Fairytales Can Be Feminist Too: Innocence and Virtue in Crimson Bound

Sunday, November 22, 2015

ATTENTION: This post may have spoilers for the book Crimson Bound by Rosamund Hodge. Note this is part of a project I am doing for my Women in Literature course.

As a little girl, Little Red Riding Hood was a staple among the fairytales told to me before bedtime. I grew up on a healthy dose of folklore and fantasy realms as a kid, so what I didn't expect upon analyzing this tale and perusing EBSCO, was that I wouldn't find a ton of substantial research relating to the topic that I wanted to talk about in the context of "Little Red Riding Hood" by the Brothers Grimm.

Earlier this year, I read Crimson Bound by Rosamund Hodge, and I, like many other bloggers and readers I know, was immediately transfixed by the world building and the interesting statements this book brought up, especially as it concerns religion, innocence, purity, and heroism in the female protagonist. 

Let's start with Grimm's tale first, shall we?

Little Red Riding Hood, or Red for short, starts off with going on a sudden trip to grandmother's house, and while on the road, she encounters the Wolf. I would first like to point out Red's innocence by noting the following quotation: "She did not know what a malicious beast it was, and so she was not at all afraid" (Grimm 101).

Here, Grimm brings to light that Red is an innocent girl. Many would argue it's not merely innocence, but maybe something closer to naïveté--an ignorance born of innocence. And like you would assume, the Wolf leads her astray by distracting her with the idea of gathering flowers for her ailing grandmother (Grimm 103). 

"So Little Red Riding Hood opened her eyes... and running into the forest she looked about for flowers. But, when she had once begun, she did not know how to leave off; and kept going deeper and deeper among the trees, in search of some more beautiful flowers." (Grimm 103)

Many different revisions or retellings of this same tale argue that this story is about the loss of virginity and/or innocence (I'm thinking particularly of Into the Woods, but that has nothing really to do with my argument!). Take Perrault's version for instance; his version of the story is only slightly different in that "Little Red Riding Hood took off her clothes and got into bed" with whom she thought was her ailing grandmother, but in actuality was the disguised wolf (Perrault 53). She was consequently eaten up by the wolf, and did not survive, unlike Grimm's version where a huntsman cuts Red out of the Wolf's stomach.

Though some argue that Grimm is the more family-friendly version of the tale--given that Red lives and all is well in the end--while Perrault's is a more didactic and morality warning for women, I might argue that both have sexual connotations.

As Orenstein mentions in her book, Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality and the Evolution of a Fairy Tale, in the late 17th century, when this tale was written, "there was a common French slang phrase used to describe the loss of a girl's virginity: 'Elle avoit vû le loup'... which translates to 'She had seen the wolf'" (Orenstein 26). Perhaps this is the most important aspect of all. When Red sees the Wolf and she "[opens] her eyes," she loses her innocence (Grimm 103). 

In Perrault's version, he even includes a moral at the end of the tale which I will include in its entirety:

"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 wold. I say 'wolf,' but there are various kind 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 53)

In addition, Michael Buchinger asserts, that this tale "served as a warning of female promiscuity," for even the fact that the cloak in which she wears is red, "which could symbolize harlots, scandal and blood--already foreshadows her fate" (Buchinger 5).

I also assert that the path from which Red strays is a symbol for what I would like to call the path of the pious. The Wolf easily distracts Red with lovely ideas in order to lead her astray so that he can leave to eat her grandmother first and then eventually her. 

Which brings me to Crimson Bound by Rosamund Hodge. 

So, I 'll give you a quick background note as to how this fantasy world works. It's rather complex, but hopefully by knowing the "Little Red Riding Hood" tale, you can fill in a few of the gaps I leave behind. 

The main protagonist is a teenaged girl named Rachelle. She was brought up in the ways of the woodwives who try to keep the villages safe from the forestborn--those who have given themselves over to the darkness of the forest and the Devourer. The red cloak and belt that Rachelle wears, given to her by her aunt and her mentor, is made of charms to keep the forestborn from hurting her. 

On Rachelle's travels through the forest, she comes across a man that is not truly a man but a forestborn. Day by day, they talk, and yet he does not attack her. Slowly, Rachelle's walls fall lower and lower, until he asks her, "Little girl,...what path are you taking?... And she stepped toward him off the path" (Hodge 8). 

Just as in Little Red Riding Hood, here too Rachelle steps off of the path. She steps forward toward something that is forbidden and dangerous... something that she is not supposed to have knowledge of--something away from the path of the pious. However, there is one slight difference that changes this story in comparison to the others: Rachelle knows who the forestborn is. She does not mistake him for another human, or someone kindly. She views him as dangerous, as someone who her people fight against, and whom she is particularly supposed to fight against, seeing as she is a woodwife's apprentice (Hodge 8). Unlike in Grimm, the forestborn is not there to deceive Rachelle, and that is quite clear in the following passage:

"'Oh little girl. You were born to be prey for my kind. You were trained to sit plaiting charms against fever until you become a half-wit old woman. What you choose--is up to you.' ...She met him again and again, and every time she stepped off the path." (Hodge 8)

From the first chapter, Rachelle is given a choice. This choice--this agency--tells the reader that she cannot rely on the ignorance, innocence, or naïveté that Red has, for she knowingly keeps company with the forestborn, even though she knows that if a forestborn puts a mark of her she has three days to kill or she dies herself. 

