07 January 2011


Beyond Fairy Gold

Read about The Iron Ring and other fairy tales
at This Miss Loves to Read!

Before I did my Top 5 "Golden" Fairy Tales post, I actually wanted to make one for Top 5 Colours in Fairy Tales. Gold was to be #1, of course, with Red as #2 . . . but then I realised that colours don't really call attention to themselves in fairy tales. Snow White's dreamy mother is a real anomaly. Indeed, until these stories moved from a mostly oral tradition to be interpreted in a primarily visual medium, we didn't really care about details such as the colour of Sleeping Beauty's gown.

So I've had these two "colourful" fairy tales on my mind--if not always the conscious part--for quite a while, even if they weren't always facing off.

Little Red Riding Hood

Heroines: Both can be said to be naive. One of them suspects that the man who is courting her isn't quite safe, but lets herself be persuaded to accept him when her mother and sisters point out his good qualities. Then he turns out to be a serial wife killer. The other takes advice from someone who is obviously a wolf although it goes against the counsel of her mother. I suppose a little girl can be given a pass for being young, but that's an excuse, not a virtue.

WINNER: Bluebeard--because we can't blame her for listening to her mother at the beginning and can still root for her when she listens to her own intuition in the end.

Villains: Fairy tale villains are always nice and evil. Here we have a wife murderer who seems to make a hobby of the crime and a wolf who actually premeditates his kills. Are we going for pure malice or for utter originality? It depends on what kind of villain you prefer, I think--and I predict I'll draw the most flack for this choice.

WINNER: Little Red Riding Hood--because that crafty wolf's way of making us feel that we're in on the joke--that his plan to eat Little Red Riding Hood is even funny--that brings him closer to Morality Play Devil status. And we like that here.

Settings: As I remind everyone each Saturday, settings are essential. In the first story we have a huge house full of locked rooms and Gothic menace; in the second, a neat little cottage which has finally been overtaken by the forest that surrounds it.

WINNER: Bluebeard--because we can't blame nature for encroaching on what was hers in the first place, but can appreciate human evil finding an architectural form.

Discovery: Both stories have a climax in which the heroines finally see a truth that has been obvious (more or less) to the reader from the beginning. The first discovers, all at once, the truth depths of her husband's villainy; the other comes more gradually to the awful realisation that when your grandmother isn't looking quite herself, she probably isn't herself.

WINNER: Little Red Riding Hood--because the "What big teeth you have!" exchange is every child's first introduction to edge-of-your-seat suspense.

Symbols: Fairy tales are rich with symbols because they understand the power of ordinary things. Here we have a ring of keys and a basket of food. Now, keys are interesting because they presuppose locks, and locks, in turn, hint at secrets. And as the heroine finds out, there are some secrets you can never un-see. On the other hand, food is simply vital--a point which gets driven home in other stories of children in the woods--and I'm always happy about a basket that contains the "eucharistic" food of bread and wine. In this case, I'm also tickled that the only "food" the single-minded wolf wanted was carrying the basket rather than being carried in it.

WINNER: Bluebeard--because the keys transcend mere "accessory" status and come with consequences no one ever forgets.

Deliverance: There's no getting around it: both heroines are saved by some hero ex machina. One of them has her brothers ride to her rescue in the nick of time--a development which has always made me wonder not just how they knew she was in danger, but also where they were throughout the rest of the story. The other is rescued by a woodcutter who just happens to hear her screams (or in some versions, see the wolf's suspciously bloated belly).

WINNER: Little Red Riding Hood--because a woodcutter who happens to be in a forest makes more sense (and is simultaneously more mythical) than brothers who happen to be riding to a marital dispute.

Colours: It's not just about your personal favourite: these colours mean something. The blue beard tips us off immediately; we all know about that odd feeling that a new acquaintance is not quite right, although we can't yet articulate the source of our unease. The red hood is more controversial, making the little girl who wears it into a very visible target in the woods. One wonders why her mother would bother giving her a warning after letting her out of the house "dressed like that." And indeed, over the years, the combination of bright red hood and big, bad wolf has been inevitably eroticised.

