Nature and Its Meaning
The deep woods where the story is set is a lonely, melancholy place, giving in to the creeping coldness of the oncoming winter. It is also a truly wild place; it has ”reverted to its original privacy.” It has a disorienting effect on any human passerby, as indicated by the second-person address: “It is easy to lose yourself in these woods.” The unsettling power of the wood is soon ascribed to the Erlking, whose presence permeates it. The Erlking is a wild man. He lives among animals, surviving off the land, and has dried leaves in his long, wild hair. He is a symbol of nature’s power but also transcends nature with his magical control. He is destructive in the same way that nature is destructive—merely by following who he is, with no malicious intent. Yet he tames fierce and independent beasts like the fox and draws all the wild animals to him with his charming pipe-playing and offers of food. He rules nature, not through the human power of civilization but through the supernatural powers of charisma and transformation. The story addresses the wild nature within human beings, including its attraction and power as well as its danger. Nature is associated with the loss of individual identity and with sexuality.
Freedom and Entrapment
The story pivots on the relationship between the Erlking—a figure of freedom—and the narrator—a figure of entrapment. The narrator feels trapped as soon as she enters the wood, a place where the Erlking lives free from the rules and judgments of human society. The story takes up the theme of freedom and entrapment most explicitly through the treatment of the caged birds that the Erlking keeps in his cottage. Birds—especially birds in flight—are a conventional symbol of freedom. The Erlking lures these wild creatures with his pipeplaying and selects the ones with the most beautiful songs to sing for him, depriving them of their ability to fly. More broadly, wild animals, free from the strictures of civilization, represent a special kind of freedom. But the Erlking, who is in some ways a creature of nature himself, commands the animals of the wood with his magical and controlling presence.
The plight of the caged birds closely reflects that of the narrator. At the end of the story it is revealed that the Erlking has transformed his earlier lovers into birds and that he is preparing a similar fate for the narrator. This magical plot twist reflects the psychological state of the narrator, a previously virginal young woman who has become ensnared in a powerful sexual bond with the Erlking. As his lover, she feels small, incapable of flight, and afraid of falling down. “Falling as a bird would fall through the air if the Erlking tied up the winds in his handkerchief and knotted the ends together so they could not get out. Then the moving currents of the air would no longer sustain them and all the birds would fall at the imperative of gravity, as I fall down for him.” Though she senses his danger to her, she seems to have lost her free will. She is compelled to return to him and submit herself to his power. The story suggests the extent to which she—and, more broadly, women—participate in their own psychological entrapment. Only through the narrator’s murder of him—narrated ambiguously in the future tense—will she regain freedom, for herself and the other entranced and entrapped bird-women.
Sex and Sex Roles
Sexuality can be understood as a natural and animalistic aspect of the human self, a wilderness territory of the human soul. Therefore, this fairy tale can be read as a parable about the psychological impact of sexual awakening. The narrator is innocent, virginal as Little Red Ridinghood, when she enters the wood. After becoming initiated into sex by the wild Erlking, she cannot ever truly leave the wood. She is trapped, compelled to return and to lose herself in the woods and in the Erlking’s powerful attraction again and again.
Carter represents sexuality as dark and dangerous in ways that are tied to gender roles. The Erlking, a man, experiences the wilderness of sexuality as its master, its king. The narrator, a woman, experiences it as a loss of self. She feels herself becoming smaller as they make love. There is a combination of violence and tenderness in her experience of their encounters.”He is the tender butcher who showed me how the price of flesh is love; skin the rabbit, he says! Off come all my clothes.” Their power relations seem very fixed according to gender roles, but the end of the story suggests the possibility of reversal, when the narrator twists the Erlking’s hair into ropes and strangles him from a posture of lovers’ tenderness.
Jennifer Smith – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 12, Angela Carter, Published by Gale Group, 2001.