The Wolf and the Seven Little Kids: Short Summary, Symbolism and More
The Wolf and the Seven Kids: A Peek into the History of Fairy Tales
We all have heard and read many fairy tales. Some of them are known all over the world. There have been many studies about them and their meanings.
In the world where we can look millions of years in the past and weight an atom to 12 decimals it still seems the origins and history of fairy tales are an unsolved mystery. I can't promise you to show the first fairy tale ever and its history, but I can certainly show an interesting example of a well-known fairy tale which can teach us a lot about the genre, the history of a fairy tale and about us.
We all can use some additional knowledge about us, right?
Really short and basic theory of fairy tales
There are many theories dealing with fairy tales origins which can be roughly devided in two main groups:
a) Fairy tales (and their narrative relatives) occurred in different parts of the world at the same time.
They are similar to each other because the situations their first authors were dealing with were similar.
b) Fairy tales in different parts of the world are similar to each other because they have common ancestor.
This 'Fairy tale of fairy tales' is dealing with basic problems of humans and all other fairy tales evolved from this source.
Can we check one example to see if we can find a Fairy Tale of all Fairy Tales?
Illustration from Wolf and Six (!) Kids - by Richard Andre
Wolf and Seven Kids (Wolf and Seven Goats) - summary
Let's start with a short summary of this well-known fairy tale from the famous collection of Brothers Grimm. There is a mother goat who has seven kids. She has to leave home to get some food. Before that, she warned them not to open anybody because there is a big bad wolf out there just waiting for his chance to eat them.
Mother goat tells the children the wolf can be cunning. Kids should be aware her voice is nice and soft and wolf's voice is deep and rough. Her fur is white and his fur is black, so they should notice the difference.
Soon after she leaves the house, wolf knocks on the door and wants to enter. Kids don't let him in and tell him his voice is too rough. So he changes his voice and tries again. This time his black paw with claws revealed him.
Wolf gets some flour and knocks again with a white paw, similar to their mothers. Kids open the door and he eats them all but the youngest. This kid hides in a grandfather clock and survives the massacre.
Soon after mother returns and discovers open door and the mess in the house. Youngest kid tells her what happened and together find a wolf in the neighborhood sleeping with a full stomach. Mother goat cuts his belly, gets six kids, who were still alive, out and they load the wolf with stones. When the beast wakes up, feels thirst, goes to the well and the weight of the stones pulls him under the water.
Wolf and seven kids for little ones
We have quite a few known elements from fairy tales here:
1. A protective parent who can't protect the children. This time this is the mother. In Sleeping Beauty it was the father. In Snow White, it was the father at first and then the dwarfs.
2. A missing father, known from so many fairy tales of brothers Grimm. Actually we have a positive male role of a miller (in some versions baker) who knows a wolf plans something mean but similarly to the hunter in Snow White the fear for his survival is stronger than his concerns and he helps the wolf to disguise his paw.
3. Big bad wolf. Yes, we know him from many fairy tales and he is not always in a negative role, but his most memorable appearances are exactly these: chasing The Three Little Pigs or tricking Little Red Riding Hood.
In the story with seven little goats, we can find similarities with both classic fairy tales. Wolf tries to enter three houses of three pigs (remember: he comes to little goats three times) and he falls asleep after eating the granny and Red Cap just to be loaded with stones.
4. We shall not forget the motif of an intruder who gets into a locked house thanks to good disguise. In Snow White, this is the witch and wolves were for many centuries closely connected with witchcraft. There were even official trials against wolves in the time of inquisition.
5. Cabin in the woods. It seems in many fairy tales most important things happen in the forest in the place where ultimate confrontation can happen without third party interfering. Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, Wolf and seven Kids, Snow White... Or maybe some other important life-changing event happens like princess meets a frog in Frog Prince or princess lost her authority in The Goose Girl... Even in Sleeping Beauty, where the princess never left her home, the forest came to her!
6. Rebirth or resurrection. If we have to pick only one fairy tale to compare it with Wolf and Seven Goats, this would be Little Red Riding Hood. The scene of opening the body to bring back to life something is supposed to be already dead is so strong, we really don't have a better alternative. And the punishment with stones only confirms our decision.
