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[Essay:] The Fairytale Wolf and Its Significations

Amongst the fairies, giants, witches and trolls, kings and queens, princes and princesses, there is one figure in particular who skulks through and across the fairytale world and haunts our imaginations: the wolf.

The Wolf is consummately disagreeable; his aspect is base and savage, his voice dreadful, his odour insupportable, his disposition perverse, his manners ferocious; [he is] odious and destructive.

Comte de Buffon (Leclerc, 1817, p. 403)

Fairy tales, like all forms of stories, are the product of human imagining and witnessing, warnings from the experienced about the treacherous world we live in. It is no surprise, then, that the reputation the wolf has earned itself should stem from a history of human-beast relations. Garry Marvin explains that it was a mere few centuries ago in Europe that ‘the carnivorous ways of wolves entered into human concerns’ (2012, p. 8). In settlements where humans depended on livestock for their survival, the wolf became an all-encompassing synecdoche for the untamed, the savage and the wild, that which crept into human civilisation and devastated its very sources of survival.

But this reputation seems rather literal against the other types of beasts that roam the fairytale world – the trolls and the giants to name a few. It seems strange to consider that the anthropomorphised fairytale wolf, conniving and cruel, should still today represent solely this wolf's threat to livestock of the distant past. Garry Marvin contends that it is impossible to write about the histories of ‘wolves themselves, wolf being, or wolf behaviour’ (2010, p. 65). We can only comment on ‘social histories of the intertwinings of wolf and human lives’, and, in doing so, ‘the wolves are likely to remain general’ (ibid.). It is certain that through such generalisations the figure of the wolf became something much more ferocious, terrifying and unpredictable than a mere sheep-burglar, and that other human concerns, emanating not just from the literal wild of the wilderness but from other developing concepts of the savage, hideous or beastly, became infused with its character. This stance is shared by Lucyan David Mech (WildlifeSociety, 2010) who notes,

Before the first scientific field studies of wolves, which did not begin until the early decades of the twentieth century, the natural history of the wolf was little known. What was known, or imagined, about it came largely from local traditional knowledge or through its representations in fables, folklore, travellers’ tales and other popular stories.

In this essay, I aim to demonstrate three ways the image of a once-menacing predator, the wolf, has developed over time through our literature to be emblematic of other human concepts of predations, evils, and threats. In examining the representation of the wolf in fairy tales, I will posit that the image of the wolf, once signifying only a literal threat to the basic needs and properties of humans for their survival, has now also come to typify malicious threats to human culture, spirituality, purity and tradition. To do so, I will study the fairytale wolf through three main critical lenses – wolf as menace, wolf as demon, and wolf as gender-confused sexual predator – and I will refer to the following texts: ‘The Wolf and the Seven Little Kids’ [‘The Little Kids’ in this essay, for brevity] by Brothers Grimm (2013); ‘The Story of the Three Little Pigs’ [‘The Three Little Pigs’] by Joseph Jacobs (2002); and, finally, two versions of ‘Red Riding Hood’: ‘Little Red-Cap’ by Brothers Grimm (2013), and ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ by Charles Perrault (1697).

Wolf as Menace

Joyce Thomas writes that in the fairytale world, ‘the natural world is humanised and animals act like masquerading, costumed people’ (1989, p. 105). This provides an interesting theoretical framework when considering the notion of the wolf as menace in the fairy tale, 'The Little Kids'. In this story, the mother goat is described to have ‘loved [her kids] with all the love of a mother for her children’ (Grimm, 2013, p. 19). She has ‘a soft, pleasant voice’ and ‘wept over her poor children’ when they were eaten (p. 20). We see here that the mother goat is humanised and thus so are her children. This invokes a certain sense of relatability in the readers. They feel as though they can understand and relate to mother goat's pain, with her character reflecting aspects of human personality, thought and feeling. But, more importantly, it thus makes her vulnerability and victimisation all the closer to home for human readers. However, Thomas also provides a less superficial reading, reminding us that goats, in reality, are domesticated animals. She adds, ‘the multiplied protagonist stands as an accurate representation of reality: of the domesticated animal’s common herds and, by extension, of civilisation’s collective community’ (p. 109). This frames the wolf as an incessant, destructive threat both to the livestocks of people and to human civilisation in general – ‘One after the other, he swallowed them down his throat’ (‘WSLK’, Grimm, 2013, p. 20). The wolf’s return to sleep under a tree after devouring the kids accentuates that he is not part of this ‘human’ civilisation – the tree being, of course, representative of nature, of the wild. In essence, then, the wolf is something that comes from the wild, savagely destroys the civil and the tame, and then returns to whence it came. This representation is not only limited to livestock, however, but to other human resources as well. The wolf utilises various properties belonging to humans to deceive the kids: chalk to soften his voice, dough and white meal to whiten his feet…and all of this is to appear more like the kids’ mother to deceive them. And this process of destroying human properties is not limited to this tale alone. In ‘The Three Little Pigs’ (Jacobs, 2002), the wolf blows down two of the pigs’ houses – notably, those which they have made with the help of generous human men. As Susan J Pearson and Mary Weismantel (2010) explain, pigs have had a ‘unique economic role in community’ in the West (p. 23); ‘they sustain the living with meat [and] demonstrate the wealth and status of ambitious families’ (p. 24). So, the wolf’s attack on these is a direct attack on our sustenance and economy as well as on our architecture.

