The Little Red Riding Hood: Summary and Symbols Explained
Little Red Cap: the Fairy Tale, Historic Background, and Symbolic Power
The Little Red Riding Hood story is among the most popular fairy tales in the world. This is a story about the never-ending fight between good and evil, a story about greed and hope, a story about responsibility and second chances . . . Red Riding Hood, or Red Cap, is an old fairy tale, known in many different variations, and each one of them can be interpreted in many different ways.
I invite you to join me on the exciting journey through the deep woods to learn the history of the story of Red Cap and its hidden meanings. We'll start with the summary of Little Red Riding Hood and see where this brings us. It is one of the most-studied fairy tales, and I can promise you many interesting findings if you don't stray from the path like she did!
First, let's see what you already know!view quiz statistics
Red Riding Hood Summary
Once upon a time, there was a little girl. Her grandmother gave her a red riding hood, and the girl loved it so much she wore it all the time—so everybody started to call her Little Red Riding Hood.
One day, her mother told the girl her grandmother had fallen ill. Because she lived alone, deep in the woods, she would probably be happy to get some food and a visit from her granddaughter. Mother gave a basket with food and a bottle of wine to Little Red Riding Hood and told her: "Don't stray from the path!"
The girl promised but soon forgot about her mother's warning. After a while, she met a wolf in the woods. He asked her where she was going, and she told him about her granny's bad health and where she lived. The wolf tricked her into stopping and picking some flowers. She did that, and in the meantime, the wolf ran to the granny's house.
The wolf, pretending to be the granddaughter, entered the grandmother's house and ate the lady. Then he dressed in her nightgown and waited for Little Red Riding Hood.
When she came in, the famous dialogue about great arms, great ears, and great teeth followed. After that, the wolf ate the girl and took a nap.
Soon after, a huntsman came by the house and heard snoring. He entered cautiously, saw the sleeping monster in granny's bed and guessed what happened. Then he opened the sleeping wolf's stomach with a knife.
Granny and Red Riding Hood came out and helped the huntsman fill the wolf's stomach with stones. When the wolf woke up, he tried to run away, but the stones were too heavy. He fell down and died. Grandmother, granddaughter, and huntsman lived happily ever after.
Warning: This Happy Ending Isn't in Every Version of the Tale!
Our short summary is of the Brothers Grimm's Red Cap, not Perrault's Little Red Riding Hood. Perrault's is the most popular version of this fairy tale in the world, but many parents still don't think it is appropriate for today's children. It is pretty cruel indeed, and a certain percent of kids can have nightmares after hearing or reading this version.
So let's take a look at Perrault's Little Red Riding Hood (Le Petit Chaperon Rouge)!
What Is Different in Perrault's Version?
The summary of Red Riding Hood is basically the same in both versions. The main difference is the absence of the hunter in Perrault's story: In this case, the story ends when the wolf eats the girl. We read only a conclusion in verse saying not to trust strangers.
Well, this is not the only difference! I will present just a few—some may be negligible at first sight, but if we take a few moments to think them over, we'll notice that every single detail can make a huge difference.
Compare Perrault's and Grimm's Red Cap
- In the beginning of Perrault's story, the mother gives the daughter a basket and sends her to her grandmother with the words: "Do not talk to strangers!" The warning about not leaving the path was an addition by the Grimms.
- The messages of both fairy tales differ. Perrault warns us not to trust strangers and the Brothers Grimm emphasize how important is to stay on the trail.
- The content of the basket is not the same in both cases. Psychoanalysts were especially excited over a bottle of wine added by William Grimm. It is supposed to have a strong symbolic meaning—and we will deal with that later!
- Perrault's Red Riding Hood takes her clothes off and gets into bed with the wolf. The implications are obvious. This version is not appropriate for kids, and it really never was intended for a young audience in the first place. The Grimms' Red Cap doesn't do that: She just approaches the wolf and gets eaten.
Now shall we delve into the symbolism of the story?
Little Red Riding Hood Symbolism (The Hidden Meanings)
Let's go from top to bottom:
The Hood Covering the Hair
If the girl in the story is wearing a hood (or cap), she is obviously covering her hair. Hair, especially women's, plays an important role in many cultures in the world. When a girl reaches the age in which she turns into a woman, her hair is considered one of her most powerful tools for attracting the opposite gender. With covering (or cutting) her hair, she sends a message she is not available yet (or anymore).
