Saturday, November 16, 2013

Grandma, What a Big History You Have!

Oh I sincerely wish they'd had done a "mockumentary reveal" of Red's "genealogy" care of TLC's "Who Do You Think You Are?" That's how I would have chosen to announce Little Red Riding Hood's travels along the Silk Road and her connection to the Middle East.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

This is the big fairy tale news of the season for folklorists and scholars (in particular): one anthropologist, Dr. Jamie Tehrani, has traced Red Riding Hood's lineage via unique means (especially with regard to fairy tales) and believes he's found her origin. He published his findings three days ago, on November 13, 2013 in PLOS ONE.
 ✒   (click the "Read more" link below this line to discover LRRH's ancient ancestor) ✒ ✒ ✒   

It's popping up everywhere in the news, which sort of surprises me, since you'd think tracing Red's path through the woods of time wouldn't really matter to most people. It would seem, instead, that people are quite fascinated, though from the quotes around the place, as well as a diagram that probably looks to most people like one of those string 'n' nails sculptures kids from the 70's used to do, (see? > > > > > > >) it's not clear that the writers and reporters understand much of what's being said. I mean, seriously: who uses the word 'phylogeny' in a non-academic article, other than to explain the official term?
Which is, ahem, what I need to do next because it's important that this method is being used to study a fairy tale in the first place. So here goes:

You see, the word phylogeny is used in relation to family trees, evolutionary history and organisms - ie living things. (The "-geny" suffix is directly related to "genetics".) I think the significance of the word usage alone has been lost on most with regard to this finding, which is a shame because, apart from not understanding the uniqueness of fairy tales as a result, it also means they're missing out on the potential this study shows for tracking human migration and history.

You've probably read this over and over again from people who study fairy tales, that "fairy tales are alive". That's the unique thing about these stories. They're not static, are never finished (not even when eventually recorded in writing and published), and always change form according to the people involved in the telling, the culture, and by the social climate of that moment in history. Fairy tales transform according to both the needs of the people using them, as they're retelling and sharing them. The form they change into is reflection of those people/that society; it shows where they are at that moment, gives clues as to where they came from and points the potential for the future if society's values remain in the same vein.

Many articles, despite missing this important aspect, still do a good job of explaining that stories with all the Red Riding Hood motifs (think tale types) did quite a bit of traveling before making it's way into the form we know, that one generally being from Perrault's collection, though it's changed since then as well (ask your averagely intelligent adult what the story of Red Riding Hood is, compare it to Perrault's and you'll see what I mean).

Most regular readers here are very aware that Red had many and various "ancestors" before that book but what nobody knew for certain was: just how far back did the story go? And, just as interestingly, where did Red originally come from?

After using a little extra google-fu I hunted down an article that "got it" and put it right there in the title: "Study of 'Little Red Riding Hood' Suggests Folk Tales Evolve Like Species". It also did the best job of breaking down a complicated abstract into layman's terms into a comparatively brief - but clear - summary. (After reading over twenty articles that only seemed to understand the findings to limited and varying degrees, I want to applaud writer Tamarra Kemsley for doing such a great job!) I am including most of the article here, since it's the best summary of all the aspects I can find, and I don't think I could do better. I have, however, added links in case you wanted to research a little further.

From Ms. Kemsley at Nature World News:
Folk tales evolve much like species do, a researcher found after studying the evolutionary history of the tale "Little Red Riding Hood."
In the study published in the journal PLOS ONE, (Edit FTNH: titled 'The Phylogeny of Little Red Riding Hood') Durham University anthropologist Jamie Tehrani demonstrates that the story shares a common ancient root with the tale "The Wolf and the Kids," though the two have since evolved into different stories. 
"This is rather like a biologist showing that humans and other apes share a common ancestor but have evolved into distinct species," Tehrani said.
Based on his research, "The Wolf and the Kids" likely originated in the 1st century, with "Little Red Riding Hood" branching off roughly 1,000 years later.
In older story, still popular in Europe and the Middle East, a wolf impersonates a nanny goat and eats her kids, whereas a wolf eats a young girl by impersonating her grandmother in "Little Red Riding Hood." Other variations, such as "The Tiger Grandmother," found in Japan, China and Korea, have all evolved. 
Tehrani used a phylogenetic model analysis, used by biologists to group closely-related organisms, in order to map out the stories many evolutions based on 72 plot variables. 
"My research cracks a long-standing mystery. The African tales (FTNH edit: like Motikatika and the Ogre) turn out to be descended from 'The Wolf and the Kids' but over time, they have evolved to become like 'Little Red Riding Hood,' which is also likely to be descended from 'The Wolf and the Kids,'" he explained. 
"This exemplifies a process biologists call convergent evolution, in which species independently evolve similar adaptations. The fact that Little Red Riding Hood 'evolved twice' from the same starting point suggests it holds a powerful appeal that attracts our imaginations."
I'm going to include a quote from Professor Tehrani's abstract in the PLOS ONE journal as well (please put on your academic hat for this one - the language is formal and specific):
Researchers have long been fascinated by the strong continuities evident in the oral traditions associated with different cultures. According to the ‘historic-geographic’ school, it is possible to classify similar tales into “international types” and trace them back to their original archetypes. However, critics argue that folktale traditions are fundamentally fluid, and that most international types are artificial constructs. Here, these issues are addressed using phylogenetic methods that were originally developed to reconstruct evolutionary relationships among biological species, and which have been recently applied to a range of cultural phenomena. The study focuses on one of the most debated international types in the literature: ATU 333, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’.... 
... These findings (FTNH: see abstract for details) demonstrate that phylogenetic methods provide a powerful set of tools for testing hypotheses about cross-cultural relationships among folktales, and point towards exciting new directions for research into the transmission and evolution of oral narratives.
It appears that it would be fair to say Red's path through the woods of history has been long, winding and that, at some point, with an option of the path of needles and the path of pins, Red used them both. ;)

