Elements of The Company of Wolves
A movie co-written by Angela Carter and Neil Jordan
The movie The Company of Wolves contains many elements. In it, several stories are told, both in the form of a dream, and stories told within the dream. The main character, Rosaleen, is shown to be asleep at the beginning of the movie, and in her dream, the main story-arc is told. One has to pay close attention throughout the movie, as it is full of symbolism and innuendo, and one will become quickly lost otherwise. The movie also makes reference to many fairy tales beyond that upon which the main story-arc is based, and uses many classical fairy tale elements.
Gist of the Movie
The main story arc of the movie itself occurs entirely inside a dream and is yet another coming of age story by Angela Carter. Through fairy tale imagery, she tells of Rosaleen’s loss of innocence and her childhood, and of the inevitability of adulthood. The sleeping Rosaleen dreams of herself as a peasant in a mid-Renaissance village in the middle of a dark forest. She is courted by a young boy, of whom she is not too terribly fond, but, being that there are no other prospects in town, she at the very least allows him to carry on. Over the course of time, she gives in to him more and more, finally accepting a date with him to walk through the woods, where he pressures her for a kiss. She gives in, not because she wants to kiss him, but to prove she’s not scared. Then, not liking the kiss at all, she runs away, and strays from the path, where she runs into a tree that might be seen as the Tree of Knowledge (the serpent Lilith is even found to be hanging amongst its branches). Here she finds a stork’s nest (the stork flies away as she clambers up the branches of the tree), and in this nest are a mirror (her vanity), and several eggs. While admiring herself in the mirror, the eggs hatch, revealing little jade babies. This scene is clearly representing the beginning of her loss of innocence, and might even imply that she lost her virginity while in the woods and became pregnant, as she returns to town cradling one of the jade babies. Later, after winter falls, she is off to granny’s with her picnic basket when she encounters a French Prince (the wolf!), who quite nearly seduces her in a clearing. Not completely able to seduce her, he makes a wager that he can beat her to granny’s, with his prize being a single kiss from her (this would be her third kiss in the movie, the first two having been coerced out of her by first her granny, then the boy suitor). She agrees, and the wolf-Prince takes off cross country, his trusty compass leading the way to grandmother’s house. Of course he gets there before Rosaleen (this is, after all, a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood), wherein her confronts the grandmother, slays her (after she puts up a fight as any good strong female character in an Angela Carter tale should), and takes her place in the rocking chair, but makes no effort to disguise himself. Rosaleen arrives soon thereafter, immediately recognizing that the wolf-Prince has beaten her to granny’s. Discovering that he slew granny, she pulls a knife on him, which he deftly removes from her hands and then engages her in conversation, during the course of which her red cloak is removed and tossed into the fireplace (her innocence lost). At one point in the conversation she manages to seize his rifle, and promptly shoots at the wolf, but misses. It is at this point that she remembers the bet, and tenders payment of the kiss. (this one, the third kiss in the movie, being the only one she proffers almost voluntarily). But his teeth are too big, and shock her, at which point she pulls away, the famous exchange of words is made, and she shoots him, triggering his transformation into a wolf. His transformation, and cries as a wolf, make her see the error of her ways, and she apologizes, in the form of the final story of the movie (the other three stories told within the dream having been told at previous intervals). Upon conclusion of her story, the villagers arrive, the prince-Wolf crashes through the window, and Rosaleen’s parents break into the cottage, finding Rosaleen herself in wolf form. Her father tries to shoot her and is stopped by her mother, but not before Rosaleen follows her lover out the window, at which point the pack of wolves run through the woods into the dreamscape which told the first sub-story of the movie, and into the real world, where they run through the house, with the movie ending when one wolf crashes through Rosaleen’s bedroom window, waking her, and dashing her childhood toys to the floor, signaling the painful end of her childhood as she awakens to adulthood.
Sub-Stories Within the Movie
Through the course of the movie, there are 5 sub-stories told which compliment the main story arc. The first is the transitional story which brings us from the real world into the dream-world. The scenery is clearly a dreamscape. Rosaleen’s sister is harassed by toys and chased, finally cornered, and killed by wolves. This then leads to the main story, which is the bulk of the dream. During the course of the main dream, the grandmother tells two stories, and Rosaleen tells two (the two being told *after* her climb up the Tree of Knowledge signaling her awakening adulthood and fading innocence). Her grandmother’s first tale begins with a couple’s wedding night. On their way to bed, the groom is angered by a hedgehog, and goes outside to dispose of it, where he is lured away by the call of nature. He does not return that evening, and after a search by all the townsfolk, is declared missing. She remarries, but some years later, after she has had three children, he returns. He is angered by the lack of fidelity he sees, and transforms into a wolf, but her new husband promptly returns, chops his head off, and it falls into a tub of milk, wherein he is cleansed of his sins and he returns to his original human form (but remains dead). Her second story tells of a man’s encounter with the devil in the woods (the devil’s car is driven by Rosaleen, symbolizing woman’s capacity for evil, as the mother says at one point: “If there is a beast within man, it meets its match in woman.”). The devil gives him an ointment, he rubs it on his chest, and is transformed into a wolf. Rosaleen’s stories have a slightly different bent than her grandmother’s. The first tells of a woman spurned. It starts with a wedding celebration, but a woman enters, pregnant with the child of the groom. She tells of how he abandoned her, then curses all present (except the servants), transforming them into wolves. They all go fleeing into the woods, but the spurned woman forces them to serenade her and her child every full moon (it is interesting to note that this occurs when she is sitting, with her infant, in the very same Tree of Knowledge Rosaleen climbed earlier). The final tale told by Rosaleen takes the symbolism of the wolf as carnal knowledge and turns it upside down. A she-wolf emerges from a well. But whereas the wolf would normally represent carnal knowledge, here she represents purity. She wanders into town, is shot by a villager (rape!), then flees to a churchyard, where she transforms into human form (innocence lost, she transforms from beast to man), and is comforted by a priest. After her wounds are tended to, she decides she wants nothing of this world and flees back to the well from which she came.
