Somewhat to my surprise after rereading ‘The Frog King’ for this project, ‘The Wolf and the Seven Little Goats’ proved to be exactly the same as I remember from the Ladybird edition I read as a child way back when dinosaurs roamed the earth. For that reason I’m not going to bother with a synopsis – if you think you remember the story, you do. (If you’d like a reminder though, you can read it here which is also the source of the charming picture to the right of this paragraph.) It was never one of my favourites and for this I blame R. Lumley, illustrator of the Ladybird edition; despite the scariness of the wolf, the horror of the little kids being devoured and the devastation of the nanny goat on her return, child-Helen felt more sympathy for the horrible wolf than the resourceful goat family (whose peril passed me by so that they seemed stupid and rather smug and endlessly skipping about in a mindless fashion; see whether or not you agree with me). Reading the Oxford World Classics edition without the pictures is a very different experience. Sometimes (no offence meant directly to you, R. Lumley, properly terrifying pictures would not really have been quite the thing for books intended for three-year-olds) illustrations do get in the way of a story.
I could not help thinking of the story of Little Red Riding Hood or Little Redcap (also ‘little’, also contemplated by a wolf for her potential as dinner) and I flicked ahead to see that the Grimms included two versions in their collection, in one of which the woodcutter cuts open the sleeping wolf to release Little Redcap and her grandmother; they then fill the wolf’s belly with stones and he comes to an unfortunate end. In the second version the grandmother outwits the wolf with the help of Little Redcap. I was also reminded of the Three Little Pigs; the houses of two of them proved insufficient to protect them from the wolf but the third little pig was too clever for him. Wolves may be terrifying predators, but they are not invincible. (They are also talented female impersonators – as grandmother or as nanny-goat.)
(Walter Crane, illustration for ‘The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids’, in the Brothers Grimm, Household Stories from the Collection of the Bros. Grimm, translated by Lucy Crane (London: Macmillan and Co., 1886) found here)
The nanny-goat warns the kids:
[B]e on your guard against the wolf, for if he comes in he’ll gobble you up, every last morsel. The villain often pretends to be someone else, but you’ll recognize him at once by his hoarse voice and his black feet.
Although the little goats follow their mother’s instructions, they carelessly reveal their safeguards to the wolf:
[Y]ou’re not our mother! She has a sweet high voice, but your voice is hoarse [...] Our mother hasn’t a black foot like yours; you’re the wolf!
and focus on the details (voice, foot) rather than using their common sense. Thus they seal their own doom. But then they are children! Fortunately for them they have a clever mother to rescue them. For this is essentially a tale about the resourcefulness and courage of mothers, as signalled in the opening sentence with its seemingly redundant second phrase: ‘There was once an old nanny-goat who had seven little goats, and she loved them as a mother loves her children.’
And where is the father in all this? Is the wolf the father, the violent and jealous parent? Another devouring father was Kronos, who ate five of his children; the sixth, Zeus, was hidden by his mother Rhea, who substituted a stone for him. Zeus later defeated his father, cut open his belly (in some versions; in others he used an emetic) and released his brothers and sisters (and the stone). Thus the cannibal father has Form. The other men in the story – the grocer, the baker and the miller – give the wolf what he needs even though the miller at least knows the wolf’s reputation for hoodwinking people because they are afraid. Creatures like the wolf need a wider network of people turning a blind eye in order to succeed.
What are your impressions?
(This wolf on the left, with knife and pistol, is leaving nothing to chance: Hermann Vogel, illustration for ‘The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids’, in the Brothers Grimm, Kinder- und Hausmärchen, n.d. (München: Verlag von Braun u. Schneider) found here)
Next week (I hope with a bit more zing to my post): Faithful John.