Angela Carter's "The Company of Wolves" as Folktale Variation (Literary Analysis)
The study, analysis, and interpretation of folktale present numerous difficulties not found in the examination of normal literary works. A folktale often lacks an authoritative text, a canon of it which can be studied. Additionally, in origin, a folktale is normally authorless, having surfaced out of an oral tradition credited to no particular individual. By contrast, think for a moment of a relatively recent work, such as The Hobbit, written by J. R. R. Tolkien. This work obviously has an author, and additionally, an authoritative text. Minor revisions to The Hobbit were made during Tolkein's lifetime, though they were made by Tolkien himself. No one other than Tolkien would normally be considered to possess the authority to produce a literary variant of the story, and reproductions of The Hobbit must adhere to the authoritative text. No such barriers normally restrain the retelling or rewriting of a folktale. In his essay, "Interpreting 'Little Red Riding Hood' Psychoanalytically," folklorist Alan Dundes explains this phenomenon:
...folklore, with its characteristics of multiple existence and variation, is ever in a state of flux. There is no one single text in folklore; there are only texts. Folklore once recorded from oral tradition does not cease to be, but rather continues on its often merry way from raconteur to raconteur, from generation to generation. It is precisely this continuous process of oral transmission (or learning by example in the case of gestural or material folklore) that makes it possible for folklore to adapt to each individual or group among which it circulates. (193)
Folktale, like mythology and other forms of oral literature, can be thought of as a living organism. It grows and changes. It can be reshapen to please a particular audience, and it reforms to fit the intent of the teller. Yet, folktale, unlike other forms of oral literature, does not always die when its narrative meets paper. The Greek Odyssey, originally the specialty of the aoidos, an oral poet, found death on paper when Homer1 recorded it nearly three thousand years ago. No longer simply an oral narrative, it lost its polymorphous qualities and gained official canon. Folktale often has less of a mortality rate than Tolkien or Homer; even once it becomes written, it maintains vivaciousness.
Take, for instance, the story of "Little Red Riding Hood," categorized by folklorists as Aarne-Thompson tale type2 333 (AT 333), the Glutton (Dundes ix). Charles Perrault first recorded "Le Petit Chaperon Rouge" just before the dawn of the 18th century, one of the most well-known versions of the tale. Slightly more than one century later, the Brothers Grimm published their popular account of the story, "Rotkäppchen" ("Little Red Cap"), in 1812. For many years, the versions of Perrault and the Brothers Grimm have been seen as canonical and original material. Their roots in oral tradition have been largely ignored; in many cases, oral traditions of the tale have been inversely said to originate from the Perrault and Grimm versions (Dundes 199). To the general public, as well as many psychoanalysts and literary critics, "Le Petit Chaperon Rouge" and "Rotkäppchen" are as authoritative as Tolkein's The Hobbit and the Odyssey , but there exist oral versions of the tale that contain wild variations on the versions of Perrault and Grimm (ix). Dundes notes that "elements common to the French and Chinese oral traditions" of AT 333, such as issues of cannibalism and defecation, could not have been contributed to the oral tradition by Perrault, since these issues are not found in "Le Petit Chaperon Rouge" (199). Evidence also exists, in the form of a short Latin verse recorded in the early eleventh century whose main character wears a red tunic and becomes captured by a wolf, that Perrault most likely did not originate these aspects of his tale (Ziolkowski 565). As for the Grimm version, scholars have learned that their "Rotkäppchen" came from a woman of French background (Dundes 202); "Rotkäppchen" is probably a reworking of the French version of the tale, rather than an authentic German folktale.
Regardless of the validity or originality of the Perrault and Grimm versions of AT 333, examination of their origins clearly indicates that "Little Red Riding Hood" is folktale. Like many folktales, "Little Red Riding Hood" has been reworked and reinterpreted again and again by countless authors and literary critics. Often, in the case of interpretation, "[n]on-folklorists are unable or unwilling to identify a text in terms of tale type, but they feel perfectly free to interpret a given text" which can lead to incorrect assumptions of authorship and historical background (Dundes 195).
