Fairytale’s heroic huntsman

Rant!’s DELECTABLE DUDES OF DISCOURSE Series

Rant! swoons unashamedly over literature’s hottest hunks – and it’s all subjective of course.

The Huntsman – Oh baby, baby! A patriarchal symbol of machismo and chauvinism. Muscles bulge under the woodland attire of this axe-wielding, wolf-slaying henchman of the forest. Yet, much like Little Red Riding Hood and to the horror of many a feminist, ladies swoon over his chivalric manliness. What’s not to love about a hero?

It is of course the Grimm huntsman who is the object of female society’s devilish desire. In the earliest known oral version of the Little Red Riding Hood tale, the girl saves herself (sans huntsman). In Perrault’s 1697 variation, the girl is eaten – a consequence of choosing the ‘wrong path’. But the Grimm version (1827); it’s trés romantique. The moral of the brothers’ interpretation is ‘never fear, for man is near’. If, yet again, you choose the ‘wrong path’ dear girl – if you disobey your mother – rather than suffer an abysmal fate, you will be saved, rescued, admonished by masculine supremacy. Isn’t it lovely to be vindicated for one’s bad choices by the lofty prowess of a man? Patriarchy saves the day! – Cringeworthy yet distastefully tantalising.

What makes the huntsman so attractive is his image as arch protector. It’s an idea in literature that transcends the fairytale (and the nineteenth century audience for whom the Grimms wrote), from Greek myths and Arthurian legends to Georgette Heyer romances and modern day comics. Yet the very notion of ‘fairytale’ seems to emphasise the utopian idealism associated with the concept of ‘the alpha male’. Perhaps the seductive charm of said alpha is rooted in his implied fantasy – he is unachievable, his heroism a fallacy, a mere… fairytale. Mankind is known to yearn for and pursue that which it cannot have.

But why take the beast out of the man? What about an equal? A man who is both supreme and subservient.

Angela Carter’s bad boy huntsman is where the sex is at! The huntsman in “A Company of Wolves” is so heart-palpitatingly delicious, so beastly, so… manly, so REAL that the attraction is inherent in his accessibility. The cardboard-cut heroism of the Grimm huntsman is replaced by Carter’s ambiguous hero. In “A Company of Wolves”, man and wolf become one. A werewolf is Carter’s metaphor for the assimilation of ‘the good’ (the alpha male huntsman) and ‘the bad’ (the wolf, who symbolises the aggressive masculinity that was deplored by ‘polite society’ in decades of old and not so old). Carter acknowledges man’s propensity for two natures, and acknowledges woman’s love for both Jekyll and Hyde.

The values of ‘polite society’ say “Fear and flee the wolf; for, worst of all, the wolf may be more than he seems” (Carter, A (1979) The Bloody Chamber, The Company of Wolves). In “A Company of Wolves”, Carter uses tales within a tale to establish the lore encompassing the werewolf:

  • The hunter jumped down after him, slit his throat, cut off all his paws for a trophy.  And then no wolf at all lay in front of the hunter but the bloody trunk of a man, headless, footless, dying, dead. (Carter, A (1979) The Bloody Chamber, The Company of Wolves).
  • A witch from up the valley once turned an entire wedding party into wolves because the groom had settled on another girl. (Carter, A (1979) The Bloody Chamber, The Company of Wolves).
  • They say there’s an ointment the Devil gives you that turns you into a wolf the minute you rub it on.  Or, that he was born feet first and had a wolf for his father and his torso is a man’s but his legs and genitals are a wolf’s.  And he has a wolf’s heart. (Carter, A (1979) The Bloody Chamber, The Company of Wolves)
  • Then her second husband came in with wood for the fire and when the first one saw she’d slept with another man and, worse, clapped his red eyes on her little children who’d crept into the kitchen to see what all the din was about, he shouted: ‘I wish I were a wolf again, to teach this whore a lesson!’  So a wolf he instantly became and tore off the eldest boy’s left foot before he was chopped up with the hatchet they used for chopping logs.  But when the wolf lay bleeding and gasping its last, the pelt peeled off again and he was just as he had been, years ago, when he ran away from his marriage bed, so that she wept and her second husband beat her. (Carter, A (1979) The Bloody Chamber, The Company of Wolves)

In “A Company of Wolves”, grandma applies an ‘old wisdom’ that says: “We keep the wolves outside by living well” (Carter, A (1979) The Bloody Chamber, The Company of Wolves). In other words, abiding by the guidelines set by society, the mores and values of cultural context, keeps the proverbial wolves at bay. Sadly, this philosophy did not work for poor grandma in Carter’s tale – an allusion to the fact that as time passes, society evolves and change is rendered. The wisdom of elders is consumed, considered and adapted to suit the time. Carter’s Red Riding Hood illustrates this point.

