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. 

The Art of Villainous Disguise in Fairy Tales

Have you ever dressed up in disguise to deceive someone? And more importantly, did they fall for it?

In fairy tales, villains in particular love to disguise themselves to try and trick their protagonists and achieve their malevolent goals.

But what’s the ‘art’ behind these disguises? How are they achieved, and what do they mean for the reader?

The art of dressing up

Dressing up in some type of clothing is perhaps the most common form of disguise in fairy tales.

In Fitcher’s Bird, two forms of disguise take place: the sorcerer first disguises himself as a “poor man” so that he can go begging from house to house and kidnap women to be his brides, and later on, his bride disguises herself as a bird by dipping herself “into a barrel of honey” and rolling around in feathers.

In the Goose Girl, the bitter chambermaid forces the princess to swap clothes with her, handing over her “royal garments” and thereby tricking the betrothed prince and his kingdom.

But the most obvious example that comes to mind is Little Red Cap. Of course, we all know the story of Red Riding Hood and its iconic scene where she encounters the wolf in her grandmother’s clothing.

We are not given much detail about how the wolf’s disguise comes about; we are only told that the wolf eats grandma and then puts on “her clothes and her nightcap.”

And when Little Red Cap arrives at the house, we learn that, “there lay her grandmother with her cap pulled down over her face giving her a strange appearance.”

Disguises thicken

In the fairy tale of Snow White (one of my favourites), Snow White’s stepmother, the wicked queen, also utilises the act of ‘dressing up’ to disguise herself, so that she can get rid of Snow White and become the “fairest of all.”

In three instances, the queen dresses up as an old peddler, an old woman and a peasant woman and each time, she succeeds in her plan to attempt to kill Snow White.

But in this fairy tale, the art of disguise also thickens a little. Here, it goes beyond mere dressing up — the queen also uses makeup to achieve her desired look: “She painted her face and dressed as an old peddler woman so that nobody could recognize her.”

In another much-loved tale of mine, The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids (as a child, I was fascinated by the idea of ‘zipping’ open the wolf’s belly and filling it up with stones), we also see other forms of disguise that don’t rely on clothing.

“I want you to be on your guard against the wolf,” the old goat explains to her kids before she goes into the forest to fetch some food. “That villain often disguises himself, but you can recognise him right away by his gruff voice and black feet.”

As expected, the wolf tries to get into the house several times while the mother goat is gone. At first, the kids recognise his ‘gruff voice’ and refuse to let him in. So, the wolf attempts to disguise his voice:

“The wolf went away to a shopkeeper and bought a big piece of chalk, which he ate, and it made his voice soft. Then he returned, knocked at the door, and called out, ‘Open up dear children. Your mother’s back and has brought something for each one of you.”

Of course, it doesn’t work, because the kids also recognise the wolf’s black paw.

The wolf intimidates a miller into sprinkling “white flour” on his paw (a similar application to the queen’s makeup, perhaps) and finally, his ‘disguise’ works.

Disguises and how they work

Disguises in fairy stories represent yet another element of the dangers and tests we must face, navigate and overcome (whether in the fairy tale world or the real one or within our own psyche) as we grow up and achieve maturity.

I would also like to point out three other things that I think are significant about how disguises work in the fairy realm:


Like must else in fairy tales, they are not elaborate or elaborately described within the language. We are simply told he puts something on or she paints her face and dresses in these clothes. There’s no detail; it’s up to our imaginations as to what these disguises really look like.

Villainous disguises are also achieved by practical means in fairy tales (using clothes, applying makeup etc.). They are not achieved via magic.

This practicality is a stark contradiction within a world that is filled with immediate wonder and enchantment, a place where everything is magical. By keeping disguises practical, we are being told: Look, deceit does not belong here! It is not a part of our norm.

In contrast, when ‘good’ characters try to disguise themselves, they are often helped by magic.

Even Cinderella, who disguises herself to go the King’s wedding, has her dress bestowed upon her (or thrown down to her) by a bird, who is commonly said to represent the spirit of her dead mother.


Whoever is at the receiving end of the disguise always falls for it, if not immediately than at least eventually.

And succumbing to the deception always leads to dire outcomes within the narrative:

Snow White essentially dies, as does Little Red Cap, who is also metaphorically raped.

The goat’s kids end up being eaten. The Goose Girl has her identity stolen altogether.

And the daughters in Fitcher’s Bird are abducted, killed and chopped into parts (except for the last daughter, of course).


That is, they rely on dramatic irony to work.

In almost every tale that includes a disguise, we are positioned by the narrative as readers who know that a disguise is in play, even when the protagonists or other characters don’t.

We know that Grandma is really the Big Bad Wolf, even though Red Riding Hood doesn’t. We know that the old peddler woman is really the wicked queen, even though Snow White is oblivious to this. In Cinderella, we know she’s the beauty of the ball, despite the fact that no one else can pick it.

We’re privy to what the villains are doing and to the fact that they are dressing up, and much of the conflict in fairy tales develops as we are forced to watch the encounters between the protagonist and the antagonist (and other characters) play out.