The heroine, who speaks directly to the audience, tells the story of "The Erl King." The scene opens on the late October forest, which has an air impending death. The woods are desolate and unwelcoming to people, because there are no manmade tracks to follow there. According to the narrator, the woods are not a place of illusion as fairy-tales make us believe; rather, in the woods, "everything ... is exactly as it seems." We, like Red Riding Hood, get "trapped in [our] own illusion[s]" because "it is easy" for us to "lose ourselves" in the woods.
The narrator describes walking through the woods alone, not realizing that the cold wind she feels is the Erl-King's harbinger, or that the elder-bird call she hears is the sound of the Erl-King's pipe. She warns, "The Erl-King will do you grievous harm." The narrator steps into a "darkening clearing" where the Erl-King sits among the forest creatures, which seem to belong to him. The Erl-King touches her with "his irrevocable hand" and shows her the ways of the forest.
The Erl-King lives alone in a one-room hut in the middle of the forest. He eats plants, milk from his goat, and sometimes animals. His eyes are eerily green, "as if from too much looking at the wood" and the narrator warns, "there are some eyes can eat you." She says that the Erl-King is not a hermit but rather a being that "came alive from the desire of the woods." Despite his rustic ways, the Erl-King keeps his home impeccably clean; in fact, the narrator describes it as "musical and aromatic." Herbs hang on the walls along with dozens of caged, singing birds and a string-less fiddle, and a fire burns perpetually in the hearth.
Ever since the narrator met the Erl-King, she has visited him to learn his ways and make love to him. When he wants to see her, he calls her to the woods with his birdcall. He likes to proclaim, "skin the rabbit" as he undresses her. When he makes love to her, he bites her neck. The narrator says she is not afraid of the Erl-King himself, who lives in harmony with nature; she is afraid only of the way he throws her senses off-balance. She calls this feeling "the vertigo with which he seizes me." He makes her feel as though she is a bird falling out of the sky, out of the power of the Earth's gravity and into his.
The narrator evokes the story of Red Riding Hood again when she declares, "What big eyes you have." She feels as though she will become trapped in the Erl-King's stare like an insect in amber. Then she discovers that he is weaving a cage for her. She is terrified because, although she loves the Erl-King, she does not wish to live in a cage. She knows that she will die if he cages her; she reminds us, "I knew from the first moment I saw him how Erl-King would do me grievous harm." The narrator realizes that the Erl-King's birds do not actually sing, but rather wail because they are trapped and lost. They "cry because they can't find their way out of the wood, have lost their flesh when they were dipped in the corrosive pools of [The Erl-King's] regard and now must live in cages."
The narrator ends her story by describing her plan to kill the Erl-King. She resolves, "I shall take two huge handfuls of his rustling hair as he lies half dreaming, half waking ... I shall strangle him with them." Suddenly, the story shifts to third person. This new narrator says that our heroine will free all the birds, which will turn back into lost girls, "each one with the crimson imprint of [the Erl-King's] love-bite on their throats." She will then cut off his hair and use it to string his old fiddle. The fiddle will then play of its own accord, "Mother, mother, you have murdered me!"
The title character of The Erl-King takes his name from a folklore persona known as an erlking. Traditionally, an erlking is a mischievous sprite or elf that lures young people with the intent of killing them. The narrator and protagonist of The Erl-King is aware of these stories. She seems to quote one sch tale when she says, "The Erl-King will do you grievous harm." This statement also tells us that, like the heroine in The Bloody Chamber, this protagonist is aware of the peril she faces and therefore complicit in her own endangerment. Unlike the heroine in The Bloody Chamber, the narrator of The Erl-King is not a naÃ¯ve teenager at the time of the story. Rather, she is mature and purposeful in her actions; Harriet Kramer Linkin calls her "a highly sophisticated consciousness." Because she is mature and knowledgeable at the time of the story, the narrator is more complicit than Carter's other narrators in her imperilment and consequent subjugation by the Erl-King.
