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Fairytale Friday: The Path of Needles or the Path of Thorns?

November 16th, 2012

The girl with the Red Riding Hood has lived a very long life. Terri Windling has tracked it in an excellent article in Mythic Imagination Magazine:

Little Red Riding Hood was born in France, and she didn’t have a riding hood then, she was just a girl on her way to her grandmother’s house with milk and bread (the story was called “The Grandmother’s Tale”). There was no hero huntsman in the story either: Granny remained quite dead. In fact; the wolf even tricked Red Riding Hood into eating some of her flesh, and drinking some of her blood, believing it to be wine. Once she has consumed her relative, the wolf asks her to take off her clothes and burn them, as she won’t need them anymore.

It is a pretty far cry from the story we learned as children, though the ending is not so bad: Red Riding Hood outwits the wolf and escapes with her life (and virtue) intact – and she does it all by herself, without any convenient huntsman stopping by.

Red Riding Hood arriving at Grandmother’s house
(Movie: Red Riding Hood, 2011)

When the girl and the wolf first meet in the woods, he is giving her a curious choice: will she take the path of needles, or the path of thorns?

It sounds equally bad, but the needles might in fact refer to a rural custom of sending every girl by the age of fifteen to spend a year with a local seamstress. The purpose of this year was not only to learn how to sew, but also to learn how to “keep herself”. When the year ended she was considered a maiden, ready to receive suitors. The custom was referred to as “gathering pins”. The needle in itself is also an erotic symbol, and prostitutes of the time pinned them to their sleeves to advertise their trade. Choosing the road of needles, as our heroine eventually does, could therefore signify her choice to embark on the path to womanhood. Even her eating her grandmother’s flesh could be a rite of passage of sorts: The old woman dies as her daughter’s daughter becomes a maiden – and the girl consumes her wisdom and life. The young woman then sheds her girl’s clothes and enters the bed with the wolf to be deflowered/consumed.

There has always been something undeniably erotic about Red Riding Hood, and it’s easy to pin the wolf a sexual predator, but, as Windling points out: the story became popular in a time when not only real wolves were an actual threat, but the belief in werewolves was at its peak. The werewolf was in many ways the witch’s male counterpart and many men were persecuted – and executed – on the suspicion of being a werewolf. The local belief was that men became wolves by using a salve they had purchased from the devil. The werewolf state was blamed for all kinds of abnormalities: from change in behavior to rape and incest. The wolf in Little Red Riding Hood was therefore almost certainly not a four-legged canine, but a man-wolf, hence his ability to speak and dress in grandmother’s clothing.

 Werewolf coming through!
(Movie: The Company of Wolves, 1983) 

When the story was finally written down by Perrault in 1697, Red Riding Hood had gained her red cap, and lost her appetite for human flesh. The story was written for the upper circles and Louis XIV’s court and was used as a cautionary tale for young girls. The wolf was at this point seen as a seducer of virgins – a horrible crime in those days, when a broken hymen meant decreased value on the marriage market. He was also seen as a rapist, since all sexual activity with unmarried young women was considered rape. Her consent or lack thereof made no difference for the verdict.

The French court, here represented by Kirsten Dunst as Marie Antoinette, 
wanted to keep their daughters intact.
(Movie: Marie Antoinette, 2006)

When the Brothers Grimm published the fairytale they also modified it to make it more suitable for children. The morals changed too: it was no longer only about being cautious around strange (wolf-) men, but straying from the path in general: Red Riding Hood gets in trouble because she disobeys her mother and gets distracted. Red was also a very bold and unusual color for a young girl in the 19th century, doomed to attract (unwanted) attention. It is in other word implied that it is all Red Riding Hood’s fault.
Good thing then that they came up with the brave huntsman, who shows up just in time to save the silly girl.


Read the whole article here (page 35) and enjoy the rest of the magazine, and the artwork, while you’re there.

Here’s a teaser for a gorgeous version of the fairytale by David Kaplan, with a very young Christina Ricci (1997):

“A slut is she who eats the flesh of her Granny”.
(The Cat) 

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