Angela Carter’s “The Company of Wolves” is a feminist and gothic retelling of the classic fairy tale “Little Red Riding-Hood”. Carter’s story involves the werewolf as sexual predator, a symbol for both danger and desire, over which a young girl triumphs, employing her new found sexual power and giving in to the symbol of carnal desire. This is definitely a new twist upon the original tale, in which the helpless girl and her grandmother are freed from the belly of a wolf by a passing man, as they were unable to fend for themselves.
In this new, more harsh version, granny does indeed perish, but her granddaughter, able to give in to and use sexual desire to her advantage, escapes unscathed. This tale sings praises to female sexuality and liberation, and implies that nothing else, not God nor fear nor good living will save the victims of the wolf, and the only way to survive in a world in which temptation, danger and desire stalks you everywhere, is to fight fire with fire.
The story appears in two parts, one of which tells folk tales of the wolf and werewolf, the other of which tells of Little Red. It bombards the reader, in the first part, with terrifying descriptions of the wolf and his deeds. He, and what he stands for, is clearly and object of fear for the people in the story. Wolves are described as “forest assassins grey members of a congregation of nightmare” 1 (647).
They are likened to be the worst of “all the teeming perils of the night and the forest, ghosts, hobgoblins, ogres that grill babies upon gridirons, witches” (647). These are all fictional monsters, and the irrational fear of these nonexistent creatures is like the fear of the wolf, which is real, but not nearly as dangerous as the villagers believe. So great is their fear that the children carry knives, sharpened daily, half their own size, when they go outside.
The fear of the wolf is bred into the children and the women, almost like paranoia, and the danger is exaggerated to mammoth proportions. Perhaps this is done to shield them from what the wolf really stands for; sexual appetite, danger and desire, something against which women have been “sheltered” in one form or another for centuries, and out of which they are beginning to emerge.
The wolf is sexuality incarnate, a walking appetite, unable to suppress his desires. The wolves are described as “mourn[ing] for their own irremediable appetites” (648), but redemption is impossible, because this desire cannot be controlled. In order for a werewolf to transform, he must first be naked, so “[i]f you spy a naked man among the pines, you must run as if the Devil were after you” (649). This image of the transformation from naked man into lusting beast is blatantly sexual, and implies that naked men are to be feared as if sexual desire were beastly.
It is suggested that the Devil is half wolf, possessing the legs, heart and genitals of a wolf. The king off forbidden fruit, the great seducer, the orchestrator of women’s temptation is likened to a half man, half wolf creature and he, like the werewolf, is all that is bad, sinful and fearful, and a woman was his first target. Like sexual desire, sin and temptation, “the wolves have ways of arriving at your own hearthside. We try and we try but sometimes we cannot keep them out” (647). In the first part of Carter’s story, the narrator tells of a woman who was bitten in her own kitchen while straining the macaroni. Previous to this anecdote, as well as after it, the story speaks of huts and hearthsides and alludes to a times long past.
This image of a woman straining macaroni brings the reader jarringly into the present day, in which it is the rare person who fears wolves. Rather, fears of rape, murder and robbery run rampant, yet the woman falls victim to the wolf. In the act of preparing food, the stereotypical servile act of a woman in her kitchen, the symbol of domesticity, she is bitten by sexual desire, liberation from her role, danger and passion. It is these women, and others in servitude of one form or another, confined to their limiting roles, that are attacked by the wolf. The next attack is on an old man, a hermit who, in life, sang to Jesus all day long.
A werewolf eats him, and his faith is not enough to save him. The man devoted his life to devotion, a form of servitude to God, and the wolf shows him no pity. Clearly, those in servile roles are prime victims for the would-be liberator, the embodiment of unrestrained desire, but they do not know how to be free. A young woman in the village is abandoned on her wedding night by her husband, who goes outside to relieve himself and fails to return for some years, with only his werewolf howl as goodbye.
The woman seeks out a new husband and immediately becomes a baby machine, and all goes well until her first husband comes home to find her “stirring the soup for the father of her children” (649). Upon seeing that she is remarried, the first husband becomes a wolf once more and rips off the foot of one of her children before he is chopped to death by the second husband wielding a hatchet. Upon his death, the first husband becomes the man he was on their wedding night and, seeing this, the woman weeps and is then beaten by her second husband. The woman is punished by the werewolf, for infidelity in the immediate interpretation, and symbolically for becoming slave to a domestic role.
