‘The Company of Wolves’: A Journey Through the Gothic Forest


Every time the seasons turn to Fall, something about that cold bite on the breeze, the smell of entropy rising from the earth, and the swirl of leaves that cyclone through the air, makes me want to curl up with my favorite fairy tales and let my imagination disappear into the deep and tangled forests of the darkest stories. On this occasion, I forgo my usual print version and decided instead to revisit one of my most-loved films, Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves (1984). I always loved Angela Carter’s original story, but the film is a visual feast for any lover of the Gothic aesthetic.

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Since I’ve been so entranced by the trees lately, watching the leaves change slowly but surely, I want to talk about the role of the forest in The Company of Wolves. The film is a retelling of the classic tale of Little Red Riding Hood and tells the story of Rosaleen, a young girl on the verge of womanhood who falls asleep and has strange and erotic dreams about handsome, mysterious men and howling wolves. The setting predominantly takes place within a dense forest: the Gothic wild, the labyrinth of trees where all that we fear is hidden in the branches and the roots, where all of our transgressions are manifest in the birds and the beasts.

This forest is an outward reflection of Rosaleen’s conscious and subconsciousness, it symbolizes the turmoil and emerging sexuality as she tumbles out of innocent childhood. Fred Botting, one of my favorite writers on the subject of the Gothic, describes it in a classical literary sense as being “associated with wildness… [signifying] an over-abundance of imaginative frenzy, untamed by reason.” This 18th century Gothic sensibility lends itself well to The Company of Wolves. The departure from “simplicity, realism and or probability” begins with Rosaleen lying feverishly upon her bed, surrounded by the clutter of broken toys, strange knickknacks, and an array of weird and wonderful objects that provide a storyboard for the upcoming narrative.  It is immediately apparent that we have stumbled upon a realm separate from rational reality.  The relative normality of a familial (mother, father, and irritated older sister) existence stops at the door of Rosaleen’s bedroom.  Once we are with Rosaleen, she takes us through the magic mirror and beyond the window, into the hills and into the deepest territory of her subconscious.  At this point, our Little Red Riding Hood has left the cogent world and is stumbling down the forest path in search of her own secret wishes and desires.

In The Company of Wolves, the forest is the site of danger for most but becomes a strange sort of haven for Rosaleen. Though she faces many dangers, they never reach fruition (unlike her sister, who is destroyed by the forest). When others are drawn into the imagination and desires of the volatile young girl, the danger for them becomes palpable. One of these unfortunate souls is Rosaleen’s sister, Alice, who is trapped and destroyed by the confused and chaotic landscape of her own sister’s dream. The scene begins with Alice running terrified through the darkened woods. The toys that once sat innocuously upon Rosaleen’s shelves have mutated into monstrosities of a child’s over-active imagination. Here the wilderness has come to claim the innocent girl that has no place in Rosaleen’s world: in this wilderness a teddy bear becomes a beast that grabs at Alice and claims her for the forest. Rats have overtaken the family home, now shrunk in size rather than grown like the toys. The structure of the house, once so familiar and comforting to the doomed Alice, becomes menacing and disturbing. What Freud described as “the uncanny” emerges from this scene. The uncanny, in this sense, disturbs the familiar, the homely and the security that comes with reality and normality. It is through this disturbance that the film symbolically destroys the feeling of safety associated with home and normality all but disappears from the screen. Alice is whirled into a wonderland from which she, like so many Gothic heroines, will never return.

The other characters that populate Rosaleen’s forest are also at odds with her constructed environment.  The people of the village fight against the encroachment of the dark woods; paths cleared of trees navigate their way amongst the buildings and are thought of as the only safe way through the wild.  Their domesticated animals are penned in an attempt to barricade them from the predators of the forest.  With the exception of Rosaleen’s mother, who at times seems to connect to Rosaleen’s tumultuous state of mind, it is as though these villagers have garrisoned themselves against the overwrought fantasies of the young girl, further solidifying the opposition between the domestic and the wild.  Those surrounding Rosaleen try to rescue her from what they consider to be transgressive behavior.

