The Erl King by Michel Tournier.


The Erl King Having previously discussed Stoner, in this post I am continuing with the theme of reviewing reissued literature. This time I am looking at Michel Tournier’s second novel The Erl King, which was first published in 1970.

The novel intrigued me from the off by opening in a diary format. I am a big fan of stories featuring aggrieved outsiders raging against the world via a diary, such as Gogol’s Diary Of A Madman and, of course, Dostoyevsky’s Notes From The Underground. This particular diary is recorded by a middle aged French mechanic in 1939, an ominous year…

The protagonist, Aubrey Tiffauges, begins by reminiscing about his miserable childhood spent as a submissive student at St. Christopher’s, a boarding school for orphans. Over the course of his recollections he introduces us to his obsession with his former classmate the ‘baby ogre’ Nestor.

Nestor is the deformed son of the school care taker. His age is undetermined and hard to judge due to his unconventional physical appearance, he appears to be a boy albeit with an oversized head, but his worldliness suggests that he is much older than the children who surround him.

Due to these factors he enjoys an uncommon prestige amongst his classmates and possesses a certain immunity from being disciplined by faculty members. When Nestor decides to take the young Tiffauges under his wing, he sow’s the seeds of his future fascination.

The aforementioned diary entries issue from the left hand of Aubrey Tiffauges. He finds that using his left hand to write has unexpected consequences. Long forgotten or repressed memories are revealed to him along with new philosophies and realisations. He collectively terms these revelations as his ‘sinister writings’.

The author uses these sinister writings to establish a set of symbols and tropes which are repeatedly reconfigured, recombined and inverted throughout the novel. The text recurrently cannibalises itself and then regenerates its narrative through this consumption, much as the main character Tiffauges consumes the imagery he fixates on and so becomes it.

The first example of this is found in Tiffauges’ belief that he is an avatar of the tragically departed Nestor who we discover died in a fire some years previously. Fitting with the author’s approach and main characters obsession with inversion, the adult Tiffauges stands as a physical and mental counterpoint to Nestor. He is a giant of a man possessed with an if not entirely infantile, certainly pubescent, understanding of his surroundings.

His impairment is hard to explain as he possesses an extensive vocabulary and expresses complex thoughts, yet he seems to be alienated from his surroundings by what could best be described as a sort of adolescent innocence. He is at once vulnerable and megalomaniacal.

Tiffauges reveals that he has taken to eating raw meat and believes himself to be an ogre or monster. That is a monster in the Latin sense of monstrum, a portent or divine warning which reveals a truth, as well as in the modern vernacular sense of large or deformed. Tiffauges is certainly large and most definitely socially deformed.

A diary entry of Tiffauges’ states: ‘if you don’t want to be a monster, you’ve got to be like your fellow creatures, in conformity with the species, the image of your relations. Or else have a progeny that makes you the first link in the chain of a new species. For monsters do not reproduce… And here I link up with my eternity again, for with me eternity takes the place of both relatives and progeny. Old as the world, and as immortal, I can have none but putative parents and adopted children.

Children play a central role in Tiffauges’ symbolic universe as is indicated by the books title The Erl-King which references the child stealing Faery King of Goethe’s poem, itself inspired by the Old Danish ballad Elveskud. The alternative title to the English translation of this novel is The Ogre one which also invokes images of children being forcibly removed from their parents by monstrous beings.

Over the course of the novel we witness Tiffauges obsession with at first children, then specifically male ones. We follow Tiffauges around Paris as he photographs children and obsesses over these images, lurking outside schools to capture his quarry on film which he later develops to pore over. Again we see the themes of inversion present in the development of photographs from negatives film to positive photographs, as well as themes of hunting which will recur.

Over the course of these outings he befriends a young girl. What happens next is open to interpretation depending on how reliable a narrator we believe Tiffauges to be. All we know is that Tiffauges’ is accused of raping the child, although there is much room in the text to believe that he is some way set up or framed.

This incident results in Tiffauges revulsion with female children a view he justifies with misogynistic argument that female children do not exist as they are all flirtatious coquettes from the get go. Could this be a paedophilic justification? Or misguided as it is does it suggest a rather more complex obsession and affinity with pre-sexual innocence? The character does not yield to easy analysis.

Tiffauges’ fascination with children is certainly sensual, he is obsessed with their scent, their sound and bizarrely their weight or phoric quality, but whether it is sexual is certainly debatable. He is for want of a better term, ‘Michael Jacksonesque’.

Tiffauges’ escapes sentencing for the rape due to the outbreak of World War Two and is sent to serve in the French army in lieu of prison time. This set a chain of events into motion where Tiffauges ends up a prisoner of war and is transferred to a prison camp in East Prussia. At this point the novel switches from a first person to a third person narrator.

Tiffauges finds his fortune changes under the chaotic circumstances of war. His skills as a mechanic enable him to begin a social ascent amidst the chaos of war, soon he is employed in Goering’s hunting lodge and then on to a National Political Academy or Napola where he becomes a eugenicist’s assistant.

Each change in circumstance moves him closer and closer to actualising his potential as an ogre superseding other ogres along the way. His employment at the Napola involves him scouring the Prussian country side looking for Aryan specimens to recruit and study; he literally steals children away from their parents. Yet there is always a larger ogre than the one he supersedes be Goering, Hitler or even Nazism itself.

Towards the end of the novel Tiffauges find a sort of redemption in the Christian trope of St. Christopher, the legendary Christ carrier. In the figure of St. Christopher Tiffauges’ finds an ogre role model of sorts and achieves quasi-atonement.

Like many French writers the author has a fascination with the ludic elements of linguistics and semiotics. And like many French writers, particularly those active in the 1970’s, Tournier relishes giving these elements free reign , sometimes to the frustration of the reader who at times may find the ludic veering perilously close to the ludicrous.

Tournier seems to want to say something about obsession, sexuality, myth, semiotics and the nature of fascism yet never quite gets around to it, opting instead for the effect of juxtaposing these elements rather than an analysing them.

The Erl King is also an uneven and often frustrating novel in terms of pace. I found the parts of the novel narrated in the first person to be much more successful than those narrated in the third person and regretted when the action moved outside of Tiffauges diary.

Yet for all these flaws it is hard to dismiss The Erl King entirely. It’s singular and odd parts add up to a distinctive and strangely haunting whole. The protagonist is one of the more distinctive and unsettling characters I have come across in a while.

I have spent much time puzzling over and pursuing the novels various thematic strands.I plan to reread it at some stage in the future to see if a second reading yields any more clarification. If one has the patience for such a book or merely enjoys the weird in life I recommend reading The Erl King.

Once Upon A Time: Hans Christian Andersen and Harry Clarke.

ISBN# 978-0-7171-5023-6

ISBN# 978-0-7171-5023-6

I recently received a gift of Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales Illustrated by Harry Clarke, published by Gill & Mac Millan, from a certain thoughtful individual. This beautiful hard back edition contains Andersen’s timeless and much loved tales such as, The Ugly Duckling, The Little Mermaid, and The Princess and the Pea, as well as lesser known tales like The Storks and The Marsh King’s Daughters. Rereading these stories transported me back to my childhood, where I had the good fortune of being introduced to them by my mother as bedtime stories. Through this activity the foundations of my lifelong love affair with stories were set.

As I gradually mastered my ABC’s and developed my literacy, again assisted by my mother, or mam as I call her, these were the tales with which I developed my reading skills. It didn’t matter that I had memorised most of them by heart. With a child’s delight for a good story no matter how many times it is told, I undertook to read these tales myself now that I possessed the ability. Unlike the anodyne but well-meaning text books found in school, such as Ann & Barry, Andersen’s stories conjured up the danger, mystery and magic my young mind craved. Far away from the conventional suburban banality of Ann and Barry’s world, with their “Ann likes cake, Barry likes playing football” style sentences, Andersen’s tales presented me with a world of danger and excitement. My young mind eagerly absorbed tales of cruel princes, homeless orphans, sinister magic, and unexpected consequences.

The Song of the Mad Prince

The Song of the Mad Prince

Tales such as The Ugly Duckling engaged with complex themes such as bullying and social exclusion. Anderson was no stranger to these topics, due to his unconventional physical appearance and humble origins. And here lies the genius in Andersen’s stories. Although written with children in mind, they were not childish or dishonest about the more unpleasant aspects of life. How many writers can claim to have encouraged a five year old to engage with themes like ethics and justice?

The Ugly Duckling

The Ugly Duckling

 I was equally enthralled by the Harry Clarke illustrations found in this edition of Andersen’s tales. I recalled my childhood self being mystified by these images, equally intrigued and intimidated by the exotic depictions of Andersen’s stories. Their sumptuous imagery was surrounded by an aura of foreboding which I still can’t fully account for. Perhaps it was something to do with their sophistication which was in stark contrast with the general standard of illustration found in more contemporary children’s books? Or maybe it was the illicit thrill a child receives from engaging with something intuited to be more intended for adult consumption?

The Little Mermaid.Definitely not the Disney version!

The Little Mermaid.Definitely not the Disney version!

