a journal in comparative literature

Category: 2016

“The Leper” by Jeong-Ju Seo, “Prince Grass: Returning from Shenyang” by Myung-Han Lee, and “Storm Roaring At The Castle Roof” by King Gwanghae

These translations initially began as a personal interest. My main goal for this project was to unearth some rarely translated medieval and contemporary Korean poems that have strong cultural reflection and historical depth. A challenging part about this project was working with poems written in Old Korean and not the modern Korean we know of today. Up until the early 20th century, due to the long history of Chinese colonization of Korea, modern Korean alphabets were not considered official written language. Thus, poems like “Prince Grass” and “Storm Roaring at the Castle Roof,” were originally written in Chinese characters instead of modern Korean alphabets, and were later translated into modern Korean.

I selected three poems from three different distinctive poets: Jeong-Ju Seo, Myung-Han Lee and King Gwanghae of Joseon Dynasty. Despite the difference in their time period, their poems all deal with feelings of loss and isolation one feels under the weight of history. Moreover, their reflective nature further demonstrates particular cultural aspect of “Han.”

“Han” is a unique Korean cultural trait and is implied or explicit, is in every aspect of Korean life and culture. “Han” can be understood as an overwhelming sense of sorrow and melancholy equivalent to African-Americans’ blues. “Han” is central to understanding Korean-ness because of Korea’s history of frequent foreign invasion and oppressive colonial experiences. The three poets all similarly express personal and historical “Han” in one way or another.

The first poet, Jeong-Ju Seo, is a controversial figure within Korean literary community because of his history as a Pro-Japanese activist. However, among western readers, he is better known as the founding father of modern Korean poetry. He was nominated five times for the Nobel Prize. He lived from 1915 to 2000. His inspiration primarily came from history, foreign poets such as Baudelaire, and his experience of living under Japanese occupation during early 20th century. Baudelaire’s influence can be seen in Seo’s poem “Leper.”As Baudelaire attempted to explore beauty coming from the place of darkness, Seo, too, explored human desire for life through leper’s perspective as he committed an unspeakable crime. His depiction of beauty through symbolic color red, which represents life the leper desperately desires, invites cross-cultural empathy.

What took the most effort in translating “Leper” was translating the cultural references only Korean readers may be familiar with. In Korea, there was an old wives’ tale about eating a child’s liver and how it could cure leprosy. There are no known origins for this tale; however, many lepers who already felt persecuted by society actually carried these gruesome crimes out. Although this had been out of practice for decades before Jeong-Ju Seo’s time, it appears that the myth surrounding these incidents still survived and had inspired him to reference it in his poem. Aside from Seo’s interest in folklore and cultural identity, Seo’s apparent sympathy for the leper and his feeling of isolation and helplessness stems from his experience as a colonial subject under Japanese rule.

The second poet, Myung-Han Lee, served as a civil servant in the Royal Court of the Yi Dynasty during 15th century Korea. He was known for his fervent loyalty to the Ming Dynasty despite their declining state at the time. He was held captive in Manchu Qing Empire with the Crown Prince of Korea. During this ordeal, he served as the Crown Prince’s advisor. He returned to Korea with the Crown Prince in 1643. His poem “Prince Grass” was written on his return journey to Korea.

In the second poem “Prince Grass,” there is a subtle historical reference to the first and second Manchu invasion of Korea which had occurred from 1627 to1636. Due to Korea’s deeply rooted loyalty to the Ming Dynasty, Manchu Qing Empire found it necessary to conquer Korea by force. The two invasions left Korea in ruins and ended in an unfair peace treaty which resulted in the Qing Empire taking the Crown Prince and his brother Grand Prince as hostages to Shenyang. This was a turbulent time in Korean history, politically as well as personally, with violent change forced upon many government officials who considered themselves loyal to the teachings of Confucius and the Han principles of China. The transfer of power from the Ming Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty disrupted this political order. Lee’s poem successfully captures the “Han” of this particular time period through the perspective of a captive returning home alone.

For this poem, I worked with a previously translated version as the piece was originally written in Chinese. When translating this poem, one of the difficulties I faced was finding an appropriate name for what the poet calls prince grass. According to Dr. Min Jung in his book, Woori Hanshi Sambaeksoo (Our Three-Hundred Chinese Poetry), prince grass is another name for Angelica, also known as Dong Quai. Both Chinese and Korean locals have called them prince grass because they believed it invoked the image of sadness in its scenery. Prince grass is often found in northern parts of Korea and various places in China but mostly nearby Shenyang’s Taizi River as referenced in the poem. It resonated well with the overall tone and theme of the poem to literally translate the name as prince grass instead of using its Latin name Angelica, which may be more familiar to Western readers.

