Little Red Riding hood was a cannibal in some of the earlier versions of the tale, unknowingly eating the flesh and blood of her own grandmother prepared for her by the wolf disguised. Many of these earlier versions put heavy metaphors to work addressing the dangerous of sex, nature, youth and a myriad of other threats to ‘civilized’ life. Le Petit Chaperon Rouge, believed to be the earliest known printed version, was included in an anthology compiled by Charles Perrault in 1697. At the end of Perrault’s tragic tale Red remains in the belly of the wolf, never rescued. Over the centuries the macabre elements and as an extension the metaphorical ‘bite’ of the messages they accompany have been softened, tamed. The edges have been rounded, the grandmother is swallowed whole or in some cases only locked in the closet completely unharmed. The symbolic language of the tale has quieted and Red is saved by a benevolent, and apparently very lucky, lumberjack. If the years have favored Red and her matriarch, they have stead fast to the brutal judgement with which the wolf is relentlessly punished – cutting his body open and filling it with stones, victoriously causing his slow and likely painful death.
Continuing into our own time, the story has inspired much academic debate and scholarly interpretation. What interests me is the comparison between the earlier more graphic versions compare with the one I was read during my childhood. Why soften the message? Why round the sharp corners? Would it not be better to explain why they are sharp to begin with? While I am not an advocate for exposing children to unnecessary horror, I do not subscribe to a folklore that aims to pretend a world filled only by rainbows and happy endings. Certainly nothing about the world has become more benign, in many cases it would be safe to consider the substantial increase in real dangers our young people must navigate. Would it not be more appropriate to prepare them, in fact is that not our duty as elders? Is it not our very responsibility to provide them a safe place from which to witness via the metaphor the consequences of certain paths?
Leaving Berlin I traveled by train, no longer covered by my Eurorail pass, the expensive trail to Sweden. As a child my grandmother entertained us during long hours in the car with strange-sounding words. The image of her proud face after reviewing the carefully folded papers with a word or two in Swedish I now understand to be her way of connecting us to a past even she didn’t really know. Her Swedish father had boarded an ocean liner with his older brother, both barely teenagers, to begin – like so many others – a new, more prosperous life in the United States of America. My grandmother wove words about Sweden surrounded by the powder blue velvet of the back seat of an Oldsmobile as it cruised along the highways lined by cornfields, Målmo the city where it all began.
Following a suggestion from the guide-book I had been carrying around, I booked a bed in a hostel that I quickly realized to be somewhat inconvenient if I were planning on spending a lot of time in Målmo, but I wasn’t. Through the magic of a flexible plan and the bliss of ignorance I decided to stay, at least it had a great kitchen. After scouting for supplies in the neighborhood I returned rather successfully to make an unusually tasty pasta and tomato sauce from scratch. Adding to my good fortune there was a book exchange set up in the hostel. I had two books with me at the time and I decided to trade in my Essential Pema Chodron for a copy of Animal Farm, which I then read in its entirety while eating my dinner. I sat for a few hours reading at the long wooden table overlooking a highway in a deeply thoughtful mood and very grateful for the privacy. The next day I spent in the cemetery and adjoining park enjoying the shade and fresh air before jumping back on a train and heading north to Stockholm.
While the landscape of Ireland stirred my ancestral chemistry in a primordial kind of knowing, Stockholm was more comical while claiming my blood. I had never seen so many blonde, blue-eyed people in one place before. I was regularly approached by locals asking casual questions or confused tourists looking for information. It was beyond the need to mention my biological connection to the place. I came to see my unfamiliarity with both the language and customs as a testament to my great-grandfather’s success, he had provided for more than himself. He found work, survived and then thrived having a healthy family and home in a country completely unknown. There I was, all of those years later standing on the soil of his homeland he had left forever.
I stayed in Stockholm for several days, surprised to know it was an archipelago I tried to map the layout by foot crossing bridges and navigating down waterways trying to convince the city show me all ofits secrets. One afternoon I was walking with my giant headphones blasting some epic music and enjoying the soundtrack I had created for the days adventure when I ran directly into a large man. Short as I am no damage was done and I stepped back mesmerized by what seemed an enormous piece of amber swinging after impact from the strangers neck. Embarrassed I looked up to see the freckled face of a light-skinned, strangely familiar black man. “Hey.” barely slipping my headphones off my head I responded “Hey”. My feathers ruffled and walking in the opposite direction I noticed a poster plastered up on a street post. It advertised the Stockholm Jazz Festival and featured at its center was the same face I had just recognized. Common, the American Hip-Hop artist I had listened to for years was the guest of honor and the festival would be starting the next day…