TBT: 'All the Better to See You With’ Teaching Little Red Riding Hood in College by Kelly Jarvis
Editor’s note: We are fortunate to have Kelly Jarvis as our Special Projects Writer here at EC. She has enormous talent as a fiction writer, and, as you see in this essay, is just as talented at nonfiction. And who doesn’t love reading all about “Little Red Riding Hood”? Follow the links. They add the the richness the experience of reading this essay.
Everyone knows the story of “Little Red Riding Hood.” Although the tale has never been made into a feature-length Disney film, we all remember hearing about the red-hooded girl who meets a wolf while carrying a basket of sweets to Granny’s house. Even the famous Victorian writer Charles Dickens was a fan of the fairy tale, writing, “She was my first love. I felt that if I could have married Little Red Riding Hood, I should have known perfect bliss.”
The popularity of “Little Red Riding Hood” makes it the perfect opening text for my first-year college writing course titled Once Upon a Time. My students know the story from the PICTURE BOOKS of their childhood, have encountered it in FILM, and have recognized the plot in TELEVISION COMMERCIALS, but they believe that the “original” version of the story comes from THE BROTHERS GRIMM.
The Brothers Grimm are as famous as the stories they told, but, like Little Red Riding Hood herself, their history is more complicated than my students initially understand. JACOB AND WILHELM GRIMM were scholars who collected and published oral folk tales to “preserve the cultural history of Germany,” but rather than scouring the countryside to capture the peasant voice, they collected many of their stories in middle class drawing rooms and altered details to better reflect their 19th century Christian morality. They edited their anthology, Kinder-und Hausmarchen, several times between 1812 and 1857, removing sexual details and adding violent punishments for evil actions. It is the Grimm’s story LITTLE RED CAP which features the heroic woodsman who saves a penitent protagonist that my students recognize.
Of course, the history of “Little Red Riding Hood” extends far beyond the Grimms with variants from cultures all around the WORLD. My students are surprised to learn that an early oral variant recorded by the French folklorist Paul Delarue in Brittany in 1885 is titled “THE STORY OF GRANDMOTHER,” and features cannibalism, a striptease, and a plucky hoodless heroine who saves herself from the wolf. They are shocked to discover that the French writer Charles Perrault, who published the earliest literary version of the tale, “LE PETIT CHAPERON ROUGE,” in 1697, uses the story as a cautionary tale against elicit sexuality, allowing the girl he famously cloaked in RED to die in bed with the wolf, and warning his audience that “tame wolves are the most dangerous of all.” It is not without spirited debate that my students accept their cherished childhood story stems from a bawdy sexual tale first directed toward adults, but with the help of Tex Avery’s RED HOT RIDING HOOD and Johnny Depp’s HELLO, LITTLE GIRL from INTO THE WOODS, they soon learn that fairy tales shape and reflect the generational and cultural beliefs of the times and places they are told.
Once my students come to terms with the sexual messages of the story, they are ready to explore complex retellings written by Anne Sexton, CAROL ANN DUFFY, and Angela Carter. Carter’s haunting story, “THE COMPANY OF WOLVES,” poses a feminist solution to the protagonist’s trouble by presenting a “strong-minded child” who embraces her sexuality and chooses not to be afraid at the crucial moment of attack. The story also reaches deep into the history of the tale type to explore the construct of the WEREWOLF, collapsing the wolf and the hunter, the predator and the savior, into one. Her text makes my students curious about the evolution of both the girl named for her fashionable headwear and the shapeshifting VILLAIN of so many folktales and stories.
While the history and characters of every fairy tale we study are important, the real reason I begin the semester with “Little Red Riding Hood” is because of the famous exchange between the girl and the wolf disguised in grandmother’s nightgown. Variations of the dialogue feature in most “Little Red Riding Hood” stories and often unfold with the girl saying “Oh, Grandmother, what big eyes you have!” followed by the wolf reassuring her “All the better to see you with.” The dramatic irony of this scene sensitizes us to a crucial moment in the story. Little Red Riding Hood knows something is wrong when she enters her grandmother’s house, but she can’t define exactly what she fears. As the emotional tension builds and we dread the wolf’s inevitable attack, the girl uses her INTUITION to ask questions about her “grandmother’s” appearance, echoing the importance of listening to an inner voice that is sometimes symbolized in other fairy tales by the HEART. Asking questions, even when we don’t yet know the answers, is the foundation of academic study. Although some criticize Little Red Riding Hood for her ignorance, she is an excellent example of the inquiry-based learning I hope my students will embrace.
When my students write their final class reflections, they often share that they see themselves in the character of Little Red Riding Hood. At the beginning of each semester, they sit quietly, waiting for me to tell them what to think and how to write. They journey through a class where assignments cluster like foliage beneath their feet and assessments reach out to trip them like the black branches of sinister trees. With perseverance, intuition, and a little help along the way, they become independent scholars who ask their own questions and find important answers by looking beneath the surface of literature. My students are surprised to encounter fairy tales in college, but once they discover the depth of these simple stories, they are ready to make observations and ask questions about every text they read and every situation they encounter as they move through the University and their lives.
Everyone knows the story of “Little Red Riding Hood,” but it is more than a simple children’s tale. Its rich history sharpens our intuitive eyes, making them all the better to see with as we search for hidden meanings and discover the dangerous and beautiful truths embedded beneath the surface of our shared humanity.
Kelly Jarvis is the Special Projects Writer and Contributing Editor for The Fairy Tale Magazine. Her work has appeared in Eternal Haunted Summer, Blue Heron Review, Forget-Me-Not Press, Mermaids Monthly, The Chamber Magazine, and Mothers of Enchantment: New Tales of Fairy Godmothers. She teaches at Central Connecticut State University.
Image by Fleury Francois Richard.