Tag Archives: Angela Carter

Alpha at different times





In art wolves may be dangerous predators to be feared or symbols of personal strength and power. Angela Carter employs both motifs in three stories in The Bloody Chamber.

In “The Company of Wolves”, the wolves are terrifying. They have eyes “like wraiths”, their howl is “an aria of fear made audible”. They are “grey as famine, as unkind as plague”. Children have to carry sharp knives to defend themselves. A confident young girl sets out like Red Riding Hood to visit her grandmother. Later, she undresses in front of the handsome young werewolf, and, unconcerned about the gory death her grandmother has just endured, ends the story happily being in bed with him.

In “The Werewolf”, another child is visiting her sick grandmother through a dangerous neighbourhood. She too carries a knife, and, when a wolf attacks, she retaliates and cuts off the animal’s right forepaw. This time the grandmother is not innocent. The wolf’s paw has changed into a human hand and her grandmother is ill with fever because her hand has been cut off. She is a witch and the child unsentimentally leads her execution by the villagers.

“Wolf-Alice” is different: the main character is a girl who was adopted by a wolf as a baby and later rescued by humans. She has responded to human kindness but her wolf qualities are seen as signs of strength: she has “spiky canines” and “bold nakedness”, she is “wild, impatient of restraint “ and “sleeps in the soft warm ashes of the hearth”. The story describes her growing up and developing a maturity which is still animal as much as human. She lives in the castle of a duke who is an actual werewolf whom she tries to help when he is shot.

The idea of humans adopted by wolves possibly originates from the legend of Romulus and Remus and spread through later fictional inventions like The Jungle Book. Caitlin Moran clearly saw it as a heroic and exciting image when she chose Raised by Wolves as the title of the TV series based on her own unconventional childhood, part of a large family sharing infrequent school attendance.

Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves places a similar unusual childhood within a spartan American habitat. Her teenage lead character, Linda, lives in rural Minnesota, in a landscape not dissimilar from “The Company of Wolves”; sparsely populated, full of lakes and forests and a few cabins, many hours’ drive from the nearest big town of Duluth, short of material comfort and entertainment, enduring a harsh winter. She feels isolated from her parents who once lived as part of a commune and spends a lot of time baby-sitting for (and with) a young mother whose older husband is often away from home. A brief but significant meeting is with a teacher Mr Grierson. He encourages her to take part in an inter-school History Odyssey at which she chooses the topic of a History of Wolves. Linda’s story is not a Carter-esque fantasy but is certainly presented as taking place in an isolated and eerie and unusual world.




Lupine characters of a less ferocious kind featured in the early work of two other Scottish arts practitioners. The Wolves in the Walls was one of the first shows staged by the National Theatre of Scotland which also toured to England and the USA. These wolves, created by Neil Gaiman, are hidden within the house walls of the ordinary (if usually preoccupied) suburban family of Lucy.

Wolves was the title of the first album of the band My Latest Novel which featured a song called “When We Were Wolves”. Its lines both hint at a conventional domestic setting, and also detail an escape from it : “When we were wolves… we ran…and we hide in lightless rooms and we banged on our pianos”.

A final wolf in this artistic pack is Company of Wolves, a small Glasgow-based theatre group. Their work certainly tends to be physical and non-verbal. “Raw” and “uncivilised” are two other qualities which they say they aim to create. However I was somewhat disappointed to be told directly by the group’s co-founder Ewan Downie at a post-performance discussion that the name of the group is unconnected to Angela Carter and is simply a phrase which suggests strength and mystery.

Wolves. Although extinct in most countries over recent centuries, still a powerful motif. Often protective rather than savage and aggressive and predatory. As Angela Carter writes in “Wolf- Alice”, “ (they inhabit) only the present tense…a world of sensual immediacy as without hope as it is without despair”. As Linda says in her History of Wolves project, “alpha only at certain times and for a specific reason.” And she adds, “Those words” – which are taken from a real-life book called Of Wolves and Men by one Barry Lopez – “always made me feel I was drinking something cool and sweet, something forbidden.”

References : Carter, Angela (1984)  The Bloody Chamber    Harmondsworth: Penguin
Fridlund, Emily (2017)  History of Wolves    London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson


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Angela Carter’s fairy stories


In fiction, non-fiction and journalism, Angela Carter was one of the most high-profile writers of her generation before her death in 1992. I was particularly fond of her subversive feminist fantasies  The Bloody Chamber and Nights at the Circus.

For some years after her death her work appeared to fall from public favour, but then I began to notice occasional theatre adaptations. Last year at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, I saw an effervescent production of Nights at the Circus by the Fourth Monkey theatre company.

This led me to re-read Carter’s short story collection The Bloody Chamber which I had loved the first time, both before and after Neil Jordan’s film The Company of Wolves .  Some of the stories seem as strong as ever, like the title story where the heroine, imprisoned in an island castle by a sinister husband, is rescued by the dramatic arrival of her pistol-wielding mother,  and the Rabelaisian reworking of “Puss-in-Boots”. Much of her language retains its previous power, like the description in “The Company of Wolves”  of  “the night of the solstice, the hinge of the year when things do not fit together as well as they should”  and the idea from the same story that female virginity is a sign of strength and empowerment  : “the invisible pentacle of her virginity…a sealed vessel…a magic space…she does not know how to shiver…she is afraid of nothing”.

Perhaps it was Carter’s premature death which makes her dark, sensual style seem to belong to the distant past in which these stories are set. Or perhaps simply that my perspectives of human behaviour have changed and these are stories more suited to a younger reading age?  Certainly I heard Marina Warner describe it as “a rite of passage book”.  Even though perhaps I have lost contact with Carter’s full impact, the readings by Katarina Rankovic certainly seem to have the appropriate tone and flavour.

I had already recognised Carter’s influence in the work of contemporary poets Liz Lochhead and Carol Ann Duffy, but it was exciting to discover a poem from an earlier period which has a Carteresque richness and mystery, Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”,  and which by coincidence is being dramatised in Edinburgh this year.


Reference :  Carter, Angela (1984)   The Bloody Chamber and other stories  Harmondsworth : Penguin


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