Wednesday, 22 May 2013

A2 English Literature: The Erl-King

The folklore behind The Erl-King isn't as obvious as it is with some of the other stories in the collection (I had no idea who or what the Erl-King was, even after reading the story over and over again). Yet the origin(s) of the character appear to be rooted in German and Scandinavian folklore. Typically, the Erl-King was portrayed as a malevolent creature who haunts forests and carries off travellers to their deaths,  which sounds very Carter. Particularly in Scandinavian folklore, the Erl-King was seen as a female spirit. Carter arguably incorporates certain elements of both genders into her presentation of the character. Although the Erl-King is objectively male in this story, it is noted that "he is an excellent housewife".

The Erl-King has been included, or at least alluded to, in two poems: 'La Belle Dame sans Merci' by John Keats and 'The Erl-King' by Goethe. In Keats's poem, the Erl-King is a "faery" who strikes down a male traveller. In Goethe's poem, the Erl-King is portrayed as a villainous elf (the phrase 'villainous elf' was just written in my notes on its own and I felt I had to include it) who preys upon children.

The Erl-King has roots elsewhere, though; it is suggested that the character may come from the symbol of The Green Man, a motif found in many cultures, and a character who is related to nature and rebirth.

The opening of the story is disconcerting and generally a bit weird. Carter uses dense description - perhaps to mirror the setting of the dense forest - and it can be a bit hard to unravel. Carter toys with tense and perspective in the opening paragraphs. One sentence starts "you step..." while another starts with "there was..." This alternation between tenses gives the story a timeless and confusing quality, similar to many other stories in the collection where time seems to be in flux and is rarely clearly defined. This sense of confusion mirrors the liminal nature of the Erl-King himself - a being who is half-human, half-forest. The antagonist's very nature also links to the Gothic convention of metamorphosis; the Erl-King is a blurring of boundaries.

One of the first things Carter does in the story is set up a paradox: "perfect transparency is impenetrable." This paradoxical phrase relates to the disorientating nature of the forest and is also a feature of the Gothic - boundaries are broken and expectations of what is possible are toyed with.

Carter makes more use of intertextuality in the opening - the line "light is sufficient to itself" is directly taken from a poem by Emily Dickinson (a hugely interesting and important poet if you ever get the chance to look her up).

As for the Erl-King himself, Carter isn't black and white in his description of him. There are references that make the Erl-King appear malevolent and monstrous:
  • "Erl-King will do you grievous harm"
  • "you sink your teeth into my throat" - relates to vampiric imagery seen in The Lady of the House of Love and briefly in The Bloody Chamber
  • "white, pointed teeth with the spittle gleaming on them" - links to the wolf in The Company of Wolves - a monstrous nature to the Erl-King
However, there are certain references that suggest another side to the Erl-King. It's like Carter is saying 'leave him alone! You don't even know him!' but in a more eloquent, literary way. She seems to be adhering to both the Keats/Goethe perspectives of the character as well as considering the roots the character may have in the Green Man stories:
  • "He showed me..." "He told me..." - the actual quotes are far too long to remember, but several sentences start like this, and usually consist of the Erl-King showing the female protagonist the ways of the forest, as though he is a kindly and wise spirit
  • "It is only because he is kind to me that I do not fall still further" - this can of course be criticised when weighing up interpretations, because as we learn from the story The Bloody Chamber, doting kindness doesn't always rule out the possibility of your husband wanting to murder you 
  • "He is an excellent housewife" - this is Carter's typical technique of reversing and warping gender roles. By presenting the Erl-King as maternal we think of him - if only for a moment - as protective and motherly
It should also be remembered that the Erl-King is part-forest, and so Carter uses personification a few times to give life to seemingly inanimate objects:
  • "the trees stir with a noise like taffeta skirts"
  • "the stark elders have an anorexic look"
A recurring motif in this story is the presentation of the Erl-King's eyes. The fact that the protagonist pays so much attention to his eyes suggests that they are perhaps bewitching in one way or another. 

