This week it’s into the woods with icon of feminist fairy tale telling, the author Angela Carter.
“The Company of Wolves” by Angela Carter
In Week Fourteen we’ll be studying two of Carter’s Red Riding Hood tales. First up is “The Company of Wolves.”
It’s time to go into the woods, Wonderlings. Perhaps Mr. Wolf will be waiting for you. But be warned: sometimes, the antagonist is a wolf, but sometimes a ‘bzou’ (werewolf). Are you truly ready for him?
In turning the classic gender power struggle on its head, Carter presents a tale in which Little Red Riding Hood is not the innocent little girl she appears to be.
For an excellent unpacking of this and Carter’s other wolf tales, see this piece from The British Library. The author does an excellent job of pointing out why readers might sympathize with Mr. Wolf in this Red Riding Hood variant.
A short video on Angela Carter and her oeuvre
A bit about The Bloody Chamber . . .
A darkly erotic reworking of Bluebeard’s Castle, a bawdy Puss in Boots and a sado-masochistic version of Little Red Riding Hood – Angela Carter’s subversive take on traditional fairy stories in The Bloody Chamber is as shocking today as when the collection first appeared in 1979, writes The Guardian’s Helen Simpson.
First published in the United Kingdom in 1979 by Gollancz, The Bloody Chamber won the Cheltenham Festival Literary Prize. With clear homage to (and feminist excavation from) the works of fairy tale giant Charles Perrault, the tales include:
The Bloody Chamber (based on Bluebeard)
A teenage girl marries an older, wealthy French Marquis, whom she does not love. When he takes her to his castle, she learns that he enjoys sadistic pornography and takes pleasure in her embarrassment. She is a talented pianist, and a young man, a blind piano tuner, hears her music and falls in love with her.
The Courtship of Mr Lyon (based on Beauty and the Beast — the concept of the Beast as a lion-like figure is a popular one, most notably in the French film version of 1946)
Beauty’s father, after experiencing car trouble, takes advantage of a stranger’s hospitality. However, his benefactor – the Beast – takes umbrage when he steals a miraculous white rose for his beloved daughter. Beauty becomes the guest of the leonine Beast.
The Tiger’s Bride (also based on Beauty and the Beast)
A woman moves in with a mysterious, masked “Milord,” the Beast, after her father loses her to him in a game of cards. Milord is eventually revealed to be a tiger.
Puss-in-Boots (based on Puss in Boots and similar to The Barber of Seville)
Figaro, a cat, moves in with a rakish young man who lives a happily debauched life. They live a carefree existence, with the cat helping him to make money by cheating at cards, until the young man actually falls in love (to the cat’s disgust) with a young woman kept in a tower by a miserly, older husband who treats her only as property.
Angela Carter had described Puss in Boots as “the Cat as Con Man… a masterpiece of cynicism… a Figaroesque valet – a servant so much the master already”.
The Erl-King (an adaptation of the Erlking in folklore; a sort of goblin or spirit of the woodlands)
A maiden wanders into the woods and is seduced by the sinister Erl-King, a seeming personification of the forest itself.
The Snow Child (has roots in various folktales)
A Count and Countess go riding in midwinter. The Count sees snow on the ground and wishes for a child “as white as snow”. Similar wishes are made when the Count sees a hole in the snow containing a pool of blood, and a raven. As soon as he made his final wish a young woman of the exact description appears at the side of the road. The Count pays immediate attention to her, much to the chagrin of the Countess.
The Lady of the House of Love(based loosely on Sleeping Beauty and more directly on a radio play called “Vampirella”)
A virginal English soldier, traveling through Romania by bicycle, finds himself in a deserted village. He comes across a mansion inhabited by a vampire who survives by enticing young men into her bedroom and feeding on them.
A girl goes to visit her grandmother, but encounters a werewolf on the way, whose paw she cuts off with a knife. When she reaches her grandmother’s house, the paw has turned into a hand with the grandmother’s ring on it, and the grandmother is both delirious and missing her hand. This reveals the girl’s grandmother as the werewolf, and she is stoned to death. The girl then inherits all of her grandmother’s possessions.
(closer adaptation of Little Red Riding Hood)
“Those are the voices of my brothers, darling; I love the company of wolves.”
We meet a girl walking in the woods. She was loved by everyone and feared nothing. She meets a handsome hunter who makes a deal with her; whoever can get to the grandmother’s house first wins, and if the hunter wins she owes him a kiss. She lets the hunter win because she wants to kiss him. The hunter arrives at the grandmother’s house tricking her. She is frail and sick. She holds a Bible in her hand for protection. He eats the grandmother, then waits for the girl. When she arrives, she notices her grandmother’s hair in the fire and knows the wolf has killed her. He threatens to kill and eat her too, but she laughs in his face and proceeds to seduce him, stripping off their clothes and throwing them into the fire.
