Who is the Big Bad Wolf?

“All good fairy tales have meaning on many levels; only the child can know which meaning are of significance to him at the moment” (Bettelheim, 169). Fairy tale, because it speaks metaphorically has the ability to have a different meaning each time the story is read. “As he grows up, the child discovers new aspects of these well-known tales, and this gives him the conviction that he has indeed matured in understanding, since the same story now reveals so much more to him” (Bettelheim, 169). Little Red Riding Hood is an especially rich example of a fairy tale that can be read on many levels. Like most fairy tales, this story has many different versions. The many variations in the story reveal the attitudes of the culture from which they were created and their interpretation exposes the inner workings of the mind of the interpreter.

The richness of the story stems from its metaphors; it is filled with symbols that when looked at individually can each change the meaning of the story. The big, bad wolf is the symbol for fear in its many forms. There are three types of fears that the wolf specifically embodies: the fear of sex, self, and nature. Adults know these fears and they try to warn young people to avoid them. Just like Little Red Riding Hood, children are told what to avoid yet still need to make their own mistakes. For authors like Perrault, making mistakes has deadly consequences, not only for Little Red Riding Hood but also for her grandmother. However, stories where the wolf is defeated in the end can give readers a sense of empowerment.

The story has had many retellings with considerable variety of major plot action. These variations alter the meaning of the wolf metaphor and define the purpose of the author but the representation of fear remains constant. “In Hillman’s view, the psyche or soul has many directions and sources of meaning – and this can feel like an ongoing state of conflict – a struggle with one’s daimons (wolves)” (Shelby, 58). When working with metaphor and archetypal imagery, the meaning is created by the author and the interpreter. This is what makes the metaphor so complex and fluid. While the versions differ dramatically, the wolf doesn’t change too much. His actions may change but not his character. The wolf is always a hungry predator. From the moment he meets Little Red, he wants to devour her. In some of the tales, she is warned not to talk to strangers and others she is naïve and gullible. No matter if he is a known or unknown fear, he always the thing that should be avoided and to which she falls victim. Little Red meets the wolf along the way to her grandmother’s house, she stops to talk to him and informs him of her destination. The wolf goes to the grandmother’s house and pretending to be Little Red, gains access to the grandmother’s house and swallows her. Still hungry, the wolf pretends to be the grandmother and after some dialogue between Red and the wolf, he eats her too. This is the point of the story where the ending changes the moral lesson and meaning of the whole story. In some accounts, the story ends here with the wolf triumphant over the naïve, young girl and her frail grandmother. However, many versions do not end here. In these stories, Little Red and her grandmother are cut out of the wolf, shaken but unharmed and the wolf is usually killed.

Within the wide range of stories, all of the characters experience fundamental variations but the wolf remains the same. Not until modern writers began writing fairy tales from the perspective of predator has the wolf had any variation. He is a boogeyman, a representation of all fears adults can project for children or they can imagine for themselves. Boogeymen and various “bad guys” have been around as long as there have been stories. They are used to embody fear either to scare children into behaving or help them to deal with fear, both unknown and known.

In his book on the story, Jack Zipes points out that the peasant girl from the oral stories was “forthright, shrewd, and brave” while Little Red Riding Hood is “pretty, spoiled, gullible, and helpless” (26). The explanation for this change is in part audience but the other also shows a different attitude toward girls and to the wolf. In the oral stories, even when Red is consumed by the wolf, she is often her own savior and destroyer of the wolf. She is the one that restores balance. This is a much more empowering message.   She is the master of her own fate while Little Red is helpless and requires rescue from a man of the woods. In the oral stories, the wolf is still fear but he is dominated by the girl. Even when she is devoured, she saves herself, often with the use of her scissors – a tool of the trade for most peasant girls of the time which shows the value of learning a trade. Oral versions used the wolf to show children how to take control and dominate their fears while the literary ones used the fear to take control from children and make them behave.

Perrault is probably the most well-known version of Little Red Riding Hood. His version of the story ends with the wolf eating both the grandmother and Little Red. It is clearly written as a cautionary tale for parents and children. In his version, Red is sent to her grandmother’s house but not warned about the possible dangers she may encounter. It is with this lack of knowledge that Red meets the wolf. Little Red not only tells the wolf where she is going, she tells him where it is located and agrees to see the wolf there. She is trusting because she does not know any better. This is a warning written to the parents to educate children not to talk to strangers and especially not reveal personal information. While warning parents to teach children to fear things that are new and unknown, the story also imparts this lesson to the children in the audience. The wolf arrives at the house first because he has tricked Little Red by taking the shorter path and because “she had a good time gathering nuts, chasing butterflies and picking flowers” (Perrault, 12). She should have gone straight to her grandmothers but she lingers. She plays like a child, attempting to linger before reaching adulthood. Perrault added a poem that explains that he is warning young girls to fear strange men. His tale is a warning to young girls about sexual maturation and lust of men and to mothers to teach their daughters these lessons lest they become victims to a wolf.