The last poet, King Gwanghae, was the fifteenth king of Joseon Dynasty. He lived from 1575 to 1641 and reigned from 1608 to 1623. His most notable accomplishments included restoration of official documents destroyed during the Seven Years War, which lasted from 1592 to 1598 and reconstruction after the war. He was also heavily criticized by the conservatives for his neutral diplomatic stance between the Qing and Ming dynasties. His neutral stance resulted from his own traumatic experience of Seven Years of War. He was later dethroned in a coup staged by his nephew, who was an avid supporter of the Ming dynasty and died in exile. His poem “Storm at the Castle Roof” was written during his time in exile on Jeju Island.

In “Storm Roaring at the Castle Roof,” there are some references to Jeju Island to which the poet was exiled after being dethroned. This reference is not as clearly implied as the poet often jumps back from his daydreams and reality. However, his overall nostalgic tone in the poem points to his deep “Han,” resulting from his dethronement and subsequent foreign invasions Korea suffered. While translating language-wise was not an inconvenience, the help from my writer’s group was crucial in translating the feel of the poem from Korean to English. Their feedback was essential in guiding me in determining what sounded right and if it had successfully transferred the feelings that poets had originally intended. Directly translating sentences from Korean to English made the meter and rhyme sound quite different. Instead, I took liberty with the rhythm and translated it to its current version. For example, in “The Leper,” my main issue was tense. Originally the poem was written in past tense in Korean, but I chose to translate it into present tense in English, as the present tense seems to represent the leper’s despair better.

The main goal of this project was to transfer the historical, cultural and emotional aspect of Korean poems to life in English. As mentioned earlier, “Han” is an important aspect of Korean history and culture and it is my hope that through my reinterpretation of these poems from Korean to English, Western readers will hopefully be able to gain a new perspective of Korean culture and history.

The Leper
by Jeong-Ju Seo
Translation by Heejung Sim

The sun, the light, the sky
The leper, deep in sorrow.
At moon rise, in the barley field,
He devours a child [1. During Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897), there was a popular belief in Korea that eating innocent children could cure leprosy. Lepers were then often blamed for the disappearance of children in towns and faced punishment by angry mobs.].
All night,
He weeps: cries of crimson colored flowers.

– 未堂 서 정 주 –
해와 하늘빛이문둥이는 서러워
보리밭에 달 뜨면 애기 하나 먹고
꽃처럼 붉은 울음을 밤새 울었다.

Prince Grass: Returning from Shenyang
by Myung-Han Lee
Translation by Heejung Sim

Exuberant wild Prince grass,
Leisurely flowing Taizi River [2. A river located in Shenyang, roughly translated: the Crown Prince River.]
Lonely subject on his way back home [3. This is a reference to Crown Prince Sohyeon who was taken as a hostage in the Manchu Court during the Qing Dynasty at Shenyang by the terms of a peace treaty after War in 1636. He was kidnapped to Shenyang with his wife, two children and his brother, Prince Bongrim.],
For whom does that spring light shine so delicately?


회자심양( 回自瀋陽)-이명한(李明漢)

漠漠王孫草(막막왕손초) : 왕손 풀은 아득하고

悠悠太子河(유유태자하) : 태자 물은 유유히 흐른다

孤臣獨歸路(고신독귀로) : 외로운 신하 홀로 돌아오는 길에

春色爲誰多(춘색위수다) : 봄빛은 누굴 위해 이리도 짙은가

Storm Roaring At The Castle Roof
by King Gwanghae
Translation by Heejung Sim

Humid air fills the town.
Day has already turned to night
As the roaring current rolls in.
Wild green mountains’ worrisome air surrounds the clear autumn.
Desperate to return,
I have seen too many wild Prince grass,
But without promise, this vagabond dreams of the Capital City.
Hardly any word from home,
A lonely boat on a foggy lake floats ceaselessly.





궂은 비바람이 성머리에 불고
습하고 역한 공기 백 척 누각에 가득한데
창해의 파도 속에 날은 이미 어스름
푸른 산 근심어린 기운이 맑은 가을을 둘러싸네
돌아가고 싶어 왕손초를 신물나게 보았고
나그네의 꿈에는 제자주(서울)가 자주 보이네
고국의 존망은 소식조차 끊어지고
안개 자욱한 강 위에 외딴 배 누웠구나

光海君 李琿


Fairytale Rejection: Female Agency and the Refutation of “Happily Ever After” in Haruki Murakami’s “The Little Green Monster” and Angela Carter’s “The Erl-King”

In the fairytale tradition, specifically romance-oriented fairytales, there are often two main identifying components: the interspersion of magic and a “happy In the Western fairytale tradition, specifically romance-oriented fairytales, there are often two main identifying components: the interspersion of magic and a “happy ending” involving either reward through marriage or the punishment of social transgressions. In these stories, magic helps create conflict in the tale, while the story’s ending of heterosexual marriage between the protagonist and another party or its punishment of characters for social transgressions (e.g. lying, theft, premarital sex, etc.) help to underscore the fairytale’s moral function in society (Hixton 155). A consequence of this need for cultural stabilization through storytelling is that female agency is often overlooked. As emphasis is placed on resolving the conflict created by magical intrusion and restoring harmony through the reinforcement of cultural norms, the women in these stories and these marriages are no longer characters, but merely models of the virgin-whore paradigm and a means to marital end. Modern retellings of fairytales call attention to this problematic trope of silencing women for the sake of maintaining social norms through the introduction of female interiority and by offering alternatives to “the fairytale ending.”
In Haruki Murakami’s story, “The Little Green Monster,” a housewife is intruded upon by a lovesick, mind-reading green lizard, but what seems to be another animal-groom tale reminiscent of “The Frog Prince” ends in the retention of the housewife’s original marriage and the destruction of the monster. In Angela Carter’s “The Erl-King,” the female protagonist enters a sexual relationship with a wood spirit who may eventually turn her into an animal. Rather than creating a story punishing female sexual precociousness through magic, however, it is the Erl-King that is punished as the protagonist kills him in his sleep and frees the transformed girls in his keeping. Through the injection and intrusion of magic in “The Little Green Monster” and “The Erl-King,” the stories become primed for a fairytale ending, but as Murakami and Carter show, women do not need magic to determine their happiness; rather, they only need themselves.

“The Little Green Monster” and the Fairytale Tradition

In order to understand how “The Little Green Monster” fights against the fairytale tradition, one must first understand how “The Little Green Monster” relates to the fairytale tradition. The Oxford English Dictionary defines fairy tales as “a tale about fairies; a tale set in fairyland; esp. any of various short tales having folkloric elements and featuring fantastic or magical events or characters” and “Something resembling a fairy tale in being unreal or incredible, or in having an idealized happy ending” (OED). While “The Little Green Monster” neither involves fairies nor takes place in fairyland, it does contain fantastic elements that could never be attributed to the genre of realism. This can be seen in its titular character—a green long-nosed lizard monster that comes out of the ground (207, 153 )—and the story’s climactic telepathy battle (209, 155).

Yet, Matthew Strecher notes that “in virtually all of his fiction, with the one notable exception of Noruwei no mori [Norwegian Wood], a realistic setting is created, then disrupted, sometimes mildly, sometimes violently, by the bizarre of the magical” (267). Murakami is characterized by his use of the bizarre in his fiction, ranging from a story about lederhosen to the aforementioned titular lizard and telepathy battle seen in “The Little Green Monster.” Though Murakami’s fiction often uses magical elements, Stretcher’s decision to categorize Murakami as a magical realist speaks to why “The Little Green Monster” is not immediately a fairytale. In his article, Stretcher defines magical realism as “In a very simple nutshell … what happens when a highly-detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something ‘too strange to believe’” (267), and it is this meticulous sense of detail that separates this genre from fairytales. While magical realism injects itself with fantasy and the strange, the author’s attention to details of everyday life attempts to ground the story in reality, to maintain a sense of normalcy, and therefore a sense of removed plausibility. With fairytales, this attention to detail is much more lax, not only because of the tales’ mutability given its origins in a changeful and changing oral tradition, but because morality, not realism, is the main goal of these stories. The vagueness and lack of character-dimensionality in fairytales exist because they exist as allegories and ways of enforcing cultural values through the exaggerated means of magic and fantasy. As such, “The Little Green Monster” would not qualify as a fairytale solely based on its inclusion of the fantastic.
Though the inclusion of magic in itself is not enough to view “The Little Green Monster” as playing on and with the fairytale tradition, its specific use of the “animal groom” trope places it in conversation with “The Frog Prince” and the fairytale genre, becoming an exploration of the classic fairytale themes of love and marriage. Martha Hixton defines animal groom stories as “…stories in which the lover first appears in an undesirable form, typically as a beast of some sort, or is otherwise unable to serve as a fit husband or lover for the girl” (154). The criteria of the partner being “undesirable” and “unable to serve as a fit husband” are both met in Murakami’s story, not only through the housewife’s repulsion of the creature when it first emerges from the ground (207, 153), but also the larger social implications in the story. As she is already married, to engage romantically with the monster is to engage in bigamy; as it is unknown whether or not the creature is enchanted, she runs the risk of bestiality. The sudden interaction of a woman and a magical creature parallels the scenario raised in “The Frog Prince,” raising reader expectations of a fairytale end; however, in order to fulfill those expectations, the housewife must engage in social taboos, and it is in negotiating these opposing, contradictory ideas that Murakami creates an alternative to the “fairytale ending.”

