The narrator describes a wintry Northern country and the nature of the wolves there, who have terrifying eyes, ghostly howls, and a love of flesh. Anyone who goes into the forest is in danger of the starving wolves, so the people of the villages always carry knives with them. Some of the wolves are werewolves, though, and sneak into human homes.
This is the most famous story of the collection and another interpretation of “Little Red Riding Hood.” Carter muses more on the nature of “beastliness” in the wolves of the North. The nature of the wolf is rapacious hunger, and so there can also be a wolf within a human.
The narrator describes a tale of a man who caught a wolf in a pit and cut its throat, but as it died the wolf transformed into a man. Another story describes a jealous witch who turned a wedding party into wolves. In another story, a young woman gets married and her bridegroom disappears mysteriously on their wedding night. She waits for him but then hears the howling of wolves outside, howling with “melancholy infinite as the forest.”
Instead of the sentient, talking wolf of the original tale, Carter is more interested in werewolves as another example of metamorphic creatures torn both internally and externally between beastliness and humanity. In this first mini-story, the transformation from man to wolf is associated with the wedding night – another connection between the loss of virginity and metamorphosis.
Soon the young woman gives up finding her husband and she marries another man. They have children and live together, but one day the woman’s first husband returns, dirty and lice-ridden. When he sees the second husband he is enraged and transforms back into a wolf, and he rips off one of the children’s feet before they kill him with a hatchet. In death he transforms back into the man he was on that first wedding night, so that the woman weeps and her second husband beats her.
The first husband’s violent and jealous nature shows that his “wolfness” was on the inside as well as the outside. It seems the woman is not much better off with her second husband either, as he too is “wolflike” in beating her. Carter changes her tone slightly in describing these Northern tales, using harsher and more economic language.
The narrator lists a few more superstitions about wolves and then begins the story of a child who decides to travel through the woods and bring oatcakes to her grandmother. The child is inexperienced but strong-willed, so she scorns the danger of wolves and brings a long knife in her basket. Unlike most children of this country, the child has led a sheltered life. She is just on the threshold of womanhood and has begun to menstruate for the first time. She feels protected by the “invisible pentacle of her own virginity,” and she enters the forest unafraid.
The central story now begins. In this version the child is not experienced like in “The Werewolf,” but she does have a confidence and fierceness that implies she understands the power of her own virginity and sexual awakening. The red cloak of Little Red Riding Hood is explicitly connected to the blood of menstruation and the loss of virginity, as the heroine is on the threshold between child and woman.
The child hears wolves howling, and then a handsome young huntsman appears. He talks with her and they start walking together. She gives him her basket to carry, even though her knife is in it, as the huntsman has a rifle. He shows the child a compass, which she has never seen before, and he tells her he knows a shortcut to her grandmother’s house if she will leave the path. The child challenges him, and the huntsman bets that he can reach her grandmother’s house before she does. If he does, the child has to kiss him.
The huntsman is the lustful “beast” of this story, and as in “The Tiger’s Bride” the heroine is not afraid of him, but confident in her own sexuality. The metamorphoses of wolf to man and child to woman are associated with the heroine’s budding sexuality and courtship with the huntsman.
The huntsman goes off and takes the child’s basket with him. The child tries to walk slowly, even though it has started snowing, as she wants the huntsman to win the contest and kiss her. Meanwhile the huntsman reaches the grandmother’s house. She is in bed with her Bible when he knocks and she invites him in. The huntsman comes in and the grandmother throws her Bible at him, but in vain. The huntsman strips naked, transforms into a wolf with “huge genitals,” and eats the grandmother.
The huntsman takes the child’s weapon, seeming to rob her of her power in the situation. Nakedness is emphasized again, as the werewolf must strip off his clothes to transform, and Carter mentions his genitals just before he kills the grandmother, again associating sex with violence.
The wolf burns the grandmother’s hair and hides her bones under the bed. Then he puts on the grandmother’s clothes and gets in the bed. The child arrives and the wolf invites her into the room. At first she is disappointed that the huntsman didn’t get their first, but then she notices the hair in the fireplace and “what big eyes” her “grandmother” has. Then a company of wolves starts howling just outside the house. The wolf calls them his “brothers,” and the child looks out the window at them.
The grandmother’s bedroom is the bloody chamber of this story, where a scene similar to that in “Puss-in-Boots” takes place – sex next to a dead body. Red Riding Hood’s traditional phrases (“what big eyes you have”) have been hinted at throughout the book, but now they come to fruition. The wolf is a beast because of his hunger, but the child has her own wildness too.
The child realizes that her fear is not helpful, so she discards it. She takes off her red shawl – “the colour of her menses” – along with the rest of her clothes, and throws them into the fire. She stands there naked for a moment and then goes to the wolf. He is drooling with hunger but she embraces him and kisses him, laughing, as “she knew she was nobody’s meat.” She takes off the wolf’s clothing and seduces him. Afterward the blizzard dies down, and the child and the wolf lie peacefully together in the grandmother’s bed.
This scene is a culmination of Carter’s themes and a powerful illustration of the psychological and sexual truths she brings out of the old fairy tales. The motifs of the bloody chamber, nakedness, the blood of menstruation and lost virginity, and transformation return, as the child turns into her own kind of “wolf” by becoming a sexual being and robbing the wolf of his power, essentially “taming” him.