"The Company of Wolves" takes place in a forested, mountainous country in the dead of winter. The narrator explains that wolves are ruthless creatures who live to terrorize and kill those less strong. They are especially ruthless in the winter, when food is scarce. Furthermore, wolves are worse than any fairy-tale killer such as "ghosts, hobgoblins, ogres [or] witches," because wolves are not even part human and therefore "cannot listen to reason."
Even though wolves cannot reason, they are clever. They trap and kill any traveler that stumbles into the forest, which is their territory. They sometimes even manage to infiltrate a person's home. Despite the fact that most wolves are simply beasts, the narrator explains that the worst fate is to run into a wolf that is "more than he seems." The narrator invokes the story of an unfortunate hunter who trapped a wolf in a pit. He meant to kill the wolf as punishment for terrorizing his town, so he jumped into the pit, slit the wolf's throat, and cut off all its paws. But when he looked down at the wolf's corpse, it had turned into a man's.
There have been other incidents in the town involving werewolves. A witch once turned a whole wedding party into wolves. More recently, a young woman's husband vanished on their wedding night. Soon after he disappeared, she heard howling. When he did not return, she remarried and had children. Years later, on winter solstice, her first husband returned looking as ragged and filthy as a wolf. When he saw the woman's new husband and children, he willed himself to turn back into a wolf. He managed to bite off one child's foot before the second husband hacked him to death. At that, he turned back into a man and looked exactly as he had on his wedding night. The woman cried when she saw her former love dead and her husband beat her for crying. Even though this woman pitied the werewolf, the narrator explains that her first husband may have become one voluntarily. In order to turn into a werewolf, a man must collaborate with the Devil. Before he transforms, he must strip naked. For this reason, the narrator warns, "If you spy a naked man among the pines, you must run as if the Devil were after you."
Now we turn to a specific story set in the middle of winter. The story's protagonist is a blond child. Even though she knows that wolves are worst in the barren months, she insists on carrying a basket of food to her sick grandmother. She is armed with a large knife for the two-hour trip but does not think she is in danger because "she has been too much loved ever to feel scared." Unlike other children of the region, whom poverty forces to grow up quickly, this child has been kept young because she is her family's beautiful and youngest child. She dresses in a red shawl "that has the look of blood on snow" and sets off on her journey.
The narrator tells us that the child's "cheeks are an emblematic scarlet and white" and that she is on the verge of puberty; she has just begun to menstruate. However despite her seeming vulnerability, the girl is not only unafraid of the journey; she is "afraid of nothing." As the child walks, she hears a wolf's howl and instinctively clutches her knife. But the sight of a charming, fully-clothed hunter relieves her. They become fast friends and walk together happily; she trusts him so much that she lets him carry her the basket that holds her knife.
The hunter, who carries a compass and says he is unafraid of wolves, bets that he can beat the child to her grandmother's house by going off the path. The winning prize: a kiss. She agrees and lets him leave with her basket. Enticed as she is by the hunter, she makes sure to walk slowly so that he will win his kiss. The hunter arrives at the child's grandmother's house carrying animals that he has killed along the way. Unlike a human, he has been chewing the raw meat of his catch. The hunter knocks and imitates the child's voice so that ancient, religious Granny invites him in. When she sees him, she tries to ward him off with her Bible to no avail. He strips naked to reveal his hairy, lice-covered body and devours her. Then he disposes of all evidence of his crime and waits for the child, dressed in Granny's clothes.
As soon as the child enters, the werewolf blocks the door to prevent her escape. Seeing his devilish eyes, the child utters, "What big eyes you have," and he replies, "All the better to see you with." Just then, a chorus of howling rises up around the cottage. The werewolf says, "Those are the voices of my brothers, darling; I love the company of wolves. Look out the window and you'll see them." The child looks out upon a multitude of wolves howling in the snowstorm. Instead of being afraid, she takes pity on the wolves for being so cold. She takes off her shawl and then all her clothes, which she throws into the fire as the werewolf bids. She walks to the werewolf and begins to undress him, saying "What big arms you have." He replies, "All the better to hug you with." As the child kisses the werewolf, the wolves outside howl a "prothalamion," a wedding song, outside.
The child says, "What big teeth you have," and the werewolf replies, "All the better to eat you with." Instead of being afraid, the child laughs because she knows that "she [is] nobody's meat." Granny's bones begin to clatter from their place under the bed, but the child ignores them. She finishes undressing the werewolf. At that, the narrator begins to describe the child's future with the werewolf: "She will lay his fearful head on her lap and she will pick out the lice from his pelt and perhaps she will put the lice in her mouth and eat them, as he will bid her, as she would do in a savage marriage ceremony." The snowstorm ends and midnight breaks on Christmas day, which the narrator tells us is "the werewolves' birthday." The story ends with the child sleeping contentedly in her grandmother's bed, "between the paws of the tender wolf."
"The Company of Wolves" is the second of Carter's stories based on Red Riding Hood. Like the child in "The Werewolf," the heroine here lives in a bitterly cold region where people grow up fast and live short, hard lives. However this child is not hardened like her counterparts because "she has been too much loved ever to feel scared." Because she is the youngest and most beautiful child, her family has coddled her and protected her from life's harsh realities. In doing so, they have 'civilized' her, made her into the gender ideal of a sheltered, sweet and trusting girl. The girl's innocence both endangers her and saves her; she is trusting enough to believe in the hunter's good intentions, but empathetic enough to understand his torment and 'marry' him.
