Book Review: Heroes and Villains by Angela Carter

Most people have encountered Angela Carter at some point. It might have been in the classroom, grappling with her gothic, feminist reimagining of classic fairy tales in The Bloody Chamber (1979), or else encouraged to read her brilliant late masterpieces by Carter-enthusiasts like myself – Nights at the Circus (1984) won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 2012, and is widely taught in university seminars, brimming with magical realism and the vibrant and exotic tales of circus pleasure and abandonment.

However, her early books are seldom celebrated. Carter was a prolific writer, first publishing in 1966 whilst studying English Literature at the University of Bristol. In comparison to the complexity of Nights at the Circus or the intricate Wise Children (1991), her early style is slightly less refined – but still oozes with the gothic elegance, dark feminist commentary and vivid descriptive flourish that she is renowned for. On the Beat urges you to look away from the now well-trodden, beaten path of Carter studies and into the fantastical forest of fairy tale nightmares where dark beasts and bizarre narratives growl and snarl – and pick up Heroes and Villains, first published in 1969. This was a critical year for Carter; she used savings from various literary prizes to move away from her then-husband and relocate to Japan. In her autobiographical writings, she notes pointedly that this was the point where she ‘learnt what it is to be a woman and became radicalised’. This was the point where she published Heroes and Villains, and the violent and vibrant story reflexively comments on this turbulence and radical political and personal experimentation.​

Heroes and Villains tells the story of Marianne, a difficult and detached young girl who leaves the safety of her civilised and elite upbringing to venture into the woods with the murderous and anarchic Barbarians, where she will marry her brother’s killer, a ‘perfect savage’ called Jewel, who is as violent as he is attractive. Carter paints a dangerous post-apocalyptic world living out the devastating aftereffects of nuclear warfare. Humanity has separated into different factions; the Professors (who rely on theology, books and clocks in their strictly ordered steel and concrete towers), the Barbarians or Yahoos (nomads or gypsies who raid different villages in order to survive, where myth and ritual dictate their existence) and the Out People (mutants who have been maimed by radiation, a ‘parody’ of humanity, who both groups abhor and fear). With lions, tigers, bears and poisonous snakes creeping in the dense woods (escaped from zoos, now breeding and ravenous) with constant threat of annihilation from many different “villains”, this is a bleak and dangerous post-apocalyptic dystopia.​

After enduring the bored monotony of the Professor’s civilised lifestyle, then witnessing the murder of her brother and beloved father and subsequently escaping the confines of her steel enclosure, she undergoes rape and abuse from Jewel and the Barbarians – Marianne is a typical Carter protagonist: strong, sharp-eyed and defiant – she is concerned only for her autonomy. Her relationship with Jewel is deeply ambiguous; erotic and antagonistic, caring and cruel, the ambivalence runs as deep as the jagged lines and scars of the tattoos that the Barbarians bear in the book.​

Their twisted romance propels the novel through, and allows Carter’s complex commentary to unfold. This is an interrogation of different male fantasies of utopia. She questions the opposing dichotomies of passion and reason, man and woman, self and other, man and nature, civilisation and barbarity, man and animal – which all inform and reinforce prejudice, misogyny, segregation and othering.

In true Carter-style, her novel bursts with allegory and allusion. She relentlessly references the Bible, Freud, Henri Levi-Strauss’s anthropological studies, Gulliver’s Travels, Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness, gothic romances such as Wuthering Heights, an assortment of fairy tales (of course), various poems, philosophers and 19th century romantic narratives – it even takes its own name from a popular Beach Boys hit. This serves as a bizarre graduate "Where’s Wally" of literary references, and also calls into question the social contracts that dictate relationships and culture.

The writer and essayist Angela Carter (1940 - 1992).

Heroes and Villains is not a novel typically mentioned when Angela Carter’s name is brought up, but it should be. This is a story of villains and heroes, that is uncertain itself of who are the heroes and who are the villains in its own tale. Interrogating politics, war, gender and culture, Carter tackles meaty subjects through a twisted and dark love story that is as disturbing as it is compelling.​

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