Angela Carter’s wolf tales (‘The Werewolf’, ‘The Company of Wolves’ and ‘Wolf-Alice’)

The last three stories in Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber all feature wolves. Bidisha considers how these tales use wolves to explore sexual and gender politics, social violence and the possibility of liberation.

Angela Carter’s 1979 collection of original fairy tales, The Bloody Chamber, is rightly held up as a masterpiece of 20th-century fiction. Dazzlingly varied in tone and register, the collection is cavalier, lushly romantic, chilling and ferociously entertaining. It combines postmodern self-awareness with the other-worldly glamour and unashamed intensity of classic horror and fantasy fiction.

The individual stories glance bullet-like off stock fairy tales from Bluebeard (in the title story), Beauty and the Beast (in the stories ‘The Courtship of Mr Lyon’ and ‘The Tiger’s Bride’) and Little Red Riding Hood (in the two penultimate stories ‘The Werewolf’ and ‘The Company of Wolves’), and shoot away in new directions which are highly inventive and intensely unnerving. Others, like ‘The Lady of the House of Love’ and the last story, ‘Wolf-Alice’, explore vampire, zombie and other occult mythology.

In this essay I look at the last three stories in The Bloody Chamber: ‘The Werewolf’, ‘The Company of Wolves’ and ‘Wolf-Alice’.

Photographs from The Company of Wolves, a film by Neil Jordan and Angela Carter

Photograph of the character of Rosaleen holding the scruff of the neck of a wolf-like dog, from The Company of Wolves film

Sarah Patterson as Rosaleen in the film adaptation of The Company of Wolves, 1984. The film layers several stories from The Bloody Chamber collection, including ‘The Werewolf’.

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‘The Werewolf’

The first story, ‘The Werewolf’, is told with abrupt, brittle relish, sketching out a familiar Gothic pastoral scene in frighteningly flippant shorthand. We are in a ‘Northern country’ of ‘cold weather’ and ‘wild beasts in the forest’. Life is ‘harsh, brief, poor’, flowers don’t grow and the ghastly supernatural intermingles, unquestioned, with the bleak natural: vampires are warded off with garlic, children are born with second sight. Interaction with the uncanny offers no thrill of contact. Instead, it compounds local paranoia and misery. Human society is punitive, suspicious and credulous, its puritanical patriarchy shot through with a hypocritical sexualisation: women suspected of being witches are stripped before being stoned to death.

Survival, if not peace, is maintained through mutual preying and destruction: the Little Red Riding Hood-like character of the young protagonist who walks through the forest to visit her grandmother is the daughter of a hunter. Like her father, she knows how to use a knife and, like all the town’s inhabitants, is on guard both against animal predators like wolves but also against naked men who are feared not because they might be sexual attackers but because they are werewolves. Teasingly, the child is dressed as wolf-prey, in victim drag: a ‘scabby coat of sheepskin’.

Angela Carter's translation of The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault

Double page from 'Little Red Riding Hood' story with illustrations of the grandma in bed and a wolf outside the window, then the wolf in bed and Red Riding Hood outside, from Angela Carter's translation of The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault

‘Little Red Riding Hood’ translated by Angela Carter with illustrations by Martin Ware. As she drafted The Bloody Chamber collection, Carter simultaneously worked on this translation of Charles Perrault fairy tales, which were published in 1977.

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Usage terms Charles Perrault: This material is in the Public Domain. Angela Carter: © Displayed with the permission of the Estate of Angela Carter c/o Rogers, Coleridge & White Ltd., 20 Powis Mews, London W11 1JN. Angela Carter’s work is published in the UK by Vintage, Virago, Penguin Classics. You may not reuse the material for commercial purposes. Martin Ware: © Estate of Martin Ware. Published under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence.

When a wolf does indeed attack the girl, it has red eyes like the devil. However, in keeping with the sympathetic way wolves are described throughout these stories, it flees when the girl cuts off its paw and it gives a ‘gulp, almost a sob’. The girl arrives at her grandmother’s home, and the grandmother is ‘like a thing possessed’ – indeed, she is a werewolf, the same one who attacked the girl. In an unpleasant yet aptly misanthropic twist, the neighbours come in, see a wart on the grandmother’s severed hand, have her for a witch and stone her to death. The moral: being a werewolf won’t save you from sexism.

