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Postmodern Retellings 102: Gillian Cross’s Wolf


Postmodern Retellings 101 focused on modern interpretations of fairy tales that dated from the 1960s or the 1970s. Anne Sexton, Margaret Atwood and Angela Carter were some of the first authors to tackle this task and ended up developing a great legacy for the new writers to come. As time passed, philosopher Jacques Derrida’s 'deconstruction' remained the main focal point and gender studies surrounding the role of women in society continued to influence greatly. Nevertheless, new retellings started focusing on other motifs or themes in addition to developing new narrative strategies. The boundaries between genders are blurred and the mythopoeic qualities of the original tales are challenged. The meta-folklore is necessary to raise awareness about previous readings of fairy tales and provide the original characters with a voice of their own. Thus, this series will focus on retellings from the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s.

This series will be divided as follows:

  1. Postmodern Retellings 102: Deconstruction in Fairy Tales

  2. Postmodern Retellings 102: Yumiko Kurahashi’s A Mermaid’s Tears

  3. Postmodern Retellings 102: Jeanette Winterson’s The Twelve Dancing Princesses

  4. Postmodern Retellings 102: Gillian Cross’s Wolf

  5. Postmodern Retellings 102: Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose

  6. Postmodern Retellings 102: Michael Cunningham’s A Wild Swan

Postmodern Retellings 102: Gillian Cross’s Wolf

Fairy-tale retellings have been keen on subverting gender expectations, but they have ignored other well-fixed stereotypes, such as elderliness. When it comes to age, scholarly discussions have been much less efficient in addressing how fairy tales can define a child’s outlook on this topic. Nevertheless, Gillian Cross, a popular British author of children’s books, wrote Wolf (1998), a re-telling of Little Red Riding Hood, where she takes a critical stance toward the traditional archetype of the weak and gentle grandmother. By creating a complex dramatis personae, Cross compares the character of the grandmother to the wolf and gives prominence to characters traditionally relegated to the background.

Recent revision of scholars (Henneberg, Joosen and Katz) from gender and literary studies has come to the conclusion that second-wave feminists favored middle-class, heterosexual and white views. Nevertheless, critics (Gullette, McGuire) who belong to intersectional approaches argue that gender must not be separated from other social and biological circumstances, such as social class, sexual orientation or age (Joosen, 2021). The latter has gained widespread attention during the last decades due to the expansion of critical gerontology and age studies which showcase “what it means to grow older” (Katz 2014, p. 20). Thus, more literary scholars have approached their work in a multidisciplinary manner by including the age factor in their analysis (Joosen, 2021). For instance, the critic Sylvia B. Henneberg , considers that fairy tales distort children’s view of elderliness since older people are seen as weak individuals which reinforces “the distance between generations” and creates a “destructive gulf in which ageism and sexism freely reinforce and confirm each other, virtually unnoticed and unchecked”(2010, p. 126). This is profoundly linked to a major trend of thinking in Western society where prejudices about age are absolutely accepted in contrast to other misconceptions which are met with critical discussion. For example, according to Kat, “women’s studies, race/ethnic studies, postcolonial studies, and LGBT studies have become transformed into exciting educational programs” (2014, p. 21) whereas age studies have still to be recognized and critically acclaimed. Hence, Henneberg (2010) affirms that fairy tales and literary scholarship, in general, need an intersectional approach including identity factors, such as age, which become an essential element of the text’s interpretation.

Figure 1. Youth and Old Age Meet Near a Church. Anonymous. 19th century.

Gillian Cross’s Wolf is set in London at the time of the nationalist conflict in Northern Ireland. The main character is Cassy, a thirteen-year-old girl living with her grandmother Nan. One day, she is sent to move in with her hippy mother, Goldie, who has an alternative lifestyle and a new lover. Despite having already lived with her mother, Cassy realizes that this time is quite different because she is ordered to go on her own while her grandmother would always take her to the house. This time not only does Cassy have to go by herself, but she is also asked to carry a rare substance within the shopping bag which is analog to Red Riding Hood’s basket. As the plot unfolds, Cassy discovers that she is carrying an explosive belonging to her father, an IRA terrorist, who needs it to embark upon his next mission. He has even gone as further as to kidnap his mother and use her to recover the explosives (Jooser, 2021).

