“Remy has big eyes!”
“The better to see you with, my dear.”
“Woofy has big ears!”
“The better to hear you with, my dear.” (transcribed from a conversation with the Changeling)
Yes, Little Red Riding Hood: it’s become automatic, hasn’t it? It’s as much a part of our language as the King James translation of the Bible: “Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings,” “Be strong and of good courage,” and so on. The way we use them might be, shall we say, frequently divorced from the original context, but, Lord Almighty, the Bible has permeated our daily speech to the point that we talk about our “daily bread” even when we’re on a carbs-free or gluten-free diet.
Fairy tales have also made their way into the collective fabric of our thought (sorry about the grandiose language there), but more through tropes than through language: everything comes in groups of threes; if you lose a shoe, it’s made of glass; if you kill a giant, your name’s probably Jack. And (shhh… don’t tell God) I think I’m even crazier about fairy tale infiltration of our word-world than the Bible’s, pretty as that often is (try this: “Many waters cannot quench love,” from Song of Songs– lovely, right?). As I said, however, what fascinates me is that while both literature groups have become so familiar to us, the Bible’s language seems to have had a profound effect on the words we use, whereas in folk and fairy tales it’s the tropes which have achieved that level of familiarity. What I mean here is that, in fairy tales, tropes remain consistent from tale to tale, whereas language can change radically between retellings. To put it as plainly as possible: three sons are familiar to us, but the precise words they use are not.
Let me stop you right now: Yes, I am generalizing so badly that they’re going to call me up any minute now and revoke my academic permit, I know this, so bear with me a while longer. Also, I want to put in a few caveats here: a) I’m just musing here based on what I’ve noticed and strikes me as curious, so forgive me for the lack of footnotes or proper research; b) My credentials? Um… well, I read a lot of fairy tales and have spent many years doing so. By no means am I an Opie or Zipes or Ziolkowski, and I by no means claim to be anywhere near their level here. I humbly bow to anyone else’s greater knowledge or experience. (If you are Jan Ziolkowski? Hey, call me, let’s talk fairy tales!)
See, I told you it wouldn’t take long, because right here is where I am immediately going to overturn what I just said about tropes vs. language by referring you upwards: Little Red Riding Hood. Generally, I stand by what I said: there are certain patterns from fairy tales which you can casually reference almost anywhere and your audience will get you (three sons, where the youngest succeeds). But Little Red Riding Hood is a bit different. First of all, by no means are wolves generally bad or little old ladies generally innocent in fairy tales. By no means is there even a clear, consistent lesson between all tellings of Red Riding Hood except, probably, “don’t trust strangers.” Is the wolf representing creepy, predatory men you should avoid? Or is the message to listen to your mother’s instructions? That part isn’t so consistent. Well, what is consistent in this story from version to version? Or, to put it another way: What has endured in the collective Western memory of this story?* I’d answer: the very conversation I started you out with, and the wording it came from: “Grandmother! What big, hairy ears you have grown!”
Now, I want to point something out to you. What edition or version of Little Red Riding Hood did I just quote? Anyone, anyone? You in the back? Oh, you were just scratching your ear. You don’t know, do you? That said, everyone recognized the line, right? Yes, you did. In other words, the words have made it into our memories. Wolves could mean a lot of things: in some stories, wolves save the hero, but in this story, the wolf is dangerous. What rings comfortable familiarity for us in this case is the wording, of all things, despite the fact that I just conclusively and exhaustively proved that the familiarity of fairy tales comes from tropes, not languages.** OK, let me spare you the suspense and, at the same time, clear my own head of excitement: I’m quoting, and plan to discuss, Little Red Riding Hood retold and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. I am here to tell you that it gets across both the weird and wonderful richness of fairy tale trope and the familiarity of language we know and expect. These are woven together in both text and illustration as only Trina Schart Hyman is capable of.
Right here, right now, I’m going to apologize to my father. He is probably reading along saying, “Hmmm, clever enough. I wish you’d actually cite something, Deborah, but you’re doing quite well… wait, now you’re going to talk about cats? For crying out loud, Deb, still with the cats?” Yes, I’m sorry. I’m really sorry, but we’re switching gears from high criticism to… cats. Why? Because I firmly believe that Trina Schart Hyman, in her endless genius, uses cats to excellent effect in her illustrations here: they tumble playfully, kittens and cats together, at her mother’s home; one sleek, black creature follows Red Riding Hood through the woods, just to the side of her encounter with the wolf; the grandmother has a cat who observes the wolf, while Red Riding Hood’s cat pursues the huntsman until he finally goes to check on the grandmother; and both cats joyfully greet the grandmother and Red Riding Hood once they are saved.
These cats never turn up in the text. They are wild, walk by themselves, unacknowledged by the author, but intimate with the illustrator. They add immensely to our understanding of the story, but never, ever in the text. Well, I ask you: Is the wolf a creepy man or a beast? Is a wolf bad or good? Is an old woman in a cottage an innocent or a witch? Is Red Riding Hood a child or on the verge of womanhood? Is sex involved or not?*** With all these unanswered questions about this story, why not add: Are there any cats in this story? And are the cats signs of domesticity and comfort, or of an element of wildness half-tamed? To me, they are like words that are as familiar as our daily bread, and yet make our skin prickle ever so slightly with discomfort.
If there is one woman out there it guts me to think I will never meet, it’s Trina Schart Hyman. She died in 2004, as I found out two years ago, and I cried when I read that. I wanted so badly to be able to say “thank you” to her, and now I knew I never could. It was her Snow White and Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins I knew growing up, and I only saw Little Red Riding Hood recently when my sister gave me this book for my birthday (she knows me well). When I read it, it felt like someone had pulled the story out of my brain and put it on paper. Familiar and strange, knowing more than I’d known I knew, it glowed with shadows on the page (sorry, sorry, I’ll cut out the grandiloquence).
Do yourself a favour, and get yourself a loaf of new bread, some sweet butter, and a glass of wine. Then shut the doors to strangers and friends, and quietly read this book with your cat winking at you from the shadows.
*Jeepers, can you tell I’ve got my academic coat on today? Get me talking about language, tropes, versions, retellings, etc. and I suddenly start getting very choosy with my language! I could have just said, “What’s familiar to us?” but I had to go all fancy and precise.
**OK, I can’t help it. There is one other case I can think of where the wording in a fairy tale means familiarity: Hansel and Gretel, when the witch says, “Nibble, nibble, little mouse. Who is nibbling at my house?” If you can think of anything else, let me know, but these are the only two instances which occur to me.
***The Opies say there ain’t no sex involved, absolutely not, and I’m going with them because the thought creeps me out just a bit too much. On the other hand, a part of me suspects they’re probably wrong. Oh God, I hope they’re right….