The poem is drawn from the story of Little Red Riding Hood. It originated in ancient stories from Asia, but the version we know was shaped in medieval rural France. It spread across Europe and has a number of variations, although the presence of the little girl [not always in red], the Wolf and the grandmother are constant.
It is about growing up and the dangers of either ‘straying from the path’ or behaving in an unsuitable way with ‘wolves’. In the earlier stories it is notable that the girl rescues herself by outwitting the wolf and getting the help of other women, whereas in the later versions she is rescued by a woodcutter. Modern writers are giving Red Riding Hood back her ‘feisty’ nature.
Little Red-Cap is a sexual and revolutionary symbol. Red is the colour of passion and of blood which is associated with menstruation and therefore with sexual maturity. In the French Revolution, the revolutionaries wore red caps as a sign of their allegiance and paintings of the time show them led, symbolically, by a bare breasted woman wearing ‘the cap of liberty’ and carrying the tricolour.
Duffy uses both of these ideas within her poem, which is partly autobiographical. When she was sixteen she met the poet Adrian Henri at a poetry reading. He was 23 years older than her, but she went to Liverpool University to be with him, and their relationship lasted for ten years.
The poem begins as a metaphorical journey through life represented by "playing fields, the factory, allotments, representing childhood, working life and retirement. The path offers different possibilities at either side, with "the silent railway line" which once offered escape and "the hermit’s caravan" as an alternative to "the kneeling married men" who keep their allotments as others keep mistresses [and which are just as demanding]. The path leads to the woods, which symbolise the unknown – the future, sex, maturity etc. and, in the tradition of the story "It was there that I first clapped eyes on the wolf."
The wolf is a poet and a representative of the male–dominated literary world. He is giving a poetry reading and is described in phrases that are linked by the rhymes of "drawl / paw / jaw". He has "red wine staining his bearded jaw" – the colour of passion and the suggestion of a blood-stained mouth. To the girl he seems larger than life, expressed in a joking reference to the famous lines, "What big ears he had! What big eyes he had! What teeth!" Readers will be aware of the sequel to these which end with Red Riding Hood being gobbled up. Here, however, it is the girl who makes a move on the wolf.
"In the interval, I made quite sure he spotted me
sweet sixteen, never been, babe, waif …"
He buys her first drink, starting the ritual seduction process. She addresses the question in the reader’s mind by telling them why, in one simple word –…