But just where, exactly, did she come from? The answer was in the text but it was a little buried. Let me show you a little more clearly:
...the oldest known version of Little Red Riding Hood is an 11th-century poem “written in Latin by a priest in Liege.” But Tehrani’s analysis suggests they emerged from a common source deep in history, with various versions branching out and establishing themselves in different cultures. 
“The Chinese blended together Little Red Riding Hood, The Wolf and the Kid (FTNH edit: the latter of which “evolved from an Aesopic fable [Aesop lived from 620 to 560 BC] which was first recorded [aka FINALLY written down!] around 400 A.D." writes Tehrani), and local folktales to create a new, hybrid story,” he said. “Interestingly, this tale was first written down by the Chinese poet Huang Zhing, who was a contemporary of (Frenchman Charles) Perrault, who wrote down the first (published) European version of Little Red Riding Hood in the 17th century.”
So the first literary Red Riding Hood tales were written down, during the same period of time (hello zeitgeist!) by two men, separated not only by the entire breadth of one of the largest continents in the world, but distinctively different cultures. However, all the various origins of LRRH via different paths, a.k.a. the tale's true roots, apparently reach back to Aesop, hundreds of years BC!

WHAT RED (& other Fairy Tales) ARE TELLING US
I must admit, every time the study of fairy tales has to cross into another discipline (eg anthropology or sociology) to run it's course, I get very enthusiastic. That this happens more often than not, makes it even more so. Why? Because it demonstrates that fairy tales are bound up with people's lives, experiences, perceptions and values and travel and change and evolve - you could even say transform - with them according to what is happening and the focus and values of the people and the society at the time. Fairy tales are by the people, for the people and are about the people. (Excuse the appropriation of the phrase here, but it's true.) Even if you don't like what the tale is telling, it's a very good barometer of how those people (or us), at that time (or now), in that (this) culture viewed the world and their (our) place in it, how they (we) got there and what they (we) want to do about it with regard to the future.

While the stories of some versions of the Bible and Chaucer's 'Canterbury Tales' have been shown to have similarities to fairy tales in the way they travel through time (and have been studied in similar ways), all of those have "origin texts" that people return to time and again to reset or reorient themselves correctly in their tellings. Fairy tales, on the other hand, are much more mutable and most have their true origins in oral tales and are much more difficult to trace directly. They're accessible to all peoples of culture, time, class, education and to children as well as adults. That the tales are still recognizable after all this, that their motifs and essential stories remain intact ad recognizable speaks to how true they are in speaking about the human condition. As a result fairy tales are not only pretty special, they're essential.

The more we bring our (hopefully informed) conversation to the "popular thinking" table, the more input we will have with regard to how our society copes and develops, as well as to the direction it (and our children) take in the future. It's why I think fairy tale folk should be active in society and culture and not stay in closed circles.

I truly believe that working to preserve, tell and use fairy tales in popular thinking and culture, (while accepting their evolution along the way), gives us the opportunity to enrich our societies as a whole, presenting them/us with tools for understanding where we came from, for helpful commentary in the present and for assistance in making decisions about the future. The more fairy tales - and variants - we can keep in circulation, the richer the tools and the less likely people will be to interpret their world via one brand of thought.

And Red Riding Hood is one popular tale that has repeatedly resisted being branded and "owned" by any one company. (Frankly, it's as if she has a super power.) To have her consistently standing strong in popular thinking means fairy tale folk already have an "in" with regard to sharing and using tales, en mass. Having Red Riding Hood as an ally is akin to having a secret password to the hearts and minds of the people. She's a secret weapon we didn't even know we had! now we just need to make sure we use our power for good... We have the potential to do so much to enrich societies and current - as well as future - generations.

It comes back around to the quote by Einstein:
We only have one thing to figure out before we can do this and do it well. We need to ask: what are the most efficient methods of storytelling and information communication today? Then (no matter how kitsch, technical or shallow they seem), we need to share our fairy tales there. 

Fairy tales have a habit of resonating with people. All we have to do is use/share them in the right places and people will do the rest themselves.