It is with Dundes' assertion that "it is never appropriate to analyze a folktale (or any other exemplar of a folktale genre) on the basis of a single text" (195) that I now turn to the matter at hand, Angel Carter's "The Company of Wolves," one of many modern retellings of AT 333. First published in 1979 in The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, "The Company of Wolves" recreates the traditional tale of Red Riding Hood as Gothic fantasy. At its center is Red Riding Hood, a fiery maiden far from the character found in many popular versions of the story. The wolf and the hunter, one traditionally the corruptor, the other, the savior, are blended into Red Riding Hood's cunning adversary, a werewolf. In "The Company of Wolves," Carter, who had interests of her own in folklore, means to challenge the male dominated messages of irredeemable sin and female helplessness so often transmitted by traditional versions of AT 333. Her challenge to the established norms of AT 333, however, is buried in mounds of historical context that cannot be ignored. In order to properly examine "The Company of Wolves," we must first examine the general story of AT 333, from its origins in oral folklore to Perrault and the Grimms, as well as some important interpretations of AT 333 that will help to shed light on many of the elements found in Carter's story.
In the Aarne-Thompson index, the basic plot of AT 333 is broken down into two parts:
1. Wolf's Feast. (a) By masking as mother or grandmother, the wolf deceives and devours (b) a little girl (Red Riding Hood) whom he meets on his way to her grandmother's.
2. Rescue. (a) The wolf is cut open and his victims rescued alive; (b) his belly is sewed full of stones and he drowns; (c) he jumps to his death (Dundes ix).
This basic plot structure is primarily based on the versions of Perrault and the Grimm brothers with which we are so familiar (ix). As noted previously, oral versions of the tale contain additional elements not found in either of the well-known versions. The work of Paul Delarue has made possible a reconstruction of the French oral version of AT 333 called "The Story of Grandmother" (Zipes 21), which contains the following important elements which are not found in Perrault's version:3
- The wolf asks Red Riding Hood whether she will take the "path of needles" or the "path of pins."
- When the wolf kills the grandmother, he stores some of her flesh meat in the cupboard and a bottle of her blood on a shelf.
- When Red Riding Hood arrives, the wolf tells her to have some of the meat and to drink some of the wine on the shelf. After she does so, a cat refers to Red Riding Hood as a slut for eating the body of her grandmother.
- After the act of cannibalism, when the wolf invites Red Riding Hood to undress, she asks the wolf what to do with each of her articles of clothing; he tells her to dispose of each in the fire.
- Once Red Riding Hood has climbed into the bed and realizes that the wolf intends to eat her, she claims that she needs to go to the bathroom. The wolf tells her to do so in the bed, but she insists and is allowed to go outside with a rope tied to her.
- Red Riding Hood ties the rope to a tree and makes her escape. The wolf chases after her but does not catch her before she makes it into her home.
Two of these elements have special significance and should be unpacked before continuing. Mary Douglas shows that the question of the "path of pins" versus the "path of needles" is likely connected to the social order of females in France during the time when oral versions of AT 333 were circulating; pins were associated with young girls and virginity, needles with grown women and women's household work. Thus, to the community in which the tale circulated orally, the story of Red Riding Hood was very much concerned with sexual initiation and the shift from girlhood to womanhood (Douglas 4).
Dundes, analyzing AT 333 psychoanalytically, sees the issue of cannibalism as one of a young girl lashing out against her mother (or grandmother) on an Oedipal level (223). On a simpler level, without the weight of Freudian thought, the act of cannibalism is likely representative of Red Riding Hood moving away from the "path of pins" and into the "path of needles;" she is essentially taking over her mother's (or grandmother's) role as the adult woman.
In taking on the mantle of the adult woman, the Red Riding Hood of the French oral tradition is far from the weak and helpless little girl found in the versions of Perrault and the Grimm brothers. Her activeness and her intelligence are made most clear in the plot by which she escapes. By contrast, the Red Riding Hood in Perrault's "Le Petit Chaperon Rouge" never realizes her danger before it is too late, and in "Rotkäppchen," she can only be rescued by the masculine hunter. This is not so in the traditional oral narratives, highlighting that Perrault and the Grimms wrote their versions of the tale with different messages in mind.
The messages of Perrault and the Grimm brothers have shaped many retellings of Red Riding Hood's story. Perrault's version of the tale is heavily influenced by his low opinion of women, causing him to turn Red Riding Hood into the naïve girl with which we are so familiar (Zipes 25). Zipes also suggests that, as the color red was associated with "sin, sensuality, and the devil" in Perrault's time, he probably included the red hood to mark Red Riding Hood as a problem child (26). As noted previously, Red Riding Hood's red outfit did not likely originate with Perrault (Ziolkowski 565), though he did decide to maintain the color of her wardrobe, so Zipes' suggestion is probably correct. Since Perrault's primary concern was teaching children moral lessons, he does away with the cruder elements of the tale and simplifies the story into one about "vanity, power, and seduction" (Zipes 27).
As discussed earlier, "Rotkäppchen," the Grimms' version, was influenced by Perrault's version more so than any oral tradition. The Grimm brothers felt that Perrault's version required some polishing, as they found it too cruel (32). They reinstated a happy ending, wherein a woodsman saves Red Riding Hood from the belly of the wolf. Through an additional anecdote, they add a moral lesson of their own. Following the original incident, while Red Riding Hood journeys again to her grandmother's house, she encounters another wolf. Instead of dallying around, she goes directly to her grandmother and warns her; they plot together to fend off the wolf. The Grimms' version carries with it a definite championing of order. In her first encounter with the wolf, Red Riding Hood leaves the path against her mother's warning, and as a result, both she and her grandmother are nearly eaten alive. When she obeys her mother and stays on the path, going directly to her grandmother's house, they are able to prevent such a catastrophe from reoccurring.
Both Perrault and the Grimms had specific goals in mind when reworking the originally oral folktale of AT 333. Each had the same general goal of influencing the behavior of children, but where Perrault's version gives a lesson about the dangers of seduction and rape for pretty little girls, the Grimms' version gives a lesson about the dangers of disobedience. Both versions require that the victim be helpless in order for the message to be properly conveyed. In "Le Petit Chaperon Rouge," Red Riding Hood has no salvation. In allowing herself to be seduced by the wolf, she becomes irredeemable, helpless to save herself. In "Rotkäppchen," it takes the intervention of the hunter, a symbol of order in contrast with the chaotic nature of the wolf, to save her. With Red Riding Hood as the passive victim, the wolf must then be the active victimizer, the cunning instigator of her downfall. Neither in "Le Petit Chaperon Rouge" or "Rotkäppchen" is the wolf anything more than an instrument of temptation. The wolf has little character aside from his predatory nature, for the wolf is not the focus in either literary version. He is generally portrayed similarly in the oral versions of the tale.
However, in Angela Carter's "The Company of Wolves," wolves are more than simple predators; they are tragic beings, condemned to wolfishness, who "would love to be less beastly if only they knew how and never cease to mourn their own condition" (Carter 213). As Carter gives the wolf a new spin, so does she for the story's protagonist. Carter's character of Red Riding Hood exudes nothing if not confidence; she laughs in the face of her enemy, for she "[knows] she [is] nobody's meat" (219). The world and story of Carter's Red Riding Hood differ greatly from those of Perrault and the Grimms, and with those differences comes a strikingly different message.
