A school of criminological thought proposes that the Big Bad Wolf, along with a host of other fairy tale characters and images, is representative of German common law during the Middle Ages (c. 700-1500 C.E.), in this case the outlaw, or exiled criminal.
During this time, documented law was scarce. The Germans really weren't ones for writing things down for much of this period, and very little of what they did write down has survived for modern study. Thus, criminologists like Gerhard O. W. Mueller have merged cultural history and literary interpetation in a method that analyses German fairy tales for cultural symbols and identifiers that correspond with what little legal history exists during this period, in order to fill out the bigger picture of law and criminality in Medieval Germany, as well as other nations where folk literature was prevalent, including England, France and Scandanavia.
Gerhard argues that the 'living law,' as received by the people, was transmitted through a cultural medium, what he calls the Volksgeist (spirit of the people); and not through what is traditionally viewed as positive law (decrees, writs, mandates, and other legal documentation). For one thing, lawyers didn't emerge in Germany as a valid class or profession in Europe until the later Middle Ages. Before this point, German law was heavily dependent on the Leges Barbarorum, or Latin Language codes. Considering estimated literacy among the European population at this time, it is much more like that law applied at the local level was "transmitted from generation to generation among nonlawyers (law receivers, rather than law-givers) in the German tongue."
How does this relate to the Wolf? A dominant method of punishment as recorded in the Leges Barbarorum was "banishment from the community to the dreaded forest, there to be devoured by wild beasts, to perish, or to become on of the wild beasts...or to be hunted and killed." Evidence also indicates that outlaws did seek refuge in the forest to escape the king's soldiers or peasant vigilantism. Some sources even refer to the outlaw using the term würgen, or "one who jumps at the throat." The Wolf in "Little Red Riding Hood," then, is starting to look suspiciously like a symbol for the outlaw, who would have stalked the forests, near-starving, preying off of innocent peasant passerbys, "laden with cake and wine." Some other symbols in the same stories that have been investigated by Mueller and others: the Road (trading routes), the Wood (rural areas, ungoverned), Grandma's cottage (foreign lands), and the Hunter (vigilante activity, such as the Vehmgericht).
I recently wrote a full length paper on this, and was very interested in the subject as a potential lawyer who is also torn by a love of literature and creative writing. This is the hyper-summated version, if anyone has any questions or suggestions for additions, I am happy to comply.
- Mannheim, Ralph. "Little Red Cap." Grimm's Fairytales for Young and Old. Ney York: Doubleday, 1991.
- Mueller, Gerhard O. W. "The Criminological Significance of Grimm's Tales." Fairy Tales and Society. Ruth B. Bottigheimer, Trans. Philidelphia: University of PEnnsylvania Press, 1986.