for her, the one she wears so often it has become her nickname, and sets off into the woods.
Suddenly, a wolf pops up at her elbow. “Good day, Little Red Cap!” he says, instantly establishing himself as a shady character by a) talking, and b) knowing her name. Red replies politely to his series of pointed questions, explaining her errand and unwisely including directions to her grandmother’s house. Cunningly exploiting her self-evident affection for the old lady, the wolf scolds Red for not including a bouquet of flowers with her other gifts. Red falls for it hook, line and sinker.
While she’s in pursuit of the perfect posy, the wolf runs straight to Granny’s and fakes Red’s voice, asking to be allowed in. Turns out he need not have gone to the effort, because all he has to do is lift the latch and he’s in. Granny has barely a moment to recognise her mistake before the wolf gobbles her up.
That is not enough to satisfy him, however. Putting on the discarded nightgown and cap, he jumps into bed and waits for the little girl to arrive. Before long, she does. Her first warning that something is wrong is the door standing open; the next is the sight of her ‘grandmother’s’ fanged, ferocious face. Realisation comes too late for Red, as well – the wolf leaps up and swallows her down whole.
Stuffed with tricked innocents, he returns to bed and is soon asleep. He snores so loudly that a passing huntsman grows concerned and comes into the cottage to check on the old lady he knows lives there. He recognises the wolf for what it is at once and snatches up a pair of scissors to slice open its swollen stomach. Red falls out first, alive and well, then her grandmother. Somehow, the wolf does not wake up. Was one of his victims on soporifics? Is the huntsman just so good at impromptu surgery? Who can say.
Granny and Red, understandably resentful about the whole ‘eaten alive’ thing, fetch stones and fill the wolf’s stomach with those instead. The weight of them kills him. The huntsman then skins him, the grandmother eats her cake, and Red learns to never trust a wolf again. It’s a lesson that will come in handy.
Because, wait. THERE’S MORE.
Some time after the incident with the wolf in Granny’s clothing, Red is retracing her steps with another basket of get well cake when she encounters a second wolf. Not falling for his sweet talk this time around, she runs straight to her grandmother’s house and locks the door. The pair of them then lie low while the wolf tries the same con as its predecessor. Failing that, it jumps on the roof to wait for the moment when Red must inevitably leave the house. This went from con to siege situation very fast.
What he hasn’t counted on is that these ladies are veterans now. Granny orders Red to fetch the water in which she cooked yesterday’s sausages and has her pour it into the stone trough at the front of the house. The smell is so enticing that the wolf leans too far over the edge of the roof and falls. He drowns in the trough. Compared to cutting open the first wolf’s stomach, this plan was genius. Then ‘Little Red went merrily on her way home, and no one harmed her.’
Even taken at its most literal message (stick to the path or the wolf will get you), ‘Little Red Cap/ Riding Hood’ is a story of victim blaming. Wolves are not vampires! They can cross the path without an invitation! Add in the sexual subtext and references to cannibalism contained in the earliest versions, in which the wolf bakes Granny into pies and tricks Red into eating them – fairy tale meta is the creepiest – and you have a seriously screwed up little fable on your hands. There’s a reason the Grimm brothers sanitised this stuff, but in this version at least, Red learns from her first mistake. Sticking to the path won’t save you. Sharp scissors and some very heavy stones probably will.