Upon seeing her first husband dying and returning to the state in which he left her on their wedding night, the woman weeps and is then punished by her other man, who does not want his wife to long for her old husband or for liberation as symbolized by the werewolf. The reclusive grandmother of Little Red is eaten by a werewolf disguised as a dashing huntsman. Granny is old and feeble, living alone in a cottage in the woods with her two china dogs and a Bible for company. A pious old woman, her granddaughter has never seen the book closed.
“We keep the wolves outside by living well” (652), and Granny has undoubtedly done this, living her life as a devoted Christian, and, undoubtedly, a devoted wife. But, even she cannot escape the wolf, and unknowingly invites the lustful creature into her cottage. Granny knows the huntsman for what he is, and throws her apron and then her Bible at him, calls on Christ and Mary for protection, but these symbols of domestic and religious servitude are not enough, for nothing is stronger than walking sin, sexual desire, and he is upon her. The physical description of the huntsmen, as well as his actions when he feasts on Granny are highly suggestive of the sexual act and the desires that accompany it.
He must undress before he eats her so that he can become a wolf. His “nipples are ripe as poison fruit” (652), so delicious to look at, so dangerous to consume. He removes his pants and the grandmother sees his genitals, “huge, Ah! huge” (652). “The last thing the old lady saw in all this world was a young man, eyes like cinders, naked as a stone, approaching her bed” (652). This old woman, whose life was spent in religious and domestic servitude and denial of temptation for fear of sin is dispatched by desire himself, as if to say that resistance is not wise, and will be met with dire consequences.
Little Red is in the midst of that uncertain time in which a girl becomes a woman. She is only thirteen, with pale skin, rosy cheeks and flax coloured hair, all bedecked in a red shawl. Her breasts have just begun to swell and she has commenced her monthly bleeding. The young girl is afraid of nothing, safe in her virginity, “she is a sealed vessel she is a closed system; she does not know how to shiver” (650). Armed with her innocence and a carving knife she sets off to bring Granny food on Christmas Eve. On her way to Grandma’s house, the girl hears a howling and rustling in the bush.
“[H]er practiced hand sprang to the handle of her knife, but she saw no sign of a wolf at all, nor of a naked man neither” (650). Out onto the path in front of her appears a handsome huntsman, all bedecked in the green of the forest, of life and of rebirth. She is immediately attracted to him and allows him to accompany her and carry her basket. He places a wager with her, that he can navigate more quickly through the woods with his compass and arrive at her granny’s house before her. His prize, should he win, will be a kiss, and Little Red agrees, the seduction began. He arrives in enough time to eat Granny, change the stained sheets and disguise himself in the old woman’s night cap.
Upon arrival, the girl soon realizes that things are not as they should be. She sees that she is in danger, “and, since her fear did her no good, she ceased to be afraid” (653). This young girl displays wisdom unseen in other victims of the wolf. She abandons the fears taught her since birth and decides on another approach. Little Red sees the man for what he is, a strange, unknown creature, a man and also a beast, “night and the forest had come into the kitchen with darkness tangled in its hair” (652). The man is the forest, he is nighttime, he is all that people are supposed to fear, and yet she gives him the kiss she owes him, and begins to take off her clothing and throw it into the fire.
She removes her blouse and “her small breasts gleamed as if the snow had entered the room” (653). They are opposites, dark and light, man and woman, beast and innocent, yet the seduction has been reversed, the power shifted, and the girl becomes a sexual creature. The cottage is surrounded by wolves, howling a prothalomion, a song in celebration of marriage. Little Red remarks on the size of the man’s teeth, to which he replies, “[a]ll the better to eat you with” (654). In the original version of this tale, this is the point when Little Red Riding-Hood screams in terror and is then eaten. In Carter’s story, she laughs, “she knew she was nobody’s meat. She laughed at him full in the face, she ripped off his shirt for him and flung it into the fire” (654).
The young girl- turned -woman gives herself freely to the wolf, engages in a “savage marriage ceremony” (654) conducted by a choir of his brethren. She freely exercises her sexual power and desire and relies solely on these for protection, for salvation. She does not call on God, she does not attempt to bypass fate by living well in servitude to a man. Rather, she relies upon herself and trusts her own nature and, “see! Sweet and sound she sleeps in granny’s bed, between the paws of the tender wolf” (654).
Angela Carter’s short story “The Company of Wolves” appears to be saying that sexuality, contrary to popular beliefs and stigmas, is not something that should be loathed, feared and run away from. A bad end comes only to those who place themselves in servile situations, either to husbands and children or to God. The young girl who took her power into her own hands and used it without shame or fear was the only one to tame the savage beast and survive an encounter with the wolf unscathed.