WINNER: Little Red Riding Hood--because these days, noticing a blue beard will get you in trouble with the PC police, but red hoods are still as meaningful as they are stylish.

Bluebeard vs. Little Red Riding Hood

WINNER: Little Red Riding Hood

(Was it Charles Dickens who said that when he was a boy, he believed that he would find pure joy if he could only be married to Little Red Riding Hood? . . . Or was it Robert Louis Stevenson? . . . I can never remember.)

Image Sources: a) Barbe Bleue illustrated by ???, b) Little Red Riding Hood illustrated by Warwick Goble


christopher said...

!!! I've never even heard of Bluebeard (outside of the Kurt Vonnegut novel and of course, the pirate)!!! Based on a serial killer no less, what a horrific tale lol! And in case I've not used enough exclamation marks, here's a few more - !!! Sounds like Bluebeard would have been happy to marry Little Red also!


Irena @ This Miss Loves to Read said...

Great face-off! These two fairy-tales are perfect for contrasting, as they have some essential elements in common. I like the Red Riding Hood as it is, but this face-off proved why it is such a powerful fairy-tale. You're very insightful!

I think the Big Bad Wolf is one of the best villains in fairy-tales. He sets the stage for a murder, he manipulates and pretends and lures his innocent victims into a trap. He's pretty badass.:)

Irena @ This Miss Loves to Read said...

P.S. I read your comment to my fairy-tale post. I forgot to copy-paste the interpretation.:) Now I corrected that, in case you're interested in reading it.

Sullivan McPig said...

Bluebeard is my favourite of the two I will confess. I always wondered about Bluebeard. Why did he kill his first wife? The other's he killed because they found out his secret, but the first.... Why? Really, want to know.

That said: both stories are about losing your virginity/innocence ofcourse.

Bluebeard is the most obvious with the key going into a lock and then there being blood upon it that can't be washed off.

Little Red is a bit less obvious especially as it's been changed to make it more suitable for kids.
In an early version the wolf first asks Little Red to undress herself before coming in bed with him and he even lets her drink her grandmother's blood and eat her grandmother's flesh. And in that version there's no woodcutter coming to the rescue, she ends up dead and stays dead.

Enbrethiliel said...


Christopher: Bluebeard is a familiar character from my childhood--probably the main reason I'm so turned off by beards. (Even good old Santa's! LOL!)

Irena: Thanks! =D I'm glad you share my opinion of the Big Bad Wolf. I like him better here than in The Three Little Pigs, because he's a multi-layered villain here, while with the pigs, he could have come straight out of a Loony Toons skit. =P

Sully: That's a very good question! We don't know what the first wife did, do we? And part of the power of the story is that we'll never know. (On a tangent: the character of Bluebeard reminds me very much of Mr. Rochester from Jane Eyre. Other readers have disagreed with me about Jane's decision to leave him after she found out about Bertha, but I think she knew it would have "killed" her to stay, if only in a spiritual or psychological sense.)

I hadn't known about the original version of Little Red Riding Hood, but it makes so much sense. And even the child-friendly changes can't mask the story's darker sexual aspects, given how easily sexualised it still is.

The part with Little Red eating the grandmother's flesh and drinking her blood fascinates me the most, since it's a diabolical version of the wholesome (and as I said, eucharistic) bread and wine that Little Red is originally taking to the old woman. I was more right than I thought to consider the Big Bad Wolf the Morality Play Devil of this story!!! Such an awful villain . . . and still kind of charming, aye?

PS--Does he make her eat and drink before or after she gets into bed?

PPS--Now that I think about it, there's still something organic about the woodcutter. We could make a good case for him being the Christ figure who "harrows the hell" of the wolf's bloated belly. Of course, the point is that Little Red Riding Hood works well, regardless of what version one tells!

Sullivan McPig said...

I think it's before she gets into bed with him, I will look it up if I can find the book that has this version.

Enbrethiliel said...


That totally makes sense! If she hadn't first given in, in that way, I don't think she would have got into bed. Thanks!