The threats the wolf makes towards humans continue throughout fairy tales to become increasingly more direct: in both versions of ‘Red Riding Hood’ (Grimm, 2013; Perrault, 1697), the wolf is a literal ‘animal antagonist pitted against a human protagonist’ (Shipman, 2014, p. 16), who also enters a human’s (Grandma’s) house and steals her clothes, all to deceive the unsuspecting child. Again, we see the wolf making use of our property to deceive, devour and destroy. Garry Marvin reminds us of the global past and continuous extirpations of wolves from human civilisations, noting that after preying on livestock, ‘[wolves] became pests whose presence could not be tolerated’ (2012, p. 103). Such a resilient counter-attack is definitely represented in ‘The Little Kids’. The good-hearted mother – again, representative of a human –– reclaims the use of human resources and uses them against the wolf, ultimately leading to his demise: she first cuts open his stomach with a pair of scissors and frees her children. After filling it with stones, she then stitches it back up with needle and thread. When the wolf then heads to the well – yet another manmade object – to quench his thirst, he is weighted by the stones and drowns. This is also the case in Jacobs’s ‘The Three Little Pigs’ (2002) where the surviving pig boils the wolf alive in a pot full of water. Garry Marvin also reminds us that wolf skins have been viewed as a ‘valuable commodity’ for many years and that wolves ‘were killed in large numbers […] because there was a market for their fur’ (2012, p. 98). This commodification of the wolf’s fur is clear in Charles Perrault’s ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, where the tale ends with the huntsman who ‘drew off the wolf’s skin and went home with it’ (1967, in: Lang, 1889, p. 53). In commodifying the dead body of the wolf, human resource, civilisation and economy win, and the threat of the wild is extinguished.

Wolf as Demon

With the figure of the wolf signifying menace and predation, it is not surprising that, over time, it became to signify other forms of predation that became more intrinsic to human concern once the threat of the wild had become better handled. In this section, I will demonstrate that developing religious communities, concerned with concepts of deception, evil and sin, found the character of the fairytale wolf the perfect site for their depictions.

Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.

Matthew 7:15 (Holy Bible)

In Matthew 7:20 (Holy Bible), Jesus tells his disciples that they can tell false prophets apart by the fruits they bring. This provides an interesting reading of Jacobs’s ‘The Three Little Pigs’ (2002) and Brothers Grimm’s ‘Little Red-Cap’ (2013). In the former, the wolf attempts to entice the final pig out of his house by explaining that there is an apple-tree they can visit together to get some apples. Not only does this correlate with 7:20 but it also echoes the biblical story of Adam and Eve wherein Eve is tempted by the snake to eat the apple from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge (Genesis 3, Holy Bible). Then, in Brothers Grimm’s ‘Little Red-Cap’ (2013), the wolf acts similarly to the biblical snake, tempting her deeper into the forest with less literal, more symbolic ‘fruits’: ‘flowers’ (p. 98) and ‘singing birds’ (p. 99). Not only does the wolf play the role of a false prophet, luring people into his desires, but he is also a committer of sin. Leviticus 11:7 (Holy Bible) states that swine is unclean for consumption. In eating the first two pigs and yearning to eat the third, the wolf is a direct embodiment of acts against God’s will. A deeper and perhaps more interesting reading of the wolf as demon surfaces when we consider English and Indo-European society in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which Russel Zguta (1977) describes as characterised in part by the ’witch craze’ (p. 220). This phenomenon saw citizens accused of witchcraft, trialled and, if found guilty, tortured and killed. Zguta writes, ‘In England and the East Slavic world, the usual preliminary test for witchcraft was the ordeal by water’ (ibid.). In this test, suspected witches had their feet tied with stones and were thrown into bodies of water – water being considered as ‘holy’ and ‘purifying’. This provides a historical and cultural reading of the wolf whose stomach is filled with stones in both Brothers Grimm’s ‘Little Red-Cap’ and ‘The Little Kids’ (2013), and who is drowned in both of these tales as well as in Jacobs’s ‘The Three Little Pigs’ (2002). Here, the other characters, innocent and meek, are saved from the demonic wolf, drowning him in the ‘holiness’ of water.

Similarly to the sixteenth/seventeenth-century witch, we could also read the wolf as possessed by a demon. One feature of demonic possession, as viewed by the Roman Catholic Church, is voice changing, for, in the Holy Bible, demons can be seen speaking through people to Jesus (Matthew 8:29, 8:31; Mark 5:7, 5:9). In both versions of ‘Red Riding Hood’ (Grimm, 2013; Perrault, 1697), the wolf changes his voice to deceive the grandmother in pretending that he is Red Riding Hood, and vice versa. The same pattern of behaviour is noticeable in Brothers Grimm’s ‘The Little Kids’ (2013) where, as mentioned before, he uses chalk to disguise his voice and deceive the kids.