The Color Red
When the girl gets a hood from her grandmother, we can say the life forces are passing from older (going) to younger (coming) generation. The red color is, of course, the color of life and blood. It can be easily associated with menstrual blood.
The red color of the hood is an invention of Charles Perrault, and we should know that in the 17th century, a decent woman would never wear a red hood because red was the color of sin. Only ladies with really bad reputations wore red dresses, and Perrault's insinuations were obvious.
The Color Gold (Yes, Gold)
Before the 17th century, the story was already well known. In some versions, the hood wasn't any particular color, but in some, it was gold. Gold, of course, represents maturity and responsibility and at the end of the day, we can say this is what is Little Red Riding Hood all about.
The Message of Red Cap
Perrault's "Don't talk to the strangers!" and the Grimms' "Don't stray from the path!" are really two expressions of the same message: "Be responsible, or you shall pay the toll!"
In many fairy tales, the main character (the protagonist) must go in the forest. It seems trees are an endless source of inspiration in folklore. There are many speculations why the forest is so important but we can also stick to the obvious: Most people in medieval or pre-medieval times lived near forests. People's existence have been closely related to the woods for practically forever, but forests also represent unknown, although very serious, danger.
In psychoanalysis, a forest symbolizes unconsciousness. Leonard Lutwack goes even further and labels it as untamed feminine sexuality. Why? The forest is a very fertile place, but it is also wild, uncultivated, and unpredictable. It is not a coincidence that so many popular heroes and heroines (Red Cap, Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, Goldilocks) must get lost in the woods just to come back as more responsible (and we can say domesticated) persons. The transformation role of the forest is obvious.
Even if the main character doesn't enter the woods, something important can happen there. For instance: The name of Rumpelstiltskin is hidden in the woods, and the Goose Girl lost her identity in the forest. In some cases, the forest represents the enemy itself (remember Sleeping Beauty and her rescuers?).
The Basket and the Bottle
What was in Red Riding Hood's basket? Charles Perrault opted for a cake and butter, while the Brothers Grimm gave her some cakes and a bottle of wine.
Erich Fromm explained the bottle in Red Riding Hood's basket as a symbol of virginity. The shape of a bottle is phallic, but as a bottle it is also fragile and breakable. In a dream analysis, a bottle can also represent suppression of feelings: Instead of letting them out, they are bottled. The bottle also has to be opened (or broken) to release the trapped spirit. Considering that red wine stands for passion, you might say the case of decoding Little Red Riding Hood is almost closed . . .
Remember: The Symbols (and Their Meanings) Vary
If we want to explore the hidden meanings of fairy tales, we should never forget how they were collected, written, rewritten, and published. Initially, they were oral stories, varying from mouth to mouth, village to village, valley to valley. Collectors were unreliable, always writing and tweaking the material in accordance with their personal beliefs and norms of the society they belong.
For example, the history of Red Cap (this translation is more accurate to Perrault's or Grimm's records) clearly shows us bottle of wine is present only in one of the hundreds of known versions. We will never know for sure what the Grimms thought when they incorporated it in the basket, but as Siegmund Freud stated: "Sometimes a cigar is only a cigar."
Interpretations, Theories, and Analysis
Let's look at Little Red Riding Hood through these different lenses:
- theories about the story's absent father (where is he, anyway?)
- Red Cap as an allegory of resurrection
- Red Cap as a story about pregnancy
- Red Cap as a story about rape
Theories Behind the Tale's Absent Father
Everybody familiar with the Brothers Grimm is already aware how many absent fathers are in their fairy tales. We have a missing father in both the Grimms' and Perrault's versions of Red Riding Hood.
There are two explanations:
- The role of the father is played by the huntsman. He saved the girls, defeated the beast, and did what every good father would do. He protects and serves.
- The other explanation is slightly more complicated. The father of the Red Riding Hood is split into two characters. First is the good, protective, civilized, and already-known huntsman. The second is more primitive, brutal, dangerous . . . in short: male! This is represented by a beast—the wolf.
