At childhood’s end, the houses petered out
into playing fields, the factory, allotments
kept, like mistresses, by kneeling married men,
the silent railway line, the hermit’s caravan,
till you came at last to the edge of the woods.
It was there that I first clapped eyes on the wolf.
He stood in a clearing, reading his verse out loud
in his wolfy drawl, a paperback in his hairy paw,
red wine staining his bearded jaw. What big ears
he had! What big eyes he had! What teeth!
In the interval, I made quite sure he spotted me,
sweet sixteen, never been, babe, waif, and bought me a drink,
my first. You might ask why. Here’s why. Poetry.
The wolf, I knew, would lead me deep into the woods,
away from home, to a dark tangled thorny place
lit by the eyes of owls. I crawled in his wake,
my stockings ripped to shreds, scraps of red from my blazer
snagged on twig and branch, murder clues. I lost both shoes
but got there, wolf’s lair, better beware. Lesson one that night,
breath of the wolf in my ear, was the love poem.
I clung till dawn to his thrashing fur, for
what little girl doesn’t dearly love a wolf?1
Then I slid from between his heavy matted paws
and went in search of a living bird – white dove –
which flew, straight, from my hands to his hope mouth.
One bite, dead. How nice, breakfast in bed, he said,
licking his chops. As soon as he slept, I crept to the back
of the lair, where a whole wall was crimson, gold, aglow with books.
Words, words were truly alive on the tongue, in the head,
warm, beating, frantic, winged; music and blood.
But then I was young – and it took ten years
in the woods to tell that a mushroom
stoppers the mouth of a buried corpse, that birds
are the uttered thought of trees, that a greying wolf
howls the same old song at the moon, year in, year out,
season after season, same rhyme, same reason. I took an axe
to a willow to see how it wept. I took an axe to a salmon
to see how it leapt. I took an axe to the wolf
as he slept, one chop, scrotum to throat, and saw
the glistening, virgin white of my grandmother’s bones.
I filled his old belly with stones. I stitched him up.
Out of the forest I come with my flowers, singing, all alone.
Carol Ann Duffy 1999
1see Sylvia Plath, “Daddy,” line 48, “Every woman adores a fascist”
I guess that I had never really thought about the archetypal significance of fairy tales, though I now can’t think why not. Often, the simplest stories hold some of the greatest truths, and the ones that stay on the cultural radar like Little Red-Cap (the original British title for Little Red Riding Hood) do so because they continue to hold relevance. This incarnation points out that Little Red-Cap is a story of childhood’s end, the transition from innocence to experience. Duffy’s poem is a riff on a theme appearing in texts from the Bible to the Little Prince, and a particularly firey one at that.
Rather than ruminating about the now-grown-up girl or nostalgically sighing about lost childhood, “Little Red-Cap” throws us full-force into the heady whirlwind of adolescence. Finding love, sex, passion, independence, darkness, and poetry is so consuming that it replaces the traps of nostalgia. This poem hands us a girl ready to throw her child-self into the fire of experience and march into the woods alone.
Indeed, the poem begins “At childhood’s end,” almost the name of a physical place. Here, the landscape itself points towards a more aware, dangerous, sexual world. “The houses [peter] out / into playing fields,” perhaps symbolizing the gradual diminishment of childhood securities, and garden plots, gesturing at sexuality, are “kept, like mistresses, by kneeling married men.” As Little Red-Cap walks to the edges of this land, her surroundings stretch vast and bade, the only inhabitants a forsaken rail line and a hermit. Childhood seems empty, at its end.
Enter the wolf. She claps eyes on him, and her world shifts. The word “clap” recalls a thunder-clap, foreshadowing the coming tempest. He is alluring, rugged, adult, and exotic. His language is different, his paws are rough, and his chin bears a forbidden sign of adulthood: wine. In every way, we can imagine, he is different from the soft, safe world of childhood. Unfamiliar and magnetic. She registers his eyes, teeth, and ears again, but, rather than frightening, they are seductive. His eyes can watch her, his ears can hear her, and his teeth, well, we’ll leave that to the imagination.
Thus, rather than being tricked by the wolf, per the original tale, Little Red-Cap seeks him out, choosing to grow up. This is a ritual most girls (and I imagine many guys) will recognize: parading oneself, making oneself noticed, inhabiting that exhilarating vision of the self as attractive, “sweet sixteen, never been, babe, waif.” And so he buys her a drink, her first.
She then feels the need to justify herself, saying, “You might ask why. Here’s why. Poetry.” This line is tremendously important. Rhetorically, it rehearses a compressed internal rhyme. These patches of simple rhyme appearing throughout the poem perhaps reveal Little Red-Cap’s final vestiges of childhood rearing their head and maintain the consciousness that this was (at one time) a children’s tale. Then, too, it is crucial that poetry is the reason she chooses experience. Not the wolf, but an idea, a thought-structure, a compressed arrangement of words. Thus, we may meditate on what this reveals about experience. Perhaps she, like me (and perhaps you), finds poetry to be the passion of her life. I think that the answer is not so literal, though. Poetry's richness and challenge and mystery were perhaps alluring, or its individuality, or its energy. Perhaps becoming an adult is poetic, beautiful.
That she acknowledges the reason for becoming an adult shows that she accepts it is *her* choice. This choice is not lightly made, either. The next several lines demonstrate her acceptance of the darkness in the change, the difficulty changing.
After all, Little Red-Cap is a tale for children, so folding an allegory for growing-up into a traditional kid’s structure is somewhat genius.