Before we go on, it's important to note exactly how Rachelle views the life of a woodwife. As an apprentice to the local woodwife, her Aunt Léonie, she mentions that she does not like the work, for it is mostly made up of weaving charms and embroidering clothing with charms against the evils of the forest (Hodge 5). 

"She [wishes] that woodwives still went on quests. She [wants] to live the stories, not just tell them to the village children... Woodwives weren't supposed to save people anymore. They were supposed to sit in their cottages and braid insignificant charms and never, ever dream of changing the world." (Hodge 4,6)

Considering this, Rachelle's actions with the forestborn isn't surprising, but rather a way for her to find meaning. The woodwive's actions are seen as domestic ways of changing the world; whereas, Rachelle's choice is action, even if it is a path of needles instead of piety that she treads. She has the desire to kill the Devourer--the forestborn's master, who ultimately wishes to turn their world into eternal night. But in order to do that, Rachelle must become what her society hates most.

Like in "Little Red Riding Hood," virtue and innocence is highly valued, and Perrault's tale breaks that idea down by saying that women should not have relations with men outside the marriage vow; however, in Crimson Bound, there is a scene that closely mimics that of Perrault's:

"She was never supposed to take [her red cloak] off in the woods, and her fingers trembled as she undid the pin, but she did not hesitate. The dark red wool slid off her shoulders and puddled at her feet.
His teeth gleamed as he smiled and stepped toward her. "Little girl, he said, "take off your belt. You won't be needing it anymore." (Hodge 11)

This taking off of the clothes is significant because like Red, she put her virtue and even her "goodness" as seen by society into question because of these actions, but it was at the expense of a single question--one that would save her world: "Tell me first, is there a way to stop the Devourer?" (Hodge 11).

Not only did she get her answer, but she was marked by the forestborn by a kiss: "His mouth was pressed over hers and his tongue was forcing her lips open and sliding inside" (Hodge 12). To some, this invasion can be viewed as a loss of virginity in and of itself; however, I argue, due to the fact that she eventually sleeps with him (unknowingly) later in the story, that this first step should be characterized as a loss of virtuous nature. She has actively decided to become a forestborn in order to eradicate them and their master, the Devourer.

"He had caught her and thrown her to the ground, and she wondered if he was going to use her the way people said forestborn used innocent maidens. But she wasn't innocent anymore" (Hodge 31).

Even here, she recognizes that though she has not lost her virginity, she is no longer innocent--no longer having the goodness of a pure heart.

Three years after this happens, Rachelle becomes a bloodbound to the king--one who has killed, but has not made the full transition into forestborn. In this world, religion has a strong grasp on the people--it consists of a quasi-christianity that upholds piety and innocence. The bloodbound and forestborn are the epitome of the opposite. Seeing as Rachelle is by no means innocent and is viewed as a "murderer" (Hodge 22), she tries to use it to her advantage in order to find a foothold to slay the Devourer.

In "Little Red Riding Hood," according to Grimm, after having been saved by the huntsman, Red proclaims, "I will never again leave the path and run into the woods when my mother has told me not to" (Grimm 104). Red repents of her wrongdoings, but Rachelle on the other hand does not, "she might have repented, but she couldn't quite regret" (Hodge 400). Rachelle sees the value of her quest--a quest that saves her entire world. "And once she...realized that she could be useful-that her power, however wicked, could also protect--there [was] no stopping her (Hodge 102). 

Though this realization comes in the course of her character development, she ponders the idea of being a sinner and a whore and what exactly it is to be a damned creature. In this, Hodge does an excellent job at bringing to light inequalities between genders. Though in the story we know Rachelle is a female bloodbound, we also meet Erec who is a male bloodbound, and even though both or "damned" by the church and by their society, there is still a difference in the way each of them are treated. Hodge mentions that "ladies tittered and made eyes at Erec. But men of any kind only made catcalls at Rachelle, unless they were cursing her" (Hodge 105).

Sexuality is a huge theme in this novel because it adds to the idea of lost innocence. Throughout history and even in the history of Hodge's fantastical world, sexuality is seen as base and the ultimate sacrifice of self. As if having sex will make you lose a part of who you are. This idea is refuted when Rachelle sleeps with Erec (who she finds out later is also the forestborn):

"She had resisted him for so long. She realized now that she had thought she would somehow stop existing if she finally gave in. Certainly her mother had always given her that impression when talking about girls who lost their virtue." (Hodge 301)

The fact that this is brought up shows how ideology has warped gender roles within the context of sexuality, for it is women who lose a part of themselves, not the men. Moreover, purity, even sexual purity was never enough for Rachelle to win this fight against the Devourer. 

Hodge perfectly sums this up when she introduces a bloodbound who lives in a constant state of penance for the covenant she made with the forestborn:

"I was pure as an angel and proud as a devil," Justine went on, frowning slight as she stared into the distance. "Only, I found that neither purity nor pride was courage, in the end" (Hodge 252).

Purity nor pride was what Rachelle needed in order to defeat the Devourer; it was courage--courage to become the monster everyone was afraid of in order to save her entire world.

In the end, Little Red Riding Hood continued to adhere to the confining ways of society--staying on the path of the pious; whereas, Rachelle knowingly chose to step away from the path and courageously brand herself as a monster for the good of her people--even people who scorned her.

Grimm Fairy Tales, Barnes & Noble Classics
Crimson Bound by Rosamund Hodge
The Blue Fairy Book, "Little Red Riding Hood" by Charles Perrault, Translator, Andrew Lang

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