- On Keeping Company with Wolves:Angela Carter’s “The Company of Wolves”
I encountered that group of writers that came to be known as the fabulists at just about the perfect time for me, although I didn’t know it then. I was at the end of my undergraduate education, and I’d already known from an early age that I wanted to write fiction. But given that I had gone to such a craphole of a high school, and had started to figure out just how much I really didn’t know, I decided that my only hope was to hunker down and go small when it came to ambition: to write obsessively about only what I knew, or thought I knew. The results were what you might expect: stories about sensitive and troubled but covertly appealing lower-middle-class kids negotiating your run-of-the-mill family dysfunctions. I don’t remember how I first encountered Angela Carter’s fiction—I don’t think it was in class, though a class reference probably led to it—but boy, did she blow the doors off that particular project.
I wouldn’t have been able to articulate it then, but no writer in the twentieth century did a better job of reminding us both of the importance of staying in touch with one’s own sense of play, and of granting those imagined states their own grave authority. Most, if not all, of the fabulists exposed how much [End Page 69] there was to be gained from pillaging high and low culture, and all of them had their particular pleasures, but while Donald Barthelme was mordant and deadpan, and Robert Coover all antic demolition, Angela Carter was the one who most reliably kept the reader in touch with the exhilaration and exuberance of encountering imagined worlds we thought we already knew. She reconceived all sorts of canonical fairy tales and fables with not only a sly and witty subversiveness but also a startling fierceness. Her work signaled a recommitment to the power of those primal feelings that fairy tales and fables were designed to mobilize: terror, or desire, feelings that attended upon revelations about the fundamental and unapologetic intimacy of innocence and guilt, say, or of eros and thanatos.
So that we get, in “The Company of Wolves,” the expected wryness of both psychoanalytic and feminist lenses being trained on the narrative of Little Red Riding Hood—in all sorts of ways, our story proceeds with a noticeably Freudian logic, and our heroine makes abundantly clear that she’s no one’s doormat—and at times the result can be deftly funny. When the virginal but blooming and strong-minded child makes her way through the woods to her grandmother’s house, she finds herself powerfully attracted to a handsome hunter, with his flash of white teeth and carcasses of game birds, and we’re informed, “This young man had a remarkable object in his pocket. It was a compass.” And in terms of the ways in which that Freudianism and feminism come together, we also get a disconcerting sense of what else she’s attracted to: “He laughed at her again; gleaming trails of spittle clung to his teeth.” Granny, it turns out, with her Bible for company and her china spaniels on either side of the fireplace, has been trying to “keep the wolves outside by living well,” but that’s not going to fly, and she’s promptly devoured. But before she becomes just a pile of bones and some inedible hair, even she is erotically mesmerized by what happens when “the forest has come into the kitchen with darkness tangled in its hair.” When the wolf—or werewolf, in this case—strips off his shirt, “his nipples are ripe and dark as poison fruit,” and it’s hard, in twentieth-century literature, to come up with a moment as comic and disturbing as her reaction when he strips off his trousers: “His genitals, huge. Ah! huge.”
Naturally, then, Little Red Riding Hood herself is even more compelled. She spies a tuft of her grandmother’s hair, registers how fully she’s in danger...