On her way to grandma’s, the girl hears “the freezing howl of a distant wolf” (Carter, A (1979) The Bloody Chamber, The Company of Wolves) but comes across a man on her path; “a very handsome, young one, in the green coat and wideawake hat of a hunter, laden with carcasses of game birds” (Carter, A (1979) The Bloody Chamber, The Company of Wolves). He is initially portrayed as the traditional Grimm-type hero huntsman: “he offered to carry her basket, she gave it to him although her knife was in it because he told her his rifle would protect them.” (Carter, A (1979) The Bloody Chamber, The Company of Wolves)

And then the wolf gets to grandma’s, where all is revealed:

Off with his disguise, that coat of forest-coloured cloth, the hat with the feather tucked into the ribbon; his matted hair streams down his white shirt and she can see the lice moving in it. The sticks in the hearth shift and hiss; night and the forest has come into the kitchen with darkness tangled in its hair.  He strips off his shirt.  His skin is the colour and texture of vellum.  A crisp stripe of hair runs down his belly, his nipples are ripe and dark as poison fruit but he’s so thin you could count the ribs under his skin if only he gave you the time.  He strips off his trousers and she can see how hairy his legs are.  His genitals, huge.  Ah! huge.

The last thing the old lady saw in all this world was a young man, eyes like cinders, naked as a stone, approaching her bed. The wolf is carnivore incarnate.

The huntsman-wolf (werewolf) mourns his own condition:

That long-drawn, wavering howl has, for all its fearful resonance, some inherent sadness in it, as if the beasts would love to be less beastly if only they knew how and never cease to mourn their own condition.  There is a vast melancholy in the canticles of the wolves, melancholy infinite as the forest, endless as these long nights of winter and yet that ghastly sadness, that mourning for their own, irremediable appetites, can never move the heart for not one phrase in it hints at the possibility of redemption; grace could not come to the wolf from its own despair, only through some external mediator, so that, sometimes, the beast will look as if he half welcomes the knife that despatches him. (Carter, A (1979) The Bloody Chamber, The Company of Wolves)

But Carter challenges the myths of old; not in their truth (werewolves do roam the world in metaphoric form) but in society’s attitude toward said ‘myths’. Carter, with great empathy, declares that the wolf need not mourn the very condition that defines his being; he is not to blame for his characteristic maleness – his sex, his aggression.

In a recollection of the oral tale, Carter’s Little Red Riding Hood is a representation of womanly strength. Rather than the huntsman coming to her rescue, Carter’s girl saves the huntsman (werewolf) by helping him to accept his ‘condition’. The girl (figuratively) invites the wolf in (rejects her grandma’s advice), and confronts his nature by treating him as equal. She embraces him as ‘carnivore incarnate’ and as ‘tender’ lover:

She saw how his jaw began to slaver and the room was full of the clamour of the forest’s Liebestod but the wise child never flinched, even when he answered: 

 ‘All the better to eat you with.’

 The girl burst out laughing; she knew she was nobody’s meat. She laughed at him full in the face, she ripped off his shirt for him and flung it into the fire, in the fiery wake of her own discarded clothing.  (Carter, A (1979) The Bloody Chamber, The Company of Wolves)

Carter’s conclusion:

See! sweet and sound she sleeps in granny’s bed, between the paws of the tender wolf. Both tender and aggressive. She embraces the man for all that he is. (Carter, A (1979) The Bloody Chamber, The Company of Wolves)

Whether it’s Carter’s reality or the Grimm fantasy that renders fairytale’s huntsman one delectable dude of discourse, the truth is; a man (wolf or werewolf) in leathers is irresistible to the fairer sex.

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