The spiritual Message of German Fairy tales

Little Red-Cap

Tale of the Brothers Grimm translated by M. Hunt [1884]
Interpretation by Undine & Jens in green [2018]

Once upon a time there was a dear little girl who was loved by every one who looked at her, but most of all by her grandmother, and there was nothing that she would not have given to the child. Once she gave her a little cap of red velvet, which suited her so well that she would never wear anything else; so she was always called ’Little Red-Cap.’

One day her mother said to her, “Come, Little Red-Cap, here is a piece of cake and a bottle of wine; take them to your grandmother, she is ill and weak, and they will do her good. Set out before it gets hot, and when you are going, walk nicely and quietly and do not run off the path, or you may fall and break the bottle, and then your grandmother will get nothing; and when you go into her room, don’t forget to say, ’Good-morning,’ and don’t peep into every corner before you do it.” “I will take great care.” said Little Red-Cap to her mother, and gave her hand on it.

There is hardly a fairy tale that is as odd and illogical in its pure action as that of Little Red Cap, maybe better known as Red Riding Hood. Why does the girl know the wolf and yet does not know that he is dangerous? Why does the wolf ask about grandma’s dwelling place, where even Little Red Cap already knows that he knows it well? Why doesn’t he eat the girl first and afterwards the grandmother? How can a wolf swallow a whole person and is still not full? Why does he wear this strange disguise for Little Red Cap? Why does not the wolf wake up when his belly is cut open and why does he fall dead from a few rocks in the womb...? So many inconsistencies, and yet it is one of the most famous and well-known fairy tales that people keep and tell to this day. There must be something meaningful behind it!

That is exactly the fascination of our fairy tales. Such questions lead us to deeper and deeper levels. Even for the smallest children, Little Red Cap is a good lesson to follow the mother, to be careful in the forest and not to get off the track, where the wild animals live, but also to find the trust that there is always help and in the end everything will be fine. On a middle level you can see again the cycle of the seasons, when the wolf as a symbol of the winter swallows the warming sun and the greening nature, which then emerge again in spring. But the deeper level becomes really interesting:

The fact that the grandmother lives in the forest reminds us of the Great Mother, the nature. And who is loved so much by nature that she gives her everything she desires? It is the living soul, which is enveloped in love from the beginning. Nature even gives her a personality, here in the form of a cap in the colour of love and activity, with which the little soul becomes something special, she identifies with it and even gets a name from it. Only the soul lives in the village and the Great Mother in the forest, so the two are separated, although they love each other very much and cling to each other. This makes nature weak and sick, which the mother, wisdom, recognizes. She ensures that the two come together again and the soul even brings a gift, so food for nature. The wisdom also admonishes the pure soul, which is inexperienced in secular intrigues, not to stray from the right path, to advance straight to the essence of nature and not to be distracted, because the Little Red Cap is not to look curiously into the corners. Also, she should carefully guard the offering for nature, so not to break the bottle out of carelessness.

The grandmother lived out in the wood, half a league from the village, and just as Little Red-Cap entered the wood, a wolf met her. Red-Cap did not know what a wicked creature he was, and was not at all afraid of him.

“Good-day, Little Red-Cap.” said he.
“Thank you kindly, wolf.”
“Whither away so early, Little Red-Cap?”
“To my grandmother’s.”
“What have you got in your apron?”
“Cake and wine; yesterday was baking-day, so poor sick grandmother is to have something good, to make her stronger.”
“Where does your grandmother live, Little Red-Cap?”
“A good quarter of a league farther on in the wood; her house stands under the three large oak-trees, the nut-bushes are just below; you surely must know it.” replied Little Red-Cap.

The cake used to be a special food. Not easy to prepare and provided with many precious ingredients: honey as the first and often only sweetener, dried fruit and nuts for substance and even more sweetness, flour, fat and valuable, even healing spices - in other words, the whole wealth of nature was baked into a cake. Wine is also produced by a fermentation process that is not easy to control. It gives a different kind of sweetness and, if enjoyed in small quantities, grants strength, in large quantities rather drunkenness. Are here sweetness and drunkenness meant for physical and mental bliss and strength, the symbols of giving nature?

The grandmother lives among oaks and hazelnuts. The oak has always been a sacred tree that stands for power and strength. And the hazelnut grants fertility. These are also the basic characteristics of the Great Mother Nature: power and fertility.

The wolf thought to himself, “What a tender young creature! What a nice plump mouthful; she will be better to eat than the old woman. I must act craftily, so as to catch both.” So he walked for a short time by the side of Little Red-Cap, and then he said, “See, Little Red-Cap, how pretty the flowers are about here why do you not look round? I believe, too, that you do not hear how sweetly the little birds are singing; you walk gravely along as if you were going to school, while everything else out here in the wood is merry.”