“The Little Green Monster”

In his short story, “The Little Green Monster,” Murakami deliberately uses fairytale tropes and narrative dissonance as a way of raising awareness of reader complicity in female powerlessness in the pursuit of “a happy ending.” The story’s opening echoes that of “The Frog Prince” with a female character engaged in idle activity. Where the protagonist of “The Frog Prince” needed help retrieving a ball, the protagonist of Murakami’s story is much older and has a more abstract problem: her boredom as a wife stuck at home while her husband is at work. This monotony is broken by the intrusion of the monster in her life and in her garden, but it is Murakami’s framing of this magical invader that creates narrative dissonance with the fairytale tradition this story borrows from. When the monster is first introduced as a removed, unknown sound, the female narrator states, 「でも音は鳥肌が立つくらい気味の悪い響きを持っていた。」(206) [“But [the sound] made my flesh creep” (153)]. It is an understandable sentiment given the ominous circumstances she experiences this in: alone with an unknown entity moving ever closer to her, but this is not merely an emotional reaction; her flesh creeping shows a bodily reaction, a physical ramification to their interaction, all before she even sees the creature. Even after she sees it, this revulsion is maintained. Though she admits to no longer being disgusted by its physical appearance despite its long nose and human-like eyes (207, 153), it is the prospect of the monster’s ability to read her mind that repulses her. She complains,「私は誰かに勝手に自分の心を読まれたりするのは我慢できない。とくに相手が訳のわからない気味の悪い獣であるような場合には。私は体中にじっとり冷たい汗をかいていた。」(208) [“I hate to have anyone know what I’m thinking—especially when that someone is a horrid and inscrutable little creature like this. I broke out in a cold sweat from head to foot” (154)]. Here, it is not the monster’s physical traits that repulse her but, rather, its mental capacity, and more specifically, its ability to invade her thoughts. Though this plays on the idea of open communication and the value of honesty common in fairytales, the idea of telepathy here is made to feel unsettling and disgusting because it is nonconsensual. The narrator is unable to protect herself from being mentally laid bare to the creature, from its penetration of her thoughts, and it is through this forced vulnerability in combination with the evil aura of the creature that makes the fairytale elements of the story begin to feel oppressive.

