Who, Really, Is the Big Bad Wolf?

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When I think about fairy tales, I always think of the Big Bad Wolf. He is the ultimate predator, the fundamental villain at the heart of some of the genre’s most popular stories, and one of the most fascinating.

But who, really, is this wolf?

Red Riding Hood and Little Red Cap

In fairy tale times, the Big Bad Wolf was intended to be the embodiment of temptation and evil. In Red Riding Hood and Little Red Cap, he is literally the one who forces us to stray from the path, into the woods, only to be eaten alive.

He is clever and cunning and driven by greed. He’s also incredibly deceitful and capable of disguise.

In Perrault’s Red Riding Hood (1697), he is able to distract Red Riding Hood by turning her adventure into a kind of game:

‘Well,’ said the wolf, ‘and I’ll go and see her too. I’ll go this way and go you that, and we shall see who will be there first.’

And in the Grimm version of Little Red Cap, the wolf is much more Machiavellian in trying to delay her:

‘Little Red Cap, just look at the beautiful flowers that are growing all around you! Why don’t you look around? I believe you haven’t even noticed how lovely the birds are singing. You march along as if you were going straight to school, and yet it’s so delightful out here in the woods!”

When we read (or are read) tales like Red Riding Hood and The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids as children, the moral of the Big Bad Wolf tales seems incredibly clear, even if we don’t realise it in our young age: Do not listen to big bad wolves. If you do, you’ll get yourself into trouble.

The caution of these tales, for me, also echoes the creation myth of Adam and Eve. The wolf is the serpent, and Red Riding Hood is essentially Eve, tricked into eating the forbidden apple and subsequently getting herself and Adam (and all of mankind) kicked out of Eden.

Yet there is another theory that goes beyond on the mere idea of the wolf as tempter and the little girl as the innocent, helpless victim – that of the wolf as a sexual predator.

The Big Bad Wolf as a sexual predator

Perrault essentially admits at the end of his telling of Red Riding Hood that the tale is fundamentally a warning to young girls about sexual predators:

Moral: 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. I say “wolf,” but there are various kinds of wolves. There are also those who are charming, quiet, polite, unassuming, complacent, and sweet, who pursue young women at home and in the streets. And unfortunately, it is these gentle wolves who are the most dangerous ones of all.

Other fairy tale theorists — notably Jack Zipes — have also become pioneers of the interpretation of the Big Bad Wolf as a predator rapist of Red Riding Hood, though it is a violation that Red Riding Hood brings about herself by playing into the wolf’s games and ‘asking’ to be seduced. In other words, she is ultimately “devoured” by her own sexuality.

Although Red Riding Hood is “shrewd, brave, tough, and independent” in the original oral tale, Perrault also revised it to resonate with the Christian values of his time — and thus imposed his own sexual convictions onto the tale. Zipes writes:

… his fear of women and his own sexual drives are incorporated into his new literary version, which also reflects general male attitudes about women portrayed as eager to be seduced or raped.

In this regard, Perrault began a series of literary transformations which have caused nothing but trouble for the female object of male desire and have also reflected the crippling aspect of male desire itself.

From this perspective, the Big Bad Wolf becomes not only a tempter or a predator, as we originally thought him to be, but a perpetrator of the male desire or gaze, and a symbol of the fantasies the male projects onto the female (if you this approach is absurd, check out Zipes’s great article on the Second Gaze, referenced below).

The Big Bad Wolf never wins

There is one more important thing to note about the Big Bad Wolf — despite however you choose to read him or whatever you feel he symbolises, he is always overcome in the end.

In the Grimm version of Red Riding Hood, his death comes at the hands of another male, the woodcutter/hunter (which begs a whole other discussion; as Zipes states, “Only a strong male figure can rescue a girl from herself and her lustful desires”).

In other tales he is defeated by the characters themselves: The mother goat and her kids fill his belly stones so that he drowns in The Wolf and the Seven Young Kidsin The Wolf and the Fox he is undone by his own gluttony; in The Story of the Three Little Pigs, he gets boiled and eaten himself by the brick-building pig.  

Hence, the wolf never learns his lesson, never gets it right. He is proud and gluttonous, boastful and willing to inflict harm, and he always has a vice that undoes him. Just as we all have vices that could undo us as well.

The wolf within

For me (or my naive childhood self), this cautionary element of all fairy tales will always stand.