Wolf is a postmodern re-telling of Little Red Riding Hood since it commits to deeply exploring the fixed characters from the source: the girl, the grandmother or the wolf (Jooser, 2021). Wilkie-Stibbs argues that “the main character, Cassy, is encoded in the narrative as the archetypal, fragmented subject of postmodernism” (2002, p. 133), since she is ultimately the center of the scholarly analysis of the book. However, not only does Cross rewrite Cassy, but also her mother and grandmother which echoes Henneberg’s study. When it comes to the latter, Cross does not reproduce the archetype of the ill and weak old woman but rather rewrites her as a witty and spontaneous person. For example, when Cassy’s father knocks on the door, the grandmother hurries out to open it but does not run because “nurses never run, except for fire or haemorrhage” (Cross, 1998, p. 1.). Unlike most old people in literature, the grandmother can indeed run but she chooses not to do it. Therefore, she dismantles the convention that senescence prevents people from performing normal physical abilities and, not only that, but she still refers to her persona as a professional, that is, as a nurse. Nan has not forgotten her past and one of the most important identity markers, her job. In this way, Cross playfully subverts the stereotypes surrounding old women because, from the first scene, the grandmother can be described as an energetic and lively woman (Joosen, 2021).

Figure 2. Allegory of Youth and Old Age. 1615. Angelo Caroselli.

Fairy tales promote the isolation of older people, especially women, and Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother has been one of the most studied characters regarding this phenomenon which is constituted by three different well-fixed archetypes: firstly, the evil witch; secondly, the wiser tutor and, finally, the “ineffectual or demented grannies” (Henneberg, 2010, p. 126). Therefore, if young women are portrayed negatively in fairy tales, older female characters are wicked, secondary or non-existent due to their lack of importance. Literary scholar Marina Warner (1994), states that older women had a much more important role as storytellers than as characters from the narration. In particular, Mother Goose was a fictitious narrator primarily created by Charles Perrault to tell his stories. According to Classen (2007), the imagery of grandparents and grandchildren sharing stories has been heavily romanticized, as it was the place reserved for them in the world outside of economic, social or political issues. However, Perrault’s Mother Goose was not unaffected by prejudices toward her kind since she was depicted as an illiterate and foolish woman (Warner, 2014).

In this case, Red Riding Hood’s grandmother belongs to the third archetype of old women, that is, the disposable kind which has been a widespread trope for centuries. This model represents a vulnerable, isolated and fragile woman which only stresses the intergenerational gap. Even though in the original story from the Grimm brothers the girl and the grandmother work together to fight against a second wolf and, ultimately, succeed in their plans, this scene remains one of the most largely forgotten and ignored from the tale. As time passed, the fairy tale was adapted, rewritten and anthologized which resulted in erasing this passage (Henneberg, 2010). For Joosen , this erasure was not coincidental and, in fact, “can be considered as an example of wider-spread cultural practices that have marginalized old age in children’s literature”(2021, p. 176). Hence, some categorizations of shortcomings in fairy tales have been carried out which adverts of the alarming scarcity of older people and depictions of “aging as a natural process” (McGuire, 1993, p. 205).

Figure 3. Illustration Of Old Mother Goose. Constance Haslewood. 1890.

In contrast to traditional portrayals, Cross’s grandmother is a practical and down-to-earth woman which differs from the female storyteller or the fragile old woman. Nan subverts the stereotype of the caring grandmother who is recognized by their sweet demeanor and their needlework (Pinsent, 2001). Even when Nan tells Cassy the tale of Little Red Riding Hood, the granddaughter starts making questions about the end of the tale and the grandmother answers assertively: “That’s enough!” (Cross, 1998, p. 201). Thus, Nan does not engage in the archetype of the “ineffectual crone” since she is a woman in control of her situation and does not get carried away easily (Henneberg, 2010, p. 216). This is reinforced by the motto which precedes the opening chapter:

Of course, Cassy never dreams, Nan always said. She has more sense, to be sure. Her head touches the pillow and she’s off, just like any other sensible person. There’s been no trouble with dreams, not since she was a baby (Cross, 1998, p. VI).

Nan can be seen as a pragmatic individual who does not believe in dreams or other kinds of imaginary scenarios. Her pragmatism is revealed and stressed using the words sense and sensible which are used to describe a realist person. Nevertheless, Cross’s grandmother possesses negative nuances since her opinion seems to be an absolute statement and, therefore, she does not seem open to engaging in a conversation. Nan affirms that her granddaughter never dreams if their thoughts were not objectionable (Joosen, 2021). However, not only is Nan practical, but she is also controlling and a careful conspirer which is revealed when she refuses to go with Cassy to her mother’s house because of her health: “I don’t want to be running around on trains. Not in my state of health” (Cross, 1998, p. 6). The grandmother benefits from prejudices against her age to send Cassy away and, in the meanwhile, get rid of the explosives that her son has brought into the house. In this way, age is also perceived as a cultural construct defined by a wide range of obligations and expectations. Gullette affirms that there is a “cultural construction of decline.” (2011, p. 43) involving a large number of social suppositions which make people feel like a “burden”. In this way, age can be performative and social roles are defined by beliefs rather than reality which makes Nan use social norms in her favor.

