The wolf thought to himself, “What a tender young creature! what a nice plump mouthful—she will be better to eat than the old woman. I must act carefully, so as to catch both.” So he walked for a short time by the side of Little Red-Cap, and then he said, “See, Little Red-Cap, how pretty the flowers are about here—why do you not look round? I believe, too, that you do not hear how sweetly the little birds are singing; you walk gravely along as if you were going to school, while everything else out here in the wood is merry.”
Little Red-Cap raised her eyes, and when she saw the sunbeams dancing here and there through the trees, and pretty flowers growing everywhere, she thought, “Suppose I take grandmother a fresh nosegay; that would please her too. It is so early in the day that I shall still get there in good time!” and so she ran from the path into the wood to look for flowers. And whenever she had picked one, she fancied that she saw a still prettier one farther on, and ran after it, and so got deeper and deeper into the wood.
When I was a girl, the tales my mother told at bedtime weren’t fictions. They were the lens through which I saw the world, the overlay I superimposed over my experience. I dropped bread crumbs in the deep dark woods behind my house. I told my little brother and sister about the witch who lived in our rotting barn. I heard her cackle, a high wheezing sound like the wind during hurricane season. At night, when I looked out of my window at the dizzy moon, I heard the howl of the wolf.
I can still hear my mother’s voice, telling the tales she told me when I was little. I loved those stories, and I was thrilled when my father gave me a beautiful edition of the Grimms’ Children’s and Household Tales – collected with Aesop’s Fables and the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen –to read by myself. At six or seven, I stayed up, late at night, reading and rereading those stories.
When I had my own daughter, three years ago, I looked forward to telling her the tales of the Brothers Grimm. But when I picked up my book to reread them, I had an altogether different experience than the one I had as a girl. The awe and wonder I once felt for these tales quickly faded as I noticed their underlying assumptions about gender: Why does Little Red Riding Hood fall for the wolf’s scam?, I wondered. Is her head filled with nothing but flowers and sunbeams? And how convenient that the huntsman happens to pass by just in time to save her from the belly of the wolf.
Another of my childhood favorites, “Rapunzel,” was similarly disappointing, this read, especially the moment when the title character accidentally reveals her affair with the prince. Apparently lacking the intellectual capacity to deceive her captor, Rapunzel slips up while the enchantress climbs her hair, saying: “Tell me, Dame Gothel, how it happens that you are so much heavier for me to draw up than the young King’s son—he is with me in a moment.”
Scattered throughout the book are a few stronger heroines. There is Grethel from “Hansel and Grethel,” who pushes the “godless witch” from the gingerbread-house into the oven. There is the miller’s daughter in “Rumplestiltskin,” who despite weeping a great deal in the beginning takes a semi-active role in defeating the little man at the end. (Both my daughter and I take great pleasure in the moment when she guesses his name, and he cries out miserably, “The devil told you that! the devil told you that!”) And there is the heroic sister in “Seven Ravens” who travels “to the very end of the world,” where the sun and moon try and fail to devour her on her way to save her seven brothers. But by and large, the magic and simple beauty of these tales is marred by the overabundance of wicked old women and foolish damsels in distress.
So how did these tales, which likely began as stories told by women to women and children, become so problematic? When I finished rereading Children’s and Household Tales, I decided to find out. It turns out Little Red Riding Hood – titled “Little Red-Cap” in my translation after the German “Rotkäppchen” – is first referenced as a 10th century oral French story folklorists call “The Story of Grandmother.” In this early incarnation, instead of needing rescue, Red cleverly escapes the wolf on her own by telling him she has to relieve herself. But in the first version of the tale to appear in print, “Le Petit Chaperon Rouge” (1697), male author Charles Perrault includes no such happy ending: Red strips for the Wolf, gets into bed with him, and is eaten. In a moralizing message at the end of the tale, Perrault uses a double entendre likening “gentle wolves” to predatory gentlemen “following the young maids in the streets, even into their homes.” The Brothers Grimm, it seems, added the now-popular ending of a heroic huntsman cutting Red and her grandmother from the belly of the wolf in their first edition of Children’s and Household Tales (1812).
A similar pattern of the heroine gradually weakening over time can be seen in the history of the Rapunzel tale. In all versions of the story, the basic pattern is the same: a mother craves a plant while pregnant, eats it, and the owner of the garden takes the child as payment. Then the child is placed in a magical tower, where a prince falls in love with her and climbs up her hair. In the first version to be published in print, “Petrosinella,” by Giambattista Basile (1634), a gossip tattles on the maiden’s nighttime activities with the prince, rather than the maiden betraying herself, and the maiden plots her own escape using three magical nuts. In the next known variant, Persinette (1698), Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force has the maiden betray her own affair with the prince by complaining to her captor that her dress is getting tighter, but adds the bit about the power of the maiden’s tears to heal the prince’s blindness at the end. The Grimms’ version (1812) has the weakest heroine, with “Rapunzel” making the foolish mistake of admitting that the prince has been “with her” and only being reunited with the prince when he stumbles blindly upon her in the wilderness.
The gradual weakening of the heroines of these tales –from the stronger girls of earlier variants to the “tender young creature[s]” of the Brothers Grimm – makes me wonder what has been lost, over the centuries, as these stories have been told and retold in print. What details might we reclaim from the past, or add for the future, so that our children will see more than tender young creatures, wicked witches, and wolves in the world?
Mary McMyne is the author of Wolf Skin (Dancing Girl Press, 2014), a chapbook of poems that retell European folktales from alternate perspectives, such as the huntsman from Little Red Riding Hood, the witch from Rapunzel, and the woodcutter’s wife from Hansel and Gretel. She teaches at Lake Superior State University, where she is co-editor of the journal Border Crossing. Her stories and poems have appeared in Word Riot, Pedestal Magazine, Painted Bride Quarterly, Los Angeles Review, Apex Magazine, New Myths, New Delta Review, Poetry International, and many other publications. Her poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Rhysling Award. Her criticism has appeared in American Book Review. A recipient of the Faulkner Prize for a Novel-in-Progress and a Sustainable Arts Foundation Promise Award for her fiction, she is currently at work on a novel set in 12th century Germany, which speculates about the historical roots of several well-known fairy tales.