In this story, unlike in "The Werewolf," Carter keeps the two characters of werewolf and grandmother separate. According to Bacchilega, she does so in order to focus on the wolf and child's interaction as an allegory of the heterosexual relationship. Even though the grandmother in this story is benevolent, the child does not seem to care that the werewolf has eaten her; she even ignores her grandmother's clattering bones in favor of consummating her relationship with the werewolf. Because of the child's irreverence, "The Company of Wolves," like "The Werewolf" and "The Snow Child," occurs in a universe where women, even if they are blood relations, are antagonists. It is not so much that child and grandmother wish each other ill, and more that they do not understand each other. The grandmother's bones clatter as though warning the child not to 'marry' the werewolf. After all, the werewolf has just killed and eaten her, and even if he hadn't, she is weathered and well-versed in the evil intentions of werewolves. She cannot understand that by claiming her own desires, the child becomes immune to harm.
The story's end is all the more remarkable because of the tales we are told at its beginning. As Bacchilega point out, while the narrator in "The Werewolf" warns of evil in a removed and bemused manner, the narrator in "The Company of Wolves" seems to believe, fervently, that werewolves are evil and addresses the audience as "you" to convince us of this. The narrator tells us that "the wolf is carnivore incarnate," no more than a machine programmed to kill and devour. The wolf is so completely evil that his very howl is "in itself a murdering." The narrator even tries to dissuade us from pitying the human side of werewolves by telling us that men choose to become them. Still, we can tell that for wolves as for any half-being, existence equals torment. Transforming into a werewolf is a "condemnation." Their howl has "some inherent sadness in it, as if the beasts would love to be less beastly if only they knew how any never cease to mourn their own condition." This statement suggests that even men who choose to become werewolves may regret it because of the misery it causes them. Ultimately, it is the child's pity for the werewolf and his "company of wolves" that moves her to join them.
Even though the heroine is young and naÃ¯ve, she wears her sexual desire literally on her sleeve. Her cape, which resembles "blood on snow," is an advertisement of her sexual readiness. Its red color symbolizes both her new menstrual blood and the blood she will presumably shed when she loses her virginity. The narrator calls the cape's red hue "the colour of sacrifices," reminding us that the heroine lives in a universe where women are the 'weaker sex' and surrender to men in the acts of sex and marriage. Indeed, the werewolf fully expects the heroine to surrender to him once he traps her in the house. Despite the fact that sex is presumed to be a "sacrificial" act for women, the heroine's sexuality protects her from harm; "She stands and moves within the invisible pentacle of her own virginity. She is an unbroken egg; she is a sealed vessel; she has inside her a magic space the entrance to which is shut tight with a plug of membrane; she is a closed system." Her cape and her hymen, which it can be said to represent, protect her from knowing or experiencing too much. Unlike the people in her town, the girl does not hold fast to such anti-werewolf stories as the narrator tells us. Therefore, Bacchilega declares, she is able to embrace the werewolf's traditions as well as, literally embrace the werewolf.
Because of her virginity, the heroine bears a striking resemblance to the soldier from "The Lady of the House of Love." Like him, she is sexually mature but a virgin, and her state lends her both ignorance and power. These characters' ignorance endangers them because it allows them to trust their potential devourers, the werewolf and the Countess. The narrators in both stories state explicitly that they do not shiver. They cannot shiver - fear supernatural evil - because they do not know about or do not believe in it. At the same time, their virginity is a welled-up force, ready to overwhelm their potential devourers. The Countess and the werewolf are prepared to consume their captors literally, by killing and eating them; but the soldier and the heroine use their human pity and their immense sexual power to transform the act of devouring into a sexual one. Because of the ignorance and power of their virginity, they both survive.
When the heroine strips naked and approaches the wolf, it initially seems that she is 'sacrificing' herself to him. Then, when he says he will eat her, she laughs because "she [knows] that she [is] nobody's meat." Bacchilega interprets this phrase to mean that, "by acting out her [sexual] desires, the girl offers herself as flesh, not meat." Usually a sacrificial victim's body is not seen as being his or her own; it belongs to the deity or other being in whose honor the ceremony is given. So too is it with Carter's women, who 'give' themselves to men even though, because they are objects, men already own them. Since the heroine claims her sexual desire and her flesh as her own, she can give her "immaculate flesh" willfully to the werewolf and also take of him. Carter has even said that the heroine "eats" the werewolf. When the heroine in "The Tiger's Bride" undresses, she symbolically removes the implements of her objectification and subjugation. When the heroine in "The Company of Wolves" burns her cape, she rejects virginal naÃ¯vetÃ© in favor of sexual enlightenment. She also renounces her townsperson identity of categorical superiority to beasts. The townspeople burn werewolves' clothes in order to "condemn them to wolfishness," and so the heroine burns her own clothes in order to become one with the werewolf and his kind.
The heroines of both "The Company of Wolves" and "The Tiger's Bride" undress in order to relate to the 'beast' in themselves-their sexual desire-and to the actual beasts to whom they become betrothed. They take the initiative to be reborn as self-owning sexual beings. In terms of the idea of rebirth, Carter goes so far as to compare a werewolf's transformation to the birth of Christ; she tells us, "Christmas Day [is] the werewolves' birthday." Although the townspeople are convinced that werewolves make a pact with the Devil, Carter suggests that they are really connected to God. She echoes the Romantic notion of locating the divine in nature, even the parts of nature that are not traditionally beautiful. In a way, Carter tells us through this story that we are all part "beast," and are only authentically ourselves or close to Christ-Christianity's ideal being-when we claim our "bestial" desires.