By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Company of Wolves’ is the second of a trio of wolf stories in Angela Carter’s 1979 short-story collection The Bloody Chamber. It is also arguably the most controversial. The story is divided into two sections: a prefatory passage which discusses lycanthropy or werewolves, and the main story which is a version of the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale.
‘The Company of Wolves’, like all of Carter’s stories in The Bloody Chamber, is richly layered in symbolism and narrative texture, and so some words of analysis about this provocative piece of storytelling may be useful in illuminating it.
‘The Company of Wolves’: plot summary
The story begins with a long description of wolves which segues into a discussion of werewolves: men who turn into wolves. Carter’s narrator recounts several brief stories about lycanthropy (the name given to the act of men transforming into wolves), all of which relate to weddings: a witch turned a whole group of men into wolves when the groom married a woman different from his intended, while another groom, on his wedding night, went out to relieve himself and didn’t come back, having turned into a werewolf.
Years later, after his bride had mourned his ‘death’ and remarried and had children, her first husband returned, saw she had married someone else, turned into a wolf again, and bit off the leg of the eldest son. The man was killed by the second husband and as he died, he turned back into a man. Carter also tells us that werewolves can become men again as long as their original clothes aren’t destroyed.
All of this sets the scene for the main story in ‘The Company of Wolves’, which is a kind of retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale. One Christmas Eve, a young girl is setting off into the woods to visit her grandmother, who lives there. The girl is on the brink of womanhood, about to begin her menstrual cycle for the first time.
As she is walking into the woods, she is accosted by a handsome young man who strikes up a conversation with her. They walk together, and he makes a bet with her: he will race her to her grandmother’s house, and if he arrives there first, the girl will owe him a kiss. She agrees to this, and they go their separate ways.
When the handsome man arrives at the grandmother’s house, there are clear signs he is a werewolf: he has blood dripping from his mouth and has obviously eaten some animal he’s caught. He enters the grandmother’s house and strips naked in front of her, before transforming into a wolf and devouring her in her bed. Then he turns back into a man and discards the bloody sheets and the grandmother’s bones and hair, and prepares for the girl’s arrival.
When the girl gets to the house, she immediately realises that she is in danger and the man has killed her grandmother. A large number of wolves have gathered outside the house, howling into the night. However, she goes along with his demands to strip her clothes off, before joining him in the bed. Instead of being devoured by him, she tames him by making love to him. When Christmas morning arrives, the ‘tender’ wolf lies in her arms.
‘The Company of Wolves’: analysis
‘The Company of Wolves’ is one of the most shocking stories in The Bloody Chamber because of the way in which the adolescent girl ‘tames’ the big bad wolf. In order to save her own life, she must give herself to the male by making love to him, giving up her virginity as only ‘immaculate’ flesh will satisfy him.
However, the story’s feminist ‘message’ is apparent in the girl’s refusal to be anybody’s ‘meat’, and in her demonstration of agency at the story’s conclusion. The focus throughout ‘The Company of Wolves’ is, as elsewhere in The Bloody Chamber, on the werewolf’s relationships with women, especially wives.
It certainly isn’t too much of an analytical leap to suggest that Carter is using the myth of lycanthropy as a way of exploring the ‘beastly’ aspects of male violence towards women, especially wives, and how every man has a ‘wolf’ within him which, if he cannot tame himself, the woman might be able to – as, indeed, the girl at the end of Carter’s story succeeds in doing.
The fiction of the English writer Angela Carter (1940-92) is, first and foremost, the fiction of ideas. Her 1979 collection of tales, The Bloody Chamber, is often described as a series of ‘versions’ or ‘retellings’ of classic children’s fairy tales. But as Carter was quick to point out, she was actually writing new tales which revealed the latent violence – including sexual violence – of those old folk tales.
And ‘The Company of Wolves’ is no different. For instance, the final scene where the girl takes her clothes off and lies with the wolf may have been shocking to readers in 1979 (and may still shock readers decades later), but what are we to make, then, of the nineteenth-century oral version of the Little Red Riding Hood tale, ‘The Story of the Grandmother’, in which the girl happily strips off for the Big Bad Wolf to avoid becoming her victim? Carter was clearly not updating the existing story, but, if anything, restoring the original – or at least, one version of it.
But if, as the girl insists, she is ‘nobody’s meat’, we should stop to reflect whether this defiant statement – delivered via the narrative device known as free indirect discourse – is meant to carry a modicum of irony. It’s true that she avoids becoming the wolf’s ‘meat’ in the sense that Little Red Riding Hood becomes the wolf’s meat in the Charles Perrault version of the tale (in which the girl is gobbled up by the wolf), but she nevertheless gives her ‘flesh’ to him in a different sense. She avoids death, but it comes at the cost of killing her childhood, and her virginity.
Perhaps we are meant to view this as a good thing: after all, Carter’s narrator had earlier told us that children did not ‘stay young’ for very long in such a wild and dangerous country. In using her burgeoning sexuality as the ultimate weapon – more powerful even than her knife – against her beastly enemy, she can survive.
And her actions – laughing defiantly in his face and tearing his shirt from his back – might be interpreted as the act of a woman in control, rather than desperate actions of a young girl doing anything she can to save her skin. Note how, as they consummate their ‘union’, Carter likens the act to a ‘savage marriage ceremony’, and weddings recur in all of the stories told throughout ‘The Company of Wolves’, including in the preamble to the main ‘Red Riding Hood’ plot.
But whereas the wife from the earlier story loses her first husband, only to have him return and maim her eldest son before being chopped up (by her second husband, rather than by her own hand), the ‘Red Riding Hood’ figure from the main story can protect herself and take what she needs from this wild beast. She has the upper hand.
Does the tearing of the werewolf’s shirt off his back, then, symbolise the woman’s triumphing over man’s dominion in this harsh, patriarchal world? The phrase ‘to have the shirt off someone’s back’ is often used of wives who ‘own’ their husbands and everything they have, such as in divorce settlements where the wife receives the house and much of the husband’s money. But there’s a more telling detail, which shows how the prefatory section of ‘The Company of Wolves’ will prove to be crucial to understanding the main story.
Note how the girl takes his shirt off his back and throws it into the fire. It’s a detail whose significance we might miss, especially as it seems natural for her to do this after her own clothes have been consigned to the flames.
But Carter had earlier told us, remember, that werewolves can only become men again if their original clothes survive. In burning the man’s shirt, the resourceful young woman (as she has now become) ensures that the wolf she has tamed will remain a wolf, unable to become a man again.