In an obituary in London’s Guardian upon Carter’s death, Lorna Sage says that Carter had a ‘‘founding feminist perception.’’ Carter was, she says, ‘‘a writer who always demonstrates how vital countercultural impulses are to the very existence of any worthwhile tradition.’’ It is with an eye focused on both Carter’s feminist perceptions and her countercultural impulses that this essay will examine her short story ‘‘The Erlking,’’ with the ‘‘worthwhile tradition’’ being, in this case, the fairytale, a form that many of Carter’s stories emulate.
In many of the traditional fairytales, especially those reinterpreted by the Brothers Grimm, some of the more popular moral lessons that are either obviously stated or subtly implied are directed at young, innocent, cute, and sweet little girls, of which the Grimms’ tale of ‘‘Little Red Cap’’ is a prime example. ‘‘Once there was a dear little girl whom everyone loved,’’ begins this particular tale. Next the fairytale normally posits a warning: the little girl is usually advised not to veer from the traditional path. In the story ‘‘Little Red Cap,’’ it is the girl’s mother who tells her, ‘‘Walk properly like a good little girl, and don’t leave the path.’’ Inevitably, in these stories, the little girl disobeys this formidable rule. She does leave the path, and although the consequences of the little girl’s actions may vary, depending on the story line, the underlying moral message remains the same. According to feminist readings of these fairytales, the message behind these stories is that if little girls buck the patriarchal rule, they will be punished.
It is upon these sentiments, or rather in ridicule of them, that Carter begins ‘‘The Erlking,’’ a fairytale kind of story with a fairytale kind of structure revolving around death, desire, and transformation, much akin to the tale of ‘‘Little Red Cap.’’ Carter reinforces the relationship between her story and this traditional fairytale by making reference to it with this phrase in the beginning of her story: ‘‘A young girl would go into the wood as trustingly as Red Riding Hood to her granny’s house. . . .’’ (‘‘Red Riding Hood’’ is the more familiar title of this story.) But there is a big difference between Carter’s version and the Grimms’ fairytale. The desire, death, and transformation all come about, but they come about in very dissimilar ways. Although Carter’s story is also geared toward sending a chilling moral lesson, the recipient of that lesson is definitely not the little girl.
Similar to the opening of Grimms’ fairytale, Carter begins ‘‘The Erlking’’ with a young girl at the edge of a great forest. Carter paints a very gloomy picture of the woods, using words like ‘‘dour spooks,’’ ‘‘sulphur-yellow interstices,’’ ‘‘nicotine- stained fingers,’’ and ‘‘russet slime’’—not especially enticing images, not ones that would draw a young woman in. In fact, she portrays an environment that a young woman might walk through very quickly, if she had to walk through it at all. ‘‘The fairytale genre,’’ states Ruth Bushi in her essay on Carter, ‘‘teaches us to be afraid of the woods (the unmanned, female space beyond social authority). . . .’’ Carter, possibly with tongue in cheek or at least duplicating the old formulaic structure of the fairytale, attempts to set up the same fear of the forest. But despite their fears, both Little Red Cap and Carter’s young female protagonist enter the woods, though they step carefully, even seriously, with their eyes focused on the forest floor. As the wolf in the Grimms’ story puts it to Little Red Cap: ‘‘You trudge along as solemnly as if you were going to school.’’
Ironically, it is the Grimms’ wolf who points out the beauty of the woods to Little Red Cap. His motives, however, are not to be trusted. Unbeknownst to the young girl, he is setting a trap, distracting her so he can make it to the grandmother’s house before she does. ‘‘Little Red Cap, open your eyes,’’ says the Grimms’ wolf. ‘‘What lovely flowers!’’ Little Red Cap does not take the subtle hint that the wolf is throwing her way. She is an innocent, trusting the wolf to a fault. She might have opened her eyes, but when she does, all she sees are the flowers, not the wolf’s hidden intentions.
Carter’s wolf, the Erlking, is also cunning, but he employs a different tactic; and Carter’s young girl responds in a more mature way. The Erlking uses a more obvious lure—a whistle that mimics the call of a bird in distress—the sound of which goes directly to the young girl’s heart. The mimicked call is ‘‘as desolate as if it came from the throat of the last bird left alive.’’ Both Grimms’ wolf and Carter’s Erlking are...
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