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Fairytales have always taught us how to live in our communities. But how must these tales be re-imagined to fit contemporary society? 

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Original illustration by Guy Shield

The image of the road looms large in even our most atavistic tales. Theseus must mark his wanderings through the labyrinth with string in order to slay the Minotaur and find his way back. Odysseus must traverse the fickle waterways of a raging ocean to find his path home, Melville’s crazed Captain Ahab to find the beast who broke him. Robert Frost’s lamenting traveller conjures the impossible choice of two roads diverged in a yellow wood, but way leads on to way and he can never find his path back.

For Frodo, the road goes ever on and on, all the way to the fires of Mordor and back again. Jack Kerouac’s Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty find freedom and meaning amid the loneliness of their never-ending road trips across America. Ernest Hemingway’s Robert Jordan lies with a destroyed leg and a rifle, ‘heart beating against the pine needle floor of the forest’, waiting for his destiny to make its way along the trail.

For these male characters – real, imagined, mythical – the road may well be a space of danger, of adventure, of pain or love, fear or excitement. But, at its origin, the road is a space of limitless potential.

In a 2013 article for Salon, American writer Vanessa Veselka asked ‘Where are the women Kerouacs?’ Using her own experiences of hitchhiking, as well as interviews, Veselka considered the curious pattern of workers at American truck stops not remembering women who had passed through – even if those women had done so multiple times.

These women were, for all intents and purposes, invisible. And they were invisible, she argues, because to be a woman on the road is to be a woman courting bodily harm: ‘they hadn’t been seen partly because there was no cultural narrative for them beyond rape and death.’  For the masculine heroes of our cultural memory, the road is a beginning. For women, in life as in literature, it is an ending.

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While many of our best-known stories are about men on the road, it is hard to find comparable tales about women. The consort of Kerouac’s On The Road is most likely Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise, a road-trip buddy-film with a devastating ending.

The eponymous characters’ plans for a two-day road trip turn awry when Thelma is attacked and almost raped in a parking lot. She is saved by Louise, herself a survivor of rape, who shoots and kills the attacker, forcing the two women to run from the law. The film ends with a still of Louise’s 1966 Ford Thunderbird convertible airborne at the precipice of the Grand Canyon. The sounds of crunching metal accompany a fade to white.

For the masculine heroes of our cultural memory, the road is a beginning. For women, it is an ending.

It is difficult to find stories about women on the road that do not end in rape and death. Perhaps it is because our stories are never new, but are rather clever retellings of things we already know. We retell our stories, altering their location, their inflection, and their intention. But the road is the geography of the hero. A woman has no place there. Women belong at home where their bodies and sexuality are controlled and protected.

One of the oldest tales in existence tells the story of a young girl on the road to her grandmother’s house. Today we recognise her by her accoutrements: her red cape and wicker basket. But, in the lineage of the legend, these are surprisingly fresh additions. The most recent research concludes that the story has existed in its familiar form since before the appearance of modern languages.

Its earliest recitations would therefore have been in a now lost Indo-European dialect; one that possibly predates the practice of basket weaving. But it is not the props that make the tale. The young girl’s fate is common knowledge throughout Europe, Asia, and North America. Although in these oral traditions the young girl is more often than not dead by the tale’s close, the reasons for her death (and the question of her guilt) remain changeable. Her narrative has adapted itself to different times, cultures and languages because it is not the girl which makes the tale, but the act of her being on the road.

Little Red Riding Hood, as she is now known, is the original woman on the road; already raped, already dead, doomed from the moment she steps onto the path to grandmother’s house. It is Little Red Riding Hood who, since time immemorial, has reminded us that women who step into the space of men and heroes do so at their own risk.

The tale is cloaked in imagery, symbolism, metaphor. The young girl carries symbols of purity stained with the precariousness of adolescence, budding sexuality barely encased inside membranous virginity: today, the red cape that enfolds her. She is a ripening flower just about to bloom.

