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Little Red Riding Hood and The Golden Compass
- by L. E. MacDonald -

[Note: The Golden Compass is an alternative title for Northern Lights]

The traditional fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood deals with such universal aspects of the human existence as adolescence, sexuality, and the desire for independence. Therefore, it is not surprising to find similarities between the story and Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass, which also concerns a young heroine losing her innocence. While the latter novel is indefinitely more complex than the former short morality tale, both Lyra and Red Riding Hood have a great deal in common. Both individuals ignore instructions to stay to a safe path, both have idealized familial figures who turn out to be vicious predators, and both are stripped of their innocence as a result of dealing with this Wolf.

The most common version of Little Red Riding Hood, passed down by the Grimm Brothers (Rotkäppchen, 1812), is considerably sweeter and lighter than earlier versions of the tale. The titular heroine is sent to visit her grandmother by her mother, who warns the girl to stay on the path through the forest. Red Riding Hood encounters a Wolf, who convinces her to leave the path to pick flowers for her grandmother. While she is happily diverted, the Wolf runs to the grandmother's house, gains entry, and then swallows the poor woman whole. When Red Riding Hood comes at last to the house, she discovers a suspiciously furry individual in her grandmother's clothes who promptly devours her. A woodcutter (or huntsman - it varies) wanders by, opens up the now sleeping Wolf's stomach, and out pops Grandmother and Red Riding Hood, alive and undigested. Everyone is relieved and happy except for the Wolf, who is dead.

Earlier versions of the story are much darker. In Charles Perrault's version (Le Petit Chaperon Rouge, 1697), no kindly woodcutter happens by, and Red Riding Hood's death is regarded as a just and inevitable outcome of her gullibility, disobedience, and sexual nature. Both her red attire and her compliance with the socially unacceptable suggestions of the wild and feral Wolf are generally considered to be overt sexual symbols. Perrault's tale ends with an explicit warning that any young woman who let a "wolf" lead her astray would share Red Riding Hood's fate, figuratively if not literally. Other versions of the tale (El Cappelin Rossomake) make the same point with unpleasant details: Red Riding Hood removes her clothing and partakes of a pitcher of her grandmother's blood and a hunk of her grandmother's flesh before jumping into bed with the disguised Wolf, who then murders her.

In the present civilized world, the main thrust of the story has lost its cautionary edge - women are allowed considerably more leeway in expressing and fulfilling their sexual natures, and the situation of a sexual predator preying on a naive innocent is now usually seen as cutting both ways, regardless of gender. The relevance of the story's details remain, however. Everyone stumbles through adolescence, trying to follow society's dictates while asserting independence. Everyone changes as they go through difficult experiences. And while only a lucky few are murdered by their loved ones, a larger number suffer at least a symbolic family betrayal.

Likewise, The Golden Compass deals with certain universal childhood experiences - taking on personal responsibility, resisting authority, discovering the flaws of trusted and revered adults. Everyone experiences the transition between graceful, brutal childhood and self-aware maturity, so Lyra's development is familiar to us, even if her specific situation is not. Both Little Red Riding Hood and The Golden Compass chart a similar - if not inevitable - path out of childhood.

All of Red Riding Hood's problems stem from her initial disobedience, from stepping from the path on which her mother insisted she stay. Most of the events in The Golden Compass spring from Lyra's insatiable curiosity and her stubborn refusal to obey those who claim control of the situation. The book opens with Lyra sneaking into the Retiring Room of Jordan College, a place she is well aware that she is not supposed to be. As a result of this illicit foray, she saves Lord Asriel's life and, in so doing, clears the way for the novel's tragic conclusion.

Throughout the story, Lyra eschews the safety of the decreed path, continually rebelling against the roles in which those in authority try to place her. She very deliberately resists the education the Jordan scholars attempt to instill in her, as she considers it pointless. She also has very little difficulty in leaving Mrs. Coulter's party after learning about the Oblation Board - her outrage is sufficient motivation; the fact that she is in a strange city with nowhere to go is hardly a deterrent. She spares little thought for future consequences, living in the immediate moment. Like Red Riding Hood abandoning the path to pick pretty flowers, Lyra submits to authority only when there is no appealing alternative in sight.

Normally, living her life in this fashion does not cause Lyra serious repercussions. She's a sharp, agile child who can competently identify genuine threats to her person and is quick to act accordingly, as she does when she escapes from Mrs. Coulter in London. However, her finely-honed wariness fails her in regards to Lord Asriel. In his role as her uncle, Lyra admires him while recognizing his dangerous nature: "...a tall man with powerful shoulders, a fierce dark face, and eyes that seemed to flash and glitter with savage laughter. It was a face to be dominated by, or to fight: never a face to patronize or pity. All his movements were large and perfectly balanced, like those of a wild animal, and when he appeared in a room like this, he seemed a wild animal held in a cage too small for it." (The Golden Compass 13). Roger is also well aware of Lord Asriel's nature - encountering him in Svalbard, he tells Lyra that the man frightens him. "He was looking at me like a wolf, or summing," he tells her. (The Golden Compass 366)

Once Lyra discovers that he is really her father, however, she begins to harbor certain delusions about his personality; unconsciously assuming that if she starts acting like a daughter (and faithfully brings him the alethiometer), he'll begin acting like a father. Her expectations are cruelly shattered when she meets him again and finds him as cool and unresponsive as ever. Lyra is deeply wounded by this: "You en't human, Lord Asriel. You en't my father. My father wouldn't treat me like that. Fathers are supposed to love their daughters, en't they? You don't love me, and I don't love you, and that's a fact." (The Golden Compass 368). He inhabits the role of her father as the Wolf inhabits the clothes of the murdered grandmother, but the intrinsic natures of both remain unchanged.

Once Red Riding Hood comes to the disguised Wolf, he immediately eats her. In the gentler versions, the girl is rescued and repents of her actions, a changed individual. In the harsher versions, Red Riding Hood remains devoured, a cautionary tale of the dire, permanent shame that awaited girls who stepped off the narrow path of virtue. In The Golden Compass, Lyra's innocence is forever lost when her father, ignoring the responsibilities that the role supposedly engenders, brutally murders her best friend. Her trust, her childish adoration, is proven unjustified. By killing Roger, Lord Asriel also indelibly marks his daughter, as if consuming her soul and life energy as well. It is this action of her father that motivates Lyra to pursue the source of Dust, a quest that will also have a deep impact on her and consume the rest of His Dark Materials.

Little Red Riding Hood paints a visceral and disturbing picture of adolescence. A curious and independent girl strays off the prescribed path and discovers, too late, a horrific betrayal by a trusted individual. Similar events take their course in The Golden Compass, with the rebellious Lyra witnessing the terrible, unfeeling actions of Lord Asriel. Both stories contain the same themes of innocence and maturity, and both have corresponding antagonists who destroy the heroine while in the role of her benefactor and protector.

However, while Little Red Riding Hood is a simple and clear-cut fairy tale, The Golden Compass is a intricate and complex novel, and the two diverge at the ultimate fate of their protagonist. Where the former offers its heroine only shame and death, the latter allows Lyra to get back up, dust herself off, and continue going. She may be a changed and betrayed individual, but she is still in control, and she'll still keep running off the path whenever she feels like it.

Back to Interpretations of The Golden Compass


Resources for Little Red Riding Hood

SurLaLune Fairy Tale Pages

Folklore and Mythology Electronic Texts

Little Red Riding Hood Project

The Fairy Tale Project

Last modified on January 19th, 2002.

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