June 20, 2014

Little Red Riding Hood's Family Tree

        In a study published last November, anthropologist Jamshid Tehrani analyzed “Little Red Riding Hood” and similar folktales from around the world using the same phylogenetic methods used by biologists to study relationships between evolving species.  Tehrani’s study concludes that the “Little Red Riding Hood” tale branched off from the story of “The Wolf and the Kids,” which originated in Europe in the first century.  East Asian versions were later hybrids of the two stories.  But the interesting idea here isn’t where “Little Red Riding Hood” began - after all, folk tales are shared human property and they belong to all of us now.  What’s interesting is the idea that oral traditions evolve like biological organisms.  On the one hand, that seems obvious.  Of course stories evolve as they’re told over and over, moving through time and across geographical regions, from culture to culture.  But on the other hand, the mechanism is obviously different from that of biology, so it’s interesting to see whether the same methods of analysis apply to both.
        It’s also fun to see how a story changes, depending on who’s telling it, and to whom.  Naturally the wolf gets changed to a tiger when the story moves from wolf territory to tiger territory, but other changes may be less obvious to explain.  In some versions of the story the victim is rescued, while in others her consumption is The End.  In some versions the girl escapes on her own without having to be rescued by a woodsman or anyone else.  What’s going on in a culture when storytellers make the decision to reimagine the end of a story - to miraculously save the life of the victim after she’s been eaten, or to let the monster devour her when in the previous version she’d been able to escape?
        Tehrani says, “Folktales, more than any other type of story, embody our shared fantasies, fears and experiences.  Understanding which elements of them remain stable and which ones change as they get transmitted across generations and societies can therefore provide a unique window into universal and variable aspects of the human condition.”  What story elements do we embrace because of our time and place, and what story elements do we embrace because we’re human?  Of course, these broad questions imply that all people in a particular culture share the same taste, which is obviously nonsense - whatever “Little Red Riding Hood” version you pick, some people will like it, and others won’t.  It never hurts for us to remember that we’re all individuals, not faceless specks in our cultures’ cast of millions.
        As for me, “Little Red Riding Hood” was certainly never one of my favorite stories, but the one part of it I did (and do) like was the back-and-forth between the girl and the disguised wolf: “Grandma, what big eyes you have!  All the better to see you with, my dear…”  It shows evidence of thought and personality on the part of both characters, and also has the cadence of poetry - all things I enjoy.
        You can see Tehrani’s full article in the journal PLoS ONE, or read an article he wrote for the lay audience in The Atlantic.

[Pictures: Illustration from Household Stories from the Collection of the Brothers Grimm, wood block print by Walter Crane, 1882;
Illustration from Les Contes de Perault, dessins par Gustave Doré, wood block print by Gustave Doré, 1867 (Images from SurLaLune).]


Anonymous said...

Good paper. However, note that a critical review written by three French archaeologists/comparative mythologists/folklorists (Patrice Lajoye, Julien d'Huy and Jean-Loïc Le Quellec) has been published in the new peer-reviewed web-based journal "Nouvelle Mythologie Comparée / New Comparative Mythology": http://nouvellemythologiecomparee.hautetfort.com/archive/2013/12/04/patrice-lajoye-julien-d-huy-and-jean-loic-le-quellec-comment-5237721.html (with the response of the author:
Please also note that peer-reviewed papers about the use of phylogenetic methods to study folktales dates back to 2012, with the work of Julien d'Huy, who used the same methods as Jamshid Tehrani (see: https://unive-paris1.academia.edu/JuliendHuy/Phylogenetics-of-myths-and-folktales). Many papers are available in english.

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Thanks for pointing us to those articles and their analyses of the methods and data in Tehrani's study. Anyone who's interested in the details of how these studies work should definitely check out those links!