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Mon, April 22

Williams: Little Red Riding who?

Gustave Doré's (1883) woodcut engraving of a scene from the European fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood. "She was astonished to see how her grandmother looked."

Gustave Doré's (1883) woodcut engraving of a scene from the European fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood. "She was astonished to see how her grandmother looked."

The wife and I awoke the other morning and began remembering all the tales we believed as children: Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, Hansel and Gretel, etc. In the midst of these memories, I fixed on Little Red Riding Hood, a news account of a little girl who encountered a wolf on her way to visit Grandmother.

Several details of this story bothered me so I decided to research the whole thing. Seems this girl-meets-wolf affair didn’t necessarily happen in the 17th century in Europe as reported at all. Its roots extend back to the 10th century when one Italian newspaper article related a startingly similar set of facts.

The title of the article was “The False Grandmother,” which leads me to conclude that the entire narrative may have been false. In other words, is this story our first example of fake news? Probably not, since alarmingly, comparable news items popped up in the Roman and Greek press centuries earlier.

I am prepared to document that there never was a Little Red Riding Hood. If she existed, what was her real name, heh? Initial reports never identified the name of her village, her home address or whether local law enforcement authorities were called in to investigate. I’m thinking the police were not contacted since the girl’s photo never appeared on a milk carton, as far as I can determine. Furthermore, the school didn’t report her missing.

I also question why grandmother had been banished to another village (also unnamed) when in those days, families lived pretty close together. It’s possible that grandma had really bad breath, cursed incessantly or made a lot of stinky limburger cheese in her kitchen. These suppositions might have justified shuffling grandma off to the other side of the woods. But I’m not convinced.

If you can believe that a random backcountry wolf could speak Italian, or German, or English (or Latin or Greek) when talking to the girl and would have had the foresight to dress up as grandma after slaying her and decoy himself in her bed, I guess you would believe news from any source whether credible or not. I ask you, if this alleged wolf killed grandma in her bed, why weren’t her bed clothes and the sheets covered with blood?

The inconsistencies of the official record do not stop there. I am led to understand that some accounts have the girl and the grandmother trapping and killing the wolf rather than falling victim, themselves, to the wolf’s wiles. What’s this all about?

There have been numerous wolf-related hysterias over time. Among them, The Big Bad Wolf and The Three Little Pigs. Between 1520 and 1630, over 30,000 supposedly proven cases of werewolves were documented. I’m not sure whether these reports appeared on CNN or in The New York Times back then, but we should always be leery of stories and the sources who report them wherein wolves play a leading role.

Based on my investigation, I would urge folks not to accept the Little Red Riding Hood story as fact without asking some penetrating questions such as I have outlined in this column.

Charles Perrault, who in 1697 documented the “modern version” of the Red Riding Hood fantasy stated my warning as a 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.”

At this point, I’m not even sure it’s true that a boy yelled “Wolf!” in a theater as reported by every elementary school teacher in this country.

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