Girl Talk: Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad bin Laden Wolf
By Ellen-Maree Elliot
“I dreamt that all of Osama Bin Laden’s followers got really angry he was dead and they started a war. A big war. And [our brothers] George and John and Joseph all had to go and...and they didn’t come back.”
In our society’s collective consciousness, this past week has been an affirmation of everything we (secretly) want to believe about our world: the Fair Maiden got her Prince Charming, the Bad Guy got his Comeuppance, and throughout the world people celebrated.
But, as reality starts to set in again, I can’t help but wonder - when we know marriages aren’t always happy and don’t always last for “ever after” and the bad guys don’t always lose (or, worse, retaliate against the good guys), what place do fairy tales have in our world?
The Disney Delusion
Most people are familiar with the fairy tales rendered on screen by Disney: Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Cinderella, Aladdin, The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, and then there are the more recent Tangled and The Princess and the Frog.
Despite their universal appeal, Dr Karen Brooks, an author and academic, says there are worrying aspects of the famous fairy tale films. However, she points out people who criticise Disney are often “treated with contempt and silenced as crackpots who think too much.”
“Disney is the untouchable brand because it makes us feel good and allows us to dream and escape in a world that doesn’t provide much of that except through celebrities and brands,” she says. “But the point is that Disney is a brand in the business of making money. That it does this in a way we like makes us feel guilty.”
These criticisms aside, Dr Brooks says Disney fills an essential purpose of providing audiences with fantasy and escapism. “Hope and dreams are essential to positive self-esteem and cognitive development,” she says.
Storyteller, harpist, folklorist, director of Faerie Bard and former broadcast operator for the ABC, Reilly McCarron says there’s more to fairy tales than the Disney versions.
“[Disney] created wonderful films, but it’s a shame they’ve become locked as the definitive tales and they’ve been sanitised and lost a lot of the good stuff,” she says. “A lot of people think there is a definitive version of fairy tales. But a lot of the richness [has] been lost in the versions popular today.”
Once Upon A Time
A long, long time ago, fairy tales used to be for grown ups. When the Brothers Grimm first wrote down Cinderella, for example, her step-sisters cut their feet to fit into the tiny glass slipper. The Brothers’ publishers told them to edit out gruesome beauty-ritual details like this because the stories were being read to children.
Ms McCarron is part of a dedicated group of storytellers trying to bring back these older versions of the stories, and to continue the art of telling stories, by heart, to a live audience. “Stories would be changed with each telling,” she says. “They would be tailored to the audience. They would change with the mood, the seasons and the setting.”
She says fairy tales are very important, for children and adults, as they express, simply, the inner dynamics of the human condition in a perfectly shaped little story. “They are instructive and they have deep insights and offer wise guidance in terms of the challenges of everyday life,” she adds.
Little Red Riding Hood
Ms McCarron, who is studying the story of Little Red Riding Hood intimately as part of her research into folklore, says there are several versions of the tale to consider. The first is the familiar fairy tale: Red is in the woods and meets a Big Bad Wolf. He lures her off the path and finds out she is visiting Granny, but he gets there first, gobbles Granny up and dresses up in her nightie. “What big eyes...ears...TEETH you have”, and Red is gobbled up, too. Mr Woodcutter comes and saves everyone and sews stones into the Wolf’s belly. The Wolf wakes up parched and drinks until he drowns.
In earlier versions, Red meets ANOTHER Big Bad Wolf in the woods. Having learned her lesson, she goes home and tells Granny. The Wolf follows her and jumps on the roof to wait Red out. They hatch a plan involving sausage water, which this Wolf drowns in.
But in the earliest version, according to McCarron, Little Red Riding Hood was walking through the woods and meets the Big Bad Wolf: we don’t meet Granny or Mr Woodcutter. There is just Red and the Wolf, and she tricks him, by herself, using her own ingenuity.
“She went into the woods naive and came out wise. This story focused on the young woman’s own resourcefulness and innate wisdom,” says McCarron.
Here There Be Dragons
On Tuesday, my twelve-year-old sister, Steph, woke up and got herself a cup of tea. She paused, a little quiet. Then, “I had a nightmare last night,” she said.
“Oh, what was it about?” said I.
“I dreamt that all of Osama Bin Laden’s followers got really angry he was dead and they started a war. A big war. And [our brothers] George and John and Joseph all had to go and...and they didn’t come back,” she said.
Ms McCarron explains that Little Red Riding Hood is a good story for kids at such times. “That a child can learn that there can be a way out is very important,” Ms McCarron says. “They can learn you can go into the woods and face the big bad wolf and come away wiser.”
When I hear this, I can’t help but think of a quote I once read in the dedication of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, attributed to one G.K. Chesterson. It is, perhaps, the best summing up of why fairy tales exist at all.
“Fairy tales are more than true — not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”
Ellen-Maree @ Girl With a Satchel