Figure 4. Grandmother Knits. David Simpson Foggie. 1943.

Nonetheless, Nan’s cunning and deceptive side has a major disadvantage since these features have traditionally been linked to the wolf of Little Red Riding Hood. This is directly linked to the title of the re-telling, Wolf, which encourages the reader to find the analog of the traditional villain in the modern story. As the plot unfolds, several characters seem to have menacing traits and, hence, they could be a source of distress for Cassy (Becket, 2002). The intertextual relationship between the re-telling and the source helps the author to playfully confuse the readers. Cassy’s father could be the true wolf, but the grandmother is the one that has more qualities in common with the wolf (Joosen, 2021). For instance, at the beginning of the story, Cassy is about to open the door of the room where her father is hidden, but she cannot do it because “she could see Nan watching her” (Cross, 1998, p. 5). This resembles a predator which observes its prey which is reinforced by the grandmother’s demeanor: “She was sitting back on her heels with her hands in her lap, looking at Gassy with narrowed eyes.” (Cross, 1998, p.5).

In Wolf, the grandmother goes through the same process of the wolf from the tale, but the on the other way around. Hence, the latter adopts the traits of the grandmother to deceive Red Riding Hood and Nan assumes the ones from the wolf in the retelling (Joosen, 2021). Cassy remembers parts of her childhood where both her grandmother and her father adopted threatening and predating features. Nan had “neat, white false teeth” and her father had a “wide open mouth — like Nan's, but with stained, irregular teeth. Real teeth.” (Cross, 1998, p. 195). These memories produce a great reaction of fear in Cassy who feels threatened: “Oh, Grandmother, what big teeth…” (Cross, 1998, p. 195).

Figure 5. Oxford's Cover for Wolf. 1998.

In conclusion, Gillian Cross masterfully rewrites the character of the grandmother from Little Riding Hood and, by doing so, creates a sharp and complex dramatis personae. The author performs an innovative revision of age roles which gives relevance to traditionally minor characters and dismantles “the stereotype of the wolf that pervades children’s literature” (Becket, 2002, p. 306). Thus, she sets an experimental approach to age prejudices in literature which establishes a groundwork in which elderlies can “have a viable place even beyond family ties” and “transgenerational exchange is alive” (Henneberg, 2010, p. 133).

Bibliographical References

Beckett, S. L. (2002). Recycling Red Riding Hood. New York: Routledge.

Classen, A. (Ed.). (2007). Old age in the middle ages and the renaissance: Interdisciplinary approaches to a neglected topic. Boston: De Gruyter, Inc..

Cross, G. (1998). Wolf. New York: Scholastic.

Gullette, M. M (2011). Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Henneberg, S. (2009). Moms do badly, but grandmas do worse: The nexus of sexism and ageism in children’s classics. Journal of Aging Studies, 24(2), 125–134.

Joosen, V. (2021). Rewriting the Grandmother’s Story: Old Age in “Little Red Riding Hood” and Gillian Cross’ Wolf. Fabula: Zeitschrift Für Erzählforschung/Journal of Folktale Studies/Revue d’Etudes Sur Le Conte Populaire, 62(1–2), 172–184.

Katz, S. (2014). What Is Age Studies? Age, Culture, Humanities: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 1, pp. 17–23. doi: 10.7146/ageculturehumanities.v1i.129947.

McGuire, S. L. (1993). Promoting positive attitudes toward aging: Literature for young children. Childhood Education, 69(4), 204 - 210. Retrieved from

Warner, M. (1994). From the Beast to the Blonde. London: Vintage.

Wilkie-Stibbs, C. (2002). The Feminine Subject in Children’s Literature. New York: Routledge.

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Very interesting article! Wide range of sources give a great structure and foundation to this well-written analysis. I'm now curious to read the novel being able to identify all the keys points and differences highlighted in this article.


It was really interesting to read about the transformation of the elder role in Cross' novel. Well done!

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Ana Isabel Bugeda Díaz

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