Little Red-Cap raised her eyes, and when she saw the sunbeams dancing here and there through the trees, and pretty flowers growing everywhere, she thought, “Suppose I take grandmother a fresh nosegay; that would please her too. It is so early in the day that I shall still get there in good time.” and so she ran from the path into the wood to look for flowers. And whenever she had picked one, she fancied that she saw a still prettier one farther on, and ran after it, and so got deeper and deeper into the wood.

What does the wolf stand for in this fairy tale? Probably for insatiable hunger, a demon that inevitably attracts greed and thus malice. He deviously awakens first curiosity and then even desire in the still inexperienced soul. Although Little Red Cap thinks she is doing something good for her grandmother, her true motivation is desire. And one can hardly describe the desire even better: Desire makes us run after beautiful flowers, and those we have just picked are not enough for us, because the next, which we have not yet, seems to us much more beautiful now... And so we run and run after our wishes and never get enough. In doing so, we are getting further and further away from the path of moderation and virtue. That really makes the wolfish appetite really strong.

But why does the wolf have to swallow the grandmother before he can eat the girl? The Great Mother will always protect us. There is an extension at the end of this fairy tale in which this becomes clear. Another time the Little Red Cap goes to the grandmother, is again threatened by a wolf, but remains on the right path and makes it safely to the house of the grandmother. There the soul, the Little Red Cap, acts according to the advice of the Great Mother, and the wolf who besieges the house is defeated, before he can get too close to the girl and her grandmother.

Meanwhile the wolf ran straight to the grandmother’s house and knocked at the door. “Who is there?” - “Little Red-Cap,” replied the wolf. “She is bringing cake and wine; open the door.” - “Lift the latch,” called out the grandmother, “I am too weak, and cannot get up.”

The wolf lifted the latch, the door flew open, and without saying a word he went straight to the grandmother’s bed, and devoured her. Then he put on her clothes, dressed himself in her cap, laid himself in bed and drew the curtains.

Without the mindful, living soul that is right now distracted by passion, the house is unprotected, and the weak nature can be devoured by the eager hunger demon, mentally and physically. Like so many plants and animals have disappeared from our earth in the belly of the wolf under our greedy and ruthless methods of agriculture and factory farming. The greed even disguises itself as nature, only to continue to live and to eat and not to be recognized. It hides in our human nature with all the physical sense and action organs and also deep in our thoughts.

Little Red-Cap, however, had been running about picking flowers, and when she had gathered so many that she could carry no more, she remembered her grandmother, and set out on the way to her.

She was surprised to find the cottage-door standing open, and when she went into the room, she had such a strange feeling that she said to herself, “Oh dear! how uneasy I feel to-day, and at other times I like being with grandmother so much.” She called out, “Good morning,” but received no answer; so she went to the bed and drew back the curtains. There lay her grandmother with her cap pulled far over her face, and looking very strange.

“Oh grandmother,” she said, “what big ears you have!”
“The better to hear you with, my child.” was the reply.
“But, grandmother, what big eyes you have!” she said.
“The better to see you with, my dear.”
“But, grandmother, what large hands you have!”
“The better to hug you with.”
“Oh but, grandmother, what a terrible big mouth you have!”
“The better to eat you with!”

And scarcely had the wolf said this, than with one bound he was out of bed and swallowed up Red-Cap.

Only when we cannot stand it anymore, we stop the passionate collecting of everything that seems desirable to us. The German word for “passion” is “Leidenschaft” and clearly shows its own nature: after a short enjoyment, it creates (“schaffen”) suffering (“Leiden”). So our Little Red Cap does not even stop picking flowers until she can no longer carry the bouquet. In the vicinity of the Great Mother she becomes more conscious again, because now the distraction is fading a little. But why can’t she recognize the wolf in sheep’s clothing? Because she is more attached to the senses and not to the mind. She asks for eyes, ears, mouth and hands, because one can receive and hold something very well with them - again the desire is the priority. Only because this greedy wolf has previously devoured nature with the organs of sense and action, he can devour even the pure soul, otherwise he would have no power over it.

When the wolf had appeased his appetite, he lay down again in the bed, fell asleep and began to snore very loud. The huntsman was just passing the house, and thought to himself, “How the old woman is snoring! I must just see if she wants anything.” So he went into the room, and when he came to the bed, he saw that the wolf was lying in it. “Do I find thee here, thou old sinner!” said he. “I have long sought thee!” Then just as he was going to fire at him, it occurred to him that the wolf might have devoured the grandmother, and that she might still be saved, so he did not fire, but took a pair of scissors, and began to cut open the stomach of the sleeping wolf. When he had made two snips, he saw the little Red-Cap shining, and then he made two snips more, and the little girl sprang out, crying, “Ah, how frightened I have been! How dark it was inside the wolf;” and after that the aged grandmother came out alive also, but scarcely able to breathe. Red-Cap, however, quickly fetched great stones with which they filled the wolf’s body, and when he awoke, he wanted to run away, but the stones were so heavy that he fell down at once, and fell dead.

