Little Red Riding Hood – a cautionary tale?

Little Red Riding Hood - a cautionary tale?

Dearest daughter,

in response to your letter in which you asked me very nicely to please allow you to walk into the wild woods by yourself:

remember Little Red Riding Hood? There was not a child more law abiding, sweet and obedient than her. A fact often overseen by those who refer to her story as a cautionary tale: the first third of it is entirely dedicated to how much everyone loved her due to her lovely and loyal disposition, truthfulness and dedication to her mother’s advice and guidance.

Do you think anyone hearing the story for the very first time – and being somewhat ignorant of the basic concept of morality in a fairy tale – do you think that such a person would expect her to forget about her mother’s advice the very first moment she encounters a challenge? Which is exactly what happens once she has wandered off happily with her basket filled with goods for her sick grandmother.

Well, we have to concede that she strays from the path of virtue for two reasons that somewhat make us stay sympathetic to her ordeal: first of all, she means well. A bunch of flowers from the wayside would surely be a welcome present for her grandmother? Never mind though that mother not only warned her against leaving the path but actually forbid her to do so! We see her put her own judgment without much quarrel with her conscience before her mother’s clear and concise directions. Let’s not forget we are talking about the most obedient girl in the village here!

The second aspect to exculpate her somewhat of course is that she is being seduced by a cunning conjurer of convincing tales. Can we really expect her to stick to those dry rules when confronted with the loveliness of the world beyond the right path as presented by a seasoned liar? The woods have never looked more inviting to her than after the wolf’s description of finely scented flowers growing in the shade of luscious trees! Shouldn’t we also blame her mother, by the way, who sends her into harm’s way? If there is a wolf lurking in those woods, as she well knows, why does she send her little girl on the errand? And you expect me to send you out into a world full of strange and unexpected temptations, equipped with just a few rules?

Here is the part of the story that has not been distributed widely but is worth considering. Prior to the whole walk in the woods scene Little Red’s mother had received a letter from her daughter. “Dearest Mother”, it read, “I am responsible and obedient. I would never do anything you told me not to! I have proven myself, now let me go!” Wouldn’t such a letter touch a mother’s heart just as yours’ touched mine? Wouldn’t it make her feel just a little guilty that she hasn’t entrusted Little Red Riding Hood with an important errand earlier already, Little Red Riding Hood, the best behaved, the loveliest, the most obedient girl in the village? You bet, it did. And we all know how the story ends!

Wait a minute, how does it end? If you think it has a bad ending, read again. Here we see her, sitting chipper at the table at her grandmother’s house, enjoying wine and cake in the company not only of her suddenly recovered grandmother but also in the company of a handsome huntsman?

Maybe this is not a moral warning tale about a girl who forgets the rules while she walks through the woods, ahem, to school on her own for the first time. Maybe it is a story about a girl who needs to make her own mistakes to find her own way, wolfs and all, and that despite all dangers there is a good chance for her to do just that. Maybe it is a story about a mother who needs to let her child go into the woods to find a way out again?

The more I think about it, the more I suspect that this is more a tale about the inevitable fact that mothers have to let their children go their own ways despite their fervent wishes to protect them against all evil and bad will, real and imaginary.

Go walk find your way through the wild woods as you must, my Little Red Riding Hood. But know that there is a wolf out there who will talk about moonflowers in the shades of the trees far off the beaten path …

With all my love,
Your Mother

I am looking forward to reading your comments!

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