All of the stories in The Bloody Chamber re-imagine the plots and revisit the themes of traditional fairy tales, making explicit their sexual subtexts. For example, Carter offers several different versions of ‘’Little Red Ridinghood” and ”Beauty and the Beast” that focus on innocent young girls’ seduction by animalistic men. Carter observes in her introduction to The Old Wives’ Fairy Tale Book, that “most fairy tales are structured around the relations between men and women,” thus offering an opportunity to look at these relations in all of their complexities and variations. But Carter laments how fairy tales have been simplified and sanitized in their transition from a popular oral tradition to books published for an audience of middle-class children. Carter sets out to candidly tell the morally ambiguous truths of gender dynamics in her own time by restoring frank sexuality and violence to the ancient fairy tale form.
While many of the stories in The Bloody Chamber are immediately recognizable as modern adaptations of classic fairy tales, ”The Erlking” is not so easy to place. It borrows images and figures from various fairy tales and makes an explicit reference to one of the best-known European fairy tales, ”Little Red Ridinghood.” In this essay, some of the connections between “The Erlking” and “Little Red Ridinghood” will be explored, as well as ways in which the two stories differ.
In the most familiar version of “Little Red Ridinghood,” published by the German brothers Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm in the mid-nineteenth century, an innocent and much-beloved young girl sets out into the woods to bring her ailing grandmother, who lives there, a basket of treats. She is waylaid by a wolf who—humanlike in his ability to talk—encourages her to dally in the woods and enjoy herself. She is nai’ve to any danger he poses and trustingly takes his suggestion, pausing to gather a bouquet of flowers for her grandmother. Meanwhile, the wolf goes to the grandmother’s house, devours her, dresses in her clothes, and lies in her bed in wait of the girl’s arrival. When she gets there, she feels that something is wrong but nevertheless speaks to the wolf as if he were her granny, at which point he devours her as well. Luckily, a huntsman comes to the rescue, cutting open the wolf’s stomach, from which both grandmother and Red Ridinghood emerge safe and sound. They kill the wolf by placing stones in his stomach.
The Grimm version is an example of what Carter would consider a sanitized and simplified fairy tale. The moral conflicts that arise are completely resolved; there is a clear distinction between good and evil. In the end, Little Red Ridinghood’s innocence remains intact and the wolf’s deception and violence are punished. In an interview with John Haffenden in his Novelists in Interview, Carter recounts her first encounter with the story. She says that her grandmother ”had no truck with that sentimental nonsense about a friendly woodcutter carefully slitting open the wolf s belly and letting out the grandmother.” At the frightening climax of the tale, when the wolf eats Little Red Ridinghood, “she used to jump on me and pretend to eat me. Like all small children, I loved being tickled and nuzzled; I found it bliss, and I’d beg her to relate the story to me just forthe sake of the ecstatic moment when she jumped on me.” She goes on to say that, as a traditional oral tale, ”the acting out of the story has always been part of the story,” which turns it into “something completely different—a rough kind of game.” It is a game that combines fear with pleasure. In Carter’s case, since it was her grandmother who told the tale, the confusion between benevolent and malevolent figures is particularly thorough: Carter’s (real, good) grandmother pretends to be the (evil) wolf who is, in the story, pretending to be the (fictional, good) grandmother. Maternal, caring, playful features are combined with masculine, threatening, deceptive features. The complexity of the emotions this evokes is apparent nowhere in the Grimm version but everywhere in The Bloody Chamber.
The oral versions of the original fairy tales were not intended especially for children; thus they were often not only frightening but also risque. In The Old Wives’ Fairy Tale Book, Carter explains that, starting with fairy tales’ print publication in the nineteenth century, ”the excision of references to sexual and excremental functions, the toning down of sexual situations and the reluctance to include ‘indelicate’ material—that is, dirty jokes—helped to denaturize the fairy tale and, indeed, helped to denaturize its vision of everyday life.” The happy ending to the Grimm version of ”Little Red Ridinghood” is one example of such expurgation. Another is the toning down of the story’s erotic subtext. This remains in Grimm only residually, for example, in the fact that the wolf lies in wait for Little Red Ridinghood in bed. Oral versions of “Little Red Ridinghood,” derived from werewolf tales, were likely to have Little Red Ridinghood a girl poised on the verge of womanhood and the wolf taking human form during their first encounter in the woods. This allows the story to stand as a warning against seduction and rape as much as against the danger of wild animals. Carter tells John Haffenden that it was her intent in The Bloody Chamber to “extract the latent content from the traditional stories and use it as the beginnings of new stories.”