Wolf as Gender-Confused Sexual Predator

Western society has seen a rise in gender studies, queer studies and feminism, all critiquing its own patriarchal, heteronormative and misogynistic ways. But how does the image of the wolf fare amongst this?

Children, especially attractive, well bred [sic] young ladies, should never talk to strangers, for if they should do so, they may well provide dinner for a wolf.

Charles Perrault (1697, in: Lang, 1889, p. 53)

This quote is a moral added at the end of Perrault’s ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, making it less of a magical fiction for children and more of a didactic and instructional narrative laden with moral teaching. In turn, the moral transforms the wolf’s image from pursuit predator into sexual predator. The ‘red’ of Red Riding Hood’s cape can be seen as provocative, symbolic of lust, sex, seduction, violence, but it is also a vibrant, attractive target, like a red rag to a bull. Influenced by Perrault’s version, Grimm’s ‘Little Red-Cap’ (Grimm, 2013), sees the wolf tempting Red Riding Hood ‘off the path’ (p. 98) – here, not just a physical but a moral path – and deeper into the forest which thus serves as a realm of debauchery, danger: ‘See, Little Red-Cap, how pretty the flowers are about here – why do you not look round?’ (p. 98-99).

Moreover, as Andrea Frownfelter (2010) points out, flowers have long signified female genitalia, meaning that this could be interpreted as the wolf tempting Red Riding Hood to lose her virginity. Brothers Grimm write, ‘When she had gathered so many that she could carry no more, she remembered her grandmother, and set out on her way’ (2013, p. 99). Here, her grandmother represents her moral duties which she forgets whilst giving in to her sexual urges. This perhaps gives an unnerving reading of the famous “What big [body parts] you have!” which could imply Red Riding Hood’s excitement over the burly and prepossessing male wolf. The ‘wolf as sexual predator’ becomes more harrowing when we consider the following statistic by Darkness to Light, a non-profit organisation to inform parents on sexual abuse: ‘More than 80% of child sexual abuse incidents occur when children are in isolated, one-on-one situations with adults or other youth’ (2017, p. 1). The wolf has the perfect advantage, then, and he seems to have been successful in his act, noting that eventually, Red Riding Hood ‘took off her clothes and got into bed’ with him on his request (Lang, 1889, p. 52). Another reading of the wolf derives from a psychoanalytical approach. Erich Fromm (2013) postulates that the wolf’s greed is not gluttony but greed for power and that after deceiving both the grandmother and Red Riding Hood, the wolf becomes the most powerful and superior character. This is evoked in the wolf’s competitiveness as he challenges Red Riding Hood to a race to grandma’s house: ‘We shall see who will be there first’ (Perrault, 1697, in: Lang, 1889, p. 51).

However, Fromm argues that there is one power which, as a male, he cannot possess: a state of pregnancy. He argues, ‘[The wolf] attempted to play the role of a pregnant woman, having living beings in his belly’ (2013, p. 240). He calls this the wolf’s ‘pregnancy envy’ (p. 233). These live beings being cut out of the wolf’s stomach with scissors emulates a Caesarean. However, they are soon replaced by stones, and this is something that should not be overlooked, for stones are a symbol of sterility. These stones then fall on him and ultimately kill him, making his pursuit of ‘ultimate power’ laughable and fatal. This same pregnancy envy is evoked in ‘The Little Kids’ (Grimm, 2013) when the mother goat reclaims her feminine title as the mother of her kids, freeing them before filling his stomach with stones in the same way. An extension of this recognises the wolf as “gender-confused”, changing his voice to pretend to be Red Riding Hood and her grandmother as well as the mother goat in ‘The Three Kids’ (Grimm, 2013). Psychologist Anne M Vitale writes, ‘Excessive guilt and misplaced shame are what therapists typically find when working with individuals struggling with gender identity issues’ (2010, p. 40). This perhaps explains why the wolf in ‘Little Red-Cap’ ‘drew the curtains’ and hid from Red Riding Hood, pulling the grandmother’s cap ‘far over [his] face’ (Grimm, 2013, p. 99). Perhaps his urgency to get to grandma’s house in ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ (Perrault, 1697), and his choice to dress as a human (of the opposite sex), is due to a deeply felt need to deny his biological nature and re-establish his identity. He could have simply eaten Red Riding Hood without the theatricality, but this was a decisive plot. This characterises his villainy in one of two ways: either this is a transgressive act, challenging the norms of patriarchal and heteronormative society, and thus an act against authorities; or it is the disruption of these accepted and celebrated norms in order to confuse, scare and deceive. Either way, the gender norms of Western society are certainly compromised by his transvestism.


In conclusion, human concerns of the West about the safety of the mind and body of the human, adult and child alike have been naturally imbibed by our literature. In turn, these concerns have been fictionalised and cemented in the villainous and the beastly of the fairytale world. I have shown how the character of the wolf, demonised throughout the ages as destructive and oppositional, has consistently reinstated, reaffirmed and reinforced human ideologies, norms and moralities, coming to reflect developments in human thinking, from concern with survival to that with religious and sexual purity and welfare.



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