Linkin confirms that Carter draws on Romantic ideas in the whole of The Bloody Chamber. However, while the Romantics looked to nature as a source of spiritual enlightenment and life, in The Erl-King, it is a source of confinement and death. The narrator's initial description of the woods already foreshadows her entrapment; she depicts the light filtering through the trees as "these vertical bars of a brass-coloured distillation of light coming down from sulphur-yellow interstices in a sky hunkered with grey clouds." Since the narrator is complicit in her entrapment, she knows that she is "caged" or trapped from the moment she enters the woods. She is subject to their power; because everything in the woods "is exactly as it seems," any person who steps into them imprints her own desires on them. On one level, the narrator desires to be caught, and the cage-like patterns of light are reflections of this desire. She admits her knowledge by stating, that "this light admits of no ambiguities." By referring to the light as "sulphur-yellow," she also references and foreshadows death. In literary tradition, including the Romantic William Blake's poetry, sulfur (also known as brimstone) is an element connected with hell and damnation. In a sense, the narrator is damned to confinement from the story's opening.
As someone who "came alive from the desire of the woods," the Erl-King is at harmony with nature. Every animal seems to obey him. He cooks with weeds and fungi, and makes cheese from his goat's milk. A house is typically a symbol of civilization, but the Erl-King's house attracts and blends in with the nature around it; his roof "has grown a pelt of yellow lichen" and "grass and weeds grow in the mossy roof." His very eyes embody the death-in-life quality of the woods. They are both "as green as apples" and "as green as dead sea fruit"; even though they are the color of life and growth, they are "dead."Nature cooperates with the Erl-King; if nature is deathly in the story, then the Erl-King is death's ruler. The Erl-King and the nature around him represent the standing order of things in the narrator's universe. In the reality of the woods, he is the dominating male and she is the submissive female whom he traps.
The Erl-King uses music to trap the narrator in what Linkin calls "idealized domesticity's golden cage" or "the cage of Romantic subjectivity" where the female becomes a "reflexive image," a representation of what the male desires her to be. According to Linkin, Carter is playing on the Romantic hero's wish to tame the women he encounters. The Erl-King, like a Romantic hero, traps women who wander in the woods and in caging them, transforms them from creatures of free will to servants. The sound of the Erl-King's bird call summarizes this idea. The first call sounds like "girlish and delicious loneliness ... made into a sound." In contrast, the second calls sounds "as desolate as if it came from the throat of the last bird alive." The first call is that of the free bird, the independent woman, and the second is that of the caged bird, the subjugated woman, the "silly, fat, trusting [woody] with the pretty wedding [ring] round [her neck.]" Because the woods are away from civilization, one might argue that they should be exempt from social constructs such as the well-behaved, subservient woman. According to the narrator, however, the woods are only "exactly ... as they seem" until a human imprints them with his or her own ideas. As Linkin puts it, "It is impossible for human beings to enter the wood without bringing their own sociocultural maps with them." As we have examined, our narrator's knowledge Erl-King and the tale of Red Riding Hood into the woods with her, with their stipulations of entrapment and endangerment, direct her path straight to the Erl-King's lair.
The narrator in The Erl-King "colludes in erecting the bars of the golden cage" because she indulges the Erl-King in his desire to control and even consume her. She allows him to call her naked body a 'skinned rabbit' and to bite her neck. Just as the Marquis's pornographic vision of The Bloody Chamber's heroine stimulates her, the Erl-King's domination of the narrator arouses her. She encourages the Erl-King's domination because she is caught in the "vertigo" between her erotic desire for the Erl-King and her desire to be independent. Summarizing her dilemma in two words, she calls him a "tender butcher"; she knows that he is both her lover and destroyer. She believes that the Erl-King can enlighten her by consuming her; she wishes, "I should like to grow enormously small, so that you could swallow me ... Then I could lodge inside your body and you would bear me." In the end, the narrator's extreme solution is to kill the Erl-King and supplant male domination with female domination. Linkin explains that while other heroines in Carter's stories find happiness in relationships with men, the narrator of The Erl-King rejects them entirely. She must kill the male figure in order to supplant him as creator. At the story's end, the fiddle strung with the Erl-King's hair calls her "Mother," confirming her new, powerful role as absolute author of her own destiny.