The final tale in Angela Carter’s collection The Bloody Chamber introduces Wolf-Alice in a sentence replete with provisos:
“Could this ragged girl with brindled lugs have spoken like we do she would have called herself a wolf, but she cannot speak, although she howls because she is lonely – yet “howl” is not the right word for it, since she is young enough to make the noise that pups do…”
In her introduction to the Vintage reprint, Helen Simpson writes that Carter joked that “the advantage of including animal protagonists in her work was that she did not have to make them talk”. But talk some of them do, by contrast to Wolf-Alice who cannot speak or barely even howl (a precursor to the speechless girl in War for the Planet of the Apes, and embodied reversal of William S. Burroughs’ quip that “language is a virus from outer space”). Had she been able to talk as “we” do, the reader is told, she would have identified herself not as human but as wolf. The we in question might first appear to refer to “us” humans, a set to which the reader presumably belongs (on pain of intergalactic success). Even then, it presumably doesn’t include toddlers and other humans lacking the relevant communicative skills.
Were this human girl able to speak, it is implied, she would be speaking a human language, sharing our concept of a wolf. But on what grounds would she then identify as a wolf at all? Carter adds that Alice’s foster kindred are trying to talk to her but cannot, “because she does not understand their language even if she knows how to use it for she is not a wolf herself, although suckled by wolves”. The wolves are not talking to her but only trying to. Talking to, on this implied conception, is a success verb. One cannot talk to someone who doesn’t understand, though perhaps one can talk at them. In a number of Carter’s other beastly tales, lion characters converse with human ones, their misunderstandings no worse than those of intra-human relationships. But are these protagonists really lions? Is anything really anything within a fairy tale? If walls had ears would they be able to hear or is brick acoustically ineffective?
In “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon”, the beast initially seems to be neither lion nor man but a mythological creature straight out of a bestiary:
“Head of a lion; mane and mighty paws of a lion; he reared on his hind legs like an angry lion yet wore a smoking jacket of dull red brocade and was the owner of that lovely house and the low hills that cupped it.”
The narrator is adamant that “a lion is a lion and a man is a man”, each belonging to “a different order”. The “wild thing” is eventually transformed, “no longer a lion in her arms but a man, a man with an unkempt mane of hair”. While not entirely cosmetic, the transformation is certainly not metaphysical. It was Mr. Lyon, all along, who had no trouble conversing with Beauty.
Back to Wolf-Alice, who is no more wolf than Lyon is lion:
“Nothing about her is human except that she is not a wolf; it is as if the fur that she thought she wore had melted into her skin and become part of it, although it does not exist.”
What is it to not understand a language that you know how to use? Might Alice be able to use a human language to the extent that any one of us might manage to learn a foreign language? That can’t be right, for she shares the worldview of the wolf:
“Like the wild beasts, she lives without a future. She inhabits only the present tense, a fugue of the continuous, a world of sensual immediacy as without hope as it is without despair.”
This is the very feature that Mark Rowlands attributes to wolves at the end of The Philosopher and the Wolf:
“We see through moments and for that reason the moment escapes us. A wolf sees the moment but cannot see through it. Time’s arrow escapes him. That is the difference between us and wolves. We are temporal creatures in a way that wolves and dogs are not.”
The human condition prevents “us” from being able to live this way, but not Wolf-Alice. The crucial difference here is not biological but socio-cultural; her fur does not exist. For the same reason, “if a lion could speak, we couldn’t understand him”. To paraphrase another remark by Wittgenstein, we could not possibly make ourselves understood to Wolf-Alice (not even as we can to a dog).
In stark, anthropomorphic, contrast, the animals populating Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book say things like “good luck”, “he has no right”, and “it is unsportsmanlike”. They talk of gratitude, freedom, truth-telling, buying for a price, taking orders, miracles, recruits, and treasure. Such humans in wolves’ clothing are the mirror opposite of Wolf-Alice and her Kiplingian counterpart, Mowgli. No wonder we can understand them when they speak, though not vice-versa. In his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of The Jungle Book, Daniel Karlin writes that a “human being may ‘become’ a wolf … but a wolf may not become human.” We can stipulate as we please in fiction. Scratch beneath the surface, however, and Kipling’s animals turn out to be human, whereas Carter’s humans are beastly all and one. Even Red Riding Hood’s grandmother makes an appearance as the wolf.