Fairy tales present evergreen motifs and ideas, their messages persist through time and remain universally applicable to ever-changing societies. In the second half of the 20th century, the number of fairy tale adaptations and retellings began to grow; one of the most notable authors in that respect is Angela Carter and her short story collection The Bloody Chamber. This article will discuss a single story from that collection in order to reveal what is achieved by a retelling—if fairy tales’ implications remain ever relevant, what niche do their retellings fill.
The Werewolf (one of the short stories within the collection) is a brief yet poignant retelling of the well-known Little Red Riding Hood story. Carter adapts the characters of the mother, the girl, the grandmother, and the wolf while setting the story in “a northern country” where “they have cold weather” and “cold hearts” (Carter, 1990, The Werewolf, para. 1).
Short stories are, generally, dependent on some sort of a twist: an expected outcome is to be subverted in order to elicit genuine emotion within the reader. Therefore, a retelling of a famous story fits well into the short story mold that often utilizes a plot twist. As soon as the reader recognizes that Carter is reshaping the Red Hood fairy tale, interest is peaked. Carter reveals her hand rather quickly: “Go and visit grandmother, who has been sick. Take her oatcakes I’ve baked for her on the hearthstone and a little pot of butter” (1990, The Werewolf, para. 6). Although vague, the phrasing of the sentence irrevocably evokes imagery of the aforementioned fairy tale. In her reshaping of the story, Carter uses "narrative irony, indeterminacy and play” (Andermahr 2012, ch. 2, para. 3), and it is precisely the combination of these three elements that makes The Werewolf interesting and thought provoking.
The third person narrator begins the retelling by speaking of a people in a northern country, how they are cold, how they live poor and brief lives, how they believe in the Devil, how they take precautions to ward off vampires, how quickly they deal with presumed witches. Narrative irony comes into play when a reader knows more than the characters within a story. This implies that a reader having a wider knowledge can go beyond what is written if it is relevant—few if any would argue that the original story does not matter for the analysis of a retelling.
Most readers who come upon Carter’s collection know the basics of the Red Riding Hood story: a girl is taking a basket of food to her grandmother through a dangerous forest where a wolf threatens her. However, the conflict between them is not resolved immediately; rather, the girl is allowed to reach her grandmother’s house where the wolf has supplanted the grandmother. The story follows a rather linear path and gives no agency to the presumed protagonist or the grandmother. The only dynamic characters are the implied male wolf and the hunter who saves the eaten girl. Of course, and this is the case with every fairy tale, different traditions tell the story differently, but the gist of it remains more or less the same.
Therefore, when one reads The Werewolf, there is an expected outcome to the story. The wolf is now an actual physical merger of human and animal (whereas previously it was merely a personified animal) and the girl is able to fight him off easily by slashing off its right paw. Immediately it is apparent that Carter’s protagonist is an active participant in the story.
When she reaches her grandmother’s house, the girl discovers her shivering in the bed; upon inspection, it is revealed that the grandmother is missing her right hand. This then becomes the twist, a subversion of the original story as here the (were)wolf is actually the grandmother.
However, that is only the most common reading of The Werewolf. The wording and ambiguousness with which the story was written opens the possibility for a slightly different reading. In this different reading, the setting becomes essential. Carter takes her time, at the onset of the story, to build up the idea how the pagan people of the north believe in witchcraft and the Devil and how any suspected witch is burned as soon as they find anything on her that resembles a third nipple.
From the girl’s bag, a severed hand falls out; not a paw, but an actual human hand. She cries out for help and the village folk burn her grandmother like the supposed witch that she is. “Now the child lived in her grandmother’s house; she prospered” (Carter, 1990, The Werewolf, para. 14) is the concluding sentence of the story. In any fictional narrative, readers reserve the right to ascribe any meaning they desire to anything that seems ambiguous. The narrator seems to imply that the girl was never attacked by a wolf in the first place: the girl injured her grandmother and lied about her being a witch/werewolf in order to inherit her house—after all, the narrator did warn the readers that northerners have cold hearts.
To understand exactly what is achieved by this retelling (whichever reading one subscribes to), one must look closer at what fairy tales are in their essence. In brief, they are fictional narrative shaped by societal influence; in that regard, they are not entirely dissimilar from mythologies. In Ali Smith’s 2007 novel Girl Meets Boy, an interesting question is posed:
Do myths spring fully from the imagination and the needs of a society … as if they emerged from society’s subconscious? Or are myths conscious creations by the various money-making forces? (89).