Fear of emerging sexuality is shared by adults and children. Before being devoured by the wolf in Perrault’s story Little Red removes her clothing and climbs into bed with the wolf disguised as her grandmother. All the way to the end of the story, Red is manipulated by the wolf and unaware of the danger she is in. In one version, Red is instructed by the wolf/grandmother to remove her clothing and throw it in the fire because she will no longer need it. With each item of clothing, the question is again asked and again the wolf says to throw the clothing in the fire. This itemization of clothing removal turns the scene into a kind of strip tease and with the items being consumed by the heat of the fire as the wolf waits for her longingly from the bed, it is hard not to think of sex. In this instance it is also difficult to understand how Little Red can be so gullible to the end. “Since in response to such direct and obvious seduction Little Red Riding Hood makes no move to escape or fight back, either she is stupid or she wants to be seduced” (Bettelheim, 169). Whether she is dumb or “asking for it,” the underlying current of these stories enforces a rape culture where young girls need to be instructed on how to avoid being it and if they are raped, it is their fault for not knowing better or wanting to be raped. Little Red breaks several rules that young girls are taught in order to be safe. She stops and talks to the wolf, a stranger. She gives him personal information, including her destination and lingers along the way giving the wolf ample time to eat the grandmother and prepare for Little Red. Her final act before being eaten of undressing and climbing into bed with the wolf makes her a much less sympathetic victim.

The story is a tale warning against disobedience and female sexuality. Little Red lingers on the path instead of heading straight to her grandmother’s house. In some of the stories, she is instructed by her mother to avoid strangers, sometimes even specifically warned about the wolf, in these stories, her disobedience is justification for her falling prey to the wolf. It is her fault. She got what she deserved because she disobeyed. The story cautions the reader about female sexuality because it could be seductive to a man but also something that leads to dire consequences. Sex, whether consensual or not, could result in pregnancy which like an encounter with wolf could result in death.

Another sexual fear addressed in the story is of gender, especially when it is not in its proper place. Little Red Riding Hood is safe when she is in her home with her mother. She then dons her red cap of maturity and leaves home. She encounters danger in the woods, the realm of men and the wilderness but she is not harmed because she encounters the wolf in the male domain where the wolf fears she will have male protection. He needs to enter the female realm, the home, to gain access to the child. In order to do this he needs to disguise himself as female. This adds to the fear of sex because it not traditional heterosexual sex, it is something hard to understand. It is the seduction of a girl – presumably in the stage between child and woman, not quite either one by a wolf disguised as her grandmother. Here the wolf is still fear but it is of something complicated and hard to pin down. He is a wolf and male but only devours his victims in the disguise of a female character. He swallows the grandmother while pretending to be Red and he eats Red while disguised as the sick grandmother. The cross of genders and sense of fear when a woman is in a man’s domain or a man is in a woman’s shows real fear of gender roles and sexuality that may be different, as with a man that has a feminine appearance or persona – transgender. Regardless of why sex is feared, the wolf with his greedy, bodily desire for lust is the symbol of that fear.

Along with strong messages against sex, there is a strong lesson against gluttony and greed. Fear of self is both physical self and psychological self – the body with its sexual and nutritional appetites and the dark inner self, the wolf inside. The body is greedy but the mind, society, and the story attempt to keep that side of the self, our wolfish side at bay. The wolf is the embodiment of the instinctual self or id. The story addresses our fear of what lies beneath the surface. Fear of the self is dangerous to the soul of the individual. “Reviving the sacred is harmonizing the instinctual with the intellect, the body with the mind” (Wilkes, 1). This is not the message of Little Red Riding Hood. Here, the message to children is to be obedient and suppress the self or they may be eaten alive. For this message to be effective, the wolf has to be punished in the end, victim of his self-indulgence. Cashdan states that the wolf is another representation of the witch who in Hansel and Gretel is also killed because of gluttony (78). The theme of limited resources runs through many fairy tales. In a time when resources, especially food, were scarce, the message against overindulgence would be an important one. One can almost hear a child crying because he is hungry and his mother telling him to be happy with what he had and not be greedy or he will end up like the wolf.

