After first appearing in the periodical Bananas, Angela Carter’s ‘‘The Erlking’’ was published in her 1979 collection of short stories The Bloody Chamber. Throughout this collection, Carter revises classic European fairy tales, exploring provocative variations on their underlying themes of the bestiality within human nature and the power dynamics of sexual desire. This was the first book that brought the lyrical and iconoclastic British writer’s fiction to the attention of people in the United States. Controversial for its gender politics as well as its ornately descriptive writing style, the collection garnered mixed reviews. In the years since her 1992 death, Carter’s reputation has soared, and The Bloody Chamber remains one of her most highly esteemed and frequently discussed works.
In ‘‘The Erlking,’’ an innocent young woman walking through a deserted wood is seduced by a wild man who lives there. Like the animals that surround him, she falls subject to the Erlking’s strange power. She learns that he is planning to transform her into a bird—many of which he keeps in cages in his cottage to sing for him—but she nevertheless remains compelled to submit to his will. However, an alternate fate for the woman is imagined when, at the story’s close, it is conjectured that she will strangle him with his own hair and set free all the birds, which will then turn back into the form of other young virgins the Erlking has seduced. ‘‘The Erlking’’ is one of the collection’s more experimental stories. Through a series of sudden and disorienting shifts in point of view, Carter creates an intimate sense of the protagonist’s experience of losing herself. The story addresses contemporary issues of female psychology and sexuality, making the ancient literary form of the fairy tale freshly relevant.