Similarly, in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, the modern American society is overrun by gods that stem from humanity’s belief in them. Old gods such as Odin are falling by the wayside, while gods made real by humanity’s greed and insatiability are rising in power. They are literally shaped by society’s needs—what the society deems as worthy and necessary becomes embodied in actual divine forms.
If one applies this logic to fairy tales, stories that stem from folk tradition, it is reasonable to conclude that they are shaped by what the audience of such stories needs to hear. Commonly it is said that children are the intended audience of fairy tales and a strong argument can be built that young children “need fairy tales” and “to read of happy endings, of daring mischief, and unequalled courage” (Sister Mary Agna, 1968, 952). However, when Perault and brothers Grimm wrote their collections of stories, they did not necessarily think of children as their primary audience.
“[Grimm Brothers’] intended audience included mainly literate adults who would potentially pass on the tales to all people in their communities and the young who would learn important moral and ethical lessons from the tales (Zipes, 2000, 79).
To anyone who has ever read the original stories, this is abundantly clear—they are much too visceral and gruesome. Yet, the message they carry largely remains the same; for the Red Riding Hood, if it is necessary to devolve it into a single message, one could claim that it expresses how dangerous it is to trust strangers. A lesson that children could learn, but adults should already know.
This is where the retellings of the late twentieth century come into play. The stories are “adapted to current literary models … [possible] inconsistencies are resolved, historical contextualization, and character description [are increased]” (Joosen, 2007, 228). Furthermore, certain imbalances may be addressed: earlier in the article, it was mentioned how female characters in the original tale were passive—a retelling offers opportunity for a more dynamic role and more developed characterization. But above all, the retellings allow for these evergreen stories to remain relevant for people of all generations.
It is difficult to put into words what makes a fairy tale retelling successful. Perhaps one can take a look at what is at the core of such tales and may discover that, in the end, the lessons they teach are their most important elements. While most adults understand the implicit danger of strangers, many still overvalue material possessions. Contemporary society has developed in a direction where the drive for the material often outweighs the need to preserve social and familial relationships (this is certainly not an invention of the modern age, but it has become more prevalent). Carter’s tale, or at the very least one reading of it, addresses such drives and desires; after all, they just may be more perilous today than the wolves who lurk in the shadows.
Andermahr, S. (2012). Contemporary Women’s Writing: Carter’s Literary Legacy. In Angela Carter: New Critical Readings. Continuum.
Carter, A. (1990). The Werewolf. In The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. Penguin Group.
Joosen, V. (2007). Disenchanting the Fairy Tale: Retellings of “Snow White” between Magic and Realism. Marvels & Tales, 21(2), 228–239. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41388836
Sister Mary Agna. (1968). Primary emphasis on fairy tales. Elementary English, 45(7), 952–954. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41386429
Smith, A. (2007). Girl Meets Boy. Canongate.
Zipes, J. (2000). The Contamination of the fairy tale, or The changing nature of the Grimms’ fairy tales. Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, 11(1 (41)), 77–93. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43308420
Cover figure: Anonymous. (1845). The Traditional Faëry Tales of Little Red Riding Hood, Beauty and the Beast, & Jack and the Beanstalk; Meeting the Wolf. [Illustration]. Wikipedia. Retrieved from: https://ku.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/W%C3%AAne:Little_Red_Riding_Hood_Meeting_the_Wolf.jpg
Figure 1: Cohen, I. (2006). The Wolf’s Story: What Really Happened to Little Red Riding Hood illustration. [Illustration]. Amazon. Retrieved from: https://www.amazon.se/Wolfs-Story-Really-Happened-Little/dp/1406301620
Figure 2: Smith, J. W. (1991). Little Red Riding Hood. Wikipedia. Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Little_Red_Riding_Hood#/media/File:Little_Red_Riding_Hood_-_J._W._Smith.jpg
Figure 3: Penguin Group. (1990). The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories cover. [Illustration]. Retrieved from: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/49011.The_Bloody_Chamber_and_Other_Stories
Figure 4: Kubel, O. (ca. 1900s). The Girl and the Wolf. Childstories. Retrieved from: https://www.childstories.org/en/little-red-riding-hood-1685.html