Influenced by practitioners of Art nouveau such as Aubrey Beardsley, Japanese prints, the Ballet Russes, and in his stained glass work by the French Symbolist movement, Clarke melded these styles into his own unique vision. Characters are androgynous and flamboyant, particularly wealthy ones. Cruel faced princes with macabre smiles are dandy peacocks decked out in splendour, which equals and surpasses that of the princesses. Minor details on clothing and background objects are meticulously and ornately illustrated. Clarke’s images are a visual feast meriting many viewings, each one yielding new details unnoticed before.

Elf Hill

Elf Hill

Reencountering these images piqued my interest in their creator Harry Clarke, who I discovered, much to my delight, was a native of Dublin, Ireland, which happens to be my own place of dwelling. Born in 1889 Clarke, the son of a stained glass maker and church decorator began studying in his late teens at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, now known as The National College of Art and Design or NCAD. At the age of 24, having finished his training, he headed for London to find work as an illustrator. On presenting his portfolio to George Harrap, the main man in illustrated children’s literature at time, Clarke immediately received a commission to illustrate Andersen’s Fairy Tales for deluxe and trade editions.

Such a commission was not the norm for aspiring illustrators yet to establish their reputation, and stands as a testament both to Clarke’s skill and Harrap’s good taste and eye for talent. The success of this book sparked a productive relationship between Clarke and Harrap’s publishing house resulting in commissions to illustrate titles such as Poe’s Mystery and Imagination, Charles Perrault’s, The Fairy Tales of Perrault and Goethe’s Faust amongst others.

Clarke, Poe, Tales of Mystery and Imagination

Clarke, Poe, Tales of Mystery and Imagination

Clarke also continued to compose images in stained glass, working on the Honan chapel in University College Cork around the same time he was completing the illustrations for Andersen’s tales. The influence of Clarke’s stained glass works on his illustrations and vice versa is immediately apparent upon viewing his work. His coloured illustrations glow with a jewel-like luminosity mimicking the effect of light through coloured glass with startling effect. Likewise his stained glass pieces reveal the complex compositions of a master illustrator.

Windows, Honan Chapel, University College Cork

Windows, Honan Chapel, University College Cork.

Unfortunately access to much of Clarke’s work has been denied to us by the vagaries of history. His compositions created to accompany Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, were destroyed during the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin when a fire broke out at the Maunsel and Co Ltd. publishing house on middle Abbey Street. Further to this the London premises of Harrap’s was destroyed in the blitz during World War Two resulting in some of Clarke’s work which was stored there being destroyed. Fortunately Harrap’s American publishing partners, Brentano’s of New York, had acquired some of Clarke’s illustrations, including the originals of the Hans Christian Andersen illustrations, thus preserving them for our continued enjoyment.

The Hardy Tin Soldier

The Hardy Tin Soldier

Ten of these illustrations may now be found in the National Gallery of Ireland. Due to the fragile nature of drawings on paper these pictures are not on permanent display but can be viewed by appointment in the Gallery’s Prints & Drawings study room. Examples of Clarke’s stained glass work may be found in Dublin’s Hugh lane Gallery. There are also a smattering to be found in their original locations such as Bewley’s café on Grafton Street, the aforementioned Honan chapel in Cork, and The Chapel of the Sacred Heart in Dingle, to name but a few.

Detail from Harry Clarke Window, The Sleeping Christ.The Chapel of the Sacred Heart  Dingle

Detail from Harry Clarke Window, The Sleeping Christ.The Chapel of the Sacred Heart Dingle

Such was Clarke’s skill his commissions can be found in places as far afield as Australia where he completed a three-light window commission entitled ‘The Ascension’ to much critical acclaim. His famous design for a window in the International Labour Court in Geneva, commissioned then rejected on completion by the conservative Irish state due to its sensuousness, is on permanent display in the Wolfsonian at the University of Florida.

Detail from Geneva window

Detail from Geneva window

I would recommend anyone with an interest in art who finds themselves in the vicinity of any of these locations to check them out and spend some time in the company of a truly great Artist. And if you can’t afford the air fare pick up the book and enjoy its beautiful reproductions of Clarke’s work as well as the wonderful stories of Hans Christian Andersen. The only downside is that after encountering such sophisticated work you will find it hard to shake the feeling that much of contemporary children’s literature leaves a lot to be desired. For further information about the work of Clarke and his life the definitive biography seems to be Nicola Gordon Bowe’s, The Life and Work of Harry Clarke. I have also included links to some of Clarke’s influences as well as resources related to Clarke below.

Clarke Biography:

Aubrey Beardsley images:

Art Nouveau:

Ballet Russes:

French Symbolism:

Japanese Prints: