One of Angela Carter‘s most famous short stories, “The Company of Wolves” was first published in the innovative and imaginative 1979 collection of fairy-tale themed stories, The Bloody Chamber. “The Company of Wolves” skillfully interweaves peasant superstitions, such as old wives’ tales and folk remedies, with the Little Red Riding Hood theme, fully displaying Carter’s penchant for myth, folklore, and fairy tales. Carter believed that folklore and literature represented “vast repositories of outmoded lies, where you can check out what lies used to be a la mode and find the old lies on which new lies are based” (quoted in Easton, 22). She also argued that throughout history, the process of storytelling has helped perpetuate a constructed, as well as a constricting, reality for each successive generation, which is especially evident in gender role mythology and its psychological implications. Therefore, with “The Company of Wolves,” a provocative and sensual reimagining of “Little Red Riding Hood,” Carter has crafted a tale that serves the dual function of both illustrating how expected cultural traditions are indoctrinated in future generations and challenging those expectations, which she accomplishes by altering the classic fairy tale.
“The Company of Wolves” begins by describing in poetic yet realistic prose the dangers of living in close proximity to the forest, especially in winter when the wolves are starving because “the wolf is carnivore incarnate and he’s as cunning as he is ferocious” (212). Intermingled with the atmosphere of fear created by the wolf and the descriptions of the “grave-eyed children” who “always carry knives” (213) to protect themselves from these creatures, is werewolf lore, tales of humans who have been transformed into wolves. These tales, woven within the larger framework of the story, include the account of a witch who transforms the guests at a wedding banquet into wolves when the man she wishes to marry weds another. A second tale recounts the story of a woman whose husband went outside to urinate, only to disappear. When he returns several years later to learn that his wife has married another man and borne that man’s children, he changes into a wolf once more. However, when this particular werewolf is chopped apart with a hatchet, his human form is visible beneath the wolf’s skin. With these tales, Carter deftly illustrates the inherent metaphorical connection between man and beast. In myth, folklore, and fairy tales, the wolf has traditionally been representative of man’s savage animal nature, and women have been considered merely their prey. However, that is not the case in Carter’s fairy tale; in her rendering of Little Red Riding Hood, the wolf meets his match.
In “The Company of Wolves,” although a little girl in a red cape journeys through the forest to her grandmother’s house, she does not meet a wolf along the path but instead meets a handsome huntsman, who is really a wolf in the guise of a man. The two become acquainted as they walk through the forest and decide to have a race to see which one of them will arrive at Granny’s cottage first. If the huntsman, who carries a compass, wins the race, he will be rewarded with a kiss. The huntsman arrives at Granny’s house first and devours her, just like in the original fairy tale, but that is where the similarities end. Carter’s version of “Little Red Riding Hood” features an erotic conclusion quite different from the more famous versions of the tale written by France’s Charles Perrault and Germany’s Grimm brothers. In Perrault’s adaptation, Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother are consumed by the wolf, never to be heard from again. In the Grimm brothers’ version, the two are eaten by the wolf, only to be rescued—cut out of the wolf’s belly—by a woodcutter. Instead, “The Company of Wolves” borrows its conclusion from the lesser-known oral version of the fairy tale, “The Story of the Grandmother,” in which the character of Little Red Riding Hood performs a striptease for the wolf instead of becoming the wolf’s victim. Reciting the memorable lines, including “what big teeth you have” (Carter, 219), Carter’s Little Red Riding Hood ceremoniously removes her clothes and throws them into the fire as the wolves howl outside the cottage. In the end, rather than being devoured by the wolf, this Little Red Riding Hood, who “knew she was nobody’s meat” (Carter, 219), climbs into bed with the wolf, allowing the reader to draw his or her own conclusions as to the outcome. Whether she joins the huntsman in his company of wolves is left undetermined, but at the very least, Carter’s Little Red Riding Hood has acknowledged the beast within herself, a vital component of self-knowledge and a powerful statement for feminism, as it is a substantial representation of gender equality.
“The Company of Wolves” displays Carter’s unique style, irreverent wit, and unrelenting ambiguity, but the story also exhibits Carter’s astute observations about the effects of social and political ideologies on human existence, and on women in particular. For Carter, writing represented a way to contest or demythologize these ideologies that most people take for granted as truth. As Carter herself once said, “my life has been most significantly shaped by my gender. . . . I spent a good many years being told what I ought to think, and how I ought to behave, and how I ought to write, even, because I was a woman and men thought they had the right to tell me how to feel, but then I stopped listening and tried to figure it out for myself” (quoted in Easton, 2). And so she has: Although “The Company of Wolves” has the appearance of a rather archaic fairy tale, by revealing that the wolf is an innate beast that exists in both men and women, implying that an egalitarian society is the ultimate utopia, the ambiguous story ironically proves to be enlightening.
Bristow, Joseph, and Trev Lynn Broughton, eds. The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter: Fiction, Femininity, Feminism. New York: Addison Wesley Longman Inc., 1997.
Carter, Angela. Burning Your Boats: The Collected Short Stories. New York: Penguin, 1995.
Easton, Alison, ed. Angela Carter: New Casebooks. New York: St. Martin’s, 2000.
Gamble, Sarah. Angela Carter: Writing from the Front Line. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997.
Tucker, Lindsey, ed. Critical Essays on Angela Carter. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1998.