I read and loved the book a few years after it came out, but I hadn't reread it until now, and I think I got even more out of it this time. These are far more than just retellings or updated versions. Carter is using the rich mine of fairy story to tell magical, horrific and thought-provoking stories for our time.
It seems to me that there are two predominant themes running throughout the collection. One, as in much of Carter's work, is the replacement of weak, passive heroines with strong girls or women who triumph through their own qualities, not through being rescued by a hero.* The other is the counterpoint between the civilised and bestial natures in humanity, a theme reminiscent in its contrasting interpretations of Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf.
Each story is, to a greater or lesser extent, based on one or more standard fairy stories, and some of the originals get more than one treatment. Some have relatively recent settings, either late 19th or earlier 20th centuries, while others have more traditional settings but a modern sense of perspective and psychology.
The title story, and by far the longest, is based on the tale of Bluebeard, who deliberately married and murdered a series of wives. The original is a strange tale which many have suggested was based on the bloodthirsty Giles de Rais, a contemporary of Joan of Arc. However, there are distinct similarities to the ballad Lady Isobel and the Elf Knight, also known as The Outlandish Knight, which is found all over Europe and may represent the remnants of a prehistoric ritual of human sacrifice.
Carter approaches the tale as a classic non-supernatural gothic story, complete with the forbidding older husband, the inadequate young wife haunted by her predecessors, the ancient, ancestral home — and, needless to say, the locked door that she mustn't open but does.
On the face of it, the passive, helpless heroine doesn't fit the mould of a strong woman, but she does achieve a kind of composure in the face of what seems certain death, and the story's coda shows her having achieved strength and independence. And, perhaps most importantly, she's rescued not by a hero, but by her mother.
The husband certainly represents a kind of bestial nature, but not true bestiality. He's sophisticated, calculating in his atrocities, addicted to sadistic porn masquerading as art, and he uses specious philosophy to justify his mass-murdering. This is the bestiality of the gas chambers, not of the jungle.
Two versions of Beauty and the Beast follow. The Courtship of Mr Lyon is a fairly conventional interpretation, although modernised (the trouble starts when the father's car breaks down near the Beast's mansion). Perhaps the most interesting part is the picture given of Beauty's seduction away from her promise, almost causing Mr Lyon's death.
The Tiger's Bride, by contrast, shows us a crueller, wilder version of the tale, with a contemptible father and a genuinely dangerous Beast. The ending, too, is a marked change, with Beauty finally rejecting the corrupt hypocrisy of civilised ways and learning to share the Beast's true nature. In this story, Beauty is used throughout as a pawn by the male characters, but finally proves stronger than any of them.
Puss-In-Boots provides a rare light interlude in the book. Told in the mannered style of a comedia dell'arte play, this has the resourceful feline servant conniving to allow his lascivious master to first enjoy, then to marry a beautiful girl tied in marriage to an impotent, misanthropic old miser — striking up a parallel liaison himself with the girl's female tabby.
At first glance, this seems rather out of place, with two male leads and the heroine used essentially as a sex object. On the other hand, she's no passive seducee — it's quite clear that she's as horny as her suitor, and she becomes a willing co-conspirator against the husband she's been sold to.
The Erl-King, by contrast, shows both running themes to good advantage. The eponymous character comes from Germanic folklore, though he's best known from Goethe's poem of the same name, and is usually interpreted as either king of the elves or the leader of the Wild Hunt. Here, he's an enigmatic figure, perhaps a spirit, perhaps a man, living in the forest. An impressionable girl is captivated by him but realises just in time that the birds he keeps in cages are her predecessors, and a cage is waiting for her.
This is obviously a metaphor for the prison of a marriage, which the heroine has the strength to escape, but the concept of the bestial is more contradictory. The Erl-King seems to be a figure of pure nature, and that's what attracts the heroine, but perhaps he has more of civilisation that it seems. His home in the forest is described as immaculately clean and tidy, while his habit of caging birds is hardly that of a child of nature.
The Snow Child is the shortest piece, barely a page long. It has some similarity with the very beginning of Snow White, but here turned into a study of Freudian jealousy. A feuding count and countess, riding on a snowy day, between them create and then destroy a girl made of the white of snow, the black of a raven's feather and the red of blood.
The Lady of the House of Love was adapted from a radio play Carter had previously written. A strange blend of the Dracula legend with Sleeping Beauty, this has the frail, beautiful daughter of Nosferatu trapped in her castle by a wall of vegetation, reluctantly feeding on human and animal victims that she only wants to love. An innocent young man, intended to be on the menu, gives her a kiss that, rather than waking, destroys her.
Perhaps this story is meant to represent the traditional captivity of women, which only destruction can cure. On the other hand, it's explicitly set on the eve of the First World War, so perhaps it should be interpreted as an beautiful but undead, sleepwalking Europe about the be blown away. Like the best symbolic stories, many interpretations are possible.
The last three stories deal with wolves, drawing especially on Little Red Riding Hood. In The Werewolf, the wolf turns out to be the grandmother herself, who is driven away and stoned to death. The story ends, rather ambiguously, Now the child lived in her grandmother's house; she prospered.
The Company of Wolves begins with a discussion of superstitions about wolves, briefly telling various tales of lycanthropy, before settling down to the girl taking provisions to her grandmother. She's characterised as just entering puberty, and her interaction with the handsome huntsman, who we know quite well to be the wolf, crackles with sexuality.
This child, though, is afraid of nothing, and she triumphs in the end not by destroying the wolf but by taming him, meeting him halfway to wildness.
The final story, Wolf-Alice, is the most obscure in origin, although it reflects various aspects of folklore. A feral child, raised by the wolves, is "rescued" and gradually becomes self-aware as she grows up (including a gradually developing relationship with her reflection in the mirror) without abandoning her wolf nature. This is contrasted with the vampiric duke whose household she lives in as a servant, who takes the form of a wolf to prey on dead bodies.
Alice is perhaps the most perfect exemplar of the book's themes. An independent, self-contained girl, she manages to balance the two parts of her nature to an extent that she even manages to redeem the duke, who represents human bestiality without the nobility of nature to offset it.
Several of these stories have been adapted into different media, but the best known is Neil Jordan's 1984 film of The Company of Wolves, written by Carter and Jordan. I rewatched this as soon as I'd finished the book, the first time I've been able to compare the two so closely.
Although the film is very much opened out from the nine pages of the story, I was surprised to find there was a lot less deviation than I expected from the original story. Several of the anecdotes told at the beginning are expanded to form episodes in the film, and the relationship between the child (unnamed in the story, Rosaleen in the film) and her grandmother, superbly played by Angela Lansbury, becomes an important aspect.
Nevertheless, it's Rosaleen's interaction with the wolf that's most important, and that's very closely drawn from the story, although the ending goes somewhat further, reflecting that of The Tiger's Bride. The whole film's dripping with sexual imagery, and the young actress Sarah Patterson, who appears to have only been twelve at the time, gives a stunning portrayal of a little girl on the brink of bursting out of childhood.
The film's wonderful in its own right, as well as being a fine companion-piece to the book, but it's the book I'm concerned with here. The stories are varied and intriguing in themselves, while maintaining a sense of unity, and they're mostly told in lush, evocative prose that evokes everything from the wildwood to the Paris opera.
With The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter set the bar for the re-examination of the fairy story tradition. A bar which not that many writers since have made it over.
Strong heroines aren't as absent in fairy stories as is sometimes assumed, but there's no doubt that overall they tend to be damsels in distress.