“The Company of Wolves,” which also appears in The Bloody Chamber, retells the “Little Red Ridinghood” story quite faithfully, sticking to the events and even the language of the classic tale. A young girl, just beginning to become a woman, departs for her grandmother’s house deep in the woods, carrying a basket of treats and wearing a brilliant red shawl. She meets a werewolf in the human form of a charming hunter who finds out where she is heading, goes there ahead of her, eats her grandmother, and lies in wait for her. When he reveals himself as a wolf, intending to eat her, she— as if in response to the story’s subtext warning young girls against seductive strangers—takes off her clothes and submits to him sexually. The story ends with a tender embrace between girl and beast. While this ending may seem perverse, Carter explains it in terms of a change in power dynamics between the wolf and the girl, with Little Red Ridinghood taking control. “She ‘eats’ the wolf,” Carter explains to Haffenden.
“The Erlking” is a much looser interpretation of “Little Red Ridinghood,” borrowing from other tales as well. However, like “The Company of Wolves,” it treats the latent erotic content of the traditional tale as a starting point and shares an unflinching interest in a young girl’s ambivalent experience of losing her sexual innocence. It diverges significantly from the plot of the classic ”Little Red Ridinghood,” though it loosely follows the events of a virginal protagonist’s perils as she sets out in the wilderness, meets a beast-like man, and loses herself in him. Carter makes this parallel specific in one of two explicit references to ”Little Red Ridinghood”: ” A young girl would go into the wood as trustingly as Red Ridinghood to her granny’s house, but this light admits of no ambiguities and, here, she will be trapped in her own illusions because everything in the wood is exactly as it seems.” This statement both sets up the story’s parallel to the classic tale and suggests how it will reinterpret it.
Some of the imagery in ”The Erlking” also refers to ‘Little Red Ridinghood.” The wolf s most salient features are his hair (in the earlier werewolf version, hairiness is the first thing that distinguishes the beast from a man), his eyes (“the better to see you with!”), and his teeth (“the better to eat you with!”). These are also the physical features of the Erlking that Carter emphasizes. His long hair, the color of dead leaves and tangled with them, signals the Erlking as a bestial creature of nature. His eyes, “quite green, as if from too much looking at the wood” also represent his wildness and his danger. “What big eyes you have,” Carter writes, again referring explicitly to “Little Red Ridinghood.” “Eyes of an incomparable luminosity, the numinous phosphorescence of the eyes of lycanthropes [werewolves].” When he laughs, he “shows his white, pointed teeth with the spittle gleaming on them,” and in one sexual encounter he actually bites the narrator’s neck.
Furthermore, the Erlking’s unsettling charisma is described through imagery of eating: ”There are some eyes that can eat you.” Eating is, indeed, the most prominent metaphor used to describe the girl’s sexual encounters with him. However, as in “The Company of Wolves,” Carter re-imagines the original girl-beast dynamic in “Little Red Ridinghood” through imagery of eating that goes both ways. He is a “tender butcher” who skins her like a rabbit, but he also offers her food, and his own body is described in erotic terms as edible: “His skin is the tint and texture of sour cream, he has stiff, russet nipples ripe as berries.” Thus he combines nurturing and threatening qualities, ones that reflect back on the grandmotherly guise the wolf takes in the classic tale.
The Erlking also takes on maternal characteristics even more explicitly in other passages. “I should like to grow enormously small, so that you could swallow me, like those queens in fairy tales who conceive when they swallow a grain of corn or a sesame seed. Then I could lodge inside of your body and you would bear me.” The combination of pleasure and fear, of warning against strange seductive beasts and loving “rough play” that Carter encountered hearing the story on her grandmother’s lap are evidenced in her characterization of the Erlking himself. To be eaten by this “wolf” is, on some level, a tenderly nurturing experience.
In the traditional tale, the wolf charms Little Red Ridinghood, then pretends to be her grandmother, then, finally revealing himself as the true beast that he is, ravages her. In ”The Erlking” there are “no such ambiguities . . . everything in the wood is exactly as it seems.” The animal-man figure, the Erlking, doesn’t trick her. He doesn’t change form or pretend to be anything other than what he is—a beastly and sexual man who is also compellingly attractive. It is only the young narrator’s own illusions that allow her to become entrapped by him, if she is indeed entrapped. The story’s ambiguously narrated ending—where the protagonist’s revenge and liberation are narrated in the future tense—leaves open the question of who ultimately gains the upper hand.
Though “Little Red Ridinghood” is doubtless one of “The Erlking’s” imaginative underpinnings, Carter transforms the tale to an almost unrecognizable degree and, in the process, transforms the way female “innocence” and its loss are represented. While some feminists have criticized Carter for portraying women who enjoy their own victimization, it clearly could be argued that Carter, instead, redefines the deflowered Little Red Ridinghood figure as ultimately responsible for her own fate and, therefore, not a victim. She is not tricked by a wolf; at worst she is ”trapped in her own illusions.” And even before the story’s ambiguous close, there is evidence that the protagonist is capable of acting in her own interest, motivated by pleasure as well as fear.
Jennifer Smith – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 12, Angela Carter, Published by Gale Group, 2001.
Sarah Madsen Hardy, Critical Essay on “The Erlking,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2001