The meaning of a classic story
‘Little Red Riding Hood’ was, Charles Dickens said, his first love. It is one of the most universally known fairy tales: if you were to ask 100 people to name a fairy tale, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ would be one of the most popular answers. And much like a number of other fairy tales, which seem to have grown up around older oral tales (‘Rumpelstiltskin’, for instance, is reckoned to be a whopping 4,000 years old), ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ can be traced back to the 10th century when it was circulating as a French oral tale, and also existed as a fourteenth-century Italian story named ‘The False Grandmother’, though it only became popular under this name in the 1690s, when it appeared in the work of the French fabulist Charles Perrault. It rapidly established itself as one of the best-loved and familiar fairy stories in the western world. Yet what is the meaning of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’? Before we venture an answer to this – via an analysis of the story’s key features – it’s worth recapping the plot in a brief summary.
A young village girl who lives with her mother is given a little red riding-hood to wear, and everyone starts to refer to her as ‘the Little Red Riding-Hood’ on account of it. One day, the girl’s mother asks her to go and visit her grandmother, who lives in the next village, through the forest. Little Red Riding-Hood is given some food to take with her to give to her grandmother. She sets off, and on the way, while travelling through the woods, she meets a talking wolf, who asks her where she’s going. Little Red Riding-Hood tells him that she’s going to visit her grandmother, and the wolf asks where her grandmother lives. Little Red Riding-Hood tells him she lives in the first house in the village, on the other side of the mill. The wolf says he’ll head there himself, taking a different route, and they can have a competition to see who can get there first. Read the rest of this entry
The meaning of a classic fairy tale
Blood wishes, talking mirrors, and poisoned fruit: it’s all here in ‘Snow White’, one of the most enduringly popular and recognisable fairy tales in western literature. Yet what is the story of Snow White and the seven dwarfs really about? Does it have a moral? And what are the fairy tale’s origins? Closer analysis of the Snow White story reveals a hideous and gruesome tale which Disney had to sanitise to make it palatable for family audiences.
First, a brief summary of the Snow White story. One day, a queen sat working at a window with an ebony frame, with the snow falling outside. She pricked her finger (presumably she was sewing or knitting, though her precise occupation, other than ‘queen’, is not usually stated), and, watching the drops of blood, she made a wish that her little daughter would grow up to be as white as snow, as red as her blood, and as black as the ebony window frame. And sure enough, the queen’s daughter grew up to have snow-white skin, cheeks as red as her mother’s blood, and hair as black as ebony.
When the queen died shortly after this, the king remarried a vain woman who became Snow White’s stepmother. This stepmother liked to look in her magical looking-glass and ask it who was the fairest in the land, to which the obliging mirror would always return the answer, ‘You, queen.’ Except that one day, Read the rest of this entry
The curious meaning of a classic story
One central feature of the story of ‘Rapunzel’ is well-known: the beautiful blonde woman, imprisoned in a tower, who lets down her long hair for her lover. But what does the story of ‘Rapunzel’ mean? And how does the meaning of the very name ‘Rapunzel’ offer a clue? In this post, the latest in our occasional series discussing the meanings and origins of classic fairy stories, we offer a short summary and analysis of ‘Rapunzel’. Although the version told by the Brothers Grimm was first published in 1812, it was based on a seventeenth-century story, and the actual tale may be older still. It’s still with us: the 2010 Disney film Tangled is based on the Rapunzel story.
First, a quick summary of the plot of ‘Rapunzel’. A married couple are childless, but long for a child. They live in a house which overlooks a beautiful garden in which rampion (a wildflower which used to be grown as an edible vegetable) grows in abundance. However, the man and his wife are not allowed to go into the garden, which belongs to a wicked witch. One day, however, the wife is overcome by her desire for some rampion, so her husband sneaks into the garden and steals some, which his wife eagerly eats. The husband goes to fetch some more, but is caught red-handed by the witch, who threatens to punish him. Read the rest of this entry