The story of a little girl meeting a wolf while she brings her grandmother food is one of the most frequently adapted fairy tales of all time (Orenstein Uncloaked 6f.). Barnes and Nobles, for example, sells more than one hundred different editions of the story. In Germany, the girl is known as “Rotkäppchen”, in English−speaking countries she is “Little Red Riding Hood”, in France she is “Le petit chaperon rouge”, and in Spain she is “Caperucita Roja”. In those name variations the color red always appears and it could be assumed that the story is always told the same. The general plot remains; however, various authors have adapted the way it is told to the social norms of their times. The little girl with her red cap appears even on television, billboards, advertisements, children’s games, or in adult jokes (Orenstein Uncloaked 3). Two of the best known adaptations are the Brothers’ Grimm Rotkäppchen and Charles Perrault’s Le Petit Chaperon Rouge which were based upon the oral tale The Grandmother (Marshall 263). Both adaptations’ contents and connotations have changed over time. The Brothers Grimm even published multiple versions of Rotkäppchen and modified it several times. The question needs to be asked why a story, which is shared by so many cultures, is told differently and changes in its content.
The oral tale The Grandmother was passed on from generation to generation and is laced with “sexy innuendo” (Douglas 4) that is meant to aid in the sexual maturation of boys and girls (Orenstein Dances with Wolves). The tale that is nowadays commonly known as a children’s story started of as a tale of seduction (Orenstein Dances with Wolves). The audience was fully aware of the sexual connotations contained within The Grandmother. Perrault’s tale was meant to amuse as well as to warn women about sexual advances. Rotkäppchen, however, lost most of its former sexual connotations, barely pointing to the obscenity contained within the original tale.
This paper seeks to analyze one particular adaption in content: the loss of sexual connotations in Grimm’s Rotkäppchen in comparison to Perrault’s Le Petit Chaperon Rouge, which were both based upon the oral tale The Grandmother. The demonstration shows how the general views of society affect the content and the inferred meanings comprised within a tale. The Grandmother is introduced as the primary source of Perrault’s Le Petit Chaperon Rouge, followed by a comparative analysis of Le Petit Chaperon Rouge and Grimm’s Rotkäppchen. The tales will be examined in order to find out to what extent sexuality plays a role. Ideals and views of the times will be applied to the findings in order to argue that they are accountable for the decrease in sexual content.
The French tale The Grandmother is considered to be the source for Perrault’s fairy tale Le Petit Chaperon Rouge (Zipes 744). Hunger and the lack of privacy in France’s Old Regime brought illiterate peasants together to gossip about their everyday life (Orenstein Uncloaked 76f.). Parents and children alike were sitting in one room and were listening to rumors and interesting stories about coping with life’s problems; they tattled about their neighbors or complained about injustices. One topic among others was sexuality, which was not taboo at that time. Deduced from these rumors and the people’s life style, the composite tale The Grandmother was invented. The story is about a young peasant woman who takes bread and milk to her grandmother. The basic tale contains the themes of cannibalism, sexuality, defecation, mistaken identity, and an encounter in bed with a “dangerous foe” (Orenstein Uncloaked 69). These were the topics the common folk was interested in.
The girl in The Grandmother meets a wolf who follows her to her grandmother’s house and encourages her to eat and drink from the meat and blood of her grandmother whom he had previously dined upon. The little girl then is asked to take off her clothes and get into bed with the wolf. The wolf wants to eat her but the young woman says she has to relieve herself. The girl is allowed to go into the courtyard, but is tethered. She manages to untie the rope and run off (Zipes 744).
The “initiation” (Marshall 263) of a young girl is disguised within a tale that was intended for adults (Orenstein Uncloaked 3). The peasants did not care about the fact that children were in the room. Sexuality, personal hygiene, and violence were a part of their life, too; therefore, those topics were a part of the tale. The implication of the protagonist’s possible sexual encounter with the wolf as she undresses and climbs into bed naked, however, is meant to aid in the process of sexual socialization of children. In that time, institutionalized sex education did not exist and parents were not aware of the importance of teaching their children the facts of life. Tales took over that function.
During the 19th century the peasant women’s transition from childhood to adolescence was usually distinguished by the symbolism of needles and pins. Pins are easy to use but they only make temporary fastenings, they have no opening; therefore, they symbolize the state of virginity. The needles are employed with skill and make permanent ties. Putting a thread through the eye of a needle has a clear sexual connotation symbolizing the transition into womanhood (Douglas 4). When the audience listened to The Grandmother’s tale which talks about the little girl choosing the path of needles (and picking up needles) it is implied that the young girl is transitioning into womanhood (Orenstein Uncloaked 65). Douglas even states that the “French listener expects a story that refers to sex and the roles a female child will go through in her life” (4). People were used to sexual connoted anecdotes.
The process of maturation implies sexual encounters because children need to discover their own sexuality in order to become an adult. Sexual encounters, however, were not considered to be appropriate for young girls during that time. Chastity was a common value and premarital sex was considered socially inappropriate. The meeting with the wolf in the story − the “bzou” (Orenstein Uncloaked 65) − traditionally symbolizes this socially inappropriate behavior; the girl meets the evil (Orenstein Uncloaked 5). The girl in the story, on the contrary, does not see her inappropriate deeds; she complies happily with the request of the wolf to get into bed (Douglas 4). The audience sees the girl performing a forbidden act. This implied warning should act as moral education.
The wolf is a representation of the embodiment of the girl’s sexual initiation. In French slang avoit vû le loup − having seen the wolf1 − means losing one’s virginity (Orenstein Uncloaked 26). The use of vulgarity within The Grandmother such as “slut” and “shitting a load” (Orenstein Uncloaked 66) alludes to the implied warning in the tale.
The fact that the girl can escape at the end of the story implies that children are still learning to cope with sexuality and the process of growing up. They should not be punished severely in order to make maturation possible.
In the 18th century, Perrault wrote his Le Petit Chaperon Rouge for the luxurious and indulgent French Court of the Sun King (Louis XIV). The audience and the environment in which the story was told had changed. The people within Louis’ court were mainly concerned with wine, gaming, and fornication (Orenstein Uncloaked 30). The Sun King’s reign was the age of royal courtesans, high society prostitutes, and extramarital affairs (Orenstein Uncloaked 24). These were not openly accepted but everyone was aware of their existence and took advantage of them. People were often bored and needed entertainment.
1 All translations are mine, unless otherwise noted.
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- Rotkäppchen Little Red Riding Hood Le Petit Chaperon Rouge The Old Grandmother sexuelle Konnotationen innuendos Caperucita Roja Märchen fairy tale Märchenadaptionen Gebrüder Grimm Brothers Grimm Charles Perrault sexual connotations obscenity Obszönität