So here we are, it is obvious many popular fairy tales have the same basic elements...
Which element you find most necessary for a classic fairy tale?
But are they all echoes of this particular fairy tale, or is Wolf and Seven Little Kids the mix of their parts?
Your thoughts on origins of fairy tales
Can Wolf and Seven Goats serve as a model for a Fairy tale of all fairy tales? Can we say The Wolf and Seven Goats is oldest, and all others copied from this source?
Wolves and Werewolves have many things in common
1. For mileniums wolves were most dangerous predators to people in many different parts of the world. They caused fear but also respect. There were numerous superstitions connected with them.
2. Authorities all over the world sistematically destroyed wolves for centuries. In Wales they were exterminated with a tax which had to be paid in wolves skins, in France king founded special wolf hunting units, US government had special wolf eradication program for Western states and so on.
3. Wolves were in many countries first animals added on the list of endangered species.
4. In Medieval Europe people guilty of some crimes were often outcasted from community and expelled to the woods. Many of them lived in the wild for many years and occasionally attacked people out of villages. They were named werewolves ('were' is old English word for 'man').
5. Wolves were extermimated in England in 16 th, in Ireland and Denmark in 18 th, in Germany in 19 th and in France in 20 th century. All these countries have a long history of werewolves.
Let's go back to the origins of Wolf and Seven Little Goats
Documents clearly show this fairy tales was known way before most of other above mentinoned fairy tales.
Poems, fables and tales about wolf trying to enter the house with he kids without protection were written in 16 century and probably in oral tradition many centuries before that. This seems logic, because, as you can see, in many parts of the Europe when this version of Wolf and Seven Kids was printed, wolves were not living anymore.
Of course seven goats were for in some versions only six or even three goats. And they were not necessary goats. I have found a version with six goslings. Sometimes wolf is not loaded with stones, but in the end he turns into stone. And the wolf was not necessary a wolf, it can be an evil ghost too. By the way: stones work great against ghost, because they make a ghost so heavy he falls down.
Why we still need a Wolf, if he is almost extinct animal?
Wolf carries strong symbolic power.
In this and many other fairy tales he represents the aggressive, predatory part of human nature.
Wolf is actually a father of children in trouble. Not the protective, good father, as we can see in miller who was forced to help him get in disguise, but angry, dangerous father...
Wolf doesn't only represent danger which should be avoided (as Mother Goat clearly stated).
He is the danger which should be soon or later (in fairy tales this is often in third attempt) confronted and defeated.
So it is not enough to keep the door closed, the beast should be killed!
Father as a role model
Psychology can quite simply explain the situation: almost everybody on some point in life has a father for a role model.
We should not only aim to achieve what father already have done, we should do better!
In other words: we have to defeat father's knowledge, power and authority if we want to grow up... As I have already said so many times: fairy tales are all about growing up.
Why can we be so sure the wolf represents a father in this particular fairy tale?
This is one of rare clear cases where we can open old books and easily find a proof for this theory. Let's dig into Greek mythology for a moment!
The myth about Cronus (also Kronos, but not Chronus!) - Very short summary:
Cronus was a son of Uranus (sky) and Gaia (earth). He became the ruler with overthrowing his father (I will not go into bloody details, let's just say he is often portrayed with sickle) but was predicted his son will do the same to him.
These sorts of predictions are pretty common in fairy tales too. Remember Sleeping Beauty? King tried everything to prevent predicted event, but nothing helped. With Cronos was the same.
He ate all his children right after they were born. Well, actually he ate first five of them. The sixth was hidden by Cronus's wife (and sister, by the way) Rhea. Instead of a child she gave to Cronus a stone wrapped in some clothes. Remember? We have stones in Red Cap, Wolf and Seven Goats (or Six Kids - there is a version with number six and Cronus had six kids too) and there are stones as important objects in many other fairy tales.