The wolf, dangerous but enticing half-man that he is, is the embodiment of insatiable masculine ferocity. He tricks the girl into breaking the rules that have been lain down for her. She talks to this stranger, wanders off the path, and dawdles on the journey. For this transgression she is deserted to her fate: the tragedy of Little Red Riding Hood is not in the violent acts of the wolf, but in the assumption that it is ultimately she who is responsible for them.

The tale’s climax – in which the wolf consumes the girl – is one in which eating and sex are confused. It is a tale of blood that is spilt – corpse or virginal – and bodies which are ravished.

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Originally an oral tale, Little Red Riding Hood was restrained by the pen of patriarchal power by French author Charles Perrault in 1697. Part of his collection Histoires ou Contes du Temps Passé (Stories or Tales from the Past), Perrault called his version ‘Le Petit Chaperon Rouge’ (‘Little Red Cape’).

It was he who gifted Little Red Riding Hood her cape, ambiguous symbol of her budding sexuality, of her pursuit of a treacherous path, and of her culpability in her own consumption/rape. An instructive collection, Perrault’s fairytales also contained a moral, a lesson for the reader to take with them. Little Red Cape’s was unambiguous:

From this story one learns that children,
Especially young lasses,
Pretty, courteous and well-bred,
Do very wrong to listen to strangers,
And it is not an unheard thing
If the Wolf is thereby provided with his dinner.

Augmented by the German Grimm Brothers’ similarly moralistic version of 1812, ‘Rotkäppchen’ (‘Red Cap’), Little Red Riding Hood became forever nameless and thus inextricable from her redness. Sent out into the woods as cautionary example, Little Red Riding Hood became female desire personified – fickle, easily satiated, and self-destructive – and her downfall exemplary justification for patriarchal rule.

These are the versions that we have inherited. Inscribed as red-hooded fallen woman before the close of the 17th century, Perrault’s and the Grimm Brothers’ Little Red Riding Hood dominates contemporary tellings. Yet, with the dual imagery of budding female sexuality, and of the female body violently restrained by masculine power in the form of the ever-insatiable wolf, it is not difficult to see why Little Red Riding Hood has for so long piqued the interest of feminist writers and provoked retellings which attempt to re-inscribe the tale free from its inherent misogyny.

Curling around these retellings, the Perrault and Grimm versions of Little Red Riding Hood act like the sinister and potentially dangerous woods which Red must traverse; a confused path upon that subversive and feminist tales could potentially trip and fall into support of a male-sculpted femininity.

British writer Angela Carter’s 1979 trilogy resists the tug, paving another path for the development of female sexuality, desire, and identity, re-inscribing Little Red Riding Hood as an active agent in her patriarchal society.

This trilogy – ‘The Werewolf’, ‘The Company of Wolves’, and ‘Wolf-Alice’ – closes The Bloody Chamber, her collection of feminist fairytales. Her inspiration came from translating Charles Perrault’s fairytales from French to English, two years prior. Having completed a linguistic translation of the work, Carter engaged in a cultural translation, creating a new language to establish Little Red Riding Hood as having sexual agency and desire.

In each story, the notion of agency, of power and choice, is re-gifted to the girl.

This re-imagined trilogy is a powerful and subversive protest against the narratives of female passiveness and male violence that we have inherited. It provides a means by which all readers and writers, especially women, can re-imagine a world in which the narrative is shifted to opening out potential, rather than an infinite inclination towards violation and death. If, as Joan Didion suggested in The White Album, ‘we tell ourselves stories in order to live’, then a feminist reimagining of Little Red Riding Hood such as Carter’s is an example of women telling themselves stories in order to survive; in order to navigate an imposed assumption that to be solitarily outside, to occupy paths and roads, is to court rape and death.

In ‘The Werewolf,’ the young girl is attacked by the wolf on her way to grandmother’s house. But she carries a hunting knife. She slices off the wolf’s paw, it ‘lets out a gulp, almost a sob’ and then slopes off into the woods ‘leaving a trail of blood behind it’. She keeps the paw as a trophy.

