15 January 2008

In the Company of Wolves

The other day, talking about Christopher Hitchens, morality, and the 'Golden Rule', I raised the question of whether being nice is the same thing as being good; I might as easily have asked whether it's the same thing as being right. I'm inclined to agree with Little Red in Sondheim's Into the Woods who -- chastened by her experiences -- declares that 'nice is different than good'.

Into the Woods was my introduction to Sondheim, long before I was captivated by Sweeney Todd; a musicologist friend of mine loaned me her copy, after raving about it for months, and washed away all my ingrained contempt towards musicals. Heavily influenced by The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim's fascinating study of the importance of fairy tales, it's immensely clever and really quite hilarious in how it interweaves and interprets the stories of Rapunzel, Jack the Giant Killer, Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty to enthralling and enlightening effect. If you ever get an opportunity to see it -- whether in the theatre or in the American Playhouse version -- you shouldn't miss that chance.

Bettelheim's analysis of the Red Riding Hood story is primarily based -- like pretty much all modern retellings -- on 'Little Red-Cap', as the Brothers Grimm version of the tale in entitled. He sees this as a fairy tale for inquistive children who've outgrown 'Hansel and Gretel', and sees its value in how it allows children to give vent to their oedipal fantasies while ensuring that the natural order is ultimately restored.

While it's the Grimm version that interests him most, Bettelheim doesn't ignore the tale's prehistory and devotes special attention to Le Petit Chaperon Rouge, Charles Perrault's 1697 French version of the tale, the earliest published form of the story. Unlike the Grimm version, Perrault's version is a cautionary tale that ends with the girl being devoured. There's no rescue by a woodman, no snipping open of the wolf's belly with a scissors, no filling of the wolf's belly with deadening stones. Nope. The girl and her grandmother are eaten, that being the end of them, and in case Perrault's point isn't blindingly obvious, he hammers it home by tagging on a moral:
Children, especially young ladies – attractive, courteous, and well-bred – do very wrong to listen to strangers, for if they should do so, they may well provide a wolf with dinner. I saw ‘wolf’, for there are various kinds of wolf. There is one kind with an amenable disposition – neither noisy nor hateful nor angry, but tame, obliging, and gentle – who pursues young women in the streets, even into their homes. And alas! Everyone must know that it its these gentle wolves that are the most dangerous wolves of all!
Perrault also seems to have been responsible for introducing the red hood itself to the story; it doesn't appear to have been part of the oral tales from which he drew his Tales of Mother Goose, at least insofar as they can be established, although there was a tale current in the Eleventh Century of a red-capped girl found in the company of wolves.

It seems that Perrault may have toned the story down a bit too, removing elements he apparently deemed unsuitable for his polite audience; this rendering of the tale, taken with just one adjustment from Robert Darnton's The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History, is representative:
Once a little girl was told by her mother to bring some bread and milk to her grandmother. As the girl was walking through the forest, a wolf came up to her and asked where she was going.
"To grandmother's house," she replied.
"Which path are you taking, the path of the pins or the path of the needles?"
"The path of the pins."

So the wolf took the path of the needles and arrived first at the house. He killed grandmother, poured her blood into a bottle, and sliced her flesh onto a platter. Then he got into her nightclothes and waited in bed.
"Knock, knock."
"Come in, my dear."
"Hello, grandmother. I've brought you some bread and milk."
"Have something yourself, my dear. There is meat and wine in the pantry."
So the little girl ate what was offered; and as she did, a little cat said, "Slut! To eat the flesh and drink the blood of your grandmother!"
Then the wolf said, "Undress, and get into bed with me."
"Where shall I put my apron?"
"Throw it on the fire; you won't need it any more."
For each garment -- bodice, skirt, petticoat, and stockings -- the girl asked the same question; and each time the wolf answered, "Throw it on the fire; you won't need it any more."
When the girl got into bed, she said, "Oh, grandmother! How hairy you are!"
"It's to keep me warmer, my dear."
"Oh, grandmother! What big shoulders you have!"
"It's for better carrying firewood, my dear."
"Oh, grandmother! What long nails you have!"
"It's for scratching myself better, my dear."
"Oh, grandmother! What big teeth you have!"
"It's for eating you better, my dear."
And he ate her.
Darnton has the girl taking the path of the needles rather than the path of the pins, but Bettelheim notes that early versions of the story describe the girl choosing the path of the pins, and explain the significance of the choice by saying that it is easier to fasten things together with pins than to sew them together with needles; as such the girl is choosing the pleasure principle over the reality principle, and suffers accordingly.

I first read this version of the story in a slightly abridged form in Neil Gaiman's Sandman comic, as told by Gilbert -- Gaiman's Chestertonian embodiment of a very special place -- to Rose Walker, the heroine of The Doll's House. It's apparently a pretty accurate reflection of the story as it was told among the peasantry of Eighteenth Century France, at around the same time as Perrault's somewhat sanitised version was gaining popularity among the literate classes; you'll probably have been rather startled both its cannibalistic element and by what Darnton describes as 'the strip-tease prelude to the devouring of the girl'.

Marina Warner, in From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers, notes that other retellings seem to preserve a different tradition again. She describes how some versions indeed have the wolf tricking the girl into eating the flesh and drinking the blood of her grandmother, but with the girl refusing to get into bed with the wolf, saying that she needs to relieve herself. The wolf encourages her to join her anyway, saying she can relieve herself in the bed, but as the girl persists in her refusal he ties her to the bed post with a long cord that allows her to leave the cottage but go no further; once outside, the girl undoes the knot and escapes.

Warner makes much of how the wolf takes the place of the grandmother in the story, eschewing Bettelheim's psychoanalyical interpretation to point out that both the wolf and the grandmother are marginal figures in the story: both dwell in the woods away from people and are in need of food. This parallel seems to reflect and embody the peasant fantasies of early modern Europe, where the werewolf was a male counterpart to the female witch or crone.

If you've seen The Brotherhood of the Wolf, you might be familiar with the story of the 'Beast of Gévaudan', upon which the film is loosely based. The Beast terrorised a part of south-central France between 1764 and 1767, killing at least sixty people. More than a hundred years later, Robert Louis Stevenson described it as 'the Napoleon Bonaparte of wolves':
What a career was his! He lived ten months at free quarters in Gévaudan and Vivarais; he ate women and children and ‘shepherdesses celebrated for their beauty’; he pursued armed horsemen; he has been seen at broad noonday chasing a post-chaise and outrider along the king’s high-road, and chaise and outrider fleeing before him at the gallop. He was placarded like a political offender, and ten thousand francs were offered for his head. And yet, when he was shot and sent to Versailles, behold! a common wolf, and even small for that.
It's not surprising that the locals had been so terrified, and indeed superstitious. The nightmare of the loup-garou -- the werewolf -- was deeply embedded in the collective psyche of the peasantry of early modern France. Throughout the Sixteenth Century, with the countryside apparently being plagued by lycanthropic attacks, thousands of people were accused of being werewolves. Although torture was often used to educe confessions, there were cases where the evidence against the accused was clear in relation to charges of murder and cannibalism, albeit not to association with wolves!

The whole phenomenon, strikingly similar to the witch-trials that were so common throughout Europe at the time, petered out after it was decreed in a 1603 trial that 'the change of shape existed only in the disorganised brain of the insane'. With lycanthropy now seen as a delusion rather than a real supernatural phenomenon, werewolves faded from the French courtroom, but they clearly remained fixed in the French popular imagination, being trasmitted down through the centuries through folklore, fairy tales, films, and even parlour games.

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