Who comes as a saviour when nature is in need? The consciousness. If the female stands for nature, then the male stands for the spirit, and both always belong together. So far, we were surrounded only by female beings, so now the balance is restored by the appearance of the hunter. And what is the task of consciousness? It should look carefully inside, recognize and intervene. Our hunter does his duty by not shooting the wolf, but cutting it open. First, he sees the red cap. This is the first layer that can be seen by looking inward. It is the personality, the ego-consciousness. If you look deeper, the soul itself shows up, and even more deeply the essence of nature. By looking at them without judging them, one frees them. So Little Red Cap and her grandmother jump out alive, because they cannot actually die, only temporarily disappear and change.

Why does the wolf, the greedy hunger, die of a few stones in the stomach? Well, maybe because he is no longer filled with life, and without life he can have no effect. Greed needs appropriate food, otherwise it dies. And that’s probably the way we can defeat the hungry demon in life. He lives on transitory things, and as long as he is provided with them, he remains strong and hungry. But what are those stones that fill the greedy demon’s stomach but are completely indigestible? That would have to be something eternal and imperishable. Maybe this is the solution. But it is very hard to find this eternal in our transient and fast changing world. Nevertheless, our fairy tale clearly states: It is the task of the soul to fetch the heavy stones, to toil, to overcome the greedy hunger with the help of the hunter, and to preserve Mother Nature.

Then all three were delighted. The huntsman drew off the wolf’s skin and went home with it; the grandmother ate the cake and drank the wine which Red-Cap had brought, and revived, but Red-Cap thought to herself, “As long as I live, I will never by myself leave the path, to run into the wood, when my mother has forbidden me to do so.”

If greed is defeated, it is truly a cause for joy. It was done in cooperation of nature and mind, man and woman - just as everything can be done in this cooperation. Since the soul has finally arrived at the Great Mother Nature, the gifts can strengthen and make her healthy again. And the soul has finally learned to follow the benevolent mother’s wisdom, even if all sorts of temptations crop up in the jungle of the world at any time. Well, that’s really a happy ending.

It is also related that once when Red-Cap was again taking cakes to the old grandmother, another wolf spoke to her, and tried to entice her from the path. Red-Cap, was, however, on her guard, and went straight forward on her way, and told her grandmother that she had met the wolf, and that he had said “good-morning” to her, but with such a wicked look in his eyes, that if they had not been on the public road she was certain he would have eaten her up. “Well,” said the grandmother, “we will shut the door, that he may not come in.” Soon afterwards the wolf knocked, and cried, “Open the door, grandmother, I am little Red-Cap, and am fetching you some cakes.” But they did not speak, or open the door, so the grey-beard stole twice or thrice round the house, and at last jumped on the roof, intending to wait until Red-Cap went home in the evening, and then to steal after her and devour her in the darkness. But the grandmother saw what was in his thoughts. In front of the house was a great stone trough, so she said to the child, “Take the pail, Red-Cap; I made some sausages yesterday, so carry the water in which I boiled them to the trough.” Red-Cap carried until the great trough was quite full. Then the smell of the sausages reached the wolf, and he sniffed and peeped down, and at last stretched out his neck so far that he could no longer keep his footing and began to slip, and slipped down from the roof straight into the great trough, and was drowned. But Red-Cap went joyously home, and never did anything to harm any one.

The Old Woman in the Wood - (topic: change in nature)
Hansel and Grethel - (topic: defeating ego and desire)
Rumpelstiltskin - (topic: essence of nature and its spirit)
Mother Holle - (topic: essence of nature)
The Youth who went forth to learn what Fear was - (topic: essence of fear)
Little Red-Cap (topic: essence of desire)
Hans in Luck - (topic: way to true happiness)
Godfather Death - (topic: essence of death and reality)
One-Eye, Two-Eyes and Three-Eyes - (topic: normality)
Rapunzel - (topic: spirit-soul-illusion)
Faithful John - (topic: overcoming opposites through reason)
... Table of contents of all fairy tale interpretations ...

[1884] Grimm's Household Tales. Translated from the German and edited by Margaret Hunt. With an introduction by Andrew Lang, 1884, Vol. 1/2, London: George Bell and Sons
[2018] Text and Pictures by Undine & Jens /