By Meg Curtis, PhD
The woman stared out of the advertisement at me: I recognized her immediately. Piercing eyes and a wicked smile dared me to write what I know about grandmothers and wolves. The famous folktale drags Lil Red Riding to Grandma’s house relentlessly, where the child expects to find somebody waiting for baked goods—ill and helpless.
Before this story begins, please note that the current Queen of the United Kingdom—Elizabeth II—could brag if she wants about grandmother-hood. I haven’t seen it in the press, if she does. What achievement does grandmother-hood represent, aside from adding her genes to a pool? Her own mother—the Queen Mother—never waited for baked goods, so far as I can recall.
So we come to Lil Red Riding Hood skipping along through the woods. First, she’s wearing red to alert every hunter within shot-range that this tourist must not be confused with wildlife. That’s still the practice, isn’t it, for tourists in wildlife preserves during hunting season? Only this little girl takes no chances with camouflage—she’s covered from head to knee in the color of blood.
Now, let’s consider the back story villain: Lil Red Riding Hood’s mother. Why didn’t she go herself to visit her own mother? Visits to relatives may be notoriously painful, but that’s no excuse for sending a granddaughter on a mother’s mission. If this particular grandmother had been ill abed, that woman would have flown there, if need be—assuming Grandma loved her.
Aha! We now discover the principle of the Double—the shape-shifting at work in both early and sophisticated narratives. The German Doppelganger, an exact double of a person with usually sinister motives, waits in that bed for that little girl, who does not know what her mother knows. Grandma may or may not be sick, but she also may be as wicked an enemy as Elizabeth I.
These two queens—Elizabeth I and II—serve as the perfect illustration of doubles. Both exist over time, but the first proved to be the most powerful monarch in English history; the second preserves the monarchy by never showing her teeth. Monarchs can be grandmothers, too—but, first and always, they function as symbols of national unity. Bow or return home.
Skipping along with her basket of goodies, the child covered in blood has already met her future. She expects to find a pleasant old woman in that bed, lovely with the grace of age. Instead, Lil Red Riding Hood encounters the truth: Ancestors rarely go gently into that good night, as Dylan Thomas reminds us in “Do Not Go Gently into that Good Night.”
In fact, Thomas prays that they don’t. “Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” he begs his father in his famous poem. Children prancing around in the bewilderment of woods, though, do not expect to come smack up against the realities of death and age. On the contrary, if they do a good deed, they expect reward—a cookie, maybe?—and gratitude—a smile, at the very least.
The famous folktale of Little Red Riding Hood survives because it offers a double perspective, as well as a doppelganger. Prance down that wood-path with an immature mentality—and you’ll get the surprise of your life when you reach your destination. On her deathbed and grasping for life, Grandma may be raging, all teeth and eyes. The wolf has nothing on her.
Walk grimly down that same path with the knowledge of the adult. Suddenly, Grandma must surrender to the hunter in green, the color always worn by those who remain unseen in woodlands. He knows wolves, and he knows grandmothers. Both can be subject to change in a flash from benign to malignant. Threaten the succession of child to adult, and he appears.
A child like Little Red Riding Hood cannot proceed successfully through the bewilderment of maturity by believing that transformation does not hit us all. The wolf’s ferocity signals she must change her expectations NOW. Thus love takes the strangest forms when it wishes to warn us: Grow up or grow down. Pack that cape and pay the hunter. He won’t lie about what you will discover.
For more on Little Red Riding Hood, archetypes, and the doppelganger, please see http://www. wtps.org/wths/imc/pathfinders/archetypes.pdf
For sixteen different versions of the tale, please see http://www.usm.edu/ media/english/ fairytales/lrrh/lrrhhome.htm