But perhaps it is this characterisation of the Big Bad Wolf as a reflection of something within ourselves, as a fictional embodiment of fear/desire, that draws us to the fairy tale — and makes us truly want to know and meet the wolf, to experience his wrath, to defeat him in some way, even if we all remain afraid of him in the tales we read.

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REFERENCES

All fairy tales referenced in The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: Translated and With an Introduction by Jack Zipes, 3rd ed. Bantam Books, USA & Canada, 2003.

A Second Gaze at Little Red Riding Hood’s Trials and Tribulations by Jack Zipes in The Lion and the Unicorn. Volume 7/8, 1983-1984  pp. 78-109. 

Commentary: The Boy & the Crone

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Funnily enough, The Boy & the Crone actually started off as a completely different poem about a boy in a dystopian sci-fi world escaping war.

But as it evolved and moved along, I began to make lots fairy tale-ish references and allusions … and eventually it occurred to me that I might just want to set the poem in a fairy world, and make it about a well-known fairy tale character.

Let’s be clear – I’m not a poetry writer. I’ve studied a bit of poetry, but this was kind of a shot at a new kind of writing for me. I utilised an A/B/C/B rhyming scheme, with 9  four-line stanzas.

Admittedly, I didn’t put much initial thought or planning into the structure (like a good poet should), but instead allowed the narrative and journey of the boy to guide me as I wrote.

I also didn’t intend for it to be as intertextual or ‘meta’ as it ended up . I had originally planned to just tell the poetically-licensed tale of Hansel’s escape through the forest following Gretal’s death.

But as I began to think about how to end the ‘story’ in a surprising way, I felt it would be interesting to not only show Hansel escaping from the witch, but from the confines of the fairy tale itself … which I guess had already been established with the subtle twisting of the original fairy tale (if you haven’t read it, both kids escape).

Naturally, of course, it only made sense to then blur the fairy tale boundaries further, having Hansel cross-over, albeit briefly, into another tale (no secrets as to which one) and become even further lost.

I also went for the dark, unresolved ending to contrast the usual fairy tale resolutions (and I did think hard and long about how to end it the whole thing).

I wanted Hansel to be lost completely, and lost to us. In the original text, the kids spot their house in the distance and race up to it to be embraced by their father (and live happily ever after).

But in my version, there isn’t even a house or a father for Hansel “to seek.” He’s out of the fairy tale now, into the bleak, and I suppose that for him, there is no coming back.

The Boy & the Crone (a Poem)

gothic-forest-300px He stumbles shakily across the woods

Knowing not where he goes

His cares uncared for, his thoughts at halt

Leading him out of this tale alone;

One turn back and the fear ensues

To overrun his dreams and thoughts

A candy house, a death-filled mess

Of a great old hag that wrought

The end of a sister and the sound of bones

Boiling, endlessly, in the terrified dark

A feast for all, a witch’s feast-day,

With a dance, a spell, a lark;

In the morning light the forest glows

Yet he can find no crumbs nor stones

The soft white duck has long since fled

This story of the boy and the crone

The top of the hill rises, the horizon looms

Preparing to swallow him, deathly whole

For he can see naught but more forest and woods

To eradicate the freedom he stole

But what’s this now, that we can hear?

Sunbeams and a sweet voice that sings

Flowers and nosegays and a sweet little girl

In a red cape like soft angel’s wings

Where are you going so early? a gruff voice asks

And in desperate breath he dares not look up

For he has heard the tales of hands, ears and mouths

And of creatures that on little girls sup

On they go, and now he hears now a cackle

Whispering through wintry leaves

She’s close, she’s coming, she’s on his tail

As if everything before told was a dream;

Now the shape of the land and the arch of the skies

Plunge endlessly, into the bleak

For a border’s been crossed, the boy is now lost

There is no father nor house to seek.

(Image courtesy of kuba at openclipart.org)

Commentary: The Sweet House

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I had a lot of fun writing The Sweet House (or The Witch & the Wolf).

I knew I wanted to write a story based around the idea of deceit and disguise in fairy tales, and I also wanted the story to be amusingly intertextual, with allusions to other fairy tale elements, characters and stories.

I enjoyed playing with the motif of the wolf in disguise as Red Riding Hood/Little Red Cap, and setting this against the backdrop of Hansel and Gretal, with the witch as the supposed ‘victim’ of the wolf’s ways.

