The Prettiest Girl and the Wolf that Laughed Last July 23 2015

Arguably the best-known of all fairytales, the story of Red Riding Hood does not always end the way we thought it did. In fact in one very old written version of the story, things go very badly indeed for our young heroine, and Harry Clarke’s illustration perfectly captures the moment things start to go downhill.

Harry Clarke's Red Riding Hood illustrationClarke was one of the leading lights of the ‘Golden Age’ of illustration along with prominent greats such as Arthur Rackham, Kay Nielsen and Edmund Dulac.

Though mainly known for his intricate stained-glass panels, Clarke also produced a trove of beautifully crafted classic fairy tale illustrations (several of which we included in a previous blog post). Owing to the fact that many of these pieces seem to focus on the stories’ darker aspects, few of them – if any – are meant for younger viewers. One excellent example is his unsettling depiction of the first encounter in the forest between Red Riding Hood and the wolf.

At first glance, the image seems elegant and non-threatening – an unconcerned-looking Red Riding Hood, holding her brolly and basket of goods, stops to take notice of a wolf that’s appeared from among the trees. Neither is shown to have an inclination towards a fight or flight response. It all seems rather calm and civilised. However, Clarke’s illustration was based on Charles Perrault’s version of the story, which first appeared back in 1697, long before the more widely known Brothers Grimm version, which appeared in 1812. The main difference between the two could not be starker. In the Grimms’ edition, a huntsman rescues Red Riding Hood and her grandmother before the wolf has had a chance to digest them after consuming them; in Perrault’s version, the wicked wolf hungrily gobbles down Red Riding Hood and her granny, and there the story ends. There’s no saviour, no comeuppance for the wolf, and no happy ending.

Yet this is what part of what makes Clarke’s illustration for Perrault’s intense little tale so unique: it doesn’t just give us a familiar old scene; instead it captures the exact moment when Red Riding Hood’s fate is sealed as the wolf first lays eyes on her. Given this fact, rather than slipping into our roles as interested but passive spectators, we are instead made witnesses as the young girl is delivered directly to a wild and ravenous predator while still blithely unaware of the creature’s terrible intentions for her.

But Clarke’s image does more than just make witnesses of us. It also invites us to interact with what we see and to view the story in a frightening new light. So that’s just what we’ll do.

When Beauty Meets the Beast

From the very first line of Perrault’s tale, we’re told that Red Riding Hood is uniquely beautiful. She is described as ‘the prettiest girl you can imagine’. Clarke takes this as a starting point for his own work, presenting us with the vision of a sophisticated, pixie-like young heroine.

He focuses on the details of her clothing, adding delicate floral patterns to her dress, fur to the front of her heeled shoes, and tassels to the hem of her brilliant red hood. Her delicacy is reiterated through her pale skin, minute facial features and disproportionately tiny hands. She is all symmetry, fine lines, elegance and poise – the perfectly presented nineteenth-century society belle.

The wolf, on the other hand, is portrayed as being the very opposite of grace and orderliness. His fur is presented in a rush of untidy, ragged lines; his colour is mottled rather than pure; and his mouth hangs menacingly open, exposing to us his teeth and tongue. It seems to be a deliberate attempt by Clarke to accentuate the divide between ordered human society and the disordered natural world.

Lost and alone in the forest

This divide is represented figuratively by the winding footpath – an odd, out-of-place human construction in the deep woods – along which Red Riding Hood has wandered. In doing so, she has left behind the safety of her everyday world, with its morals and social conventions, and now finds herself trapped, helpless and alone.

Imprisoned by the surrounding trees, her only hope of rescue seems to lie with the woodsmen who are shown working far off in the background, but they are distant figures on a separate path. The suggestion here seems to be that Red Riding Hood has chosen her own way, and must deal with its consequences alone.

The symbol of the Red Hood

Part of the beauty of Clarke’s illustration is that it offers only clues for interpretation; nothing is entirely certain. Yet the iconic red hood is so noticeable that it appears vital in any search for meaning in the image.

Against a palette of muted, earthly colours, the hood’s vibrant red seems to acquire a symbolic value, but of what? Some have suggested that the story itself is a parable of sexual awakening and the potential dangers it poses for vulnerable young women. Clarke certainly seems to acknowledge this interpretation: notice, for instance, that his Red Riding Hood wears a bustle – a framework that women of the late 1800s wore beneath their dresses to affect a fuller, more alluring figure. In this context the red hood may be seen as a symbol of menstruation and sexual maturity. Under this light the wolf is then revealed as another kind of predator whose altered motivations are just as sinister.

But perhaps a more straightforward interpretation of the red hood is that it is a foreshadowing of Red Riding Hood’s bloody and fateful end. If she is indeed a symbol of the ordered human world, then the wolf may act as a warning against ignorance, or possibly even blind arrogance. After all, for all her outward sophistication, Red Riding Hood is still easily outwitted by the wild yet cunning animal before her. Could it be that no matter how much we think we know, nature will simply always remain a few steps ahead of us?

Whatever interpretation we apply to Clarke’s complex illustration, his major achievement is that though he presents us with an instantly recognisable scene, the more we examine his ethereal vision, the less familiar it seems to become. 

Click on the link to view a selection of our classic fairy tale-inspired prints.