"Eyes green as apples. Green as dead sea fruit." This quotation starts off by linking the Erl-King to nature, before juxtaposing - or violating - nature with death. The Erl-King is alive and natural yet also dead and decaying. Carter draws once again upon the two perspectives of the Erl-King's origins in order to create a character who is more complex than in the usual fairy tales. Furthermore, the two extremes presented here are adherent to the Gothic genre; the Erl-King is not just one thing - his character is presented in extremes, he breaks boundaries, he is alive and dead at once.

The narrator also notes again how his eyes are "quite green". The connotations surrounding the colour green extend from nature to envy. There also seems to be a hypnotic element to the Erl-King's eyes: "if I look into it long enough, I will become as small as my own reflection". This quotation may be saying something about the female role in the story; she is framed by the Erl-King, and only sees herself as she appears in his own eyes. You could possibly relate this to the 'male gaze' theory as put forward by film theorist and feminist Laura Mulvey. Mulvey argues that, in films, women are often presented as being 'framed' by the men; they are there merely to appeal to a male audience as a visual. By having the Erl-King frame the girl in his eye, Carter may be alluding to Mulvey's theory. This also emphasises the Erl-King's power and the protagonist's insignificance all at once. 

"Your green eye is a reducing chamber" - this is another example of how the Erl-King appears to be both hypnotic and oppressive. The use of the word 'chamber' suggests entrapment, a key feature of Gothic literature. This is not the hypnotic gaze we're used to in typical fairy tales... Carter warps things and makes them more horrifying and sinister. This enforced by the simple and memorable quote "some eyes can eat you". All this attention paid to the Erl-King's eyes relates to the Marquis's eyes in The Bloody Chamber; in this story, the protagonist refers to "the black vortex of your eye", whereas in The Bloody Chamber, the Marquis's eyes have "an absolute absence of light".

Perhaps the most important and intriguing symbol in the story is the fiddle. At first "the strings are broken", but the protagonist later restrings the bow with the Erl-King's hair (which he has just been strangled with) and starts playing it. Beforehand, the music of the fiddle has been associated with the Erl-King trapping the women he has lured into his hut and turning them into birds - the music has been beautiful yet deadly (yet another instance of two Gothic extremes acting alongside one another). Yet now, once the birds have been freed, the female protagonist gives herself the power to restring the bow, as if she is taking over the music of the woods.

But does she? In what is one of the strangest endings in this collection, the fiddle begins to play itself, and the strings of the Erl-King's hair cry out "Mother, mother, you have murdered me!

A lot can be said regarding interpretations here, both to suggest that the Erl-King is stronger than the female protagonist and vice versa:
  1. Is Carter suggesting that the Erl-King cannot die, and lives on through his music? Perhaps killing the being is only half the job when the character is part-forest - has the Erl-King won after all? Does he transcend death, a typical feature of how Gothic characters can exceed such boundaries?
  2. Does the protagonist get her power by mothering the Erl-King? At one point she combs his hair as he lays beside her, which creates a typically maternal image for the reader. Although the Erl-King once had certain maternal qualities - such as being "an excellent housewife" - a more powerful mother figure has perhaps resisted his sexual advances and destroys him with such power
Finally, there are two particular phrases in the story which capture the Gothic antitheses surrounding the Erl-King perfectly:
  • "tender butcher" - this oxymoronic phrase is memorable and presents both extreme sides to the Erl-King in just two words
  • "his touch consoles and devastates me" - this phrase can be used to relate the Erl-King to the Marquis in The Bloody Chamber - is Carter saying something about sexual psychology? Do we have any control as to who we are attracted to?
Obviously far more can be said about the story, so I just focussed on what I found interesting and narrowed things down to quotes which are hopefully relatable to points and easily remembered. I hope it helps! 


  1. Thank you! This was very interesting and helpful

  2. Found this really useful. Was wondering if you had any ideas about the protagonists discussion of vertigo and being "afraid of falling down". Thanks

  3. What do you think of the "snow-child" story?