The Wolf in Red Riding Hood

Who’s the Wolf in Red Riding Hood?

 
 
This was different. He was

different:

Asked my name, I told him. He smiled. I smiled back. Why wouldn’t I?

He turned, bent over the flowers – trilliums, I think, and something pink.

A trickle of noise, a single pebble falling down a rain stick.

Look, he said, look at this trout lily – it’s pushed through winter’s leaf-mat.

Leaf-mat: nobody talked like that. And this collar of leaves hugging the stem.

He flicked the leaves away. His fingers went

Flick.

I said I had to go.

What’s your hurry? Don’t be such a schoolgirl.

Of course I was a schoolgirl.

Look, he said, throwing his arm toward the trees and making his fingers

dance like dust motes

in sunlight: look where you are. Where we are.
 
 

The internal tension that shapes Woods Wolf Girl is one of energetic contradiction. Who is the wolf? Is he bad? Only bad? How is he bad? Is he also good? How is he good? In writing Woods Wolf Girl I wanted to challenge the image of the wolf that dominates the fairy tales and literature in general, and still tell a good story. I wanted to write a more representatively Canadian Red Riding Hood. Could I? Could I present multiple wolves, in different settings, with different needs and desires? What is the affect on the reader?
 

In Woods Wolf Girl the wolf is a threat, a danger, as wolves in the wild have sometimes been. For agrarian cultures, especially in times of famine, wolves would have been a threat to livestock and to small children. Perrault, the first to publish a written version of the fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood in the late 1600s, told his story as a cautionary tale warning children to not go into the woods where they would surely be devoured by wolves. The woods were a dangerous place, much as busy streets are for young children today. His tale was also meant to entertain both adults and children during long days spent shelling peas, snapping beans, and other agrarian tasks.
 

But Charles Perrault also recognized the human male as predator. His entertaining wink-wink, nudge-nudge moralities at the end of the tale reads, “unfortunately these smooth tongued, smooth pelted wolves are the most dangerous of all.” The contemporary threat is not from real wolves in the wild but from those wolfish characters, who, in Angela Carter’s wonderful phrase, “are hairy on the inside.” It has been also suggested that sometimes the wolf is just a man being a man, as Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs sang “Hey there Little Red Riding Hood, you sure are looking good…”
 

In Woods Wolf Girl I take the wolf imagery in a different direction. The wolf is not only a hungry threat or a predator, he is also life-giving. The wolf shows Red where she is standing, the green world of which she is a part. “Look where you are,” he says, and “don’t be such a schoolgirl.” This forked moment not only leads into the woods, it teaches Red to perceive the natural world around her; the sights and sounds and smells – the animal instincts – that as a good girl she has been taught to disregard. I say more about the culturally-sanctioned mistrust of senses elsewhere; here I want to further the idea that the characterization of wolves in Woods Wolf Girl is not just a writerly or metaphoric stance, but, rather, a historically and culturally accurate characterization.
 

Canada’s first nations peoples looked to the animals for knowledge about their environment: how and where to hunt; find water; navigate and so forth. Native peoples and animals have had strong relationships. For instance, in Bella Bella, B.C., it is striking that wolves have located their den sites in the exact spots that former Heiltsuk nations peoples placed their villages; close to fresh water streams, vantage points, and protected from weather. Obviously wolves and humans were on the ‘same page.’ Whether contemporary societies have anything to learn from animals or not, dominant cultural practice is still mostly one of little regard for non-human creatures and the ecosystems in which they live. But we disregard to our own peril. As the concept of pollution changes from objects or sites external to humans, i.e., ‘out there’, to an awareness that our bodies host feared chemicals such as PBDEs (flame retardants), people are inserting into everyday conversations an awareness of their body’s concentration limits of such things as BPAs (plasticizers) per kilogram, per day. Rather than ruthlessly killing wolves for sport or vindictiveness, says Ian McAllister in his book The Last Wild Wolves (University of California Press, 2007), humans have important things to learn from the wolves of Canada’s west coast. Because the mountain ranges have largely protected these groups of wolves from contact with other wolf packs as well as humans, he says that their genetic diversity provides important information for how humans might adjust to living with the new chemical compositions of our world and bodies.
 

To summarize, the wolves in Woods Wolf Girl act both as a reminder to ‘pay attention’ and to reconnect Canadians to their aboriginal roots in which close relationships with the natural world meant food and sustained survival. In the multi-layered characterization of the natural world, including wolves, Woods Wolf Girl attempts to return the woods and mountains to the wild. Canada’s wolves are an increasingly unique phenomenon in a world we’ve stripped of wildness. Research for this book led me not only to Bella Bella on B.C.’s west coast, but also to Haida Gwaii and to the Rocky Mts. in Banff, Alberta, to study wolves and record their voices. Along the way I met people with powerful commitments to aboriginal understandings of land, place, and their connections to people through story. 
 

Howl in the wild, the green

eyes of the wolf on a winter’s night.

Her belly with its deer meat, its bear meat.

For digestion, fear

is the juice required.

***

The forest in point form.

Hundreds of trees

straight-up as knives; so many sprung

blades so

sure of themselves.

In the open field a wolf

pats the grass, leaps up on all fours,

lands.

Kills what she can.
 

I have tried to show the real wolf in the real woods. And so here in 2011 we’ve come a long way from portraying the wolf as evil. Or, as did the 19th century British illustrator Walter Crane who drew the wolf in sheep’s clothing – as a Biblical reference to the devil. But such representation in itself only a first step; from a plot perspective, the tales are ones of opposites colliding: good and evil, human and beast, female and male. (Guess which end of those dualities the wolf traditionally represents?) It’s the negotiation of those binaries that creates the story. What comes of the meeting in the woods? How does the story unfold? My hybrid human/wolf is a teacher and his education is energetic. To be in relationship with a content, either by yourself or with another, and to experience the spark of new knowledge, is exciting. The wolf shows Red the world, and when she says, “I could feel pulsing,” she shows that she’s ignited with its power. The book goes on to explore the contradictions of attitudes toward the wilderness. Through discussion with their surroundings and the people around them my characters inquire into who they are. Red’s mother has a evergreen phobia, while Red allows the wilderness inside herself to emerge. She is the wild, the wolf is her.
 

From the woods

a banshee music – who knows how many

wolves in descant. Abrupt breaks, eerie wails

hackle my body’s un-

civilized hair.

***

their combining densities carry

sound far,

carry sound as far and howling

red as possible – to let

my animal out.
 

Each generation has the responsibility to interpret its inherited culture in ways meaningful and resonant to that particular culture’s values and beliefs. In Woods Wolf Girl I have explored, and hopefully advanced, the ways wolves, the most familiar predator to straddle the realms of reality and fairy tale, haunt literature.

  1. January 16, 2012 at 10:17 am

    I believe that it is best to write extra on this matter The Wolf in Red Riding Hood Red Riding Hood in Canada. It may not be a taboo subject but typically people are not enough to talk on such topics.

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