Little Red Riding Hood is a classic tale from the Brothers Grimm which calls forth a very specific Jungian interpretation, centered upon the character of the Wolf. If we read the story as a parable about individuation and transcendence, then Little Red Riding Hood represents the first age: the immature, somewhat innocent, undeveloped Ego, with the remainder of the Self as yet unconscious. Grandmother is the wise woman, the third age of maturity towards whom Red Riding Hood is travelling until she is waylaid. And the Wolf? Well, he is the Shadow with whom the Ego must grapple through the dark night of the soul, as Jung had it. Shadow is deceptive, cunning, ravenous to meet his own needs and in the story he deceives both Red Riding Hood and Grandmother with various ploys and disguises, just as the un-integrated Shadow in Jungian psychology.
Jung theorised from his own observations that all humans have a shadow archetype latent within, unconscious but active and full of discarded feelings, impulses and drives that society and our Egos suppress, repress and otherwise disown. For wholeness and maturation, we must encounter the shadow, own it and channel its impulses in healthy, constructive ways and thus disarm its destructive power at the same time as energising our own being – for the shadow is not ‘bad’ as such, just powerful and potentially destructive if not reined in. (See the inspirational blog by Jean Raffa called Matrignosis here on wordpress for more detailed and deep analysis of the Shadow).
So Red Riding Hood ends up in the wolf’s stomach, alongside her previously eaten Grandmother and as the wiki entry Little Red Riding Hood suggests, this theme resonates with other ‘restoration’ myths such as Jonah and the Whale and Peter and the Wolf. To stay with our Jungian interpretation, let’s move on to consider the crescendo of the tale. A woodcutter comes along (perhaps the animus archetype who is next in line for archetypal encounters in the individuating Self), who rescues Red Riding Hood and Grandmother from the Wolf’s belly and they all ‘live happily ever after’, as Red Riding Hood and Grandmother (her future Self) have been delivered from the Wolf. Except the Wolf of course, who is either destroyed or runs off, depending on the version you choose.
But can this be right? Is it not a little sanitised and puritanical? In more modern versions, Red Riding Hood befriends the Wolf and absorbs his power and sensuality (for example the films An American Werewolf in London and The Company of Wolves), themes which ring more true and meaningful in light of human complexity. My favourite contemporary version is by ABC Once Upon A Time series, where Red is actually a complex combination of herself and the Wolf, the daughter of another wolf-human who teaches her to embrace her wolf-side as natural, not evil. Just like the Shadow, as part of the Self.
Here’s a clip and interviews with the production team and actors: