About the Author
Jocelyn Koehler is a writer and editor in Philadelphia. She is published by Hammer & Birch. You can sign up for her mailing list for new release updates and possible freebies. Her books are available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Apple’s iBookstore. Her new book End to End, which follows The Way Through the Woods, is a collection of four fairy tales based in her mythical land of the Nine Kingdoms.
About the Conversation
Amanda: It’s funny how it can seem like a story is ignored and then suddenly it shows up everywhere. “Little Red Riding Hood” is like that for me right now—she’s a character in the TV show Once Upon a Time, there are hints of the story in The Princess of the Silver Wood (although the main character in that story is also the youngest of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” retelling Princess of the Midnight Ball), and Scarlet, the sequel to Cinder. You’ve also written your own version, “When the Wolves Returned.” I’m going out on a limb here, but I’m going to say that the retellings of “Little Red Riding Hood” in particular veer furthest from the tale—almost none of them use the tale as a base, but rather as loose inspiration. Any thoughts on what it is about this tale that might cause that?
Jocelyn: “Little Red Riding Hood” is such a meaty story, and I mean that on a couple different levels. Even though the plot is outwardly simple, it’s so visceral (sorry, did it again)! What I mean is that it’s about the few things that humans really, really obsess about…sex and death. And nothing brings those two topics together like sending a girl down a dark path with only a bright red hood to identify the body (red being, natch, the signifying color for sex and danger). Remember the pilot for Grimm? They chose to go with the absolutely iconic “Little Red Riding Hood.” No surprise there.
But the traditional fairy tale is also rather simplistic: watch out, little girl, wolves are dangerous. Yawn. I think most modern interpretations address that by emphasizing the less obvious danger, which is that wolves (whether real or metaphorical) can be a threat to your identity as well as your life. Some really loose interpretations include the movies Freeway and Hard Candy, which only just graze the original tale.
“Little Red Riding Hood” is basically whatever kind of character a writer needs her to be. She can be an innocent victim, as the original tale puts it. She can start out naive and get smarter (like the one from the musical Into the Woods). Or she can be the hunter herself, as Jackson Pearce makes her in The Sisters Red, a book that puts a natural spin on the tale by incorporating werewolf mythology.
My story is also a loose interpretation. For one thing, it uses a fairy tale version of a post-apocalyptic setting, and the reason for Red to be on that dangerous forest path is that she’s got to fetch medicine…not just for grandmother, but for everyone. So that’s sort of familiar. But I tried to really bring up a few issues that the original tale doesn’t (ecological issues, fears of exploitation). In my story, Red also comes to realize that she might be worried about the wrong wolf, which brings a new element into the telling. It’s not just about how Red avoids danger, but how she conquers it.
“Little Red Riding Hood” will see countless interpretations if the fairy tale trend continues, and I hope it does! Personally, I’m waiting for the one where Red is male — that will probably be a good indicator of when our society shifts to one where it’s not just little girls who have to watch out as they walk down the path.
Amanda: Playing with the idea of the wolf definitely seems to be a trend in recent retellings. In Once Upon a Time, Red herself turns into the wolf—I’m sure Freud would have a lot to say about that! There are also trends toward exploring how hard it can be to identify the real wolf—the one who looks dangerous may not be the real danger. I wonder if this is exploring ideas of prejudice—the dangers of judging on looks rather than actions.
Although this story is almost painfully simplistic, it’s always interesting to see people read Perrault’s version for the first time—where Red strips down and climbs into bed with the wolf who eats her. The end, except for the moral explicitly telling young girls not to get into bed with wolves. Books that stay true to this have produced some of the most terrifying pictures I’ve ever seen in a book supposedly for small children.
In the version most of us know, Red (and often her grandmother) is rescued from the wolf’s innards and lives happily ever after. Sometimes she never gets eaten at all because that’s too scary. These are boring stories of a stupid girl barely in danger because someone will be there to save her from herself.
But now the story is returning in new versions, mostly through exploring the nature of the wolf. It’s like we first sanitized it into uselessness and now we’re reclaiming it, but by twisting the idea of the wolf into a creature that isn’t what he seems.
That’s part of the beauty of fairy tales, though—the versions change to explore the concerns and priorities of the culture that’s telling them.