Who, Really, Is the Big Bad Wolf?


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.



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. 

Kate Bernheimer on Fairy Tale & Form – Part 2

Previous: Kate Bernheimer on Fairy Tale and Form (Part 1)


Intuitive Logic

Intuitive Logic is where we really start to work our way into the language of fairy tales.

Kate refers to Intuitive Logic as “a sort of nonsensical sense” and what she is really talking about is the fairy tale’s ‘unconventional’ approach to narrative as we know it.

As writers, we’re often taught that every beginning must have an end. Everything must be cause and effect, scene and sequel, set up and pay off. Everything must make sense and flow consequentially. Actions and reactions.

In fairy tales, however, motivations and logic are often left at the door. Actions and scenes move from one to the next, but without much explanation:

“The language of traditional fairy tales tells us that first this happened, then that happened. There is never an explanation of why.” This is something we don’t question in fairy tales – as readers, we accept what is being told.

In a sense, we accept that we are inside the fairy tale.

This concept is brought to life in The Water Nixie at almost every turn. We’re not told how or why the brother and sister fall into the well, only that they do.

We don’t know why there is a water nixie at the bottom of the well or why she makes the girl spin flax and forces the boy to chop down trees.

When it comes time to throw down the brush, comb and mirror, there’s also no reason why the children even have these items or how they are able to create mountains.

Only the Intuitive Logic of the narrative (and the element of Normalized Magic) draws all of these events together – and yet almost magically, nothing is logically related.

In The Sweet Porridge, Intuitive Logic becomes even more apparent. This is the second sentence of the story:

When they had nothing left to eat, the girl went out into the forest, where she met an old woman who already knew about her troubles and gave her a small pot. 

If this were a contemporary story, you’d probably be thinking “Huh…?” Why does the girl even go into the forest? And how does the old woman already know about the girl’s problems? And what the hell is she doing going around with a magical pot?

But in a fairy tale, all of these happenings make sense because the language brings them together, encapsulates them in a sentence and simply makes them so.

This use of language in the realm of fairy tale narrative creates a type of “lyrical disconnect” for the reader.

The narrative doesn’t come together through logic, but through language – what happens doesn’t always connect, except through the telling and the language itself.

As readers, we read these stories and cherish them nonetheless, and we make these “intuitive” connections based on the way they are told, their structure.

This way of reading, this Intuitive Logic, is vital to fairy tale form. And much of its logic also depends on our acceptance of Normalized Magic.

Normalized Magic

This is my favourite fairy tale element. Normalized Magic tells us that everything is magical in a fairy tale.

Normalized Magic equates the fantastical to the ordinary and everyday – no one ever overreacts to a talking wolf or questions how a sorceress could climb up Rapunzel’s hair or thinks that spinning straw into gold is silly or unrealistic.

“The day to day is collapsed with the wondrous,” writes Kate. “Enchantment is not astounding.”

No matter how removed or fantastical the magic is in a fairy story, it is immediately accepted and considered normal, both by the characters and the reader. Magic is simply a part of everyday life. We just shrug and say, ‘it’s a fairy tale.’

This way of reading also comes into play when we look at The Water Nixie and The Sweet Porridge. Both of these fairy tales are saturated with Normalized Magic.

The second half of The Water Nixie, after the children escape, is entirely dependent on this element of everyday magic. We don’t question that a comb, brush and mirror have the ability to create mountains or scoff at the story’s use of such ordinary objects.

When the water nixie simply cuts down the mountains with an axe, we don’t sit there and say, “how incredulous!”

Even at the start of the story, the children’s act of falling down a well and “discovering” the nixie are also somewhat magical.

Yet we accept these narrative events for what they are – not only because of the presence of Normalized Magic, but because everything about the fairy tale structure – flatness, abstraction, logic – is working together throughout the text.

Let’s turn to The Sweet Porridge. One of the things I love most about this tale is its use of Normalized Magic: At the centre of this story is a magical pot that produces porridge upon command.

But when we read about this, Kate is right, the magic is not astounding. It’s not shocking or surprising or “built up” in the narrative in any way, nor are the events towards the end of the story, when the pot gets completely out of control.

Instead, magic is reduced to normality at every turn here – and this, I think, is what makes fairy tales so remarkable and captivating and easily readable.

Magic might make up much of the narrative, but it is not heightened to appear notable or impressive or even magical at all.

It’s simply part of the way things are in the fairy tale world, brought together by the Intuitive Logic of the narrative and also our intuitive understanding of flatness and abstraction (even if we don’t know these terms, we still “feel” them when we read a fairy tale).

For me, the existence of Normalized Magic works to reinforce these structural elements of Flatness and Abstraction – the magic of fairy stories is not deep or complex, and it is not described or explained in detail.

We don’t know how the comb, brush and mirror can conjure up protective mountains and we aren’t told anything about how the pot works.

Like the characters themselves and the worlds around them, the magic in fairy tales is flat and abstract.

We are positioned as readers to “imagine” the magic, the same way we are expected to imagine the characters and their environments, even when we are only presented with very basic tellings.

One last thing about fairy tales…

Despite their flatness and abstraction, their odd narrative logic and their ordinary-ised magic, they are still magical. 

Anyone’s that been charmed by Snow White or the Ugly Duckling or the Wolf and Seven Kids knows the true power that lies behind a fairy tale.

And it’s critics like Kate Bernheimer and Jack Zipes and Propp who deepen our understanding of what fairy tales are and how they continue to captivate us, even in this contemporary age.

Previous: Kate Bernheimer on Fairy Tale and Form (Part 1)



Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairytale by Kate Bernheimer in The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House. Tin House Books: 2009.

‘The Water Nixie’ (no. 79) in The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. 3rd Ed, Translated by Jack Zipes, Bantam Books: USA 2003, p267.

‘The Sweet Porridge’ (no. 103) in The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. 3rd Ed, Translated by Jack Zipes, Bantam Books: USA 2003, pp345-346.

This post was originally published at nataliesutherlandwriter.wordpress.com.