Angela Carter died more than a quarter of a century ago. It was a shock to find out, simply because she felt so modern that she just had to be alive and vibrant somewhere. And most of those interviewed in a recent BBC documentary agreed that she had been way ahead of her time, so far ahead that now modernity was finally catching up with her.
She also did a lot to push those modern times into being. Salman Rushdie claims that his generation of writers loved Carter and they had been “[…] enormously enabled by it. It gave us permission to be wilder and more inventive.”
Yet the subjects of her most famous book, the short story collection The Bloody Chamber, are certainly ancient; the old European fairy tales that the Brothers Grimm and others collected. Still, the title story, The Bloody Chamber, speaks straight to the present in revealing the eternal predatory nature of men and according to Rushdie, “It’s as good a description of Harvey Weinstein as it‘s possible to get.”
That story is based on the tales of Bluebeard, but here I intend to study further tales based on Little Red Riding Hood, some wolves and Alice in Wonderland.
Mirror, mirror, on the wall, what blood is that?
Carter retells the fairy tale in very much her own fashion, blends them together and in some ways this is a inter-active short story collection, where the reader can choose the outcome. An example of that are the two stories based on Beauty and the Beast, two stories with very different morals and conclusions. Yet somehow, they fit perfectly together in this collection, Carter understanding better than most the contradictory nature vital to all good storytelling.
At the end of the collection there are three stories that all recall the tale of Little Red Riding Hood to some degree; “The Warewolf,” “The Company of Wolves” (which is perhaps closest to the classic tale, yet far away from it) and “Wolf-Alice,” that is perhaps furthest away from the classic tale. I’ve heard it takes a lot from a forgotten variant of Little Red Riding Hood, “About a Girl Saved by Wolf Cubs,” but I find very little more about that tale.
But Wolf-Alice is also imbued with other tales, Beauty and the Beast is an influence and so is, as the name suggests, Alice in Wonderland, as well as younger authored fairy-tales such as The Jungle Book and Tarzan. The world the characters inhibited is well described in “The Company of Wolves”: “Children do not stay young for long in this savage country. There are no toys for them to play with so they work hard and grow wise […]”
Alice is a wolf-child that goes back to the human world when her wolf-mother is shot to death (perhaps Bambi should be added in the list of influences)? At first some nuns take her in, but they finally give up on her and she ends up with The Duke – a strange beast of a werewolf that is hard to pin down. He mostly leaves her to her own devices and the majority of the story is simply about Alice learning how to cope in this new human world.
Soon after moving in with The Duke two things happen: she finds a mirror and she starts bleeding. Therefore, she is discovering her femininity at the same time she’s discovering her humanity. Little by little she realizes the image in the mirror is not a copycat friend, but herself, but that only furthers her education – to find herself, to develop the self-awareness vital to be human.
Prior to that she was simply an animal. “Like the wild beasts, she lives without a future. She inhabits only the present tense, a fugue of the continuous, a world of sensual immediacy as without hope as it is without despair.”
Yet most creatures are not quite what they seem in these tales. For example, the hunter and the wolf in “The Company of Wolves” seem to be one and the same. Werewolves are just one example of the creature fluidity of this world, where humans and animals live together, and anybody can become pretty much anything (yet that’s not always a good thing). The tales are dreamy and fascinating, tickling something deep in our fairy-tale soaked sub-conscious.
Finally, it’s worth recommending the BBC documentary I mentioned earlier, Angela Carter: Of Wolves & Women, which can be viewed here (if you are in the UK, geographically or otherwise). There are interviews with friend and colleague Margaret Atwood, as well as authors such as Jeanette Winterson (who just last weekend was smuggled here) and Anne Enright, who studied creative writing with Carter. The doc also features fine actresses such as Kelly Macdonald, Laura Fraser and Maureen Lipman reading Angela’s texts and some great stop-motion animation is used to illustrate her worlds, while Hattie Morahan plays Angela herself – and there are also some old clips of the writer herself. This is simply a case study of how to make a good documentary about a writer, highly recommended.
Texti: Ásgeir H Ingólfsson