Literary Fiction, Tournier, Michel

Reflections on Le Roi des Aulnes (The Erl-King) by Michel Tournier (spoilers)

Le Roi des Aulnes book coverLe 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.

Fantasy/Sci-Fi, Stevenson, Robert Louis

The Devil Inside: Review of the The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

1880s Poster
1880s Poster

I finally bought a Kindle Paperwhite. I had considered buying an e reader or a tablet for over a year. Now that I have bought my Kindle, I have no regrets. Since most of the books I read are in the public domain, I think the Kindle is a great deal.

Anyway, the first story I read on my Kindle was The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. It is very difficult to give a review of this novella without giving away too much of the plot. Therefore, there will be spoilers in this review.

What is it about?

Mr. John Utterson, a lawyer for Dr. Henry Jekyll, learns from his friend Richard Enfield about the recent murder of a small girl. This small girl was trampled by a frightening-looking man who then escaped from the crime scene. Oddly, Dr. Jekyll offers a large sum of money to the girl’s family to drop the search for the murderer. Over the next few months, Mr. Utterson learns more and more about this sinister man. He discovers that the designated beneficiary in Dr. Jekyll’s will is Mr. Hyde, the same man who had trampled the young girl to death. Here comes the spoiler. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are one and the same person. Dr. Jekyll wanted to learn more about his dark and sinister side – the side that he ordinarily represses. Therefore, he prepares and drinks a potion that changes him into Mr. Hyde. This dark side lives selfishly and without morals. Eventually, Dr. Jekyll loses the ability to control the transformations, and it becomes more and more difficult to suppress Mr. Hyde. When Jekyll is asleep or dwells too much on his evil nature, Hyde is released.

What did I think about it?

I know that  The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a study of multiple personality disorder. However, upon finishing the novella, I felt that this story was also an allegory on substance abuse. Dr. Jekyll loves and hates Mr. Hyde. He loves Hyde because Hyde does not have to submit to the constraints placed on him by society or a conscience. Also, Jekyll does not have to take responsibility for Hyde’s actions. After all, Hyde is not Jekyll. Hyde is the murderer, not Jekyll. On the other hand, Jekyll has a conscience. He hates what Hyde has done. The transformations become more and more spontaneous so that Jekyll loses control over Hyde. Like someone with an addiction, Jekyll cannot be rid of Hyde. Hyde eventually takes over Jekyll. As I was reading the story, it became clear to me that Stevenson had personal experiences with addiction. It is believed that the author used cocaine as he wrote this novella. At that time, cocaine was legal. Stevenson used because he suffered from tuberculosis. One cannot help but pity Jekyll. Jekyll has good intentions. He wants to be himself again, but he just can’t get rid of Hyde. The temptation to evil is too strong, and eventually, Jekyll is permanently replaced by Hyde. I have never read a story that described addiction so accurately.

Here are some quotes from the text to give you a flavor of what I mean. The “I” in all these passages is Dr. Jekyll:

“Now, however, and in the light of that morning’s accident, I was led to remark that whereas, in the beginning, the difficulty had been to throw off the body of Jekyll, it had of late gradually but decidedly transferred itself to the other side. All things therefore seemed to point to this; that I was slowly losing hold of my original and better self, and becoming slowly incorporated with my second and worse.”

“To cast in my lot with Jekyll, was to die to those appetites which I had long secretly indulged and had of late begun to pamper.”

“My devil had long been caged, he came out roaring.”

I absolutely loved this story. This is the ideal character study, and Stevenson is such a fantastic storyteller.  I know that I will be rereading this novella for years to come.