Sandra L. Beckett. Red Riding Hood for All Ages: A Fairy-Tale Icon in Cross-Cultural Contexts. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2008. Pp. ix+244, color prints, index. $29.95, paper.
George Mason University
Sandra L Beckett’s book, Red Riding Hood for All Ages: A Fairy-Tale Icon in Cross-Cultural Contexts, provides an indepth and informative critique of retellings of a familiar fairy tale. This is Beckett’s second book on Little Red Riding Hood retellings; her first volume, Recycling Red Riding Hood, was devoted to contemporary revisions intended for children. Red Riding Hood for All Ages, however, has a wider scope, addressing retellings targeted at children, adolescents, and adults, as well as crossover works intended for more than one age group.
In the introduction, Beckett asserts the massive impact of the Little Red Riding Hood tale on an international level, insisting that it is “probably the world’s most popular and certainly its most retold tale” (Beckett 1). She briefly discusses the early oral and literary versions of the tale, noting the crossover appeal apparent in Perrault’s Le Petit Chaperon Rouge as well as the bawdiness and subsequent sterilization of the Grimms’ version. It is modern retellings, however, that are the focus of the book, and Beckett writes that, “today the tale of Little Red Riding Hood is generally considered appropriate for all age groups,” a feat achieved largely because of the tale’s intertextual potential (Beckett 3). Contemporary writers and illustrators have taken advantage of this intertextuality to create works that appeal to both children and adults.
The tales that Beckett discusses have a distinctly international flavor. Some of the versions are well known, such as those by Perrault, the Grimms, Angela Carter, and Tanith Lee, but most of them are fairly obscure. Many of them have not yet been published in English and would likely be unfamiliar to an English-speaking audience.
The bulk of Beckett’s book is divided into five chapters, each of which focuses upon particular type of revision. Chapter 1 addresses cautionary tales, stories that impart a warning or moral. Often in this type of story, “Little Red Riding Hood is responsible for her own rape and death” (Beckett 14). The Grimms’ “Little Red Cap” is the prototype for this type, but Beckett discusses many other cautionary versions from around the world. She concludes that these tales are the most traditional incarnation of Little Red Riding Hood stories but also observes that they are frequently wrought with sexism that can be troubling to modern readers.
In Chapter 2 Beckett addresses coming of age stories. Describing these versions as “initiatory literature,” Beckett notes that they concern the intermediary stage between childhood and adulthood, focusing on an adolescent initiation or puberty rite (Beckett 42). Some of the more notable initiatory Little Red Riding Hood tales are Nalo Hopkinson’s “Riding the Red” and Anne Sexton’s “Red Riding Hood.” While these stories also cast the encounter between Little Red and the wolf as sexual, they do not necessarily speak to sexual abuse or predatory behavior. Instead, they “address the subject of sexuality in the context of a young girl’s coming of age” (Beckett 85).
Chapter 3 is concerned with the wolf’s story. In these retellings, the spotlight shifts from Little Red to the wolf. These wolf protagonists “may reflect faithfully” the beastly role attributed by Perrault and the Grimms or they may “diverge radically from any preexisting version” (Beckett 89). As heroes, rapists, penitents, victims, or caricatures, these wolves are at the center of their narratives, creating a new focus for an old tale.
Chapter 4 presents stories of Little Red Riding Hoods who encounter a wolf within themselves. While other versions are mentioned, this chapter is primarily concerned with two retellings: “You Are Who You Dream About” by Dutch children’s author Paul Biegel and “Green Ribbon in the Hair” by Joao Guimaraes Rosa that appeared for adults in 1970 and was released for children in 1992. These complex stories use the familiar characters, imagery, and motifs to address psychological and metaphysical issues such as fear, angst, and death.
Finally, Chapter 5 is devoted to unconventional Red Riding Hoods who run with wolfs. Some of these heroines “merely keep the company of wolves, while others tame wolves or become wolves themselves” (Beckett 10). Among these versions are Tanith Lee’s “Wolfland” and Angela Carter’s “The Company of Wolves.” In these tales, the wolf is seen, not as a symbol of fear, but as an avenue to empowerment.
Beckett’s choice to organize the retellings in this way shapes her wide, potentially overwhelming content into a manageable and readable book. Her five chapters and five types of Red Riding Hood stories provide a method with which to compare and contrast the retellings, creating a logical and useful way to analyze the dozens of versions she presents. In addition, because she describes and discusses in detail many visual interpretations of the tale, Beckett provides an appendix of color prints of relevant illustrations. She also includes an extensive bibliography that would be of interest to scholars who wish to read more scholarly criticism or have access to the full text of the retellings.
Red Riding Hood for All Ages provides a wealth of information on a very specific subject: contemporary retellings of Little Red Riding Hood from around the world. Beckett’s book is a useful resource for folklorists, particularly fairy tale scholars, offering critiques of the most international and up-to-date post-modern Red Riding Hood stories. This book provides insight and access into many stories that are otherwise unknown in the English-speaking world, opening new horizons to readers fascinated by the girl in red.