This story is number 333 in the Aarne-Thompson classification system for folktales.
The version most widely known today is based on the Brothers Grimm version. It is about a girl called Little Red Riding Hood, after the red hooded cape or cloak she wears. The girl walks through the woods to deliver food to her sick grandmother. A wolf wants to eat the girl but is afraid to do so in public. He approaches the girl, and she naïvely tells him where she is going. He suggests the girl pick some flowers, which she does. In the meantime, he goes to the grandmother's house and gains entry by pretending to be the girl. He swallows the grandmother whole, and waits for the girl, disguised as the grandmother. When the girl arrives, he swallows her whole too. A hunter, however, comes to the rescue and cuts the wolf open. Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother emerge unharmed. They fill the wolf's body with heavy stones, which kill him. Other versions of the story have had the grandmother shut in the closet instead of eaten, and some have Little Red Riding Hood saved by the hunter as the wolf advances on her rather than after she is eaten.
The tale makes the clearest contrast between the safe world of the village and the dangers of the forest, conventional antitheses that are essentially medieval, though no versions are as old as that. It also seems to be a strong morality tale, teaching children not to "wander off the path".
The dialog between the wolf and Little Red Riding Hood has its analogies to the Norse Þrymskviða from the Elder Edda; the giant Þrymr had stolen Mjölner, Thor's hammer, and demanded Freyja as his bride for its return. Instead, the gods dressed Thor as a bride and sent him. When the giants note Thor's unladylike eyes, eating, and drinking, Loki explains them as Freyja not having slept, or eaten, or drunk, out of longing for the wedding.
These early variations of the tale differ from the currently known version in several ways. The antagonist is not always a wolf, but sometimes an ogre or a ‘bzou’ (werewolf), making these tales relevant to the werewolf-trials (similar to witch trials) of the time (e.g. the trial of Peter Stumpp). The wolf usually leaves the grandmother’s blood and meat for the girl to eat, who then unwittingly cannibalises her own grandmother. Furthermore, the wolf was also known to ask her to remove her clothing and toss it into the fire. In some versions, the wolf eats the girl after she gets into bed with him, and the story ends there. In others, she sees through his disguise and tries to escape, complaining to her "grandmother" that she needs to defecate and would not wish to do so in the bed. The wolf reluctantly lets her go, tied to a piece of string so she does not get away. However, the girl slips the string over something else and runs off.
In these stories she escapes with no help from any male or older female figure, instead using her own cunning. Sometimes, the red hood is even non-existent.
The earliest known printed version was known as Le Petit Chaperon Rouge and had its origins in 17th century French folklore. It was included in the collection Tales and Stories of the Past with Morals. Tales of Mother Goose (Histoires et contes du temps passé, avec des moralités. Contes de ma mère l'Oye), in 1697, by Charles Perrault. As the title implies, this version is both more sinister and more overtly moralized than the later ones. The redness of the hood, which has been given symbolic significance in many interpretations of the tale, was a detail introduced by Perrault.
The story had as its subject an "attractive, well-bred young lady", a village girl of the country being deceived into giving a wolf she encountered the information he needed to find her grandmother's house successfully and eat the old woman while at the same time avoiding being noticed by woodcutters working in the nearby forest. Then he proceeded to lay a trap for the Red Riding Hood. The latter ends up eaten by the wolf and there the story ends. The wolf emerges the victor of the encounter and there is no happy ending.
Charles Perrault explained the 'moral' at the end so that no doubt is left to his intended meaning:
In this version the tale has been adapted for late 17th century French salon culture, an entirely different audience from what it had before, and has become a harsh morality tale warning women of the advances of men.
In the 19th century two separate German versions were retold to Jacob Grimm and his younger brother Wilhelm Grimm, known as the Brothers Grimm, the first by Jeanette Hassenpflug (1791–1860) and the second by Marie Hassenpflug (1788–1856). The brothers turned the first version to the main body of the story and the second into a sequel of it. The story as Rotkäppchen was included in the first edition of their collection Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children's and Household Tales (1812)).
The earlier parts of the tale agree so closely with Perrault's variant that it is almost certainly the source of the tale. However, they modified the ending; this version had the little girl and her grandmother saved by a huntsman who was after the wolf's skin; this ending is identical to that in the tale The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids, which appears to be the source.
The second part featured the girl and her grandmother trapping and killing another wolf, this time anticipating his moves based on their experience with the previous one. The girl did not leave the path when the wolf spoke to her, her grandmother locked the door to keep it out, and when the wolf lurked, the grandmother had Little Red Riding Hood put a trough under the chimney and fill it with water that sausages had been cooked in; the smell lured the wolf down, and it drowned.
The Brothers further revised the story in later editions and it reached the above mentioned final and better known version in the 1857 edition of their work. It is notably tamer than the older ones which contained darker themes. It appears to be a mere watered-down version of the older story.
Numerous authors have rewritten or adapted this tale.
Andrew Lang included a variant as "The True History of Little Goldenhood in The Red Fairy Book; he derived it from the works of Charles Marelles, in Contes of Charles Marelles. This variant explicitly said that the story had been mistold. The girl was saved, but not by the huntsman; when the wolf tried to eat her, its mouth was burned by the golden hood she wore, which was enchanted.
James N. Barker wrote a variation of Little Red Riding Hood in 1827 as an approximately 1000-word story. It was later reprinted in 1858 in a book of collected stories edited by William E Burton, called the Cyclopedia of Wit and Humor. The reprint also features a wood engraving of a clothed wolf on bended knee holding Little Red Riding Hood's hand.
In the twentieth century, the popularity of the tale appeared to snowball, with many new versions being written and produced, especially in the wake of Freudian analysis, deconstruction and feminist critical theory. See "Modern uses and adaptations of Little Red Riding Hood" for a number of modern adaptations. This trend has also led to a number of academic texts being written that focus on Little Red Riding Hood, including works by Alan Dundes and Jack Zipes.
