Little Red Riding Hood is one of the best-known fairy tales of all time. Its most famous iteration was written by French author Charles Perrault in 1697, but few people know the original story. The narrative can be traced back to European folk tales from the 10th century, which was then passed on through generations of families in the French countryside, long before Perrault, Brothers Grimm, Walt Disney or Angela Carter appropriated it. The tale and its female heroine have been subjected to countless adaptations to suit the intention of each storyteller, whether it be a cautionary tale, or one of female initiative and independence.
Nadja Ellinger, a recent graduate from the MA in photography at the Royal College of Art, London, is interested in how fairy tales, and specifically the female characters in them, have been adapted through history. “In one of the earliest tales [of Little Red Riding Hood], you have a trickster heroine who out-smarts the wolf,” she says, “then, in the 17th century, Perrault rewrote her as a naive little girl that needed to be careful about her sexuality.” The Grimms’ 1812 publication is a lesson in law and order, and Carter’s 1979 novel, The Bloody Chamber, adopts elements of the story to speak about female sexuality and coming-of-age. “I don’t think it’s possible to tell a story without having an ideology,” Ellinger says. “That’s the fascinating part of it, it’s very fluid.”
Path of Pins is Ellinger’s visual interpretation of Little Red Riding Hood. “It’s just a tiny part of this larger process of retelling, but I want to show people that there is more than one variation of the fairy tale,” she explains. We all watched the Disney version, and may have read the Grimm, Perrault or Carter stories, “but we might not be aware that we can rewrite it too,” says Ellinger. “We don’t have to be determined by these female figures of the past.”
One of the key metaphors that Ellinger explores, and which titled her project, is the symbol of sewing. Sewing is traditionally seen as a feminine activity, and motifs of it recur in many fairy tales, such as Sleeping Beauty, The Six Swans and Little Red Riding Hood. In one of the earliest surviving renditions of Little Red Riding Hood, the cunning wolf asks the young girl: “Will you take the path of pins, or the path of needles?” The girl takes the path of pins, which Ellinger interprets as “the path which is not fixed”. The wolf takes the path of needles, and the girl escapes a cruel fate.
How can we evade destiny, and how can we find our own path? These are the questions that Ellinger wants to propose through her interpretation of this tale. “It’s about identity and belonging, which is connected to finding your own path, and where you want to go,” she says.