Lessons in storytelling from Little Red Riding Hood

  • Little Red Riding Hood is one of many versions of a similar tale found around the world.
  • Many of the details vary, but someone always gets eaten by a predator disguised as their grandmother.
  • Anthropologist Jamshid Tehrani suggests that the story’s power comes from the gruesome.

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‘Little Red Riding Hood’ by Gustave Doré (Sofi [CC / Flickr])

Once upon a time, a little girl visited her grandmother. Her suspicions that all was not as it seemed were aroused when she noticed the old woman’s teeth had grown since her last visit. What happened next has thrilled countless generations of children. I only recently found that it’s generated a fair amount of discussion among cultural anthropologists as well.

If you grew up with English as a first language, you’ll have recognised the story of Little Red Riding Hood. To cultural anthropologists, it’s ATU333 – yes, there is an alphanumeric taxonomy of fairy tales – which is told in one form or another in many different cultures. The unifying characteristic of ATU333 is that a predator substitutes for a child’s grandmother. The other details vary.

Rotkäppchen and the Tiger Grandmother

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Portrait of Jacob (right) and Wilhelm (left) Grimm in 1855 by Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann (Phrood~commonswiki [Wikimedia Commons])

The version best known to Anglophones today is derived from the Household Tales, a compilation of German folktales compiled by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. In their version, a girl called Rotkäppchen (Little Redcap) attracts the attention of a wolf who gulps down her grandmother and then her. Fortunately, the wolf’s post-prandial snoring attracts the attention of a passing huntsman who saves Rotkäppchen and her grandmother by cutting them out of the sleeping wolf’s stomach, and then fills it with stones. The wolf wakes up, runs a few steps and drops dead.

Jamshid Tehrani, a cultural anthropologist at Durham University, collected 58 different versions of ATU333 from around the world to follow its cultural evolution. Unsurprisingly, he found that the further the stories were from each other geographically, the more differences he found in the details. Little Red Riding Hood emerged from the European cluster, which is very different to the Chinese, Japanese and Korean story, usually called The Tiger Grandmother. A group of siblings are tricked by a tiger disguised as their grandmother. They’re a bit slower on the uptake than Little Red Riding Hood: it’s only when they hear the tiger crunching the bones of their youngest brother or sister that they notice anything amiss.

Wherever the tale originated, it has adapted as it has been passed through generations of storytellers. Placing the local apex predator in the villain’s role is an obvious adaptation to incorporate the scariest bearer of teeth. Tehrani described other local differences to journalist Penny Sarchet, such as an Italian version in which the wold served up grandmother’s ears as tortellini. Perhaps someone was tired of their kids pestering them for tortellini.

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(Christos Tsoumplekas [CC / Flickr])

The enduring devourer

One thing that every version shares is that they are gruesome. Someone always meets a sticky end, whether it’s the child, the grandmother, the predator or all three. Sarchet says the ‘Grimm brothers … excised much of the violence and unpleasantness’, presumably by having Rotkäppchen and her grandmother rescued through vivisection rather than simply digested.

As a journeyman storyteller with pretensions toward becoming a master craftsman, the main lesson I learn from Little Red Riding Hood is the power of the gruesome. In all the tellings and retellings of ATU333, someone must have felt the need to spare the need to spare their children’s delicate sensibilities with a version in which no one got eaten and everybody ended up as friends. That version has not been preserved for posterity.

Tehrani suggests that at least part of the power of the gruesome is that it carries power even if the storyteller doesn’t have the gift of the gab:

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(David Resz [CC / Flickr])

In an oral context, a story won’t survive because of one great teller. It also needs to be interesting when it’s told by someone who’s not necessarily a great storyteller.

Do they matter?

Jack Zipes, emeritus professor of German literature at the University of Minnesota and a prolific teller of stories both spoken and written, told Sarchet that he thought, ‘even if they’re gruesome, they won’t stick unless they matter.’ He doesn’t believe that simply feeding characters to wolves and tigers would make a tale interesting enough to be passed on. He thinks it needs relevance beyond that.

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(Isabelle [CC / Flickr])

Yet the gruesome details never occur in isolation. The Grimm version could be interpreted as a warning to young girls to watch whose attention they might catch when frolicking alone. In another European version, a girl called Catterinella is taking cakes to her grandmother but, overcome with greed, eats them and replaces them with donkey dung. Unfortunately for her, her grandmother has been replaced by a werewolf who is not amused by the deception. It follows Catterinella home to devour her as she sleeps. Presumably Catterinella’s story owes its genesis to a storyteller who spent their days defending the kitchen from raiding children.

The tales of Rotkäppchen and Catterinella both fulfil Zipes’s criterion in that they both ‘matter’, but in very different ways. The common factor is, as Tehrani’s analysis predicts, the gruesome detail of someone being devoured.

Speculating on the origins

We have no idea who first constructed either of the two versions. It could be that the storyteller had a message to convey and used the devouring to command the attention of an intended audience. It could equally be that the storyteller recognised the power of devouring and constructed a story around it that spoke to the culture it was to be told in, in much the same way that Alfred Hitchcock used his ‘maguffins’ as vehicles to carry tales of suspense.

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‘Little Red Riding Hood’ by Joseph Lejeune (Sofi [CC / Flickr])

Taken together, Tehrani and Zipes are telling us that incorporating the gruesome can turn a story into a folktale that will be passed down the ages. But we should beware of getting carried away with it.

What details do you remember from the fairy tales you heard as a child? If you remember the gruesome details, that support’s Tehrani’s view. If you remember the morals, that supports Zipes. Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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Posted in Inspirations, Writing
2 comments on “Lessons in storytelling from Little Red Riding Hood
  1. Interesting.
    I think what makes tales like Red Riding Hood so memorable is that there is always something to be learnt, some kind of moral and it is told in a style that sticks in the mind.
    I loved folk tales when I was a kid, and they are still enjoyable as an adult. Many of them are literally grim, and dark themed, but I don’t think kids are stupid and need to be sheltered from them whereas now kids are brought on disney and soporific fare based on happy ever after, with less substance.

    • DJ Cockburn says:

      I agree. I think the soporific fare is aimed at the parents more than the kids, or rather the parents’ idea of what kids are like. The parents might like to see kids getting all excited about Disney princesses, but the kids themselves would probably rather see someone’s bones being crunched by a wolf. Sadly, it’s the parents that pay the bills.

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