The wolf embodies sexual fears, warnings about the self, both body and mind, and the deep rooted fear of nature. Unlike his cousin, the loyal, domesticated dog; the wolf is the ultimate symbol for man’s fear of the wilderness. Throughout man’s history, he has battled the wolf for territory and food. When people feared going out into the wilderness it was in large part because of wild animals, especially wolves and bears. While bears are feared for their strength, wolves are a different kind of adversary. They have cunning, like the wolf of the story, they can trick the victim and lure them into an attack. A bear will not hunt a person but a wolf will stalk them and plan an attack, to me that is much scarier and wild. In order to survive, Little Red must kill that which is wild. It is a message of man’s need to dominate nature. This fear was necessary and real; even more so in the past before technology made nature a lot less scary. Fear of animals, disease, harsh weather, or death are all fear of nature. To quote an old American phrase from a movie “sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes, the bear eats you” (Lebowski, 1998). These fears are real and uncontrollable. Sometimes the wolf wins and sometimes Little Red Riding Hood wins, often she is rescued.

Little Red Riding Hood’s triumph over the wolf is usually because she saves herself or she is rescued by a man of the woods, either a hunter or woodcutter. These men face the wild and kill it by profession, animal and tree. They are the heroes of the story because they are the ones that kill nature and wilderness. The woodsman as hero can be applied with all three representations of the wolf as fear. He is the foil for the wolf, he is the benevolent stranger that saves her. With the fear of sex, the young girl has had her purity destroyed and could possibly be with child. In this situation, the hero woodsman is her male rescuer that redeems her and restores her from the situation, in life this could be through marriage or some other arrangement that restores the girl’s reputation. With the fear of self, he is the redeemer that cuts down the trees in our soul that block our path to enlightenment or who slays the wild animal that lives inside, the need to control the self. This could be work done independently or with the aid of a professional, therapist or dietician.  Last with nature, the wolf is an actual, literal wolf that also represents the wild in general. This is shown with the use of technology to dominate nature and the fear people have of the wilderness within and without.

Fear is an interesting emotion. It is fundamental for survival and something shared with all animals. It is an instinct, something not of the mind, something felt – more body than mind. When used as a tool for instruction it can be empowering but it can also be used as a way to control children. Socially, fear creates civility and social order but it can also be psychologically crippling. It can create action or paralyze the individual. The story is important because it gives the readers a way to confront fear within the safety of fairy tale. Fear is never spoken of because the wolf represents it completely. The story helps the reader understand fear without ever having to label it as fear.

“It must be recognized that there is truly danger inherent in interacting with nature, with the instincts, with the depths of the unconscious, but it is not the wildness and the depths per se that are dangerous. Rather it is the repression and nonrecognition of the wildness and the depths that are dangerous. The goal is not to tame the wildness, the wolf, or the devouring mother. The goal is to befriend them, honoring them for their own inherent value. The wilderness, while a place of danger, disorder, power, and the unknown, is also the place of eventual reunion with the hidden wholeness of the Self” (Wilkes, 20).

The wolf is this danger, it is real and complicated. It may be fear of sex, self, nature, or something else but it is fear nonetheless. Fear drives the story and consumes the girl along with her lineage. The wolf is the witch and the devouring mother. (S)he devours the old and young, the sick and stupid, the frail and disobedient– the weaker members of society. The wolf needs no introduction because he is a core part of every person. The moment he appears in the story, the reader instinctually recognizes him for all the fears we’ve ever known. The big, bad wolf is in everyone. Fear is necessary and to ignore it can dangerous. The wolf is more dangerous when hidden behind closed doors, fear can be more damaging when pushed away from the consciousness. When the wolf is exposed in the woods he is not an immediate threat. He needs deception and privacy, to stay hidden in order to attack and consume. This is a metaphor for our own fears. When a person lies about their fear and tries to hide it, then it has a chance to grow. When the fear grows it can become wild and ravenous and eventually consume the person, eat them alive. Fear will always be there, lurking behind the next shadowy tree; it is important to remember to take scissors along on the journey in case there aren’t any woodsmen nearby.



Works Cited

Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Vintage Books Edition, 1989. Print.

Cashdan, Sheldon. “In the Company of Wolves.” The Witch Must Die: How Fairy Tales Shape Our Lives. New York: Basic, 1999. 78-83. Print.

Shelby, Stacey. “Tracking the Wild Woman Archetype: A Process in Individuation.” Order No. 3645465 Pacifica Graduate Institute, 2014. Ann Arbor: ProQuest. Web. 19 July 2015.

Tatar, Maria. The Classic Fairy Tales: Texts, Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999. Print.

The Big Lebowski. Prod. John Cameron. By Ethan Coen and Joel Coen. Perf. Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, and Sam Elliott. PolyGram Filmed Entertainment Presents, 1998. DVD.

Wilkes, Carolyn Sue. “The Wild Sacred: Revisioning the Wolf and Little Red Riding Hood.” Order No. 3043121 Pacifica Graduate Institute, 2001. Ann Arbor: ProQuest. Web. 18 July 2015.

Zipes, Jack. The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood. New York: Routledge, Inc., 1993. Print.