‘The Werewolf’ is not a story about werewolves but about human meanness of spirit – the uniquely human appetite for judging others and then collectively enjoying seeing their punishment through to the death. This is not a world in which natural justice prevails but one in which whoever is left standing is the winner. Society allows no place for debating moral rights and wrongs; the story satisfies its characters while leaving the reader morally unmoored. It ends with a grim if (to us) unjust settling of the situation: the girl, apparently happy with the cancelling out of both witch and werewolf threats, happily replaces her murdered grandmother and ‘prospered’ in her house.

‘The Company of Wolves’

The next story, ‘The Company of Wolves’, is a macabre, luxuriantly disturbing work recounted in a cheesy B-movie voice-over where every blood-curdling, spine-chilling adjective progressively makes the audience less afraid of the ‘carnivore incarnate’, ‘as cunning as he is ferocious’, who is shortly to stalk the pages like a vaudeville pirate. The story is soaked in panstick, limelight and plastic sequins, and told as if accompanied by a church organ playing a tune of hysterical extremity. Yet its hammy trappings conceal true horror.

Wolves are described with seductive, mesmerisingly shifting descriptions that borrow from theatre and amateur dramatics: their eyes are yellowish, reddish, unnatural green, likened to ‘candle flames’ and ‘sequins’. Their howling is, again taking from stage and performance, an ‘aria of fear’, entertaining and beautiful even when expressing dread.

Winter strikes and, like a long Halloween night, produces a bubbling-over of all the delicious horrors of the folkloric population: ‘all the teeming perils of the night…ghosts, hobgoblins, ogres … witches [like the one in Hansel and Gretel] that fatten their captives in cages’. This village, in which common fairy tale characters and magical abilities manifest, is not a place of creativity and delight but one of isolation and vengeance. It is a place of loners like a ‘mad old man’ religious maniac and a jilted bride who turns her wedding party into wolves like the bad fairy in Sleeping Beauty cursing the king’s court.

Manuscript notes and drafts of stories from The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

Opening page from a typewritten draft of 'The Company of Wolves', with some additions and crossings out in Angela Carter's hand

'At night, the eyes of wolves shine like candle-flames, yellowish, reddish': the opening from Angela Carter's revised typescript draft of 'The Company of Wolves'.

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As ever in Carter’s work, the worst beasts a girl could encounter in the forest are men, not animals. ‘The Company of Wolves’ features an anecdote thrown in almost as an aside, in which a woman marries a young man who flees to the forest and turns into a wolf. The woman remarries and has a son. The first husband returns, sees that his wife has slept with another man, calls her a ‘whore’ and attacks her son. He turns back into a wolf, is murdered by the second husband whereupon he turns back into a man. When the woman sees his corpse and cries over it, the second husband beats her. Wolf-man or full-man, these husbands are exactly the same in their abuse of women. Just as in ‘The Werewolf’, in an environment in which all things are apparently possible, a woman still cannot escape patriarchal judgement and male violence.

The second part of the story looks at the set-up of Little Red Riding Hood again. Once again a ‘strong-minded child’ sets off to visit her grandmother. Unlike the hard and wary girl in the previous story, this one is blithe and confident, ‘quite sure the wild beasts cannot harm her’. Whereas in the previous story the child’s competence is a product of a tough life in which survival skills have been learnt by necessity, the child in this story has very different roots. Her confidence comes from the inner strength provided by happiness and emotional security: ‘she has been too much loved ever to feel scared’. The forest is ‘like a pair of jaws’, yet such is her sense of being cared for by a benign world that these jaws do not eat her up but hold her protectively like Jonah inside the whale.

The girl is on her way to visit her grandmother, but meets a man in the woods. He is not a wolf, nor is he a naked man-wolf. He is, instead, ordinarily human, clothed, charming and jovial. He does not look like a monster and his manner is ‘comic yet flattering’. The girl immediately and unquestioningly takes the bait, giving him her basket with its weapon inside it. She also falls for his trick – a wager that he can get to her grandmother’s house first, and if she loses she has to kiss him – because she wants to lose to him and have a kiss. She overlooks the signs of his violence: his rifle, his flashing wet teeth, the dead birds he’s carrying.

