The story opens with a long descriptive passage depicting the stark and gloomy atmosphere of the woods in late October. These woods are characterized as entrapping and menacing, not so much because of any physical danger they present as because of their ability to undermine human identity: ‘‘It is easy to lose yourself in these woods.’’ This point is further emphasized though disorienting shifts from second- to third- to first-person narration.
When a clear first-person narrator’s voice does emerge, she describes hearing a bird song that expresses her own ‘‘girlish and delicious loneliness’’ as she walks through the woods. She believes that she is alone. She then comes upon a clearing where animals have gathered. The Erlking enters playing a pipe that sounds like a birdsong and reaches out to the narrator. She is immediately subject to his strange charisma. She states that he has the power to do ‘‘grievous harm.’’
The story goes on to describe the Erlking’s way of life. He lives alone in an orderly one-room house, surviving on the wild foods he gathers in the woods and the milk of a white goat. The Erlking tells the narrator about the ways of the strange woodland animals and teaches her to weave reeds and twigs into baskets, which he uses to cage the wild birds he keeps trapped in his cottage. He laughs at her when she accuses him of cruelty for doing this. In his house, full of the music of birdsong, there is an old fiddle, silent because it has no strings.
The narrator relates that, when she goes out for walks, she now feels compelled to go to the Erlking and have sex with him, which she describes ambivalently as both tender and violent. She claims that she is not afraid...
(The entire section is 710 words.)
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