Besides the overt warning about talking to strangers, there are many interpretations of the classic fairy tale, many of them sexual. Some are listed below.Wolf attacks: Ethologist Dr. Valerius Geist of the University of Calgary Alberta wrote that the fable was likely based on very real events and was not a case of ignorant superstition, contrary to what is claimed by some wolf advocates. The story, he argues, served as a valid warning to parents and children not to enter wolf infested forests and to be on the look out for such. Wolves were an occasional, but widespread threat at the time of the story's genesis, and the society of the day did what they could to keep the minimising the danger, even though controlling wolves was very costly and rarely successful. Even then it was known that wolves did thrive in wilderness settings, and, consequently, that destroying wilderness by turning it into meadows, cultivated fields, orchards, villages and towns robbed the wolf of living space. Wolves and wilderness were treated both as enemies of humanity in that area and time span.Natural cycles:Folklorists and cultural anthropologists such as P. Saintyves and Edward Burnett Tylor saw Little Red Riding Hood in terms of solar myths and other naturally-occurring cycles. Her red hood could represent the bright sun which is ultimately swallowed by the terrible night (the wolf), and the variations in which she is cut out of the wolf's belly represent by it the dawn. In this interpretation, there is a connection between the wolf of this tale and Skoll, the wolf in Norse myth that will swallow the sun at Ragnarök, or Fenris. Alternatively, the tale could be about the season of spring, or the month of May, escaping the winter. This may be as detailed as describing it as the May Queen ritual that represents the coming of Spring, with the crown of flowers replaced by the red hood.Ritual:The tale has been interpreted as a puberty ritual, stemming from a prehistorical origin (sometimes an origin stemming from a previous matriarchal era.) The girl, leaving home, enters a liminal state and by going through the acts of the tale, is transformed into an adult woman by the act of coming out of the wolf's belly.Rebirth:Bruno Bettelheim, in The Uses of Enchantment, recast the Little Red Riding Hood motif in terms of classic Freudian analysis, that shows how fairy tales educate, support, and liberate the emotions of children. The motif of the huntsman cutting open the wolf, he interpreted as a "rebirth"; the girl who foolishly listened to the wolf has been reborn as a new person.Prostitution:One of the more common interpretations refers to a classic warning against becoming a "working girl". This builds off the fundamental "young girl in the woods" stereotype. The red cloak was also a classic signal of a prostitute in 17th century France. A Colombian charity recently used this theme in a poster campaign that showed various fairy tale characters reduced to child labour, including Red Riding Hood as a child prostitute.Sexual awakening:Red Riding Hood has also been seen as a parable of sexual maturity. In this interpretation, the red cloak symbolizes the blood of the menstrual cycle, braving the "dark forest" of womanhood. Or the cloak could symbolize the hymen (earlier versions of the tale generally do not state that the cloak is red—the word "red" in the title may refer to the girl's hair color or a nickname). In this case, the wolf threatens the girl's virginity. The anthropomorphic wolf symbolizes a man, who could be a lover, seducer or sexual predator. This differs from the ritual explanation in that the entry into adulthood is biologically, not socially, determined.Spectral Black dog:The tale could be a cultural reference to the Black dog (ghost) phenomenon and be a genuine warning to the children (and adults) of the time. The cloak would be an allusion to the wrapping of the thin wings around the creature's small body.Norse myth:The story Þrymskviða from the Poetic Edda mirrors some elements of Red Riding Hood. Loki's explanations for "Freya's" (actually Thor's) strange behavior mirror the wolf's explanations for his strange appearance.
The red hood has often been given great importance in many interpretations, with a significance from the dawn to blood. However, the oral version prior to Perrault did not include such a red hood; Perrault introduced it.
There have been many modern uses and adaptations of Little Red Riding Hood, generally with a mock-serious reversal of Red Riding Hood's naïveté or some twist of social satire; they range across a number of different media and styles. Multiple variations have been written in the past century, in which authors adapt the Grimms' tale to their own interests.
The tale can be told in terms of Little Red Riding Hood's sexual attractiveness. The song "How Could Red Riding Hood (Have Been So Very Good)?" by A.P. Randolph in 1925 was the first song known to be banned from radio due to its sexual suggestiveness. The 1966 hit song "Lil' Red Riding Hood" by Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs takes the Wolf's point of view, implying that he wants love rather than blood. In the short animated cartoon Red Hot Riding Hood by Tex Avery, the story is recast in an adult-oriented urban setting, with the suave, sharp-dressed Wolf howling after the stripper Red. Avery used the same cast and themes in a subsequent series of cartoons. Allusions to the tale can be more or less overtly sexual, as when the color of a lipstick is advertised as "Riding Hood Red".
This sexual analysis may take the form of rape. In Against Our Will, Susan Brownmiller described the fairy tale as a description of rape. Many revisionist retellings depict Little Red Riding Hood or the grandmother successfully defending herself against the wolf.
It may also take the form of a sexual awakening, as in Angela Carter's "The Company of Wolves" from her collection The Bloody Chamber (1979). (This was also adapted into a film by Neil Jordan.) In the story, the wolf is in fact a werewolf, and comes to newly-menstruating Red Riding Hood in the forest in the form of a charming hunter. He turns into a wolf and eats her grandmother, and is about to devour her as well, when she is equally seductive and ends up laying with the wolf man, her sexual awakening. Such tellings bear some similarity to the "animal bridegroom" tales, such as Beauty and the Beast or The Frog Prince, but where the heroines of those tales transform the hero into a prince, these tellings of Little Red Riding Hood reveal to the heroine that she has a wild nature like the hero's.