The oppressive nature of the creature’s mental invasion does not stop with its ability to mind-read as the creature uses its telepathy to reframe and reclaim the narrator’s disgust. When the creature first breaks into her home, it seems to laugh at her when she thinks of defending herself with a knife against the home invasion (207,153), and in its long love confession to her, the lizard prioritizes its struggles over hers (208-209, 154-155). Though it argues that it came up to the surface because it could no longer be apart from her, its confession is always framed either in terms of how painful their separation was for hit or how gratifying this must be for her and how she should be grateful to have such a love in her life. It says,
[They all tried to stop me, but I couldn’t stand it anymore. And think of the courage that it took, please, took. What if you thought it was rude and presumptuous, for a creature like me to propose to you? (154-55).]
In the English translation, this proposal seems mundane. Out of context, it could belong to any nervous lover. However, the original Japanese text contains repetition of 「ですよ」/ “desu-yo”, a grammar particle used to provide emphasis. Though emphasis is not negative in itself, given the strength of the particle in Japanese, the monster’s frequent use of this to a stranger is not only rude, but also highly condescending to the female narrator because it is telling her what to think. The monster is trying to rewrite the narrative of their interaction, telling her how to interpret its actions correctly, all while in her house and her head.
Given that this is their first time interacting, here Murakami plays with the fairytale ideas of “love at first sight” and “true love,” contrasting these tropes with the monster’s unpleasantness and forcing readers to confront their own expectations of the fairytale form. As the narrator has just been confronted with the creature’s ardent love confession in detail, this would be the point in the story where she would return the creature’s affections, having been swayed by its passions and now rewarding it for its struggles in reaching her. In recognition of its efforts to give her its love, it would be rewarded with her love in return. Yet the story makes it clear how distasteful and problematic that concept is by fleshing out its narrator. The first line in the story establishes her background: the narrator is married; she already has a home. By fairytale standards, the narrator has already achieved her ending, and to gratify the creature’s love with the narrator’s is to destroy her life to this point. To reward the creature is to place the needs and feelings of a potentially socially-disruptive interloper over those of a woman who—though bored—is content with her marriage, condoning the notion that a woman is not a person, but an object. A prize. More glaring is the lack of input allowed to the narrator during this confession despite the story’s framing as a first-person narrative. In a frame that should and has allowed for full interiority of its speaker, the fact that the narrator is forced to remain silent during this phase of the story speaks more to the lack of agency experienced by women in fairytales.
This lack of agency is quickly reversed though as the narrator loses her fear of the monster, restoring power to herself through the literal use of her voice. Immediately after the previously quoted confession, the housewife throws a verbal barb shouting, 「だって本当にその通りじゃないのと私は心の中で思った。私に求愛するなんて、まったくなんて厚かもしい獣かしらと私と思った。」(209) [“But it is rude and presumptuous, I said in my mind. What a rude little creature you are to come seeking my love!” (155)]. Here, the housewife is asserting her own opinion of the situation concerning the behavior of the monster, angrily berating its presumptuousness not only for being dismissive about breaking into her home and terrorizing her in the name of love, but also for attempting to degrade her by entertaining the idea that she would leave her husband to engage in bestiality with it. The way the housewife goes about this assertion is interesting too in the sharp contrast it provides with the previous paragraph. While the monster’s confession is a single paragraph spanning two pages, the woman’s rebuke is only a line and a half. It also notably lacks the monster’s uncouth use of 「ですよ」/“desu-yo,” but this is because she does not need it. The housewife is frank and is confident in what she has to say. She does not have to tell people how to think, because the message is clear enough in itself, and in the face of this, the monster begins to weaken in its resolve.
As the monster’s confidence begins to weaken, the housewife uses this emotional currency to empower herself, exchanging fear for confidence and moving from defense to offense. Upon discovering that the monster reacts negatively to her counterclaims to its fairytale reading of the two of them, the woman begins to assault the monster with her resentment for it, stating 「私はもう獣を怖いとは思わなくなっていた。私は試しに思いつく限り残酷な場面を頭に思い浮かべてみた。」(209) [“I wasn’t afraid of the monster anymore. I painted pictures in my mind of all the cruel things I wanted to do to it” (155)]. Now liberated from the emotional tyranny of the monster who has tried to implicitly control her thoughts, the woman is free to seek her revenge. While this may seem cruel and explosively exaggerated, the woman makes explicit what she has suffered, retorting when the monster pleads its case,
[But I refused to listen. In my mind, I said, Don’t be ridiculous! You crawled out of my garden. You unlocked my door without permission. You came inside my house. I never asked you here. I have the right to think anything I want to. And I continued to do exactly that—thinking at the creature increasingly terrible thoughts (155-156).]
