Red Riding Hood and its variants is one of the best known fairy tales, but the different versions of a little girl's experiences while going to visit her grandmother have textual differences which serve to change the tone, if not the overall arc, of the story. However, these differences can actually help one to understand the wide range and reception of fairy tales, because even though different versions of "Little Red Riding Hood" have very obvious textual differences, they nonetheless maintain certain elements necessary to identify any particular version as a version of "Little Red Riding Hood" in general. By comparing Charles Perrault's "Little Red Riding Hood," the Grimm Brothers' "Little Red Cap," and an anonymously authored tale from Germany and Poland called "Little Red Hood," one will be able to uncover the narrative elements necessary to identify a fairy tale as a variant of "Little Red Riding Hood." In addition, this comparison will serve to highlight some of the problems with attempting to categorize fairy tales in this way, because comparing the necessary elements found in these three versions with the folktale "type" discussed by Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson will demonstrate how Aarne and Thompson's classification system suffers from an unnecessarily reductive view of "Little Red Riding Hood" and its variants.
Before analyzing three different versions of "Little Red Riding Hood," it will be useful to first discuss Aarne and Thompson's classification system, because the subsequent analysis of these three versions will serve to demonstrate the limited and ultimately unhelpful nature of their classifications. This is not to suggest that any attempt to uncover and catalog the "the great similarity in the content of stories of the most varied peoples" is unproductive, but rather that Aarne and Thompson, undoubtedly due to the difficulty of finding all extant versions of any given story, define "Little Red Riding Hood" in such a way as to exclude some of the most important versions of the story (Thompson 6). In Aarne and Thompson's classification system, stories are divided up into different kinds of tales, and then further divided based on the central characters and motifs. "Little Red Riding Hood" and its variants are classified as tale type 333, with 300 denoting that it is a fairy tale and 33 simply referencing its placement in the list of the first hundred fairy tale types, which are grouped according to the presence of a "supernatural opponent" (Aarne & Thompson 125).
In the case of "Little Red Riding Hood," the opponent is wolf, and Aarne and Thompson dub his character type "the glutton" (Aarne and Thompson 125). They summarize the story as follows: "the wolf or other monster devours human beings until all of them are rescued alive from his belly," adding two subdivisions of the tale, "the wolf's feast" and "rescue," in which the wolf disguises himself as Little Red Riding Hood's grandmother and deceives her, and then is killed after Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother are saved (Aarne & Thompson 125). At first glance this would appear to coincide with the general idea of "Little Red Riding Hood" that most people have in mind, but when applying it to actual versions of the tale, it becomes problematic to the point of uselessness.
One of the earliest versions of "Little Red Riding Hood," and the version which actually goes by that name, was written by Charles Perrault, and it serves to demonstrate the first major problem with Aarne and Thompson's classification, because no one is saved in the end. Instead, Little Red Riding Hood is convinced of the wolf's ruse up until she finally notices his teeth, but it is too late, and he eats her (Perrault). Instead of ending with a rescue, the tale concludes here, and Perrault inserts a moral claiming that "children, especially attractive, well bred young ladies, should never talk to strangers, for if they should do so, they may well provide dinner for a wolf" (Perrault). Perrault removes any ambiguity as to the sexual undertones of the story by adding that "there are also those who are charming, quiet, polite, unassuming, complacent, and sweet who pursue young women [….] and unfortunately, it is these gentle wolves who are the most dangerous of all" (Perrault). Thus, the earliest written account of "Little Red Riding Hood" defies Aarne and Thompson's classification by failing to fulfill exactly one half of the narrative elements claimed as necessary. This leads one to presume that those elements which do serve to identify a tale as a variant of "Little Red Riding Hood" must not include the rescue, but rather be some combination of those elements which occur prior.
When the Grimm Brothers' version of "Little Red Riding Hood," called "Little Red Cap," some of the basic, common elements of the story begin to show themselves. The beginning is nearly the same as Perrault's version, with a doted-on child wearing the titular red head-covering so often that it becomes a nickname (Grimms, Perrault). While the precise things Little Red Cap takes to her grandmother are different (wine instead of butter), the rest of the story up until the wolf's attack is largely the same. Little Red Cap meets the wolf, tells him where her grandmother lives, and then arrives after the wolf because she has taken a longer route in order to enjoy nature.
However, there are two key differences which help to differentiate the story and change the tone somewhat. Firstly, in Perrault the wolf takes a shorter route and Little Red Riding Hood takes longer because she was "entertaining herself by gathering nuts, running after butterflies, and gathering bouquets of little flowers" (Perrault). In the Grimm Brothers' version, however, the wolf actually tells Little Red Cap to go look at the flowers, so while the effect is ultimately the same, the wolf is made somewhat more cunning in the Grimm version. Secondly, the Grimm Brothers' version does not have Little Red Cap actually getting into bed with the wolf, thus removing some of the sexual undertones seen in Perrault. This is crucial to note because it suggests the reason for the difference in endings, because in the Grimm version, Little Red Cap and her grandmother are rescued by a passing huntsman. Perrault's version is explicitly moralizing, and Little Red Riding Hood dies essentially as a punishment for her implied promiscuity. With the Grimms, however, Little Red Cap is spared, as she does not compromise herself in the same way. However, Little Red Cap does get eaten before getting rescued, and one may read this as punishment for disobeying her mother by leaving the road to pick flowers, especially as the story contains a kind of moral when it concludes with Little Red Cap saying "As long as I live, I will never leave the path and run off into the woods by myself if mother tells me not to" (Grimms).
The version of tale called "Little Red Hood" is largely similar to the version published by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, with only minor textual differences that are so small that they do not require extensive analysis, but instead one can now easily begin to identify those elements necessary to identify a tale as a variant of the "Little Red Riding Hood" story. Firstly, the most important characteristic of the titular character to note is that she is a little girl, with a mother and grandmother, and the particular head covering is largely irrelevant except as a means of fleshing out the character. Even the color of the head covering is largely incidental; although it happens to be red in all of the versions discussed here, one could easily imagine it being a different color, and while this might change some of the thematic and tonal qualities of the story, this would not preclude it from being identified as a variant of the tale discussed here. Those elements which are necessary to be considered a variant of the same story are as follows: a little girl is instructed by her mother to bring sustenance to her grandmother; the little girl meets a wolf along the way; the wolf decides to eat the grandmother and lie in wait for the little girl; the little girl arrives at her grandmother's house after enjoying nature; the little girl is eaten by the wolf.
Realizing that these are the constituent elements of the single story of which "Little Red Riding Hood," "Little Red Cap," and "Little Red Hood" are variants reveals a few interesting things about both the story in general and these versions in particular, but the most important revelation is the irrelevance of a moral. Considering the constituent elements of any variant of Little Red Riding Hood reveals that a moral is actually not necessary, even though these three versions all contain one, because the morals only work when the tale includes elements not present in all versions, thus marking the moral as an optional, rather than essential element. Perrault's moral only works…