In my previous post about ‘Little Red Riding Hood,’ I looked at versions of the tale by Charles Perrault and the Grimm Brothers and how it was used as a tale of warning. However, in more modern retellings, different aspects of the story become apparent.
Angela Carter’s anthology of short stories based on fairy tales, The Bloody Chamber, was published in 1979 and caused great controversy around the topic of feminism. In this article, Carter stated that her intention ‘was not to do ‘versions’ or, as the American edition of the book said, horribly, ‘adult’ fairy tales, but to extract the latent content from the traditional stories and to use it as the beginnings of new stories.’ With this is mind, when reading her two stories inspired by Little Red Riding Hood it is clear that she took some very specific content from this tale. According to Carter, there is still much it can teach us. Instead of a tale of warning, she has made it into a tale of transformation. The content she took from Little Red Riding Hood is awareness; more specifically adolescent and sexual awareness.
Read it here.
At the beginning of this story, before any characters are introduced, readers are told about the harsh lifestyle of the ‘northern country.’ Here ‘the Devil holds picnics in the graveyards and invites the witches’ and ‘wreaths of garlic on the doors keep out vampires.’ Carter impresses upon readers that superstition is prominent in this place. This prepares them for the coming tale and makes it seem more feasible, given the peculiar setting.
The Red Riding Hood character is sent to her grandmother’s house with food as per, only when she encounters the wolf, who tries to kill her instantly, she attacks it with a knife and hacks off one of its paws. Clearly she is not the standard, innocent child of Perrault’s and the Grimm’s versions. The passive female image does not apply to her.
At the end when she discovers the wolf is actually grandmother in disguise, the grandmother is killed by the villagers. The previously mentioned superstitions foreshadow this, making the ending rather sinister. Is the grandmother actually a werewolf, or is she just a victim of superstition and paranoia? Her death is irrevocable; there is no woodcutter to rescue her. So despite Red Riding Hood surviving and happily moving into grandmother’s old house, the ending isn’t completely joyful.
Another way to read it is that because the girl is an active protagonist and goes against the idea of what females should be, she doesn’t fit into society. Therefore, she ‘prospered’ living out in the forest where she could live on her own terms. Maybe superstition provided her with a motive to get rid of grandmother, allowing her to take charge of her own life.
The Company of Wolves
Read it here.
This story contains another active protagonist, although of a different kind to the one seen in ‘The Werewolf.’ This girl’s power comes from seduction. She is calm, confident, and in control. From the moment she meets the wolf, she is wise to his game and freely begins to play it. When he bets her a kiss that he will make it to grandmother’s house before her she purposely dawdles, wanting him to win. Of course he does, and when she enters the house she shows no fear or grief over her dead grandmother. Like in ‘The Werewolf,’ the grandmother’s death is symbolic of the girl moving out of childhood, where she is watched over by her elders, and becoming her own person.
Showing no grief for grandmother is also a defence mechanism for survival. Grief would be of no use to her, so she doesn’t indulge in it. Instead, she sedately removes her clothes, implying that she is thrilled by the danger she is in. This is furthered by her undressing the wolf-man. She embraces the sexual experience, conveying the message that you shouldn’t be afraid of sexuality. Her laughter is the twist, the moment of realisation. The wolf-man says he wants to eat her, but ‘she knew she was nobody’s meat.’ Is is then apparent that she has been playing with him all along, revealing her to be cunning.
Like in ‘The Werewolf,’ the ending to ‘The Company of Wolves’ is ambiguous and slightly unnerving. No woodcutter comes to save the grandmother, and the girl sleeps ‘sweet and sound’ with the wolf-man after picking out the lice from his hair and eating them. That last part isn’t exactly normal human behaviour, and by doing it the girl becomes somewhat animalistic. She has undergone a transformation. By the end of the story she has engaged in sexual activity and obtained bestial qualities in order to save herself. Instead Carter could have made the wolf passive, but she goes that little bit further to reject the idea that you can return to ‘normal’ after having such experiences. So whilst the girl is happy at the end, the sting comes in that she is altered and poor grandmother is still a pile of bones under the bed. Carter is challenging readers to accept the change and move on.
In these stories, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ has morphed. Women are no longer so innocent, and much harder to trick. Carter’s characters are bold and edgy, and not just simply difficult for the wolves to mislead but impossible for them to overcome. Angela Carter is one of my favourite authors, and The Bloody Chamber is a vibrant collection of stories which still cause controversy due to their explicit content and rebelliousness. I believe that this will continue, and I admire Carter for her imagination and confidence.
- Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber (London: Vintage, 1995)
- Jack Zipes, The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2013)