The Roots of Red Riding Hood

If you grew up in the West, odds are you have at least a passing familiarity with Grimm’s Fairy Tales (or at least the sanitized and castrated versions presented by Disney). One of the most enduring of these folktales is Little Red Riding Hood — the story of a little girl in a cap or cape that delivers treats to her grandmother in the deep, dark forest, is tricked by a wolf, and ultimately saved by a lumberjack.

A Red Riding Hood woodcut by Gustave Dore.

A Red Riding Hood woodcut by Gustave Dore.

The story has been told and retold: as a tale of stranger danger, ritual rebirth (and more recently), sexual awakening.[1] But despite its ubiquity and familiarity, the roots of Red Riding Hood have sometimes been obscure. The earliest known written version dates to 17th century France were it was included in the Histories et contes du temps passé, avece des moralitiés. Contes de ma mère l’Oye,[2] a collection of French folktales, by Charles Perrault. In Perrault’s version, the wolf eats Red Riding Hood, and no lumberjack appears to save her — and the moral of the story is that children shouldn’t listen to strangers.

But the story existed in Europe as an oral tradition long before Perrault’s written version, and an 11th century Latin poem from Liège in Belgium hints at an earlier version of it. The story also exists in similar form in parts of Asia and Africa, but the relationship between those versions and the European tale has been uncertain, until a paper published recently tried to shine some light on the situation.

Using phylogenetic analysis, Jamshid Tehrani at Durham University in the UK tried to understand the relationship between different strains of Red Riding Hood tales, and how they related to a similar story, “The Wolf and the Kids” (one of Aesop’s fables).

Phylogenetic analysis is a tool use by evolutionary biologists to determine the relationship between animal species. Using shared characteristics, and a few simple rules; it calculates the most likely evolutionary path a group of species may have taken to reach its current arrangement. It’s a useful tool for evolutionary biologists, but also for anthropologists and linguists interested in understanding the cultural evolution of folktales and languages.

An example of a phylogenetic tree, detailing broadly the evolution of life.

An example of a phylogenetic tree, detailing broadly the evolution of life.

In his study, Tehrani took 58 variants on the Red Riding Hood and “Wolf and the Kid” folktales from around the world, and analyzed them using 72 plot variables (for example: did the victim escape? gender of the protagonist? type of villain?).

His results suggest that these folktales can be split into international “types”. Red Riding Hood-type tales are common in Europe, but virtually non-existent in Africa, where “Wolf and the Kid” are more frequently told[3] (although the ‘wolf’ in question tends to be an ogre — the names of the archetypes are based on European traditions, as most scholarly analysis of folktales has been centered in-and-around Europe).

The story varients used in Tehrani's study. Note the lonely red dot in Nigeria, signifying a 'Red Riding Hood' variant.

The story variants used in Tehrani’s study. Note the lonely red dot in Nigeria, signifying a ‘Red Riding Hood’ variant. Credit: Tehrani 2013

The Asian “type” though, is different altogether. It doesn’t show a distinct difference between the two story types — Red Riding Hood stories and “Wolf and the Kid” stories co-exist, and overlap with one another significantly. One interpretation of this is that this combined story is the original, ancestral folktale that gave rise to both Red Riding Hood and “Wolf and the Kid” stories — that is, that European folktales were actually born in Asia, and then transmitted across the continent by trade, before they arrived in Europe and diverged into the two types of story we know today.

That would be a fun re-telling of Western folkloric history, but unfortunately, we know that “Wolf and the Kid” stories date back to at least 400 AD, and the “Out of Asia” hypothesis wouldn’t have taken place until at least the 12th century.

A phylogenetic tree showing different 'types'. The red shows the European "Red Riding Hood stories". Blue is the Africa "Wolf and Kid" variants, and purple are the Asian hybrid stories. Credit: Tehrani 2013.

A phylogenetic tree showing different ‘types’. The red shows the European “Red Riding Hood stories”. Blue and green are the African “Wolf and Kid” variants, and purple are the Asian hybrid stories. Credit: Tehrani 2013.

Two other, more reasonable hypotheses are that an ancient version of the Red Riding Hood story, perhaps earlier even than the Latin poem at Liège, travelled from Europe to Asia. Or — more exciting, to my mind — the stories had an independent origin in both Europe and Asia. Rather than descending from a shared ancestor, these international “types” may have evolved independently — by convergent evolution, rather than shared homologies.

Story telling is a quintessentially human activity. If ever you were looking for a trait that separated humans from other animals, you’d be hard-pressed to find something more distinctly Homo sapiens then sitting around a campfire, radio, or television, enjoying the shared experience of an utterly fabricated tale. Tehrani’s research on the roots of Red Riding Hood highlight that story-telling nature: whether evolved independently, or transmitted across the globe by caravan and merchant-ship, diverse populations of humans have been telling and re-telling the same tales for centuries.

So next time you tell your children, or nieces and nephews, the story of Red Riding Hood, stop and consider for a second that you’re continuing on a global tradition that has been shared, day-in and day-out, for hundreds of years. That’s pretty cool.

Story telling is one of our 'most human' traits, and it's pretty ancient.

Story telling is one of our ‘most human’ traits, and it’s pretty ancient.

References

Tehrani, Jamshid J. 2013. “The Phylogeny of Little Red Riding Hood.” Edited by R. Alexander Bentley. PLoS ONE 8 (11) (November 13): e78871. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0078871.


[1] One of my favourite retellings, sympathetic to the wolf, is found in Sara Maitland’s book-length meditation on forests and folktales, Gossip from the Forest.

[2] Book titles used to be a little longer.

[3] One exception, visible on the map, is the Igbo in Nigeria, who tell a version of the Red Riding Hood tale. Tehrani speculates that this is an Igbo re-telling of a European folktale, transmitted to the area via sea-trading.

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