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The Erl-King By Angela Carter Analysis and Summary

Here is an analysis and summary of the short story that is in the book The Bloody Chamber. Feel free to skip to the parts most relevant to you.


A teenage girl walking through a deserted, isolated forest is seduced by a wild man who lives there – The Erl King (personification of the woods). She falls in love with this man and becomes vulnerable under his power as she is taken in by him. As he teaches her the ways of his woods, she realises that he is weaving her a cage to keep her in, along with the other birds which he keeps. The climax of the story is her actions following her realisation as she strangles him with her own hair and sets the birds free.

Gothic Features

Weather and Setting
  • The wood is personified and isolated, ‘the woods swallows you up’. 
  • Initially more than fairy-tale than Gothic.
  • Erl-king can ‘tie up the winds in his handkerchief’.
Dominant Males
  • Childlike.
  • Less predatory.
  • Romantic hero – she falls in love.
Passive Females 
  • She is mature and purposeful (anti-Gothic?).
  • ‘magic lasses of inhuman music’.
  • He has a ‘bird call’.
  • He says the Devil spits on them as Michaelmas’.

Critical Terms

  • The denouement (climax of the story) is the killing of the Erl King.
  • Epilogue: the story after the main story – ‘then she will open…’

Key Themes

  • Gender representations.
  • Power.
  • Gothic setting (isolated woods).
  • Aggression – murder, sadomasochism.
  • Nature.
  • Sublime.
  • Transgression.
  • The liminal experience – half human, half woods.
  • Mirrors.
  • Roses.
  • Innocence and guilt.

Form and Structure

  • First person narrative until the epilogue where it changes to third person. This creates empathy but tension cannot be built as first person narrative shows that she survives. Switches between tenses and points of view in order to disorientate the reader, creating a Gothic sense of uncertainty and reflecting the feelings of the protagonist.
  • Description of the forest paints it as a prison, tricking and trapping those who enter like a series of Chinese boxes, one opening up after the other as you travel further inside – just like the narrative of Frankenstein.

Language and Effect

  • ‘To skin the rabbit’ – he undresses her and she loses her dignity (pornographic).
  • ‘the vertigo with which he seizes me’ – losing sense of who she is. He throws he off balance, off the moral path.
  • ‘I knew from the first moment I saw him, how Erl-King would do me grievous harm’ – foreboding and terror, the reader fears for her. However, she still continues to see him, part of her own endangerment?
  • ‘Vertical bars of a brass coloured distillation of light coming down’ – shows her desire to be caught, light is a positive image yet it is creating cage-like patterns. Link to Gothic idea of confinement.
  • ‘Mother, mother, you have murdered me!’ – ‘mother’ confirms her new roe and control of her own destiny.
  • ‘old fiddle’ – the fiddle with broken strings symbolises neglect and abuse (broken) yet shows possibility of harmony (music). It presence next to caged birds represents the trapped female spirit but offers hope.
  • ‘the tender butcher’ – oxymoron, both loving and destructive. Highlights the narrators conflict.
  • ‘eyes as green as apples. Green as dead sea fruit’ – green is the colour of life. However, in this sense, it is ‘dead’. This shows that the Erl-King controls death as he controls the greenery in the forest. 
  • ‘your green eye is a reducing chamber’ – idea of a chamber, isolation, entrapment and links to ‘The Bloody Chamber‘. It suggests her life is ‘reducing’ as she becomes more involved with the Erl-King.
  • ‘the candle flutters and goes out’ – conventional Gothic them, lack of hope and transgression.
  • ‘I should like to grown enormously small, so that you could swallow me … Then I could lodge inside your body and you would bear me’ – she wants to be all consumed by him. ‘bear me’ has links to the womb. This could show she perhaps enjoys being dominated by him.
  • ‘sulphur-yellow interstices in a sky hunkered with grey clouds’ – sulphur is traditionally an element associated with hell and damnation. This links in with Doctor Faustus.
  • ‘there are some eyes can eat you’ – feminist ‘male gaze’ critique, she feels she is being consumed by him, objectified. 
  • ‘he is an excellent housewife’ – shows gender representations being contradicted and broken down.
  • ‘falling as a bird would fall’ – foreshadows her finding out about the birds he has trapped.
  • ‘his dress of water that drenches me’ – metaphor is used to link sex to drowning.

Connection to Others

  • Whilst other heroine in Carter’s stories find happiness in relationships with men, the Erl-King narrator rejects men entirely.
  • ‘What big eyes you have’ – Red Riding Hood, links to ‘Werewolf’ and ‘Company of Wolves’.
  • Notion of stripping skin – links to ‘Tiger’s Bride’ and ‘Wolf Alice’.
  • Mirrors – There are actual mirrors in ‘The Bloody Chamber’, magical mirrors in ‘Tiger’s Bride’, the mirror changes Alice into a human in ‘Wolf Alice’.
  • ‘long hair’ is also used in ‘The Bloody Chamber’ to symbolise beauty. However, in ‘The Erl-King’, she uses it for strangulation and death.
  • Aggressive male language – ‘The Erl-King’ – ‘he could thrust me into the seed-bed’. ‘The Bloody Chamber’ – ‘pistons thrusting’.

Other Interpretations

  • ‘easy to lose yourself in these woods’ – get physically lose OR lose who you are?
  • Narrative shifts between first, second and third person throughout, intention to confuse the reader. Makes the reader feel lost by the forest just like the narrator is.
  • ‘in his innocence, he never knew he might be the death of me’ – Erl King is both malicious and innocent or perhaps he is unknowingly malicious’.
  • The wood could be seen as a metaphor for the womb, it is all encompassing and nurtures and changes the narrator (links in with ‘The Bloody Chamber’).

Historical Context

  • The Erl King is a character depicted in a number of German poems and ballards as a malevolent creature whom haunts forests and carries travellers to their deaths.
  • The ‘Erl King’ was most famous s the antagonist in Goethe’s poem Der Erlkonig.
  • In original Scandinavian folklore, the character was originally a female spirit who was responsible for ensnaring human beings to satisfy her desire for jealously and lust for revenge.
  • ‘I would have to wait until he whistled me up from my darkness before I could come back again’ – Links to Greek mythology about daughter of Zeus, Persephone who was forced to marry Pluto and to spend six months every year in his domain. Her return to the surface of the earth is signalled by the start of spring. Persephone is the personification of vegetation which grows in spring.


  1. Anonymous June 16, 2013
  2. Jasmine Jade June 4, 2015
  3. charles June 26, 2017

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