In both explanations, the father is really not missing; he is just in disguise.
The case of missing father is similar to the role of the stepmother in fairy tales. In a child's imagination, the confrontation of the huntsman and the wolf is equal to the confrontation of the child and his "bad father" (sooner or later, every child experiences negative emotions towards his father). In this story, the huntsman does the dirty work, so the child doesn't feel guilt over the killing of the beast. Good defeats evil and everybody is happy. Similarly, the character of the evil stepmother can serve as a punching bag for children redirecting their negative emotions toward their real mothers.
But folklorists have some second thoughts on the theory of absent fathers too. At least, we can easily find older versions of Red Riding Hood with a present father and without a huntsman. In these versions, father kills the beast, but there is one more important difference . . .
An Allegory of Resurrection, Death, and Rebirth
An extremely important part of Little Red Riding Hood is the ending, where the huntsman opens the wolf's stomach and saves the girl and her granny. This can be explained as an allegory on resurrection in Christianity. Both women died but are saved by a higher power, represented by the huntsman. When Red Riding Hood and her grandmother come out of the stomach, they arere symbolically born again—and we know Perrault and the Grimms were zealous Christians.
But then again, we must not forget the old, pre-Christian myth about Chronos, in which this kind of 'rebirth' also occurred. If we ask mythologists, the story clearly reflects the never-ending game of day and night. Red Cap (it was gold in some older versions, remember?) represents the sun, swallowed by night and later coming back to bring the light to the world again.
Why Is a Wolf in Red Riding Hood?
A lot of popular fairy tales use a witch or ogre as an opponent or antagonist. Why is a wolf used in this case?
Consider the time when Red Cap was first written (the 17th century). There was probably an already-present fear of werewolves. At least two dangers can be joined in a wolf: a magic werewolf as a predator from the woods and a greedy male as a predator in society.
Red Riding Hood Is a Story About Pregnancy (At Least Freud Thought So)
Religions, myths, and psychoanalysis can agree on one thing: Pregnant women have had a special position through all history of humankind. They are bringing new life to this world, but they are also in danger of dying at delivery. A pregnant woman is still a taboo in many societies.
Whether we understand the act of opening wolf's stomach as resurrection, sunrise, or birth, we can also agree this is a very important moment. Maybe too important to be assisted by anybody, and in this case, the huntsmen looks like greater authority than a father. If we look at the older versions, where the saving was done by the father, it was not done by opening the stomach, but with cutting the wolf's head!
This supports theories by mythologists (we know some Greek gods were born out of heads) and is also in favor of psychoanalysts' interpretations, because the pregnant woman is in some cultures considered as a sacred object and her belly should not be touched by man.
A Feminist View: Red Riding Hood as a Story About Rape
The 20th century brought another interpretation of this (probably) most-interpreted fairy tale of all. Feminists see a clear case of rape in the story of the Little Red Riding Hood. The aggressive and active male is preying on passive heroine and her granny. He is, in the end, defeated by another aggressive and active male. Case closed.
Well, not so fast. Feminists have some good points, but we should not forget we are really talking only about two versions of Red Riding Hood here. Both were written at specific times by specific members of society with their own beliefs about roles of genders. The passive heroine and the powerless old lady fit well into their views of the world in the 17th or 19th centuries.
But there are other versions of Red Hoods out there, some from before and many from after the 17th or 19th century. There are Red Caps who defeated the wolf with their ingenuity, deceitfulness, or even their own shotguns! So much for the passive role. And there are also variations of Red Riding Hood in which the main role is played by a boy . . .
A Final Word
In exploring different versions and possible hidden meanings in Little Red Riding Hood, we encounter many possibilities, but the essence of the fairy tale still escapes the rational explanation.
The symbolism of Red Riding Hood is one of the richest of all classic fairy tales. This is one of the main reasons for its popularity. It is undeniably a great fairy tale with dozens of undertones, but sometimes its symbols are more coincidental than a product of collective mind or something similar.
Does that mean our journey into the history of Red Riding Hood was a waste of time? Certainly not. With every fairy tale explored, we always learn something new about our world, our history, and ourselves. Thanks for accompanying me!