Friday, September 9, 2011

Once Upon a Time

Once there was a little village maiden, the prettiest ever seen. Her mother was foolishly fond of her, and her grandmother likewise. The old woman made for her a little hood, which became the damsel so well, that ever after she went by the name of Little Red-Riding-Hood…

Few are unfamiliar with this classic fairy tale from childhood and have likely either heard or read versions of it on several occasions. The original story is thought to have come down through the Middle Ages as part of the oral tradition, and it wasn’t until 1697 in France that the tale was first put to paper probably intended as entertainment at the court of King Louis XIV. Charles Perrault published what turned out to be a landmark book, Tales of Times Past which contained eight stories the author had often told his children. Among the eight was “Little Red-Riding-Hood.”

The original versions of the old classic fairy tales were more often than not gruesome and shocking in their horror. There was no happy ending in many of these stories: “Sleeping Beauty” did not end with a handsome prince awakening the beautiful young maiden with a kiss. Her troubles were just beginning. In “Little Red-Riding-Hood” the wolf has barely begun digesting the sweet old grandmother when he begins savaging the little girl. These stories were filled with unsavory elements, with lunacy, theft and dishonesty, rape, cannibalism, the maiming of humans, drunkenness and of course racial discrimination. Why such inhumane and immoral themes? One explanation contends that life was harsh, that children saw all or much of what their elders did, never cushioned or sheltered from violence, sex, public floggings or hangings. At the time it seemed natural that children were exposed to such. And then there were the moral lessons always included in fairy tales. Very clear in Charles Perrault’s version of “Little Red-Riding Hood” is the moral lesson warning young ladies of wolf-like men. Going back as far as Aesop 2,500 years ago, storytelling always had a moral nugget at its core. Stories were meant to teach something.

Prior to Perrault’s telling of the story, there is no record of the wolf devouring both the grandmother and the young girl. But the earlier oral versions did include the famous exchange between wolf and girl:

“Grandmother, what great arms you have!”

“That is to hug you the better, my dear.”

“Grandmother, what great ears you have!”

“That is to hear you the better, my dear.”

“Grandmother, what great eyes you have!”

“That is to see you the better, my dear.”

“Grandmother, what a great mouth you have!”

“That is to eat you up,” cried the wicked wolf.

The most frightening of all the early versions of this tale came out of England at the end of the nineteenth century. This telling ends with the wolf collecting the grandmother’s blood in bottles and inducing the unsuspecting girl to drink. Many, perhaps most of the modern versions end with the girl coming through her meeting with the wolf safely, though only the 1817 version by the brothers Grimm spares the grandmother. Sluggish after dining on the grandmother and Little Red, the wolf falls asleep. His loud snores catch the attention of a passing hunter, who enters the house, guesses what has happened and rips open the wolf’s stomach with a pair of scissors. Little Red jumps out and exclaims, “How dark it was inside the wolf!” Then the exhausted and silent grandmother climbs out. The wolf (despite his sliced open stomach) is chased away.

It all sounds fairly fiendish and horrible…kind of like our modern headlines and movies.

The two black and white drawings are by Gustave Doré and the poster is a 1939 work by Kenneth Whitley.

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America