References to Fairy Tales
The main story-arc of The Company of Wolves is based on the original Little Red Riding Hood. Rosaleen is clearly Little Red Riding Hood inside her dream – her granny fashions a soft, bright red cloak for her, which she wears through about half the movie. Interestingly, Rosaleen in the real world is more akin to Sleeping Beauty – the décor of the house, and the overgrowth within it are near identical facsimiles of the artwork of Gustave Dore in Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty. At the beginning of the first tale told within the dream, a reference to Hans My Hedgehog is made. In this brief story, a couple is going to bed on the eve of their wedding. The bride pulls back the sheets, and underneath is a hedgehog. She puts it on the floor, and her husband approaches, forgets about the hedgehog, and promptly steps on it. This prompts his ire and he opens the door to toss the hedgehog outside, wherein he encounters the moon and runs away. He later returns and begins his transformation into a wolf. But, where in Hans My Hedgehog, Hans sheds his skin to become a human, here, the groom sheds his skin (literally rather gruesomely tearing it off on screen) to become a wolf. The Frog Prince makes several appearances throughout the movie, finally transforming into the French prince who is also the wolf of the tale Little Red Riding Hood. When Rosaleen is on her way to her granny’s house to take her the basket, she comes across a clearing in the woods, in the middle of which is a stump. The frog, which has by this point made several appearances in the movie, is seen in the middle of the stump. A sound is heard, Rosaleen is distracted, and when she turns back, the frog is gone, but the Prince (the wolf in human form) is standing in its place.
While this movie is absolutely chock full of symbolism, and all of it couldn’t possibly be addressed in a short paper, I shall at the very least address some small amount of it. As I said previously, it is clear that the Red Cloak represents Rosaleen’s innocence. Interestingly, while grandmother tells her tales to Rosaleen, she is also spinning the yarn for, and knitting, the same cloak. Rosaleen makes comments about the cloak (comments about her innocence): it is “Soft as a Kitten” and “Red as Blood.” This clearly indicates that, while innocence can be comforting, it is not altogether a good thing, and can lead one to ruin.
Lilith, in the form of a snake, makes several appearances throughout the movie, usually at moments when Rosaleen is confronted with temptation, or oncoming knowledge which would challenge her innocence and further her awakening towards adulthood. Lilith is found in the Tree of Knowledge, as well as hanging from a branch overhanging the path on the way to and from Grandmother’s house. In grandmother’s garden, apples can be found, and Rosaleen takes a bite from one on the ground, only to find it worm-ridden – knowledge doesn’t always agree with one’s sensitivities.
Throughout the movie, the beast, or the wolf, is used to represent carnal knowledge. Each time women are confronted with this knowledge, the wolf is involved in some way or form. The wolf also represents the bestial nature in all men, as well as the evil within. But in true Angela Carter fashion, she uses it for more than that – it is also the knowledge of one’s self, and the shedding of skin or the transformation from man to wolf can be seen as the coming to terms with one’s sexuality.
Knowledge-symbols are rife in the movie. The crow makes several appearances. Rosaleen’s grandmother is seen to be spinning yarn when she tells her tales. The apples in grandmother’s garden are clearly knowledge-symbols.
The array of symbolism is used primarily to tell of the coming of age of Rosaleen, of the loss of her innocence, in stages, starting with her first kiss with the suitor-boy, progressing as she climbs the Tree of Knowledge and finds the Stork-brought jade babies, and being completed with her seduction by the wolf-Prince and the burning of her shawl in the fireplace. Her childhood is lost, and she awakens to adulthood as Rosaleen in wolf form crashes through her own window into the real-world Rosaleen’s bedroom, knocking all her own childhood toys to the floor.
The Company of Wolves is an incredibly well-told and complex movie. It carries 6 total stories which are all woven together to tell one main tale. It bears less fetishistic content than many of Angela Carter’s works, but it is every bit as dark, and every bit as feministic. It takes the traditional tale of Little Red Riding Hood, embellishes, and turns the story on its head, but ultimately tells of a similar event – a woman’s coming of age.