ENGLISH 1302: COMPOSITION AND RHETORIC II
Over the centuries, fairy tales have been adapted to suit a wide array of audiences across the globe. Innovations in storytelling often begin with archetypal figures and plots in folkloric traditions. Fairy tales have always been transformed and updated to suit evolving societal expectations, morals, and beliefs. In his essay, Dillon McGee compares and contrasts the portrayal of the two iconic figures, Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf, in the classic cautionary tale by the Brothers Grimm, “Little Red Cap,” and Angela Carter¹s contemporary feminist re-telling of the tale, “The Company of Wolves.” Dillon does a fantastic job of pulling out textual evidence in order to fully illustrate the comparison between the two stories.
– Jessica Drake-Thomas
The Changes to a Red Hood and a Bad Wolf
How much does a character change when they are adapted over the centuries? Stories that survive for so long, such as “Little Red Riding Hood,” will always change to fit the times, sometimes in small ways, sometimes in big ways. For the small ways, we can look at the Grimm Brothers. Jacob (1785-1863) and Wilhelm (1786-1859) Grimm were linguistic professors at Göttingen University and they collected folktales which they published for children and adults. They are best known for Children and Household Tales, published in 1812, which included their version of Little Red Riding Hood, translated to English as “Little Red Cap.” But the Grimms only made small changes to the classic tale. Angela Carter (1940-1991) was known for refashioning classic tales as fantasy, such as fairy tales. She often rewrote them from a female point of view in order to challenge patriarchal values. “The Company of Wolves,” Carter’s version of “Little Red Riding Hood,” was first published in the journal Bananas in 1977. We know the classic story of Grimm’s “Little Red Cap.” Once upon a time, a girl named Little Red Cap goes to visit her sick grandmother. On the way she runs into the Big Bad Wolf, who tricks Red into taking the long path, so he can eat Red’s grandmother. He then disguises himself as Granny and eats Red herself. Fortunately for them, a huntsman comes along and cuts the wolf open, saving Red and Granny. They all live happily ever after. Carter’s “The Company of Wolves” is a tad different. A pubescent child with no fear and wearing a red hood goes to visit her Granny through the dangerous, wolf infested woods. In the woods she meets a charming young huntsman, who challenges Red to see who can make it to Granny’s faster, in exchange for a kiss. Red loses on purpose, so the huntsman makes it to Granny first. He then reveals himself a werewolf, kills Granny, eats her, and hides the evidence. When Red makes it to the cabin, she burns her clothes and makes love to the huntsman. What happened for the same story to take such a drastic change? The changes made to Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf’s appearances, personalities, and motivations from “Little Red Cap” to “The Company of Wolves” change the plot and theme of the story.
The appearances of Red and the Wolf change between “Little Red Cap” and “The Company of Wolves.” Certainly, some details remained similar, for example, in “Little Red Cap,” Red is only described as a “…little girl… [in] a little red cap made of velvet” (Grimm 621). Similarly, in “The Company of Wolves,” Red is “The flaxen-haired girl… [in her] knitted red shawl” (Carter 627). The only description of the Big Bad Wolf in “Little Red Cap” is when Red comments, “…what big ears/eyes/hands…horribly big mouth you have!” (Grimm 622). Carter pays homage to this description when her Red comments, “What big arms you have… What big teeth you have!”(Carter 631). Of course, change means there will be differences. In the Grimms’ version, Red’s appearance is not elaborated beyond young, female, and red cap. Carter goes into detail with Red stating that “Her breasts have just begun to swell; her hair like lint, so fair…her cheeks are emblematic scarlet and white and she has just started her woman’s bleeding” (Carter 627). In Grimms’ tale, just like Little Red, there is no other description of the Wolf beyond Red’s frightened comments, but it can be inferred by “What big arms you have!” (Grimm 622) that he may be a werewolf. Carter’s wolf actually does not appear as a wolf at first. He is a “… very handsome young…hunter, laden with carcasses of game birds…such a fine fellow…not among the rustic clowns of her native village” (628). Later, when we learn he is the wolf, “His feral muzzle is sharp as a knife…off with his disguise…his matted hair streams down…his skin is the color and texture of vellum…he’s so thin you could count the ribs under his skin…she can see how hairy his legs are. His genitals, huge.” (Carter 629). Grimm’s minimal description of Red makes the reader more able to imagine themselves or maybe their child as Red. Carter’s detailed description shows that she wants Red to be more than a prop the reader can put themselves into and that her newly acquired womanhood will be an important part of her character. Likewise, Grimms’ lack of description for the Wolf makes him a generic villain whose purpose is to deliver a moral. The only sure thing about the wolf is that he is big. Carter’s description makes the wolf a human, but only in disguise, for his true appearance shows him to be wild, savage, and sexual. But disguises do not make a wolf, his personality does.
