This story, courtesy of Jakob (1785-1863) and Wilhelm (1786-1859) Grimm, has many traits to commend it. It is short, has a protagonist (Red Riding Hood, sometimes prefixed by the qualifier “Little”) and an antagonist (a wicked wolf) as well as a hero (the brave, quick-thinking hunter), and delivers a moral for the benefit of the children to whom it is read.
Yet it is flawed. I have nothing against fairy tales. I don’t fault it for giving a speaking part to a wolf. Nor do I condemn the practice of drawing the world as a battle between goodness and innocence, on the one hand, and cunning and evil, on the other.
So how does this beloved story fail? There is, of course, the minor matter of the dietary theory that lies behind the tale. Recall the reason Red Riding Hood is sent by the mother to the grandmother’s house: the latter is weak and ill, and a cake and a bottle of wine will be just the ticket for restoring the old woman to full health. (This in the original version; later editors, spotting this flaw, sent the girl with a picnic basketful of what we would assume would be a more congenial collection of foodstuffs.)
Cake and wine? To restore a sickly woman to health? What were those Grimm boys thinking! I won’t quibble by saying that the mother should have included the grandmother’s medications in the package; that would be a historical anomaly. But even in that day, it was well-known, even to the peasant population, that steak beats cake in the daily diet department, and that brandy’s restorative properties are clearly superior to those of wine.
The mother is also blameworthy in another respect. She sends a small girl to do the work that should have been hers. Why? We are not told. Certainly there is a touching bond between Red Riding Hood and the grandmother, as the authors explain early in the story. It was, after all, the old woman who made the cloak whose properties provided the name of the girl. But what’s the relation between the old woman and the mother? One wonders. Why does she allow a frail, elderly woman to live alone, half an hour from the village in which her beloved granddaughter resides? In the modern world, of course, sending an aging parent to an assisted living facility is socially acceptable. In the time of the brothers Grimm, however, the sandwich generation solved the problem by keeping their ill parents in their own home. To do otherwise would incur the wrath of the community.
One also wonders why the mother gives specific instructions to the daughter of the red cloak to avoid either loitering or running on the way to grandmother’s house. Doesn’t she know that any kid with a healthy imagination will do exactly the opposite of what she’s told?
The moral of the story, as it stands in the first edition, is that the young listener should obey the orders of the parent. This, at least, is how the story ends: Red Riding Hood learns the lesson that if she dallies in the woods picking flowers when she ought to be skipping off to grandmother’s house, she’ll be eaten by a wolf.
One further wonders whether our little Girl Scout wouldn’t have better concluded that the only mistake she made was not knowing that wolves are a dangerous species.
In spite of these faults, one must applaud these authors for avoiding the cliché ending in which the young woman runs off with the brave, handsome prince who was wandering the woods disguised as a hunter.