The woman’s rage is derived from the monster’s presumption that she would want to leave her husband and run away with a strange creature of unknown origin, as well as from its utter invasion of privacy and its attempts to intimidate her. Its genesis in the garden violates her private space to think, while its genesis from under the tree she regards as a dear friend violates the mental associative relationship she shares with it (now unable to divorce the monster and the tree from each other). Additionally, by breaking into her home, the monster violates her physical privacy as its intrusion into her thoughts violates her mental privacy. It is not because the monster’s physicality is upsetting to her that she is so malicious in her attack; it is because the monster has attempted to coerce and control her thoughts and actions through a campaign of fear. It has attempted to ransack all vestiges of her life in order to overlay its own interpretation of how her life should be lived—with it—with little concern for the life she already has. Though this has all the trappings of a grand romantic tale—a fantastic creature, a female protagonist, passionate and ardent love that literally moves the earth (the monster having had to dig itself out of the ground to see her)—this is not a case of a hero coming in to sweep a maiden off her feet. The creature is not a knight or a poor but virtuous villager. It is an intruder and a bully. What attempts to be heroism is actually barbarism as the monster uses coercion and fear tactics to create the story it wants in the name of love.
The dissonance between the fairytale the monster desires and the reality of the female protagonist’s situation exists not because of any outright misogyny on the monster’s part, but its mistake in reading the narrator and her life as a prize narrative. Rather than viewing the narrator as an autonomous entity with thoughts, feelings, and a life of her own, the monster views the narrator as an object, something that has no responsibilities or social ties outside of its own existence as well as something to be retrieved or won (Sheets 649). As such, it pursues the narrator in forms of the fairytale tradition and the prize narrative: breaking into her home (storming the castle), the narrator’s initial terror (the narrator as the chaste maiden protecting her virginity), and finally, the lack of the narrator’s response to its affections (wooing the maiden). While these actions require physical engagement with the narrator, all of these actions are emotionally one-sided, placing the monster as the active hero and relegating the female narrator to the passive recipient of these actions. However at the climax of her attack, the narrator tells the monster,「ねえ獣、お前は女というもののことをよく知らないんだ。そういう種類のことなら私にはいくらだっていくらだって思いつけるのだ。」(210) [“See, then, you little monster, you have no idea what a woman is. There’s no end to the number of things I can think of to do to you” (156)]. The woman has severely weakened the monster in telepathic battle following her rejection of its affections, leaving it on the verge of death. When it looks to her for mercy and explanation, it receives the above quote, the narrator explicitly stating what the monster’s mistake was. Here the narrator implies that the monster underestimated the possible extent of female cunning and malice, but she also points out the monster’s mistake in understanding the role of women in narratives in general. Having read women as the prize in a prize narrative, where women are not agents of action but passive objects of conquest, the monster does not expect dissent, nor does it expect an agency rivaling its own. The monster fails to read women beyond their function as object in the prize narrative, and in failing to do so, pays for this with its eventual demise.
Having played with the fairytale tradition to show its glaring problems when it comes to overwriting female agency, Murakami’s decision to give the female narrator the last word—combined with the impotency of the lizard-creature—offers alternatives to female representation and male narrative in the fairytale tradition. In Hixton’s analysis of “The Frog Prince,” she argues, “Feminist critics have rightly deplored the subtext which exists in these storylines, that such a desire can only be granted to exceptionally self-sacrificing women or only after tremulous retribution is made for wanting to know the truth” (161). This generalization of feminist attitudes on “The Frog Prince” speak to a tradition of “deserving women being rewarded” and/or “female curiosity being mildly punished.” No word is made on male relations to the truth, and while oftentimes male pursuit of the truth is rewarded, I would like to posit that a similar failure to do so leads to punishment through impotence, death, or both. The creature standing in for the unwanted male suitor pursues the female narrator without attempting to gain awareness of the intimate aspects of her life, focusing instead on the surface relationship of how she may gratify it by returning its affection. As a result of this failure to know her, it underestimates her, allowing her to reverse the power-dynamic and destroy it. Watching it disappear, the narrator comments on the futility of the monster’s dying gaze:
[That won’t do you any good, I thought to it. You can look all you want, but you can’t say a thing. You can’t do a thing. Your existence is over, finished, done. Soon the eyes dissolved into emptiness, and the room filled with the darkness of night (156).]
Upon defeat, one of the first distinct features to disappear is the monster’s mouth and therefore its ability to communicate and assert its own narratives. As a result, this allows the female narrator to use her own voice, which is relevant in terms of asserting her agency. In announcing these feelings rather than letting them exist as a mental projection, the extent of her agency’s effectiveness is more widespread and less likely to be ignored. The fact that the female narrator is the one left alive in the end also speaks to her narration’s overall use and effectiveness. In following antiquated modes of male-female interaction in the fairytale tradition, the monster fails to recognize the female narrator’s needs. In failing to take her happiness and agency into account, it is punished with destruction while the female—left standing at the end of the story—is rewarded for championing against coercion and preserves her own values with survival and the last word.