(based on an obscure variant of Little Red Riding Hood and with reference to Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, this tale explores the journey towards subjectivity and self-awareness from the perspective of a feral child.
Folk Tales, Fairy Tales . . .What’s the Difference?
Folk Literature: Folk literature includes fairy tales, folk tales, songs, ballads, riddles, jokes, proverbs, sayings and incantations, many of which began in oral tradition. The early 20th Century compilations of Zora Neale Hurston are an example of scholarship to document folk traditions in the United States.
Folk Tale: A story that deals with popular subject matter and is part of the oral tradition of a particular country, region or language. The term refers collectively to anonymous narratives that may exist in many variants over time and place such as legends, fables, ghost stories and tall tales. Regional variations and changes in the story over time may occur as a result of the oral mode of transmission.
Fable: A short allegorical tale in which animals, plants, and things speak and behave like humans , told to illustrate a moral or lesson which is typically verbalized at the conclusion.
Fairy Tale: Fanciful story where magic is the norm; often involving fantastic creatures. For centuries, folklorists and writers have compiled collections of oral fairy traditions, such as the French Contes de Ma mere l’oye (Tales of Mother Goose); the German Kinderund Haausmarchen (Grimm’s Fairy Tales) and the Russian Narodnye Skazki (Russian Fairy Tales). Fairy Tales typically developed from an oral storytelling tradition but through time the literary fairy tale developed. Hans Christian Anderson, Oscar Wilde and John Ruskin are examples of authors of literary fairy tales. Fairy Tales are often retold or recast, emphasizing/excavating new innate material or regarding the tale from a new perspective. In popular English Literature, Philip Pullman, Angela Carter and Neil Gaiman have worked with tales in this sense.³
For a great website on fairy tales from around the world, check out Sur La Lune
A bit about Angela Carter . . .
Angela Olive Carter-Pearce (née Stalker; 7 May 1940 – 16 February 1992) who published as Angela Carter, was an English novelist, short story writer and journalist, known for her feminist, magical realism, and picaresque works. In 2008, The Times ranked Carter tenth in their list of “The 50 greatest British writers since 1945”. In 2012, Nights at the Circus was selected as the best ever winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.
In 1979, both The Bloody Chamber, and her influential essay, The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography, appeared. In the essay, according to the writer Marina Warner, Carter “deconstructs the arguments that underlie The Bloody Chamber. It’s about desire and its destruction, the self-immolation of women, how women collude and connive with their condition of enslavement. She was much more independent-minded than the traditional feminist of her time.”
A prolific writer, editor and journalist, at the time of her death, Carter had started work on a sequel to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre based on the later life of Jane’s stepdaughter, Adèle Varens; only a synopsis survives.
Angela Carter died aged 51 in 1992 at her home in London after developing lung cancer.
Here is a wonderful audio version of the story “The Company of Wolves” introduced by Neil Gaiman (cue at 3:40) and read by actress Rita Wolf, in case you’d like to listen while you read.
The better to hear you with, my dear!
Did you know some fairy tales are over 6000 years old? Check it out here, in the journal Science.
Extra enrichment: Read Transformations, poetic fairy tale reworkings by Anne Sexton. Or this poem:
The Wolf’s Postscript to ‘Little Red Riding Hood’
Agha Shahid Ali, 1949 – 2001
First, grant me my sense of history:
I did it for posterity,
for kindergarten teachers
and a clear moral:
Little girls shouldn’t wander off
in search of strange flowers,
and they mustn’t speak to strangers.
And then grant me my generous sense of plot:
Couldn’t I have gobbled her up
right there in the jungle?
Why did I ask her where her grandma lived?
As if I, a forest-dweller,
didn’t know of the cottage
under the three oak trees
and the old woman lived there
As if I couldn’t have swallowed her years before?
And you may call me the Big Bad Wolf,
now my only reputation.
But I was no child-molester
though you’ll agree she was pretty.
And the huntsman:
Was I sleeping while he snipped
my thick black fur
and filled me with garbage and stones?
I ran with that weight and fell down,
simply so children could laugh
at the noise of the stones
cutting through my belly,
at the garbage spilling out
with a perfect sense of timing,
just when the tale
should have come to an end.
From A Walk Through the Yellow Pages by Agha Shahid Ali, published by SUN-Gemini Press. © 1987 by Agha Shahid Ali.
¹Helen Simpson, Femme fatale: Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, The Guardian, June 2006
²Source: Creative Commons