By definition a fairy tale has a happy ending. There is no such thing as a tragic fairy tale. If a tale ends in tragedy, it is not a fairy tale; it is a cautionary tale. And yet you may have read some “fairy tales” that don’t have happy endings. That’s because the author deliberately changed the fairy tale to a cautionary tale.
Fairy tales are literary versions of folk tales that have been around for centuries. Details change over time and across cultures, but the basic story line always remains the same—in particular, the happy ending remains consistent across every version.
When Charles Perrault decided to write his versions of fairy tales, he wasn’t interested in recording the wisdom of folk tales, like the Grimm brothers or Andrew Lang, who come later, rather Perrault had his own agenda. He wrote during the time of Louis XIV and he was very concerned about the lack of morality in the court and especially the sexual ethics of French society at this time. So, he changed well established fairy tales in order to draw out specific moral lessons for his readers.
His version of “Little Red Riding Hood” illustrates this desire. He was concerned about young French women falling prey to the wolves of the French court, so he transforms Red’s encounter with the Wolf into a highly sexual seduction scene. After a few words are exchanged between Red and the Wolf, Red naively takes off her clothes and gets into bed with the wolf. The conversation that follows takes on a whole new subtext. “My, what big arms you have.” “All the better to hug you with, my dear.”
What happens next is what happens to every young girl who foolishly jumps into bed with a wolf, she gets eaten alive. And there Perrault ends his story. With a foolish young girl coming to a tragic end. There is no woodcutter to save Red in Perrault’s imagination because, of course, there is no one to save a young girl in France after such an encounter. In Perrault’s world, this is a fatal mistake.
And just in case, his readers missed his obvious point, Perrault closes his tale with a moral:
Moral: Children, especially attractive, well bred young ladies, should never talk to strangers, for if they should do so, they may well provide dinner for a wolf. I say ‘wolf,’ but there are various kinds of wolves. There are also those who are charming, quiet, polite, unassuming, complacent, and sweet, who pursue young women at home and in the streets. And unfortunately, it is these gentle wolves who are the most dangerous ones of all.
Perrault’s tales are lots of fun, and are very well known to American audiences. But just remember when you read them, that they are not proper fairy tales, they are cautionary tales with some pretty heavy-handed didacticism. If you want to read versions closer to the original tales, stick with Grimm and Lang.