Re-telling the classic short stories of the Grimm brothers or Charles Perrault with a different tone or view has been a kind of “subversive tradition” in the children’s and young adult literature, since the end of the 20th century, and it has even affected movies like Shrek. From different points of view, either dark or hopeful, an enlarged sense of humour, and all kind of literary resources such as metafiction, these stories have energized the antique genre of the fairy tales, and have made us look at the past with different eyes.
A good example is the picturebook, The girl in red, written by the American author Aaron Frisch and illustrated by the Italian Roberto Innocenti, both of whom, with a great literary quality and in an innovative way take up one of the most well-known tales, Little Red Riding Hood, once more. Although it's originally created for 8-year-old children, its complex pictures, full of social critique, jokes and soulless and filthy places, offer a great realism through the details of the environment and the characters and its ludic text, which guide us step by step, can enchant readers of all ages.
In a rainy night, a small granny, like a self-illuminated toy, tells a story to a group of children in what seems like a neglected day-care centre:
One day, Sofia, a girl who lives in a poor and unsafe neighbourhood in a big city, is sent by her mother to take cookies, honey and oranges to her sick grandmother, who also needs company. Unfortunately, on the way she runs into some jackals (a motorcylec gang) who surround her and harass her.
When everything seems lost, someone known as “the hunter”, a young and strong man saves her and offers her to take her to her grandma's house. On the way, however, he receives a call which means he must drop her off on the way. While Sofia makes her own way to her grandmother’s house, the “hero”, who is actually the wolf, overtakes her and waits to finish her off. However, given the listener’s horror and tears at this sad ending, the little storytelling granny, knowing that the stories are magical, offers her audience an alternative, happy ending.
This reminds us the term “eucatastrophe”, coined by J. R. R. Tolkien in his essay “On Fairy-Stories”:
But the “consolation” of fairy-tales has another aspect than the imaginative satisfaction of ancient desires. Far more important is the Consolation of the Happy Ending. Almost I would venture to assert that all complete fairy-stories must have it. At least I would say that Tragedy is the true form of Drama, its highest function; but the opposite is true of Fairystory. Since we do not appear to possess a word that expresses this opposite—I will call it Eucatastrophe. The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function.
The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur.
The happy ending offered as other possibility in The girl in red is important, because it allows this consolation mentioned by Tolkien. It should be pointed out that this eucatastrophe is not like the deus ex machina given that the eucatastrophe appears from the elements in the story, there isn't any magic or sudden appearance.
As we read Frisch and Innocenti's book with the students in our study, we found many surprises. It was alarming to discover that the stories, specially the fairy-tales, are seldom told. In the fast world we live in there's no time to tell or to share stories. It's easier to watch a movie. Memory is also affected, as shown in the illustrations by Innocenti, in what Frisch calls “The Wood”: a huge shopping mall covered with images that incite us to buy, to live and to think in a specific way.
Our research highlighted that among the fairy tales and other stories that were mentioned in the survey as having being told to the students as younger children, the two most cited were Little Red Riding Hood (57 times) and The Three Little Pigs (67 times). However, it turned out to be quite difficult for the students to reconstruct the story of Little Red Riding Hood, because they only remembered a few bits of the story and weren't able to distinguish between the different versions. There were details that were clear, like the fact that the mother sends the little girl to her sick grandmother's house, and that the wolf intercepts the girl in the forest. Other details, such as what the girl was taking to her granny, whether the wolf eats her, or if there was a hunter or a woodcutter caused them more trouble.
It's also important to mention that, instead of the versions by the Grimm brothers or by Perrault, the actual cinematographic versions of they story were more frequently referred to, such as Hoodwinked! (2005) and Red Riding Hood (2011).
In the session on this picturebook, we first analyzed the cover, then the back cover, and finally the first pages. For the urban teenagers it was easy to identify Innocenti's urban landscapes, because they belong to their reality, to what they know, to what they see when they walk in the streets or watch the TV. Despite the aggressive images, they assimilated the visual text, perhaps because for them the walls covered in graffiti, the bars and the barbed wire seem nearer than Red Riding Hood's original wood. The different social classes, the filth and the violence are part of their own reality. They raised many questions from the observation of the images, but also unique and personal ideas, explanations for the world created by Frisch and Innocenti, which are at the same time explanations of their own world, of their fears and of what they see.
Tolkien, J.R.R. “On Fairy Stories”. Rivendellcommunity.org. Web. PDF File.