Le Roi des Aulnes (The Erl-King) is the second novel I have read by Michel Tournier. The first was La Goutte D’Or (The Golden Droplet), which I reviewed two years ago.
Michel Tournier’s novels are unsettling. The characters seem to come straight out of a fairy tale. This is especially true of The Erl-King. The protagonist Abel Tiffauges is a mechanic who admits in the first pages that he is an ogre. He’s a large man with an underdeveloped sexuality. His sexuality – or lack thereof – is a sign in this novel of his otherness. The first half of the novel is a series of journal entries. Tiffauges writes his secrets with his left hand. In these so-called “sinister writings”, Tiffauges describes his childhood at a boarding school. He meets a boy named Nestor who saves Tiffauges from many unpleasant situations. At school, Tiffauges develops an obsession with scatology and children. Yet, Tiffauges has no sexual interest in children. Instead, he turns to children as symbols of purity and innocence. Much like St. Christopher, the patron saint of his childhood school, Tiffauges dreams of carrying children to safety.
The Erl-King is ultimately a myth that explores Nazi ideology, especially its obsession with purity. Tournier suggests that this obsession with purity was not unique to the Nazi party but is behind all forms of hatred. Tiffauges is drawn to Nazi stories about a mythological Germany with Teutonic knights and boreal forests. These myths give Tiffauges greater meaning in his life. They also speak to his odd interests. He eventually kidnaps children for the Nazi Youth. The ogre of the first letters becomes the Erl-King of Goethe’s poem.
Tournier’s novels are highly philosophical. His characters explore the values that the Western world holds dear. The grotesque in The Erl-King exposes the carnavalesque nature of evil. The quest for beauty and goodness becomes complicity in the Holocaust. For all his unsavory characteristics, Abel Tiffauges has a child-like wonder that is unsettlingly human.
I’ve always been struck by Nazi Germany’s obsession with the Middle Ages, Joan of Arc, and fables. The Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales served to promote German nationalism in the 19th-century. Tournier suggests that the stories we tell each other can indeed be harmful.
The Erl-King is not a pleasant read. Abel Tiffauges is highly unlikable and some critics have condemned the book for humanizing and mythologizing evil.
But I think this novel remains relevant. I am concerned about the myths young men are taught on certain social media sites. These are vulnerable people whose personal challenges are exploited to further movements that promise a restoration of purity. In a dark, broken world the desire for purity is tantalizing but dangerous. It leads to the very subversion of goodness. I simply can’t wait to read more of Tournier’s novels.