As the story unfolded, I realised it ended up becoming much more parodic than I had originally intended, so I just decided to run with this. For me, the story takes the most interesting turn when the witch, instead of being afraid (since witches rarely are), stands up to the wolf and their dialogue becomes somewhat farcical.

I struggled for a while with the resolution, trying to figure out how to end it.

Originally, I had intentions of introducing a third character of a real boy or girl and somehow having he or she overpower both antagonists, but eventually, I found that the cliffhanger ending worked nicely – and I like how it ties back to the rest of the cliches that run through the story, and kind of takes the ending to a new ‘cliched’ height.

 

The Sweet House (or The Witch & the Wolf)

1375728324-300pxIn the midst of a deep forest, a witch built a house made of bread and cake and sugar.

She knew that children loved sweet things and couldn’t wait for a young girl or boy (or both) to happen upon her sweet home. She lined the windows with candy, covered the steps with gingerbread and even grew flowers that were made of chocolate.

When the house was built, she readied her fire and boiled her water and the next morning, as expected, she woke to see a young girl traipsing through the woods.

‘There’s a fine girl for me to eat,’ thought the witch, and then said to her cat, ‘let’s be very quiet and hide so we don’t scare her off.’

Just as the witch hoped, the little girl saw the house and smiled. ‘Oh my, look at that house made of bread and cake and sugar and candy!’ she said. ‘I shall help myself!’

The little girl skipped up to the house and began to eat it. She took bites out of the porch steps and peeled off the candy that made up the eaves. She licked the windows made of sugar and plucked a flower to suck on.

‘Oh, it tastes just like chocolate,’ the little girl cried, ‘how wonderful!’

The witch clapped her hands together in delight. She put on her best disguise, wrapping a scarf around her head and picking up a crutch. She threw open the door and said, in her softest voice, ‘Nibble, nibble, like a mouse, who is nibbling at my house?’

At the sight of the old woman, the little girl began to tremble.

‘Why, hello there, little girl!’ the witch said. ‘So very nice of you to come by my house.’

The little girl, who was always wary of strangers, said, ‘I’m sorry … I didn’t mean to … I’m so very sorry. I was just very hungry is all.’

‘Oh, don’t be sorry,’ the witch said. ‘This house was made to be eaten. Would you like to come inside? There’s so much more to eat in here.’

‘Really?’ the little girl said.

‘Come indoors and stay with me, you’ll be no trouble.’

‘It’s just – we’re very poor, you see,’ the girl said as the witch held out her hand and welcomed her inside. ‘And my stepmother is horrid and we don’t have enough food for the family.’

Inside, the little girl realised that the witch was right – there entire house could be eaten! The couch was made of sweet bread, the rug was made of solid syrup and even the pots and pans tasted like slices of apples.

‘You shall stay for supper,’ she said to the little girl. ‘I can cook up a special sweet broth and then you can take the rest home to your mother and father to eat.’

Meanwhile, the little girl went about tasting everything she could see. She chewed on the walls, nibbled on the mantle piece and even gobbled down the cushions.

‘Indeed, she must be hungry,’ whispered the witch to the cat. ‘Too bad for her! All this eating will fatten her up.’She threw back her head and let out a loud cackle and thought, ‘A great feast for me!’

When the girl was done eating, the witch said, ‘Here, come and have a taste of my sweet broth.’

Quickly, she placed two small bowls of broth on the table. The girl sat down across from her, cupped the bowl in her hands and drank the broth down.

‘Well?’ the witched asked.

‘It’s very tasty,’ the girl said as she slurped it down. She placed the bowl on the table and smiled. ‘May I have some more?’

As she said this, the witch began to notice something very strange about the little girl.

In some ways, now that she looked a little closer, she didn’t seem like a little girl at all. Her cloak was too small and her cap was not quite right and even her hands seems oddly big.

‘Oh, little girl, what large ears you have!’ the witch said suddenly, noticing the long ears poking out from beneath her red cap.

‘The better to hear you with, of course,’ the girl replied sweetly.

‘And what big eyes!’

‘The more I can see, the more I’ll be able to eat!’

‘What about your mouth? It seems a little big for such a little girl?’