"The Company of Wolves" begins not with Red Riding Hood, the prey, but with wolves, her predators. We learn almost immediately that "[t]he wolf is carnivore incarnate and he's as cunning as he is ferocious; once he's had a taste of flesh then nothing else will do." He is a "forest assassin," a "shadow," and a "wraith," a "grey [member] of a congregation of nightmare," and his howl is "an aria of fear made audible" (212). The children of the villages "carry knives with them when they go to tend the little flocks of goats;" their huge knives are sharpened every day for fear of the wolf, but the wolf is to be feared for more than for his cunning and his hunger, "for, worst of all, [he] may be more than he seems" (213). In one instance, a hunter traps and dismembers a wolf to find that the dying corpse is instead a human. At another turn, a witch transforms a wedding party into wolves. Similarly, a bride whose groom leaves their bedchamber on their wedding night to answer nature's call4 becomes a howling wolf in the forest. In the Gothic world of "The Company of Wolves," the wolf, even for all his cunning and hunger, is something human rather than the devilish vehicle of temptation found in so many other retellings of AT 333. In fact, Carter tells us:
There is a vast melancholy in the canticles of the wolves, melancholy infinite as the forest, endless as those long nights of winter and yet that ghastly sadness, that mourning for their own, irremediable appetites, can never move the heart for not one phrase in it hints at the possibility of redemption; grace could not come to the wolf from its own despair, only through some external mediator, so that sometimes, the beast will look as if he half welcomes the knife that dispatches him. (213-214).
The wolf in the world of "The Company of Wolves," despite all his ferociousness, craves redemption and craves a savior. And that savior will be given to him, in the form of a budding peasant girl, dressed in a red shawl.
As with the wolves, Carter almost immediately sets forth the nature of the young girl (who remains unnamed). Though "[winter] is the worst time in all the year for wolves," she tells us, the "strong-minded child insists that she will go off through the wood." She harbors no fear for the wolves, but "well-warned, she lays a carving knife in the basket her mother has packed with cheeses." Unlike the girl in "Le Petit Chaperon Rouge" and "Rotkäppchen," Carter's protagonist is not naïve, but fearless; "she has been too much loved ever to feel scared" (215).
Like the girl in the French oral tradition of AT 333, she is pubertal and beautiful:
Her breasts have just begun to swell; her hair is like lint, so fair it hardly makes a shadow on her pale forehead; her cheeks are an emblematic scarlet and white and she has just started her woman's bleeding, the clock inside her that will strike, henceforward, once a month.
With her virginity intact, "she does not know how to shiver" (215). Her virginity, more than just a treasure, is an empowering source.
Moving "within the invisible pentacle of her own virginity," she is wary of danger. A "practised5 hand" snaps for her knife when she hears the howling of the wolf, and "she ha[s] her hand on her knife at the first rustle of twigs" (215-216). But her fearlessness overcomes her instincts. When she meets the hunter and they begin to "[laugh] and [joke] like old friends," she gives him her basket, knife and all, based on his insistence that his rifle will keep any wolves at bay. In her fearlessness, she accepts his wager that he can reach her grandmother's before she does via using his compass to guide him through the woods, for the prize of a kiss. With him goes her basket and her knife, but still "she for[gets] to be afraid of the beasts" and "[wants] to dawdle on her way to make sure the handsome gentleman...[wins] his wager" (216). In desiring the hunter, she shows that she is very much aware of her sexuality, in marked contrast to her predecessors in earlier versions of AT 333.
While the girl dallies, the hunter arrives at the grandmother's house, where he reveals his dual nature. He throws off his disguise to reveal "matted hair" and "skin...the colour and texture of vellum" and we are treated to a scene of the wolf as "carnivore incarnate" as he consumes the grandmother (217). In traditional form, he hides in the bed, wearing the grandmother's nightcap and waiting for his real prey to arrive.
When she does arrive, she scans the room, and her cunning quickly locates everything out of place: the lack of the "indentation of a head on the smooth cheek of the pillow," her grandmother's Bible, on the table, shut for the first that she can remember, and "a tuft of white hair that caught in the bark of an unburned log." She recognizes the danger and craves her knife, which she cannot reach, for the eyes of the wolf are upon her. When she soon hears the howling of the werewolf's company, she realizes that "the worst wolves are hairy on the inside," and she shivers; however, she does not shiver because of fear but because of "the blood she must spill" (218).
