We tend to think of fairy tales as timeless and universal, but in fact they express our collective truths even as those truths shift over time and place. These tales are important carriers of culture, since they reflected the culture, knowledge, wisdom, social practices and beliefs of the people who first told them. Such tales, whether folk or fairy tales, myths, legends or fables, have survived not only because they entertain and inspire, but because they embody emotional and spiritual truths about mankind.

The oral tradition of the fairy tale came long before the written page. Tales were told or enacted dramatically, rather than written, and handed down by word of mouth through successive generations and across different cultures.

Many of the traditional tales that were recorded in the mid 19th century were sanitized according to the expectations and moral codes of the day, and appear to reflect a dominant male ideology. Some, in fact bear little resemblance to the original variations. Prior to this, the moralizing strain in the Victorian era altered the classical tales to teach lessons.

The earliest known printed version was known as Le Petit Chaperon Rouge and had its origins in 17th century French folklore. Written in 1697, by Charles Perrault, the story had as its subject an "attractive, well-bred young lady", a village girl of the country being deceived into giving a wolf she encountered the information he needed to find her grandmother's house successfully and eat the old woman while at the same time avoiding being noticed by woodcutters working in the nearby forest. Then he proceeded to lay a trap for the Red Riding Hood. The latter ends up eaten by the wolf and there the story ends. The wolf emerges the victor of the encounter and there is no happy ending. In this version the tale has been adapted for late 17th century French salon culture, an entirely different audience from what it had before, and has become a harsh morality tale warning women of the advances of men.

The early variations of the tale differ from the currently known version in several ways. The antagonist is not always a wolf, but sometimes an ogre or a 'bzou' (werewolf), making these tales relevant to the werewolf-trials of the time. The wolf usually leaves the grandmother's blood and meat for the girl to eat, who then unwittingly cannibalizes her own grandmother. Furthermore, the wolf was also known to ask her to remove her clothing and toss it into the fire. Also, once the girl is in bed with the wolf she sees through his disguise and tries to escape, complaining to her 'grandmother' that she needs to defecate and would not wish to do so in the bed. The wolf reluctantly lets her go, tied to a piece of string so she does not get away. However, the girl slips the string over something else and gets away. It has been noted that in these stories she escapes with no help from any male or older female figure, but instead utilizes her own cunning.

The version most widely known today is based on the Brothers Grimm version. In this retelling when the girl arrives, he swallows her whole. A hunter, however, comes to the rescue and cuts the wolf open. Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother emerge unharmed. They fill the wolf's body with heavy stones, which kill him.

In the oral tales, the girl must chose between two paths of needles and pins. In some versions she chooses pins, in other versions she chooses needles, and in a few versions the bzou chooses the path for her. Folklore scholars have different theories on what precisely these paths are meant to represent. Sewing and spinning terms are ones we find often in fairy tales, for the making of cloth and clothes was a constant part of women's labor prior to the 20th century.

Looking at The Grandmother's Tale within the context of rural French history, we should also remember that the story comes from a time when wolves were still a real danger, and when people of all classes still believed in the existence of werewolves.

 

 

All Works © Adam Gabriel Winnie 2014
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