Like all abusive men who get away with it, the man’s first skill is one of impersonation: he is adept at pretending to be good. He tricks his way into the grandmother’s house by pretending to be the granddaughter, murders her, then tricks the girl into coming in by pretending to be the grandmother. There is a horrible murder scene that is redolent of rape: the man strips naked to attack the elderly woman on the bed. The blatantly sexualised violence is only completed ‘when he had finished with her’ and she is obliterated, utterly objectified and stripped of every human identifier. She is not even referred to as ‘she’ – only ‘the inedible hair’ and ‘the bones’. Like the other human hunters in the collection, he keeps a trophy of his kill to gloat over it – the grandmother’s nightcap – and sits ‘patiently, deceitfully’ for his next victim, concealing the ‘tell-tale stained’ sheets, again a grotesque image of a sexual attack.

As in all patriarchal societies a young woman is considered more attractive than an older woman, and while the man can murder and consume an old woman if he chooses to, only ‘immaculate flesh [really] appeases him’. In a sharply sick twist – so common in this collection and part of its unnerving genius – the young girl on her way is a willing martyr to his abuse.

Or is she? Angela Carter skilfully and devastatingly presses hard on the disturbing line between fear and submission, choice and force, humiliation and annihilation, self-sacrifice and self-preservation. When the young woman sees a ‘tuft of white hair’ belonging to her murdered grandmother she realises that ‘she was in danger of death’. She then gives herself to him apparently ‘freely’ ‘to save her own life’ because she ‘knows she was nobody’s meat’ – overlooking the obvious riposte that if one offers oneself to save one’s own life, it is hardly a free choice. At the heart of this story is the hideous coercion that needs no violence, as the girl already knows what the ‘tender wolf’ is capable of.

The story presents an image of a young woman who rewrites her entrapment and sexual assault as a glorious rite in which she ‘never flinched’. The now-phlegmatic narrator describes her with pity and irony as a ‘wise child’ who sleeps ‘sweet and sound’ between a wolf’s paws. Being locked in a room with her grandmother’s murderer becomes an opportunity for masochistic sexual self-realisation, in which victim and perpetrator apparently share the same misogyny and sexist ageism and get off on it – ‘the old bones under the bed set up a terrible clattering but she did not pay them any heed’.

'The Company of Wolves' is a horror tale about a trapped, abused girl who goes to her fate with a resignation she rewrites as acceptance. ‘Since her fear did her no good, she ceased to be afraid’ and is then able to behave with the nihilistic bravado of the damned.


The final story, ‘Wolf-Alice’, is a sorrowful and sweet story about a young woman who has genuinely grown up with wolves, rather than incorrectly claiming some affinity with them as a way to justify personal abusiveness, as the murderer in 'The Company of Wolves' does. Alice has been raised tenderly by wolves after being abandoned by her mother. Just like the previous story, her confidence and certainty are the result of having been loved when she was growing up. Her encounter with the world of human values and practices is humiliating and limiting.

'Wolf-Alice' celebrates nature’s innocence, earthiness and tenderness. Its central character is simple but not stupid, and the narrative tone is one of terrible bathos and sympathy for this human foundling who, not being a wolf herself and not having been socialised around humans, is mute, with no language of her own. She is described as a ‘pup’, ‘lonely’ and adorable, making a ‘bubbling, delicious’ sound. Wolves are not enemies to be feared but her ‘foster kindred’ – an adoptive family, related to her through love, not blood. When she is apart from them they howl across ‘an irreparable gulf of absence’, the word ‘irreparable’ hinting at a wholeness that has been permanently broken.

'Wolf-Alice' presents a new and liberated female physical standard, one which is very different from the delicate human martyr-beauties in all the other stories. Alice’s skin is calloused because of her enhanced speed which is ‘not our pace’, she ‘trots or gallops’ on ‘long, lean and muscular limbs’, her nose is long and sensitive – a ‘useful tool’ which makes her enviably competent. Alice’s wolf upbringing enables her to flout the rules of human femininity, in particular the standard fairy tale warning that young girls should not venture into the forest alone. In fact, the forest is Alice’s domain, the safe space in which to ‘wander when she can’, where nothing is off limits. She is ‘wild, impatient of restraint, capricious’ – all the things a nice young lady is not supposed to be.

Humans bring pain, persecution and misery. It was ‘peasants’ shotguns’ that killed her adoptive wolf-mother, and the nuns she is taken in by poke her with sticks ‘to rouse her’. Her stay there is a ‘mutilation’ of her real nature – a wounding of it. While in the natural world her howls are ‘a language as authentic as any language of nature’, in the human world her voice is only ‘a rustle of sound’, a ‘whisper’ that is ‘obscure’. Literally and socially, Alice has no voice; she is a nobody. In the human world this makes her subject to the power of others, and ensures her captivity, loneliness and exploitation.

