Fairy tales help children overcome dangers by being faster, smarter or more obedient, but they also remind us what children fear
On a recent evening, I read a graphic novel called “Hush”, from Manta Ray Comics. The story is told entirely without words, and the panels do not run chronologically. So I examined each haunting rectangle, often out of sequence, to know what provoked young Maya to fire a gun in the classroom. I soon understood the events, but I could not put the book down. I read it a third time, then I read the bits before and after the graphics, and that's when I found an attached poster of Maya in a red hooded cape, carrying a straw basket and a handgun. It was the first spot of colour I saw in that noir hour, and it sent me up my own dark stairs to root out another book I have often pored over in the same way.
One of the most famous tales told to children stars a girl instructed to carry food to her grandmother's house, which lies on the other side of the woods. Her mother tells her not to stray from the path through the trees. A wolf waylays her, finds out where she is going, and reaches the grandmother's house by a faster way. He devours the old woman, puts on her cap and nightgown, and lies under the covers, waiting for Little Red Riding Hood to come in. In the version published by the Brothers Grimm, a passing hunter rescues the girl and slits open the wolf to release the grandmother. But in the early oral versions, the wolf asks the little girl to get in bed with him, and he gobbles her up.
I rediscovered this and other fairy tales a few years ago in “The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales”, edited by Maria Tatar and published by Norton. Tatar in her introduction talks of the purposes such tales served. They articulated a child's fears, she argues, fears of being devoured by ogres or abandoned by parents, fears of poverty, hunger, a sibling's hostility, wild animals and dark woods. Children often learned that they could survive by being faster, smarter or more obedient.
Over centuries, “Little Red Riding Hood” has had morals appended to it, mostly about not straying from the path. It has been sanitised, parodied and re-imagined by writers from James Thurber to Angela Carter. Like anything red, it has been psychoanalysed.
The danger in this story lurks indoors, not in the woods. The child knows there's something not quite right about the figure wearing her grandmother's nightcap. But she makes polite conversation in the face of increasingly evident danger. Whether or not that is grandma, it is a grown-up, and she must answer to that grown-up. If she had noticed the wolf's fangs and claws in the woods, she would have run. In the house, she temporises, fatally.
Salvation for Little Red Riding Hood comes from outside the house, at least in the kinder version. If only it could have come for Maya, and for every girl faced with a wolf.
Keywords: fairy tales