“The Erl-King,” Scopophilia, and Feminine Narrative Liberation
Where “The Little Green Monster” plays on the function of fairytale morality condoning romance for a marital end, Angela Carter’s “The Erl-King” is a treatment of and against the chaste maiden’s fairytale opposite: the sexually precocious woman. The tale begins with an unknown narrator’s meditation on the woods. As the tale goes on, a sense of physicality eventually emerges through the use of pronouns, but not before the narrator notes that “The trees stir with a noise like taffeta skirts of women who have lost themselves in the woods and hunt round hopelessly for the way out” (84-85). This is a bit of foreshadowing on Carter’s part as the narrator eventually becomes mired in the metaphorical woods of her romantic relationship with the Erl-King, but the description also comments on the nature of the woods in the fairytale tradition. The woods are a staple for the fairytale not only given the traditional roots in small, isolated villages nestled in the woods, but the woods have always symbolized the deep, menacing unknown of nature. Out in the woods, one was removed from human society and at the mercy of the elements and predators, imagined or otherwise. To be lost in the woods was to be lost from society; to be placed there was at once a punishment and a death sentence. In following the moral function of fairytales, for a woman to enter the woods was a metaphor for sexuality. For a woman to enter and exit the woods unscathed meant that she had successfully maneuvered through interactions with the opposite sex with her chastity intact. Alternatively, the taffeta-skirted women trapped in the woods speak to those who had failed, who lost their virginity and were punished with alienation and death (Sheets 649). The narrator, upon entering, risks becoming another one of those taffeta-skirted women, but the richness of the fabric in the description creates a tenuous underscoring against the punishment. Yes, to engage in premarital sex can lead to and possibly encourages death in the fairytale tradition, but the lush sensuality and hedonism implied in those skirts are tantalizing enough to ignore the danger.
To engage in the fairytale tradition, Carter retains the “sex as danger” metaphor through the Erl-King’s promised harm as well as his consuming gaze. Just before the unnamed narrator meets her romantic captor comes the statement, “Erl-King will do you grievous harm” (85). There is no obvious source for this information: it could be the narrator’s observation, an authorial interjection, an inference from a collective social value, or even the disembodied warning from the taffeta-skirted ghosts of yore. Lacking a source, the credibility of this statement is dubious. Its succinctness is at odd with the previously smooth-flowing prose, offering a warning, but no suggestions for how to avoid the danger. There is a threat in the message, but with little definition as to what that harm is and how to avoid it, the sentence ends up sitting like a rock in the forest, too large to completely ignore, but ultimately too small to hinder the path of the narrative. Equally foreboding and more concrete however is the narrator’s statement: “There are some eyes that can eat you” (86). Eyes have no mouths, no digestive systems, so read literally, the sentence makes no sense: eyes cannot consume. As a metaphor for the male gaze, the consuming gaze speaks to the nature of the objectifying sexual appetite, especially when read in relation to the other stories in The Bloody Chamber, the collection this story originates. Caleb Sivyer matches a term to this idea of the consuming gaze: “scopophilia,” defined as “…pleasure in looking, and is characterized by both voyeurism and fetishism” (2). This analysis relates to a reading of another Carter fairytale-adaptation, “The Bloody Chamber,” but the concept of scopophilia can also be applied in “The Erl-King.” There is sexual gratification to be gained from garnering the Erl-King’s gaze, but with it also comes the physical threat that comes to all his lovers—being turned into a bird and placed in a cage of his keeping—as well as the social threat of being ostracized, objectification, and death.
The narrator engages in sexual, romantic relations with the Erl-King, but rather than blindly submit to the death promised to unwed virgins, Carter offers an alternate fate by creating a character just as avaricious and deadly as her male counterpart. The relationship between the two lovers begins in the summer, but quickly sours as the dead of winter approaches (88-89). Early in the story, the narrator tells the audience of the feasts the Erl-King provides her. At that time, it is fall, a time of agricultural harvest and the bounty of nature and his generosity are welcome. However, when the same bounty is offered to her in winter, the narrator calls it “a goblin feast of fruit for me, such appalling succulence” (89). Having consumed half a year of his generosity, the narrator is beginning to become aware of the sinister dangers lurking in his goodwill, while the contrast of the plentiful food against the cold seasonal death around them only serves to emphasize the utter falsity of their relationship. On the surface, the relationship with the Erl-King is nourishing and bountiful, but it is built on a foundation of falsities—mischievous and malicious as the goblins she compares his generosity to—that will almost certainly doom her in the end. However, doomed as she may well be, she finds herself conflicted, stating,
When I realized what the Erl-King meant to do to me, I was shaken with a terrible fear and I did not know what to do for I loved him with all my heart and yet I had no wish to join the whistling congregation he kept in his cages although he looked after them very affectionately, gave them fresh water every day and fed them well. His embraces were his enticements and yet, oh yet! they were the branches of which the trap itself was woven. But in his innocence he never knew he might be the death of me, although I knew from the first moment I saw him how Erl-King would do me grievous harm. (90)
Here, the narrator makes explicit her problem: to submit to the Erl-King means that she is able to pursue her heart in true fairytale fashion. Conversely, to submit also means she will be punished in true fairytale fashion: she may have her love, may retain his reciprocated love and attention, but must lose her freedom for engaging in sexual behavior outside a coded social norm. This loss of freedom is literalized by the imagery of caged birds–the fate of all the Erl-King’s lovers–which the narrator likens to death. Worse still is the Erl-King’s lack of sympathy in her narrative demise, but as the role of sexual punishments is a firmly female sphere, he is unable to aid in her problem because he is so wholly unaware of it. To him, the caging of birds and women is simply not problematic. Thus, the solution to a singularly-female issue lies with the narrator who must now choose between disavowing her love for the Erl-King and the loss of her freedom. Both choices promise to break her heart, echoing the earlier-stated promise of harm from the Erl-King, but also open the possibility for the narrator to regain and assert her own agency. If the Erl-King cannot and will not save her, she will have to save herself.
The threat of narrative punishment and the narrator’s desire for freedom come to a head in the final scene as she ultimately chooses to kill the Erl-King, refusing her promised death for a fate she determines alone. The decision comes as the Erl-King lays his head on the narrator’s lap in an intimate moment. It is here that Harriet Linkin argues that the narrator “. . . carves a path to another ending where the female is no longer sacrificed for the male poetic vision” (318) for “. . . if there is to be no collaboration and no nurturing, she will not inhabit a resentful silence but will gain her own voice by silencing his” (319). While Linkin asserts that the narrator is fighting against the Romantic poets that Carter mimics in this story, this idea can also apply to the larger oppressive workings within classic fairytales. Rather than submit to punishment as a result of the narrator asserting her own sexuality, it is here that she chooses to determine her own fate, to regain control of her life by choosing to preserve it. The sentences preceding this moment describe the oppressiveness of his gaze and her desire for more autonomy in the relationship. The narrator is unable to free herself from the forest, from her fate, and from her regard for him as long as he lives, and while she enjoys his love, she enjoys her freedom more. However, in order to gain her freedom, she is careful to avoid his gaze, telling him, “Lay your head on my knee so that I can’t see the greenish inward-turning suns of your eyes any more” (91). This is partially due to her regard for the Erl-King–her feelings for him possibly evoking guilt or remorse should he watch her kill him –but also due to the paralyzing, objectifying nature of scopophilia. For him to look upon her with those eyes is to invalidate all the agency she has struggled with in coming to this decision and acting upon it, instead relegating her once more to an object for his pleasure and delight.
Thankfully for her, the Erl-King does not look, does not fight his death because he probably never expected one of his girls to kill him. Thus, the narrator is allowed to assert her own will, shown as she immediately “let the [caged] birds free; they will change back into young girls, every one, each with the crimson imprint of his love-bite on their throats” (91). The narrator refuses to submit to the cycle of punishment for early sexual liaisons, breaking the cycle for herself, although her decision to free the other girls act as a metaphor for the larger ramifications of this sort of story. By immediately freeing the other girls after her own release, she is able to break this cycle of punishment in the narratives of other women as well. Though she has killed the object of her affections, she gains so much more from retaining her freedom, and in doing so for herself, is able to continue that trend in the lives of other women, liberating them from fates of shame, degradation, and death.