That, then, is how we will make a difference.

The Red Riding Hood finding, (that the tale "evolved twice" from the same starting point), seems to speak to a particularly powerful appeal of this tale type and may also explain why so many people in this visual age now instinctively use Red Riding Hood images to represent Fairy Tales as a whole. All it takes is a symbol of a wolf with something red, or the impression of a red cloak by itself and most people instantly think "fairy tale".

You might even say, the blood of Fairy Tales is Red...

Fairy tale bonus:
For those who are interested in story variants and are curious about the most similar and prominent tales related to Red Riding Hood as we know her today.
Excerpted from Dr. Tehrani's introductory section of The Phylogeny of Little Red Riding Hood, published in POL ONE:
The study focuses on one of the most famous and controversial international types in the folktale literature, ATU 333 – ‘Little Red Riding Hood’. Most versions of the story in modern popular culture are derived from the classic literary tale published by Charles Perrault in seventeenth century France, which recounts the misadventures of a young girl who visits her grandmother's house, where she is eaten by a wolf disguised as the old woman. It is widely believed that Perrault based his text on an old folktale known simply as ‘The Story of Grandmother’, versions of which have survived in the oral traditions of rural France, Austria and northern Italy. In many of these tales, the girl lacks her characteristic red hood and nickname, and manages to outwit the wolf before he can eat her: After finally seeing through the villain's disguise, the girl asks to go outside to the toilet. The wolf reluctantly agrees, but ties a rope to her ankle to prevent her from escaping. When she gets out, the girl cuts the rope, ties the end to a tree, and flees into the woods before the villain realises his mistake. Another variant of the plot has the young girl – commonly named Catterinella – taking a basket of cakes to her aunt/uncle, who turns out to be a witch or werewolf. On the way there, she eats the cakes and replaces them with donkey dung. When the aunt/uncle discovers her deception, (s) he comes to her house at night and devours her in bed. Although these tales were recorded long after Perrault published his version, a rediscovered 11th century poem written in Latin by a priest in Liège provides intriguing evidence that a story similar to Little Red Riding Hood was circulating in parts of western Europe in medieval times. The poem, which purports to be based on a local folktale, tells of a girl who wanders into the woods wearing a red baptism tunic given to her by her godfather. She encounters a wolf, who takes her back to its lair, but the girl manages to escape by taming the wolf's cubs. 
Highly similar stories to Little Red Riding Hood have been recorded in various non-western oral literatures. These include a folktale that is popular in Japan, China, Korea and other parts of East Asia known as ‘The Tiger Grandmother’, in which a group of siblings spend the night in bed with a tiger or monster who poses as their grandmother. When the children hear the sound of their youngest sibling being eaten, they trick the villain into letting them outside to go to the toilet, where, like the heroine of The Story of Grandmother, they manage to escape. Another tale, found in central and southern Africa, tells of a girl who is attacked by an ogre after he imitates the voice of her brother. In some cases, the victim is cut out of the ogre's belly alive – an ending that echoes some variants of Little Red Riding Hood recorded in Europe, including a famous text published by the Brothers Grimm in nineteenth century Germany. 

Despite these similarities, it is not clear whether these tales can in fact be classified as ATU 333. Some writers suggest they may belong to another international tale type, ATU 123, The Wolf and the Kids, which is popular throughout Europe and the Middle East. In this tale, a nanny goat warns her kids not to open the door while she is out in the fields, but is overheard by a wolf. When she leaves, the wolf impersonates her and tricks the kids into letting him in, whereupon he devours them. Versions of the tale occur in collections of Aesop's fables, in which the goat kid avoids being eaten by heeding the mother's instruction not to open the door, or seeks further proof of the wolf's identity before turning him away. In an Indian cognate of The Wolf and the Kids, known as ‘The Sparrow and the Crow’, the villain tricks the mother into letting her into the house, and eats her hatchlings during the night. Although ATU 123 is believed to be closely related to ATU 333, it is classified as a separate international tale type on the basis of two distinguishing features. First, ATU 333 features a single victim who is a human girl, whereas ATU 123 features multiple victims (a group of siblings) who are animals. Second, in ATU 333 the victim is attacked in her grandmother's house, while in ATU 123 the victims are attacked in their own home. However, the application of these criteria to non-western oral traditions is highly problematic: Thus, in most of the African tales the victim is a human girl (grouping them with ATU 333), but she is attacked in her own home rather than a relative's (grouping them with ATU 123). The East Asian tales also feature human protagonists (ATU 333), but they are usually a group of siblings rather than a single child (ATU 123). In most variants of the tale, they are attacked after being left at home by their mother (ATU 123), but in some cases they encounter the villain en route to their grandmother's house (as per ATU 333).
Fascinating stuff! I adore the variants and seeing the threads follow from one to the other.

Additional sources: PLOS ONESmithsonianNBC Science NewsPacific StandardSFBay and Neatorama.


  1. Thank you for the great lengths you go to in order to bring us this wonderful fairy tale news!