O.k., back to the myth. Cronus' sixth kid was Zeus and he eventually defeated his father. He cut his stomach (!!!) and rescued his syblings (!!!).
Can we say Wolf and Seven Kids is actually a two thousand years old rewritten myth of Cronus (Kronos)?
Fairy tale about Wolf and the Kids is really old myth retold
Can we say all fairy tales are some kind of echoes of old myths?
Brothers Grimm believed exactly that.
But they were wrong.
The myth about Brunhilde has many similarities with Sleeping Beauty - Illustration by Arthur Rackham
Many modern (few hundred years more or less) fairy tales have certainly many basic elements the same as old myths, but there is one problem.
One really tiny, tiny problem.
You see, mythology, as old it is, always have some sort of hierarchy. We don't have a hero and an enemy, we have whole generations of heroes and their enemies. We don't have a god, we have hundreds of gods and supernatural creatures with very complex hierarchy. We have worlds with interesting history, ideology, many specific details which can't be found in fairy tales.
Fairy tales are less complicated. They are more primitive and they are dealing with more basic problems than myths. Most scholars agree fairy tales didn't evolve from myths neither myths evolved from fairy tales.
They both probably have common ancestor and we don't know how we should call it.
Maybe we should stop back and look at myths and fairy tales and try to find out what they have in common. It seems they both talk about transformations and there can also be found always popular fight between good and evil.
Why brothers Grimm didn't like The Sleeping Beauty at first?
When were Jacob and Wilhelm writing their famous collection, they hesitated to include the fairy tale about Sleeping Beauty (they titled it Briar Rose) because there was no evidence it belongs to German cultural heritage.
And they were writing their collection of fairy tales mainly for this reason.
Grimms knew the versions from Italy and France, but didn't find any in German speaking parts of Europe. But the have found a story in Norse Mythology, where Brunnhilde, a brave warrior made a mistake.
It was typical mistake for myths. She made a wrong decision and was punished by god Odin. She had to sleep surrounded by fire until a man, brave enough rescues her.
Pretty similar to Sleeping Beauty, surrounded by thorns, waiting for the right man for her, right?
What do mythologists see in Wolf and Seven Little Kids?
We have already explained what a psychologist see - fight between father and child.
Mythologist sees something else. He sees rebirth of the sun.
I have already explained that in lens about Little Red Riding Hood, so I will only give a short summary.
Wolf represents dark powers, clouds, night, death. Kids represent sun, light, life.
Our ancestors were very concerned about changes in nature. They noticed the periods of light, warmth and sun are closely connected with abundance and happiness.
Than comes darkness, cold, starvation and fear.
In many mythologies darkness starts right after the wolf (in some cases wolves) eats the sun. They noticed the sun always looses its beneficial powers but they also noticed this powers always come back.
The sun will always rise!
Can we say we found a common ancestor to myths and fairy tales?
This is not enough for scientific proof to say where and when the history of fairy tales started, but we certainly found something else. We can say why we need fairy tales.
On some level we obviously need to be soothed. We need to know although we don't understand.
I would like to end our little search with a quote from one of my chemistry professors.
He said once: "I don't really care why in this reaction this molecule is produced. The reason could be energetic levels of all participants or God's will. I just need to be sure this reaction will produce the same product again and again."
We all need to know the sun will rise again!
Here is the list of my resources.
I used only Public Domain images and every source can be seen with simple scrolling with a mouse over the image. Illustrations for the fairy tale Wolf and Seven Kids are available through the links presented here:
- Grimm's Fairy Tales illustrated by Paul Meyerheim
This book is written in German, but if you don't understand the language, you can still enjoy the beautiful illustrations in colors. I used one of them in intro.
- Fairy Tales by brothers Grimm rewritten
This collection of fairy tales is rewritten and officially called Grimm's fairy tales : retold in one-syllable words. It was published in 1899 and is in Public Domain. I took four illustrations by Richard Andre (Wolf and Six Kids) from here.
- Relations between myths and fairy tales
Interesting post about connections between mythology and folklore. Which came first? Myth or fairy tale? We'll probably never know, but can still have fun exploring!