But when she looks out the window at the wolves, she says, "It is very cold, poor things, no wonder they howl so" and begins to shift from being the wolf's prey to being the wolf's savior. She discards her shawl along with her fear, for it serves her no purpose. Throwing piece by piece of her clothing into the fire, she re-enacts the strip-tease found in the oral versions of AT 333, and then grants him the kiss he earned while "every wolf in the world...howl[s] a prothalamion." With the kiss, she comments on the size of his teeth in the familiar style, but to his response, "All the better to eat you with," she "burst[s] out laughing...[s]he laugh[s] at him full in the face" and "[rips] off his shirt for him and [flings] it into the fire, in the fiery wake of her own discarded clothing." Her virginity is her weapon against the carnivore who is sated only by "immaculate flesh." That weapon is a powerful one; through it, she tames the wolf. She places "his fearful head on her lap" and cleans his pelt of lice, and as he bids, "she...[puts] the lice into her mouth...as she would do in a savage marriage ceremony" (219).
The story ends with the girl nestled "between the paws of the tender wolf" (220). No more is he "carnivore incarnate" with the "long wavering howl." This ending for AT 333 differs incredibly from previous versions. Like in the oral tale and in "Rotkäppchen," Red Riding Hood survives, but not through a clever ruse or the heroics of a powerful male figure; she survives through the raw power of her own sexuality. Gone is the little girl clueless about her surroundings and in comes the keen-eyed virgin well aware of the weapon which is her virginity. Her adversary, the diabolical wolf, is more than a sinner and a tempter. He is downtrodden, melancholy, and most importantly, yearning for redemption. It is redemption that he earns when he meets his adversary, who, through her own ferociousness, not unlike that of the wolf's, overcomes his bestial nature.
No reader of "The Company of Wolves" is meant to walk away carrying the quaint moral packaged in "Le Petit Chaperon Rouge" or the message of obedience delivered by "Rotkäppchen." No, within the world of "The Company of Wolves," it is strength, courage in the face of danger, and, most of all, self-awareness that rule. Nor does the wicked one need to always die, as the wolf must in so many other versions of AT 333; instead, he is redeemable, but only by someone who will stand and face him without fear and with the same sort of intrinsic ferocity that he wields. Through all this, first and foremost, "The Company of Wolves" seeks to counter the notions of irredeemable sin and feminine naïvety and weakness so imbedded within the history of AT 333, "Little Red Riding Hood."
- Traditionally. The matter of the Homeric question need not be addressed here. See any number of introductions to Homeric translations, such as Richmond Lattimore's Iliad.
- The Aarne-Thompson index is a category of folktale story types first organized by the Finnish folklorist Antti Aarne and later updated and revised by Stith Thompson which is often used by folklorists to refer to various tales and their variations (Georges 113).
- My list of these elements is based on the translation of "The Story of Grandmother" found in Zipes' The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood on pages 21-23.
- Carter tells us that "the groom said he was going out to relieve himself, he insisted on it, for the sake of decency" (213), which is an interesting recycling of Red Riding Hood's escape plan found in oral versions of AT 333 (see above).
- I maintain Carter's spelling here.
Carter, Angela. "The Company of Wolves." Burning Your Boats: The Collected Short Stories. New York: Penguin, 1996. 212-220.
Douglas, Mary. "Red Riding Hood: An Interpretation from Anthropology." Folklore. Vol. 106 (1995): 1-7. JSTOR: The Scholarly Journal Archive. 14 April 2005. <http://www.jstor.org>.
Dundes, Alan. "Interpreting 'Little Red Riding Hood' Psychoanalytically." Little Red Riding Hood: A Casebook. Ed. Alan Dundes. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1989. 192-236.
---. Little Red Riding Hood: A Casebook. Ed. Alan Dundes. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.
Georges, Robert A. and Michael Owen Jones. Folkloristics: An Introduction. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.
Ziolkowski, Jan M. "A Fairy Tale from before Fairy Tales: Egbert of Liege's 'De puella a lupellis seruata' and the Medieval Background of 'Little Red Riding Hood.'" Speculum. Vol. 67, No. 3 (1992): 549-575. JSTOR: The Scholarly Journal Archive. 14 April 2005. <http://www.jstor.org>.
Zipes, Jack D. The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood: Versions of the Tale in Sociocultural Context. New York: Routledge, 1993.