Fairytales have always functioned as a moral compass in society, strengthening social institutions while policing bad behavior. This can be most strongly seen in romantic fairytales that end in either marriage or severe punishment. By ending in marriage, the tale helps reinforce the idea that good deeds are recognized and rewarded, but it also reinforces the cultural values of marriage and family as institutions. Similarly, by ending with a character’s punishment, the tale aims at curbing bad behavior by showing its negative consequences. However, in their attempts to be allegorical representations of male-female interactions, the representations of the sexes are often unbalanced, containing reductive portrayals of women. As women are rarely determiners of their own fates in these tales, their narratives generally working towards marriage as pursuers of marriage or as part of the hero’s reward, these women are rarely fully fleshed out. Instead, they operate as idealized stock images of the female form. The lack of female voices and female representation in these tales lead to the dangerous readings of women by others. In “The Little Green Monster,” the monster does not view his violent intrusion into the life of the housewife as burdensome or antagonistic, because he does not view her as an entity capable of thoughts different from his own. In “The Erl-King,” the king is at once an active agent for the punishment of sexually precocious women (turning them into birds) but also complicit in his inability to recognize his own potential role in the narrator’s demise. Unable to read beyond the fairytale narrative, the women in their stories suffer and must take it upon themselves to assert their voices, leading to the deaths of their male counterparts. This is not always out of a feeling of hatred towards men, as seen by the love the narrator shows the Erl-King, but as a result of narrative need. As long as competing male voices exist, female voices will continue to be overwritten and suffer. As such, the destruction of the male voice and male fairytale reader is an unfortunate but necessary consequence in these texts as women pursue the desire to make themselves heard and have their needs recognized in romantic fairytale models.

Works Cited

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Linkin, Harriet Kramer. “Isn’t it Romantic?: Angela Carter’s Bloody Revision of the Romantic Aesthetic in ‘the Erl-King’. “Contemporary Literature 35.2 (1994): 305-23. ProQuest. Web. 9 Dec. 2014.
Murakami, Haruki. 象の消滅.Tokyo: Shinchosha, 2005. Print.
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Sheets, Robin Ann. “Pornography, Fairy Tales, and Feminism: Angela Carter’s ‘the Bloody Chamber’.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 1.4 (1991): 633-57. ProQuest. Web. 9 Dec. 2014.
Sivyer, Caleb. “A Scopophiliac Fairy Tale: Deconstructing Normative Gender in Angela Carter’s “the Bloody Chamber”.” Gender Forum.44 (2013): 1. ProQuest. Web. 16 Dec. 2014.
Strecher, Matthew C. “Magical Realism and the Search for Identity in the Fiction of Murakami Haruki.” Journal of Japanese Studies25.2 (1999): 263-98. ProQuest. Web. 9 Dec. 2014.

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