Manuscript notes and drafts of stories from The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

Page containing typewritten and handwritten notes for 'Wolf Alice' by Angela Carter

Notes and ideas for ‘Wolf-Alice’ (estimated 1975–79), one of Angela Carter’s variations on the Red Riding Hood tale that she published in The Bloody Chamber.

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As in many of the other stories in this collection – ‘The Bloody Chamber’, ‘The Courtship of Mr Lyon’, ‘The Erl King’, ‘Puss-in-Boots’ and ‘The Tiger’s Bride’ – an innocent young woman finds herself isolated in a rich man’s home. Yet unlike the ‘ladies’ in the other stories, who do not realise until it’s too late, Alice knows that ‘beds [particularly marital beds] are traps’.

Alice is parcelled off to a duke’s castle, where she is used as a servant, yet here Carter eschews the sexual chemistry and predictably genre-faithful sado-masochistic emotional pull of previous stories. The Duke is not a love interest, a tormentor, a counterpart or a nemesis. He is strange, and Alice is strange, but they’re strange in different ways which do not impinge upon each other. Alice does not become the lady of the house but instead behaves with a refreshing lack of human narcissism and taught femininity. Like a stray dog, she sleeps on the hearth, using ball gowns as sheets and sanitary pads. Unlike ladies taught to narcissistically watch themselves in the mirror at all times, she does not recognise her own reflection. Indeed the mirror is, as it is for all women, an ‘invisible cage’.

Meanwhile, just like the cavorting supernatural creatures in ‘The Werewolf’, the Duke is cast as an ancient Nosferatu figure, undead but alive, jaded, ‘damned’, arrogant, shrivelled, ‘meagre’ and unhappy. He haunts graveyards like a zombie, casts no reflection and goes about only at night like a vampire, and eats corpses like a cannibal. Like an animal, his skin is described as a ‘pelt’, and like a werewolf he responds to the full moon as if it compels him: a ray of moonlight is like ‘an imperative finger’ from a ‘governess’. Like a ghost he makes animals nervous, and like any predator humans’ doors are ‘barred [to him] for miles’.

Manuscript notes and drafts of stories from The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

Page from a typewritten draft of 'Wolf Alice', with lots of words crossed out and additions in Angela Carter's hand

Revised typescript draft of 'Wolf-Alice', which begins by describing the girl's origins and her physical characteristics.

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Usage terms © Displayed with the permission of the Estate of Angela Carter c/o Rogers, Coleridge & White Ltd., 20 Powis Mews, London W11 1JN. Angela Carter’s work is published in the UK by Vintage, Virago, Penguin Classics. You may not reuse the material for commercial purposes.

‘Wolf-Alice’ charts women’s evolution writ small. Left to her own devices in the castle, Alice learns about time through matching her menstrual cycle to the moon’s cycle; from the mirror she becomes self-conscious and individualistic; she becomes the centre of her own narrative and sees herself standing out from nature rather than merging with it. She discovers vanity when she puts on the white dress of a young bride the Duke has devoured and notices that she ‘shines’ in it. To book readers and film watchers she resembles the classic female martyr of horror films. Out in the graveyard one night she similarly resembles a figure from supernatural mythology to the townspeople within the story: they think she is the ghost of the dead bride fulfilling another generic narrative – that of posthumous revenge – against the vampire-zombie-cannibal-werewolf Duke.

‘Wolf-Alice’ turns into a sweet, non-carnal, non-romantic story of animal comfort, in which the wolverine tenderness Alice has known enables her to ‘save’ the Duke, who is lying injured in bed. In an echo of the ending of ‘The Tiger’s Bride’, Alice licks the Duke’s face like a dog consoling its master. As she does so, the Duke’s reflection slowly appears in the mirror. Carter’s masterpiece of fiction closes with a celebration of sensuality, tenderness and warmth which comes from the innocent natural world, far from the perverse eroticism, gender politics and scheming sexual power-plays of humans.

  • Bidisha
  • Bidisha is a writer, a BBC radio and TV broadcaster and a Trustee of the Booker Prize Foundation. She is the author of two novels, two bestselling works of travel and reportage, Venetian Masters: Under the Skin of the City of Love and Beyond the Wall: Writing a Path Through Palestine, and most recently her fifth book Asylum and Exile: Hidden Voices, based on her outreach work with asylum seekers and refugees.

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