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
A summary of Shakespeare’s 44th sonnet
‘If the dull substance of my flesh were thought, / Injurious distance should not stop my way’: yes, sonnet 44 in Shakespeare’s Sonnets is another poem about the long-distance love Shakespeare bears the Fair Youth. This sonnet generally requires less critical analysis than most of the Sonnets, but nevertheless a few words of summary and explication help to show how Shakespeare’s poem uses the scientific ideas of his age to highlight the plight of the long-distance lover.
If the dull substance of my flesh were thought,
Injurious distance should not stop my way;
For then despite of space I would be brought,
From limits far remote, where thou dost stay.
No matter then although my foot did stand
Upon the farthest earth removed from thee;
For nimble thought can jump both sea and land
As soon as think the place where he would be. Read the rest of this entry
The curious origins of a famous rhyme
Humpty Dumpty was originally a drink, then he became an egg in a nursery rhyme. Quite how this happened, nobody seems to know, but it did. The name ‘Humpty-dumpty’ was given to a drink of boiled ale and brandy in 1698, and that’s only the first known reference in print – the name is probably considerably older. By 1785, as Francis Grose recorded in his fascinating collection of contemporary slang, A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, the rhyming term had been applied to people, and was used specifically to describe a ‘short, dumpy, hump-shouldered person’ and, by extension, a clumsy person. But the words ‘Humpty-Dumpty’ mean one thing and one thing alone to most readers: an egg in the famous nursery rhyme which begins, ‘Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall’. What is the meaning of this little rhyme, and what are its origins?
First, before we attempt an analysis of this curious nursery rhyme, here’s a reminder of the words:
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall;
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.
This rhyme didn’t appear until the early nineteenth century, according to Iona and Peter Opie in The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford Dictionary of Nusery Rhymes), when it was included in a manuscript that was mysteriously added to a printed 1803 copy of Mother Goose’s Melody. Since the Opies compiled their dictionary in the early 1950s, the rhyme has been traced back to an earlier source, Samuel Arnold’s 1797 work Juvenile Amusements: Read the rest of this entry