In the Brothers Grimm’s version of Little Red Riding Hood, the fable ends with the rescue of the red-cloaked girl by the intrepid huntsman.  In The Company of Wolves, Rosaleen shuns the “huntsman” (portrayed by the vengeful gun-slinging villagers) and succumbs to her deepest desires, disappearing into the forest – newly transformed.  Though the young boy who lusts after her desires to protect her, Rosaleen scoffs at him saying “what? After last time?” She brandishes her knife and says, “I’ve got this to protect me.” Perhaps most important is Rosaleen’s grandmother, whose stories, though they fascinate Rosaleen, are also ignored at moments when they should be taken seriously (she always leaves the path and she engages with a man whose “eyebrows meet in the middle”).  The grandmother is attempting to shield her from any sort of sexual awakening; her house in the forest is the last bastion between Rosaleen and her loss of innocence.  But for Rosaleen, though the forest held “such terrors,” it was also “the source of pleasure.” To quote Botting again, “Gothic fictions presented different, more exciting, worlds in which heroines in particular could encounter not frightening violence but also adventurous freedom.”  In The Company of Wolves, the woods becomes the world where Rosaleen loses her innocence but also where she subverts the conservative norms and finds identity, independence and sexual fulfillment in the form of a beast who runs free through the forest.

Last but not least, I want to discuss the “animistic” elements of the film. Though at this point in history, Freud is rather passe, I can’t help but apply him one more time by discussing his apt point that fairy-tales “adopt the animistic standpoint of the omnipotence of thoughts and wishes.”  The “animistic standpoint” can be transferred onto the use of animal symbolism within The Company of Wolves, which contains a host of animals that work as external expressions of the psychology of the protagonist.  Beyond the wolves, there are several animal elements that creep beneath the surface of Rosaleen’s dreams.  Just as Alice is frightened by and consumed by the animals, Rosaleen shows no fear, as though the beasts of her forest understand that they are a part of her subconscious.

The presence of frogs, rabbits, spiders, birds, and lizards all weave themselves through the landscape of the woods as Rosaleen trips through the trees, always seeming to forget the constant warning to stay on the path.  The creatures of the forest are the animalistic materialization of her psyche.  Both Rosaleen’s innocence and transgressive desires are represented through the animals.  In the first scene, when she is walking through the forest with the village boy, she is drawn to a white dove that is perched in the branches far above her head. The white dove symbolizes a quiet innocence and Rosaleen is drawn to the bird because there is a side of her that embodies pure innocence: her youth and girlish ignorance concerning sexual matters.

It is noteworthy that later on, when Rosaleen is going to her grandmother’s house for the last time, she passes by another innocent being: the white rabbit.  Significantly, unlike the dove, she does not pay the creature any heed.  Secondly, though the dove dwelt above the forest floor, the rabbit was on the ground and vulnerable to predators.  This moment is symbolic for two reasons.  The first lies in Rosaleen’s indifference:  at this point she has completely left the path and begun the journey to leave her youthful innocence behind.  The second is that the rabbit’s vulnerability acts as a form of foreshadowing in that a predator is also laying in wait for Rosaleen.  I feel it necessary to point out here that the farm animals, which are eaten by the wolf (or wolves) in previous scenes should not be considered to be an intrinsic representation of Rosaleen’s innocence.  Instead, as briefly mentioned earlier, they are a part of domesticity, family life, home, and comfort, all things that the Gothic tale works against in the course of its narration.  The wolves are set apart from the other creatures in Rosaleen’s world, and though she is meant to fear the “big bad wolf,” she displays an overt curiosity toward them throughout the course of the narrative.  These monsters are the living embodiment of Rosaleen’s sexual desires which she must eventually give in to…

So there you have it, a trip through the Gothic forest with

The Company of Wolves.

And all because the leaves are changing color and fall is in the air…

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