‘All the better to eat you with!’ the girl shouted, leaping up. lone-wolf-pngdispositionattachment

Suddenly the witch realised her mistake. For as the girl threw off her cloak and her cap, she saw that the little girl was not a girl at all – she was actually a great, big, nasty wolf!

A big bad wolf, right in her house, under her nose!

The witch stood up, gathering up all her courage. She put her hands on her hips and said sternly, ‘You’ll not eat me, you silly wolf. I’m not some poor lass for your pleasure.’

‘Oh? And how do you expect to escape?’ the wolf asked. He leaped over the table and snarled, showing all of his sharp teeth. ‘I shall eat you, and the things in your house, and then I shall wait here for all those little children to come by, and I’ll eat them up too!’

The wolf lunged at her, his mouth wide open, but the witch, having encountered many wolves before in the fairy tale world, darted sideways just in time. The wolf, of course, went crashing into the wall.

‘You just try that once more and I’ll weave a spell that will fill your belly with stones,’ the witch said, ‘and then it’ll be the river for you!’

‘Ha! I would like to see that, you old crone,’ the wolf replied. ‘Maybe I’ll push you into this pot of water or bake you in your own oven!’

‘I know a good woodcutter,’ the witch said. ‘He could be here in an instant!’

‘Well, I know a man that can forge red-hot iron shoes, and you’ll put them on and dance until you die. How about that?’

‘I’m not afraid of you, you lousy wolf!’

‘I’m not scared of you either, you wretched hag!’

And before either of them could say another word, there came a knock at the door.

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(Image courtesy of liftart [witch] and wordlabel [wolf] at openclipart.org)

Commentary: The Boy & the Reflection

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The Boy and the Reflection began with the opening image of a boy in blue dancing around a well. This was a writing prompt given in a writing class I took a while ago, where we were asked to recall an image or detail from the first ever story we ever encountered.

Of course, mine was a ‘boy in blue dancing around well’ from the fairy tale, Tikki Tikki Tembo, which my mother used to read to me when I was young and which I remember quite vividly.

I didn’t really have any idea of how I wanted the story to develop, but once I had the concept of the boy’s reflection in place I decided to focus the story around that relationship while also introducing elements of adventure.

I’m happy with the way the story turned out and I like the interplay between the boy and the reflection, and the themes of belonging, identity, ownership and the ‘other’ that run through the piece.

The acceptance and harmony of boy/identity/other/reflection was what I was aiming for with the ending, and I hope the ironic interplay of dialogue in the last few lines came to embody this.

 

The Boy & the Reflection

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There once was a boy in blue who danced and skipped around the edge of a well.

When he looked into the well, he saw his own reflection and he said, ‘Who goes there?’

‘I am the boy who dances and skips around the well,’ the reflection said. ‘Should we dance together?’

The boy said, ‘You’d have to follow me, wouldn’t you? All the moves I make?’

‘Perhaps I am the boy, and you are the reflection,’ the reflection said. ‘How can you tell the difference?’

‘Because I can dance wherever I like,’ the boy argued, nothing like this reflection one bit. ‘I can dance all around the edge of the well. I could skip all the way home. I could hop over the river there and never come back. But you – you can’t do any of those things.’

‘Can’t I?’ the reflection asked. ‘If you look close, the well is reflected here, too. So is your home, the river. Even the sky and the sun and the moon.’

‘But you are not real,’ the boy said and crossed his arms. ‘You are only a reflection, you are only in the well.’

The reflection thought about this for a moment. ‘Am I?’ it asked. ‘Shall we dance together, and find out?’

So, the boy and his reflection danced and skipped and hopped together, over the grass and lake and the mountains, into the sky and around the sun, through the stars and across the moon

When they reached the darkness of space the reflection said, ‘Look there. Can you see it?’

‘See what?’ asked the boy in blue.

‘I can see a forest over there,’ the reflection said. ‘And a house. And some birds. Shall we go? I’ll lead the way.’

‘I don’t see anything,’ the boy said. ‘And even if I could see it, I wouldn’t want to go. I don’t like forests much.’

‘Well, I’ll go without you then,’ the reflection said.

The boy laughed. ‘You can’t go without me. You’re the reflection. You can only go where I go. And I don’t want to.’

‘Please, can we go?’ the reflection asked.

‘No,’ the boy said. ‘I want to go home and that’s where we’re going.’

‘Suit yourself,’ the reflection said with a shrug. And to the boy’s surprise, his reflection began to skip away. He watched as it hopped over one star, then another, and then disappeared into the forest.

‘Silly reflection,’ the boy said to himself. ‘He won’t last long without me. He’ll be back in no time.’

But when he came back at the end of the day to look into the well, the reflection was not there. One hour passed and then another.

Finally, as the sun was going down, the boy sat down to sleep by the well when a voice suddenly said from within, ‘Hello, there. How are you?’

‘You?’ the boy cried, leaping up. ‘Where have you been?’

‘The forest was delightful!’ the reflection said. ‘I saw the most magical things and met the most wonderful creatures. They talked to me, too.’

‘That’s nonsense, creatures don’t talk. I’ll have no more of this wandering off.’

‘You can’t stop me,’ the reflection said. ‘I can do whatever I like.’

The boy frowned at this and walked off in a huff.

When he returned the next day, his reflection was gone again. This time the boy waited all day and all night. Another day passed and then another. On the third day, there was still no sign of the reflection.

Perplexed, the boy went to his father, who was in the yard, chopping wood.

‘Father,’ he said. ‘I’ve lost my reflection.’

‘Well, what did you say to it?’

‘I said that  it couldn’t go anywhere with out me.’

‘Well, son, that’s the thing about reflections,’ the father said. ‘They tend to have a mind of their own.’

‘But how can they?’ the boy asked. ‘They aren’t real. I saw him in the well. It was only water.’

‘What do you mean?’ the father said, putting his axe down. ‘Of course reflections are real! They bring about our thoughts and desires and fears and feelings, all the things we keep inside of us. What could be more real than that?’

The boy thought about this, but he didn’t know what to say.

Finally, he turned to his father and said, ‘Well … how do I get it back?’

His father only threw his hands in the air and shrugged. ‘You’ll have to find it, won’t you? Surely you know where it’s gone … ?’

The next morning, the book looked in the well again. There was a reflection there, but it was not the same one.

‘Who are you?’ he asked.

‘Don’t be stupid. I’m your reflection,’ the reflection said.

‘No, you’re not,’ the boy said. ‘Where’s the one that was here before?’

‘Oh, him. He’s gone. Frolicking off somewhere in the forest. I’m yours now.’

‘But … I don’t want you,’ the boy said. ‘I don’t mean it in a nasty way, it’s just that … well … you’re not mine.’

The reflection rolled his eyes and scrunched up its face. ‘Too bad,’ it said. ‘I’m here to stay. You’re just going to have to put up with it.’

The boy had had enough. He packed a small sack with food and clothes and hopped away as fast as he could. He travelled over the grass and lake and the mountains, into the sky and around the sun, through the stars and across the moon.

Finally, when he reached the dark, he once again saw the forest the reflection had seen.

‘I can go in there,’ he said to himself. ‘Of course I can. I’m not afraid.’

But he was. He trembled and shook, but he kept on walking anyway. Inside, the forest was even darker. The trees felt like monsters and there were no stars at all.

He found a little path and followed as best he could, but soon he realised he was lost.

‘I’ll never get out of here!’ he cried. ‘I’ll never find my reflection!’

And then he saw it. The house. It was his house, and it was not. It was a kind of reflection. He raced up to it and shouted and peered into the well, but there was nobody there.

He gazed around him and suddenly he spotted it – his reflection!

It was right there, sitting by a lake, eating a pudding.

‘Oh, there you are,’ the reflection said when the boy wandered over. ‘I was wondering when you would come.’

‘I … I got a bit lost,’ the boy said. ‘But I’m here now. This place isn’t so bad.’

The reflection smiled. ‘It’s nice, isn’t it? Would you like some of my pudding?

After a while, they returned home together. The other reflection was waiting for them.

‘I’m not moving,’ it said. ‘I’m here to stay.’

‘No, you’re not,’ the boy said.

‘That’s right, you’re not,’ the first reflection said. ‘Out, out, out!’

The next day, the boy finished his breakfast and came out to gaze into the well.

‘Hello,’ he said.

‘Hello,’ the reflection said.

The boy smiled. ‘Where shall we go today? Should we go on another adventure?’

‘Yes, let’s,’ the reflection replied. ‘Should I lead the way or you?’

‘You.’

‘You?’

‘Me?’

‘Me.’

And off they went, together.

 

 

(Image courtesy of MR LIGHTMAN at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)