Last Thursday I went for a short hike near Tiger Mountain with Jeff and his brother. It was early evening, most of the hikers and mountain bikers had departed, and the sun was just touching the tops of the trees, leaving most of the forest in shadow. At the trail-head, where tips about avoiding bears and hauling out garbage are usually pinned, there was a wanted poster.
On April 24th a female employee of the Department of Natural Resources was working alone on the trail and was approached by a white male in running attire. He engaged her in conversation, and when she turned her back for a moment, he shocked her with a taser and and pushed her to the ground. The woman was strong enough or lucky enough to fight off her attacker and was able to run back down the trail to the safety of her co-workers. The wanted poster warned us that the assailant had not been caught, that he was 40ish, average height, average build, and neat in appearance. In other words, he was no slavering maniac that could be registered as 'evil' on sight, he was completely ordinary and rather nondescript as most human predators seem to be.
Needless to say, after seeing the poster I couldn't quite manage to enjoy our hike. The shadows seemed too deep, the forest smell of moisture and decay was too ominous, too suggestive. It was as if I was viewing the negative of a color photograph, where all the tones are reversed and a scene of utter banality becomes mysterious, dangerous, and full of portent. I kept thinking about how far we were from help and how many others might have encountered beasts on that mountain and had not escaped, had not found help, had never themselves been found at all.
Even days afterwards I was troubled by this and I finally realized that the incident had so lodged in my mind because it was so terribly iconic. A young woman, alone in the forest, attacked by a monster who at first glance did not appear to be one. Its a story that we are all familiar with, that has been fed to us from infancy; the fairy tale of Little Red Riding Hood. A girl leaves the safety of the path and faces death in the form of a charismatic wolf. The metaphor appears obvious, an inexperienced female disobeys the rules that (male)society has set up to protect her, is tricked into trusting a creature that we, the far more knowledgeable readers, know to be evil, is devoured (one cannot help but see the sexual connotations here), and is then 'saved' (or not, depending on which version your grandmother told you) by a virtuous man. Its enough to put any feminist into a tizzy.
But read some of the older versions of the legend, or Angela Carter's wonderful modern retelling and the story transforms. Little Red Riding Hood is no fool, she left the path out of curiosity, not ignorance and she immediately suspects that the charming character she meets is but a facade. In the end the wolf is conquered or tamed and the girl loses her innocence, not her life.
I believe this story is so appealing to us because we have all experienced our own dark forests, whether they be in the mountains, in the city, or only in the depths of our minds. There are monsters there, but if we have the courage we can recognize them for what they are and avoid becoming their victims. The woman on Tiger Mountain was not swallowed by the beast, she escaped. She will never see the woods as a safe and familiar place again, but she will now enter them with awareness, as hopefully will I.
A wonderful take on the Legend where Little Red appears perfectly capable of facing her wolf.