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The Erl-King by Angela Carter
Notes on Features of the Gothic
The Erl-King as Gothic Protagonist
He is alluring and has the power of seduction in the way he draws the birds to him, and
the narrator, on his "magic lasso of inhuman music" and his "diatonic spool of sound."
He is exotic and mysterious as it is never confirmed exactly what he is, though it appears
he is based on the green man of European folk legends, the spirit of the wood: the
narrator refers to him as "the spirit of the place".
His connection with the forest and his deep understanding of the animals suggests that he
too is not human but bestial and animalistic, a common trait psychologically that is
shared with other Gothic protagonists.
He is childlike, which makes him seem less of a predator and less like a typical Gothic
protagonist. He calls plants by "rude names" and the narrator describes him as an
"innocent," also saying "I loved him so much", the tone of which suggests an almost
motherly affection for him. This supports the later cry of the Erl-King's violin, "Mother,
mother, you have murdered me!"
He too is sometimes seen as motherly, highly unusual for a Gothic protagonist, and has
many effeminate qualities. He is described as "an excellent housewife" who keeps his
home "spick and span", using the vernacular of old fairy tales. This also adds a certain
innocence to his character. He tells the narrator "lore" like an old housewife, or the
grandmother figure of fairy tales.
Language, Form and Structure
The tense changes, from present to past to future, give the story an otherworldly quality.
The events seem to have taken place already, to be happening at this very moment, and it
also confirms that they will happen again in the future. It could be seen to indicate the
Erl-King's repeated trappings of women into birds, and show how time is suspended in
the forest under his rule.
The use of future tense in the final stages of the story, where the narrator plans how she
will murder the Erl-King, leave a sense of mystery around the true events. Perhaps it
indicates that she, like all others before her, thinks she can escape when in reality she is
fooling herself. This also lends itself to an anti-feminist interpretation women think
they are empowered when in reality they can never bring themselves to leave the men
that oppress them.
The point of view also changes. The majority of the time the first-person narration puts
the reader in the place of the narrator, making the experience more vivid, but towards the
end the narrator separates the reader by addressing the Erl-King as "you", thereby
switching the reader into the Erl-King's place. This both demonstrates the narrator's
confusion and could perhaps be intending to induce guilt in male readers, forcing them to
recognise their own similarities with the Erl-King.
The final change in the point of view, from first to third person, draws the story to a close
in a typical fairy-tale way. It could also indicate that the narrator has been lost after all, as
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she had earlier claimed that she would be "dumb, from spite" when turned into a bird,
and so is unable to finish her own telling of the tale.
The description of the forest is incredibly detailed and very painterly, as the reader sees
the image come to life before them through the depth of description of the "chickweed ...
nutmeg ... blewits ... chanterelle.…read more