The Little Red Riding Hood: Summary and Symbols Explained
Little Red Cap: the Fairy Tale, Historic Background, and Tremendous 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, and a story about responsibility and second chances.
Red Riding Hood 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 find about the history of the story about Red Cap and 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!
Let's see what you already know!
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Red Riding Hood Summary
for all our visitors from other planets...
Once upon a time, there was a little girl.
Her grandmother gave her a red riding hood, and the girl loves it so much she wears it all the time. So everybody started to call her Little Red Riding Hood.
One day mother told the girl her grandmother fell ill. Because she lived alone deep in the wood, she would probably be happy to get some food.
Then 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 wood. He asked her where she was going and she told him about her granny's bad health and where she lives.
Wolf tricked her to stop and pick some flowers. She did that and in the meantime, the wolf ran to the granny's house.
The wolf, pretending to be her 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 sleeping wolf's stomach with a knife.
Granny and Red Riding Hood came out and helped the huntsman to fill wolf's stomach with stones. When the wolf woke up, he tried to run away, but stones were too heavy. He fell; down and died.
Grandmother, granddaughter, and huntsman lived happily ever after.
Warning: this was a summary with the official happy ending!
Our short summary is made after Grimm's Red Cap, not Perrault's Little Red Riding Hood.
This is the most popular version of this fairy tale in the world, but many parents still don't think it is appropriate for the 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 on Perrault's Le Petit Chaperon Rouge!
What Is Different in Perrault's Version?
Compare Perrault's and Grimm's Red Cap
The summary of Red Riding Hood is basically the same in both cases. The main difference is an absence of the hunter. When the wolf eats the girl, Perrault's story ends. We only read a conclusion in verse saying not to trust strangers.
Well, this is not all.
I will present only a few differences. Some may be negligible at first sight, but if we take a few moments to think them over, we'll notice every single detail can make a huge difference.
- In the beginning, of Perrault's story mother gives a daughter a basket and send her to a grandmother with words: "Do not talk to strangers!" The warning about not leaving the path was an addition of Grimms.
- Messages of both fairy tales differ. Perrault warns us not to trust strangers and 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 supposes to have strong symbolic meaning and we will deal with that view later.
- Perrault's Red Riding Hood takes her clothes off and gets into bed with the wolf. Allusions are obvious. This version is not appropriate for kids and it really never was intended for a young audience. Grimm's Red Cap doesn't do that. She just approaches the wolf and gets eaten.
Shall we delve into the symbolism of the story?
Get a Copy for Your Kindle: The Story of Red Riding Hood With a Twist
Red Riding Hood is a classic fairy story which inspired many authors to rewrite it and this is one of those rewritings. Actually one of the better ones...
The big bad wolf is smart and his tricks are good enough for the grandmother. But the girl is not so gullible ...
Fairy tales in this series offer a fresh view on old stories. They add a healthy dose of humor and it seems, in this world, kids can use that.
Prepare to be surprised :)
The Hidden Meanings...
Little Red Riding Hood Symbolism
Let's go from top to bottom. If the girl 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 the girl reaches the age when she turns into a woman, her hair is 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).
When she 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 in the 17th century decent woman would never wear a red hood because red was the color of sin. Only ladies with really bad reputation wore red dresses and Perrault's insinuations were obvious.
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!'
Grimm's 'Don't stray from the path!'
are really two expressions of the same message:
'Be responsible, or you shall pay the toll!'
The Meaning of the Forest
Lost in the woods?
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 of the people in medieval or pre-medieval times lived near forests.
People's existence was closely related to wood from practically forever, but forests also represent unknown, although very serious, danger.
In psychoanalysis a forest symbolizes unconsciousness. Leonard Lutwack goes even further and he 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 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 and in some cases forest represents the enemy itself (remember Sleeping Beauty and her rescuers?).
What Was in Red Riding Hood's Basket?
Brothers Grimm gave her some cakes and a bottle of wine. Charles Perrault opted for a cake and butter.
The meaning of the Bottle
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.
Knowing red wine stands for passion, the case of decoding the fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood is almost closed...
Folklorists Strongly Disagree!
If we want to explore the hidden meanings of fairy tales, we should never forget how they were collected, written, rewritten, and published.
Resources were oral, 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.
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.'
A Missing Father
Everybody familiar with Grimms' Fairy Tales is already aware how many absent fathers are in their fairy tales. We have a missing father in Grimm's and Perrault's version of Red Riding Hood. Analysts have a theory about that fact too.
There are two explanations. In both cases the father is really not missing, he is just in disguise.
- 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... Shortly: male! In Red Riding Hood it is represented by a beast: the wolf.
The case of missing father is similar to the stepmother. In child's imagination, the confrontation of the huntsman and the wolf equals to the confrontation of the child with his 'bad father' (soon or later every child experience negative emotions towards his father). In this story, huntsmen do the dirty work, so a child doesn't feel the guilt because of the killing of the beast. Good defeats evil and everybody is happy.
Something similar is known from the character of an evil stepmother who can serve as a punching bag for the negative emotions of children toward their real mothers.
But folklorists have some second thoughts on the theory of absent fathers too. At least, in Red Riding Hood we can easily find older versions with a present father and without a huntsman. In these versions, father kills the beast but there is one more important difference...
Death and Rebirth
An extremely important part of The Little Red Riding Hood is ending where huntsman opens 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 in the huntsman.
When Red Riding Hood and her grandmother came out of the stomach they are symbolically born again. And we know how zealous were Christians Perrault and Grimms.
But then again we must not forget the old, pre-Christian myth about Chronos, where this kind of 'rebirth' also happened.
If we ask mythologists the story clearly talks about 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.
Red Riding Hood Is a Story About Pregnancy! (At Least Freud Thought So)
In this drawing by Walter Crane the wolf really resembles a pregnant lady ...
Births and Death Were Always Strongly Connected
Religions, myths, and psychoanalysis can agree on one thing: pregnant woman have had a special position through all history of humankind. She is bringing new life to this world but she is also in danger of dying at delivery. A pregnant woman is still a taboo in many societies.
No matter if 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 mythologists (we know some Greek gods were born out of heads) and is also in favor of psychoanalysts because the pregnant woman is in some cultures considered as a sacred object and her belly should not be touched by man.
Why a Wolf in Red Riding Hood?
A lot of popular fairy tales use a witch or ogre as an opponent (antagonist). Why is a wolf used in this case?
Considering the time when Red Cap was first written (17th century) the reason was probably an already present fear of werewolves.
At least two dangers can be joined in a wolf: magic werewolf as a predator from the woods and greedy male as a predator in society.
A Feminist View on Red Riding Hood
It is obviously a story about a rape.
20th century brought another interpretation of this probably most interpreted fairy tale of all. Feminists see a clear case of rape in The Little Red Riding Hood. It is a story about rape.
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 and passive heroine and powerless old lady fit well in their view 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 wolf by their ingenuity, deceitfulness, or even their own shotguns! So much for the passive role.
And there are also variations of Red Riding Hood where the main role is played by a boy...
In This Illustration by Walter Crane Little Red Riding Hood Flirts With the Big Bad Wolf...
What kind of Red Riding Hood do you prefer?
How should be ended?
The Final Word
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.
Was our journey in the history of Red Riding Hood a waste of time?
Certainly not. With every fairy tale explored, we always learn something new about our world, our history, and about ourselves.
Thanks for being my company!