The girl has won her battle with the wolf – ‘wolves are less brave than they seem’ – but when she gets to grandmother’s house she finds the old woman in a fevered state, moaning and sweating between the bedsheets. The old woman is missing a hand, the bloodied stump an eerie echo of the now-human fist which lies inside the girl’s satchel. The villagers are raised by screams, and the old woman is beaten to death. The girl remains in her grandmother’s house where, at the tale’s close we are told, ‘she prospered’.

‘The Company of Wolves’ opens with a succession of legends and superstitions about wolves. We learn that wolves are terrifying creatures with eyes that burn like candle flame. They are ‘grey as famine…unkind as plague.’ We learn of bizarre happenings where men turn into wolves and back again. We learn that a werewolf often has the body of a man, but always the heart and genitals of a wolf. Most importantly, we learn that: ‘seven years is a werewolf’s natural span but if you burn his human clothing you condemn him to wolfishness for the rest of his life…as if clothes made the man.’

Armed with this information, we are plunged into the main story; a headstrong girl leaves her home to travel through the woods carrying provisions for ‘a reclusive grandmother so old the burden of her years is crushing her to death.’ She has defied her family’s bidding to be on the road; they wished for her to remain at home. Along the way she encounters a charming and flirtatious male traveller. They enter into a competition to see who can get to grandmother’s first – the wager, a kiss: ‘commonplaces of a rustic seduction.’ They part ways and the girl dawdles, perhaps excited for what else the man will demand for his winnings.

At the house, the wolf tricks the grandmother into letting him in: ‘The last thing the old lady saw in all this world was a young man, eyes like cinders, naked as a stone, approaching her bed.’ When the girl arrives to a house emptied of familial protection, she realises she is the wolf’s prisoner. He instructs her to burn her clothes:

She…took off her scarlet shawl, the colour of poppies, the colour of sacrifices, the colour of her menses, and, since fear did her no good, she ceased to be afraid.

Throwing her garments on the fire, she also burns his attire, condemning him to his wolfishness and deciding his place in their ‘savage marriage’. As the dawn breaks above the deviant couple, we see the girl sleeping in grandmother’s bed ‘between the paws of the tender wolf’.

The final story, ‘Wolf-Alice’, tells of a young girl raised by wolves: lacking speech, the young girl is more animal than the wolves of superstition:

Her panting tongue hangs out; her red lips are thick and fresh. Her legs are long, lean and muscular. Her elbows, hands and knees are thickly callused because she always runs on all fours. She never walks; she trots or gallops. Her pace is not our pace.

‘Rescued’ and sent to a nunnery, the girl makes her way through her new world with her nose – ‘two-legs looks, four-legs sniffs’ – discovering, along the way, shame; predominantly at her nakedness.

Proving too much for the nuns, the girl is sent further afield to the house of the mysteriously nocturnal and deathly pale Duke. In his mansion she finds a mysterious glass in which she discovers a playmate who mimics her every look and gesture, but in which the Duke’s mimesis never appears. The villagers do not like the Duke, and at the tale’s close they attack him, leaving him half-dead in the graveyard Church that serves as his bedroom and where the young girl’s mirror friend resides.

The wolf girl, concerned for the Duke, prowls ‘around the bed, growling, snuffing at his wound that does not smell like her wound’ – her wound that, like an internal clock striking the month, has taught her to live not just in the present tense but also in the past and even the future. Licking clean the Duke’s wounds, she notices a change in the mirror:

Little by little, there appeared within it, like the image on photographic paper that emerges, first, a formless web of tracery, the prey caught in its own fishing net, then in firmer yet still shadowed outline until at last as vivid as real life itself, as if brought into being by her soft, moist, gentle tongue, finally, the face of the Duke.

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If Little Red Riding Hood is a tale of violence, rape, and death, then it is also a tale of power: of who holds it, what gives it, and who suffers from it. It shows how power shifts, how it subverts, undermines, and destroys. In this trilogy, Carter re-imagines the terms of engagement which render the girl powerless and attempts to invert them. In each story, the notion of agency, of power and choice, is re-gifted to the girl.

The young girl of ‘The Werewolf’ hails from ‘a northern country; they have cold weather, they have cold hearts’. She lives among the ‘upland woodsmen’ who lead ‘harsh, brief, poor lives’. Attacked without warning while walking, the young girl protects herself along the woodland path from the wolf with her shawl and her father’s hunting knife. Handing the girl symbols of both masculine and feminine power, the knife and the menstrual-red cape, Carter gifts Little Red Riding Hood knowledge and therefore power: ‘you know how to use it’, her mother says of the knife.

But what of the fact that the wolf is revealed as her grandmother? Or that the old woman is chased from her home and beaten to death in a frenzy of mob violence reminiscent of a witch hunt?

For literary theorist Kimberly Lau, Carter’s recasting of the typically male wolf as the young girl’s grandmother obfuscates binary gender, thereby undermining patriarchal relations of power. The grandmother as masculine wolf is an example of matrilineal succession corrupted by male privilege.

Feminist retellings of our oldest tales open new paths along which women can safely walk.

Lau argues that Carter creates through the grandmother a ‘phallic mother…the supposed omnipotent master of the child’s desire and the child’s eventual initiation into language and the symbolic order.’ Rejecting this corrupted patriarchal order violently, Carter’s Little Red Riding Hood destroys the wolfish part of this phallic mother before taking her place in her grandmother’s house in an unbroken line of female inheritance.

In ‘The Company of Wolves’, we are told ‘[t]he wolf is carnivore incarnate…once he’s had a taste of flesh then nothing else will do.’ While in the original tales Little Red Riding Hood was only to be characterised as ‘meat’, in Carter’s adaptation she is described by the wolf as ‘flesh’. This distinction is important to Carter’s subversion.

In her 1978 analysis of the representation of women in the work of the late 18th-century novelist Marquis de Sade, entitled The Sadeian Woman, Carter distinguishes between ‘flesh’ and ‘meat’:

flesh has specific orifices to contain the prick that penetrates it but meat’s relation to the knife is more random and a thrust anywhere will do.

Explicitly characterising the wolf’s desire in terms of ‘flesh’, Carter thus allows Little Red Riding Hood to determine the boundaries of her ‘I’ status. She seduces the wolf and laughs at his reference to eating her: ‘she knew she was nobody’s meat.’ By substituting the wolf’s desire for her body as thing for his desire for her body as person, Little Red Riding Hood takes charge of the language associated with her body – flesh not meat – and with her desire. Carter’s Little Red Riding Hood is neither victim nor naïve girl. She is actively desiring and desired, an agent who chooses the language and law which will define her desire and her body laying between the wolf’s paws.

Similarly, Lau argues that the development from cub to woman of the character Wolf Alice shows Carter’s rejection of dominant representations of femininity as constructed by patriarchal language. Instead, Carter establishes a new language through a ‘more sensory realm’.

Rejecting the symbolic order imagined by male-centric theories of femininity, Carter invents a language of scent to explore female development, desire, and sexuality. Her new paradigms eschew the harmful binaries of virgin/whore, victim-to-be-pitied/deserving-transgressor, desired/desiring, and powerful man/powerless woman. By confusing sexual desires with eating desires, Carter rejects the concept of a passive feminine desire in favour of an exploration of how female sexual appetites are constructed and satiated in a patriarchal context.

Little Red Riding Hood is ultimately a tale of feminine desire framed and constrained by patriarchal language and law. Carter cannot escape or wholly transcend the tale she has inherited. Instead, she re-inscribes the meaning of the symbols of Little Red Riding Hood’s violation and death so that they no longer signify ‘deserving victim’. Carter’s trilogy provides new ways to imagine and understand both female desire and its interactions and collisions with patriarchy. Although not without issue, Carter’s tales re-imagine and re-signify what it means to be a woman on the road.

Feminist retellings of our oldest tales open new paths along which women can safely walk. Fairytales are stories of instruction; they teach us how to survive within the worlds and societies we have created. Powerful feminist re-imaginings, then, teach us how to create the worlds and societies in which we can live.