The looks make a prop, a character needs a distinct personality. Red’s main personality trait in Grimms’ version is her innocence, which ends up getting her into trouble. “She did not know what a wicked animal he was and was not afraid of him” (621). Carter’s Red has the same fearless innocence, which ironically, saves her from being eaten: “…she does not know how to shiver…she is afraid of nothing” (627). But she should be afraid of the Big Bad Wolf, because a common trait of his character’s is craftiness: “You must be sly and you can eat them both” (Grimm 621). We see that both wolves have a knack for guile and a silver tongue. “It is your granddaughter, he mimicked in a high soprano” (Carter 629). Although Grimms’ Red is a generic “…sweet little girl. Everyone who saw her liked her” (621). Carter’s Red “…has her knife…” (627). Not an item a sweet little girl could carry. And she may not be as innocent as was first assumed. “What would you like? She asked disingenuously. A kiss. Commonplaces of a rustic seduction; she lowered her eyes and blushed” (Carter 628). The big difference between the Grimms’ and Carter’s wolves is that Grimms’ wolf is single minded, only looking for a meal. “She ran off, going farther and farther into the woods. But the wolf ran straight to the grandmother’s house…” (Grimm 622). Carter’s wolf, on the other hand, likes to “play with his food” first. “Soon, they were laughing and joking like old friends…Shall we make a game of it?” (Carter 268). The main personality trait of Little Red Riding Hood is her fearless innocence, which is what allows her to trust the wolf and move along the plot. However, Carter’s Red has an added fire inside that shows that there’s more to her than sweet demeanor and red clothes. Opposite of Red, all Big Bad Wolves are crafty, but Carter sets hers apart by making the wolf bantering, playful, staying to develop a relation between him and Red, while Grimm’s simply moves the plot along. Although personality will make a character stand out among cut-outs of trees and bushes, but for a plot to be fully developed, the character needs a motive.
For a character to be fully realized, they need a goal for which to aim. For example, in every tale of Little Red Riding Hood, Red goes on her journey to take a gift basket to her grandmother. “Here is a piece of cake and a bottle of wine. Take them to your grandmother. She is sick…” (Grimm 621). “…in the basket her mother packed with cheeses…a bottle of harsh liquor…a batch of flat oatcakes…The flaxen-haired girl will take these delicious gifts to a reclusive grandmother so old the burden of her years is crushing her to death” (Carter 627). Similarly, every Big Bad Wolf has the goal to make it to Granny’s house, not to give her a gift, but to eat her whole. “…the wolf ran straight to the grandmother’s house…he stepped inside, went straight to the grandmother’s bed and ate her up” (Grimm 622). “The last thing the old woman saw…was a young man, eyes like cinders, naked as a stone…the wolf is carnivore incarnate. When he had finished with her, he licked his chops…He burned the inedible hair and wrapped up the bones…” (Carter 629). The only desire of Grimm’s Red is to make it to grandmother’s house. Carter’s Red, however, is not so simple, or so innocent. Red wants to know what “true love” is: “…now she was clothed only in her untouched integument of flesh…Then went directly to the man with red eyes…she freely gave the kiss she owed him…as she would do in a savage marriage ceremony” (631). The only desire of Grimms’ Wolf is to eat Red and Granny. Carter’s wolf, on the other hand, has different plans for Red (but not poor Granny). “What would you like? She asked disingenuously. A kiss” (628). “What shall I do with my blouse? Into the fire with it, too, my pet” (630-631). Red’s change of motivation changes the whole story. “The Company of Wolves” transforms “Little Red Cap” from an Aesop-like moral tale about talking to strangers, to a woman’s tale of sexual liberation. And the differences between the Wolves’ motivations matches with the differences between the two Reds. Carter’s handsome outcast makes the perfect prey for a newly “liberated” Red.
The innovations to the appearances, personalities, and motivations of Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf update this classic tale to find a new audience in a modern era. Although the classic Grimms’ version will never stop being relevant, and probably even preferred, Carter updates the characters, and thus the story, to better fit what a modern audience would read. New takes on old stories allow opportunities for new ideas and new creativity to be discovered by writers and readers alike.
Carter, Angela. “The Company of Wolves”. Arguing about Literature: A Guide and Reader. Ed. John Schilb, John Clifford. Boston. Bedford/St. Martins. 2014. 624-631. Print.
Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. “Little Red Cap”. Arguing about Literature: A Guide and Reader. Ed. John Schilb, John Clifford. Boston. Bedford/St. Martins. 2014. 620-623. Print.