By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Erl-King’ is a short story from The Bloody Chamber, a 1979 collection of feminist stories by the British writer Angela Carter (1940-92). In the story, a young girl wanders into a wood where a mysterious man of the forest seduces her; in his dwelling are cages containing birds which were once other young girls whom he has imprisoned with him in the forest.
You can read ‘The Erl-King’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of Carter’s story.
‘The Erl-King’: plot summary
A girl or young woman (she is described as a ‘young girl’ and as ‘girlish’, though her precise age is not mentioned) wanders into the forest, where a mysterious man who lives along in a single-room house takes him into her home.
This man, the Erl-King of the story’s title (of which more below), survives on the flowers, mushrooms, and rabbits in the forest, picking or catching and eating these. He also has a nanny goat which provides him with milk, from which he can make cheese. The man is described as a good ‘housewife’.
The young girl is seduced by the man, who undresses her before cloaking her in his body. He is, on some level, an embodiment of the forest itself: the greenness of his eyes is repeatedly described, as if he had been staring at the green of the woods for too long. He recalls Pan from Greek mythology, and the Green Man from English folklore: embodiments of the forests.
After the Erl-King undresses and then embraces the girl, she knows he is going to bite her neck and that this will represent her ‘death’. So she expresses her wish to strangle him with his own hair, free all of the birds in the cages in his home and see them turn back into young girls, and then use his hair to restring the fiddle which hangs on the wall of his dwelling. Then, the narrator tells us, the strings will cry out, ‘Mother, mother, you have murdered me!’
‘The Erl-King’: analysis
Angela Carter almost certainly took the name for the ‘Erl-King’ from the German Romantic writer Goethe, who wrote a poem about the ‘Erlkönig’ or King of the Alders (as in the trees). Carter’s story is otherwise unconnected to Goethe’s poem, however, although – as with all of the stories in The Bloody Chamber – her tale is steeped in folklore and myth.
But how should we analyse Carter’s presentation of gender in this story, and the way the power dynamic between the Erl-King and the young girl shifts, or appears to shift, towards the end of ‘The Erl-King’?
This task is made more of a challenge by the shifting narrator of the story: the tale begins in the unusual second-person (‘You step …’) before giving way to a more conventional impersonal third-person narrator (‘A young girl would go into the wood …’), although even here, note how Carter casts the events not in the indicative mood (for example, ‘A young girl goes/went into the wood’) but the subjunctive mood (‘would go’: did she or didn’t she, and did the events of this story actually take place or is the whole thing merely the invention of the girl to whom it supposedly ‘happens’?).
Then, the narrative shifts again, and the girl herself becomes the (first-person) narrator of her own story: ‘I walked through the wood …’
This shift of narrative style, tense, mood, and perspective is typical of Carter’s approach in The Bloody Chamber. In another of the stories, ‘The Snow Child’, the narrative begins in the present tense only to pivot to the more usual past tense from the beginning of the second paragraph. This crucial shift occurs at the moment the snow child is magicked into being.
‘The Erl-King’ performs a similar sleight-of-hand, in blurring the lines between protagonist and narrator, and between protagonist (that young girl) and reader (remember, the story begins by placing us in those woods, with its use of the second-person ‘you’). But all of this might be explained (not explained away) as Carter’s attempt to involve us in the events of the story, to invite us into the shoes of the girl who will meet this man of the forest and be seduced by him.
What is more complex and interesting, however, is the mood into which Carter’s narrator (narrators, plural?) casts the events of the story. As previously remarked, this begins with the subjunctive mood early on in the preamble to the story proper, where we are told of how a young girl would go into the wood as trustingly as Little Red Riding Hood (also the subject of a story from The Bloody Chamber, which we have discussed here). But even this might be explained as mere scene-setting before the girl of the story actually does go into the wood.
But what are we to make of the end of the story, which supposedly sees the power dynamic switch and the girl strangle the Erl-King with his own hair? Women often gain the upper hand and ‘tame’ their male oppressors in the Bloody Chamber stories, and, curiously, the Riding Hood character in ‘The Company of Wolves’ tames the werewolf by giving her body to him. The detail of the strangling in this story also alludes to the famous Robert Browning poem, ‘Porphyria’s Lover’, in which the male narrator strangles Porphyria with her own hair.
But does this detail actually take place, or is the narrator/girl simply thinking about it, or even fantasising about it because it won’t take place? Does she resist his deadly bite to her neck, or does she merely dream of doing so? The indicative present-tense mood (‘My hands shake’) shifts in the closing paragraphs, to ‘I shall’ and then, in another shift, ‘she will’. We are left wondering if this feminist act of liberation (freeing those birds from their cages and watching them change back into girls the Erl-King has imprisoned) is a mad fantasy or something that is literally about to happen.
It is also far from clear how we should view the Erl-King. On the one hand, he is clearly a predatory male figure, whose bite to the neck of both the protagonist and the other caged girls is their ‘death’: this symbolic act of deflowering imprisons them in the cage, much as, traditionally, women who gave themselves to a man would need to look to him to sustain them and provide for them. They would be trapped in the ‘cage’ of marriage or a potentially unhappy relationship.
And yet the Erl-King is described – cutting against the grain of gender stereotypes – as ‘an excellent housewife’ and the girl observes that he looks after the birds in his care with great affection. Even his act of seduction is couched in ambiguity, with the girl torn between a terrible fear and a desire to give herself to him, because – as she acknowledges – she loves him. Yet the girl-narrator is also keen to draw attention to the Erl-King’s ‘innocence’: he does not know that his bite will change her and bind her to him.
In other words, Carter’s story acknowledges that women suffer and are imprisoned under patriarchal structures, but men are largely victims of this system too, only of a different sort. They are ‘innocent’ villains, in a sense. It is revealing that Carter repeatedly emphasis the wood itself as a kind of prison. Women – and the Erl-King himself – are already trapped before they find themselves in those cages within his home.