>The New Yorker: "The Erlking" by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum


We know from the Q&A with Sarah Shun-lien Bynum that this story is based in some way on Goethe’s The Erlking. We have Kate and her daughter Ruthie (whose name is really Ondine, which in European folklore is a fairy-like creature) on their way to the Elves’ Faire, some sort of Renaissance festival at the local Waldorf School. As Kate admires the grounds, she regrets that she hasn’t enrolled Ruthie her, and also ponders the other option, the Jewish Montessori school, that had rejected their application. The story is about Kate’s parenting, it seems—is she too demanding, too controlling? Or is she too generous and is Ruthie being spoiled.
At the same time, though, it’s evident that Kate is self-indulgent in her regard for faeries and other impossible creatures (not that a giraffe is really impossible, and Kate loves her giraffes, but have you seen one lately?). She even named her daughter Ondine, and Ruthie/Ondine is indulging her own mother’s desires in a bit of enlightened self-interest. So Ruthie is capable of her tantrums—learned behavior, I’m thinking—and also apparently has a history of peeing in her pants. Uh oh. I think you know what’s coming—one of each.
What’s fun about this though is the appearance of the Erlking—or King of the Elves—even though he isn’t named as such in the story. Ruthie sees him; Kate does not, just as in the Goethe poem the father doesn’t see the Erlking. But what risk is there when Kate is always holding onto Ruthie’s hand?
Read the story to find out.
It’s a fun story, flipping back and forth between the points of view of Kate and Ruthie, both nicely done. And the Erlking is creepy, as he should be.
I liked it.
July 5, 2010: “The Erlking” by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum

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  1. >I'm suddenly remembering one of the few things that has stuck with me from four years of high school German: "Mein vater, mein vater/Und horest du nicht/Was erlkonig har/Mir leise verspricht?" (My father, my father, and don't you hear what the erlking has quietly promised me?"

  2. >Or, as the above-linked translation would have it, "Dear father, oh father, and do you not hear
    What the Erlking whispers so close to my ear?"

    I took 4 years of high school German, too, and have no recollection of this at all.

  3. >Our teacher tried, mostly without success, to include German culture with the language lessons. My only solid takeaways were that Erlking verse, the Expressionist painter Emil Nolde and several Beethoven symphonies. And "Borussia vor! Noch ein tor!" ("Borussia is ahead! One more goal!")

  4. >And, technically speaking, Waldorf is definitively NOT child lead, not at all. Montessori s, for sure, and Maria Montessori and Rudolf Steiner were contemporaries, but Waldorf is very clearly, abundantly clearly, TEACHER-LEAD. Also, Steiner schools also expect the threshold drop off–no coddling her as there is a clear delineation between home life and school life. Mommy, good-bye, its school time. Waldorf does not coddle.


  5. >I liked this story so little when I started reading that I considered abandoning it. But I stuck to it, and I did find some redeeming features, but I don’t think it was particularly strong. Not New Yorker strong, as one understands that phrase (in theory, at least).

    The language was too guarded, too flabby. It seems to seize each action through tweezers held by gloved hands. Two examples of this. First: “‘You’re not even Jewish,’ her mother said, not a little uncharitably.” The expression “not + un-adverb” (nor “not + un-adjective”) is often criticized for its timidity (at least since George Orwell’s famous condemnation of it). Here, if you peel off the negatives, you end up with “charitably,” which produces the ironical figure called antiphrasis. Furthermore, you have a qualifier (a little), which makes the expression even more timid. But what’s worse is that the whole explanation after “said” is unnecessary. We already understood quite well how uncharitable the comment was. The comment by itself carried the weight.

    Example number two: “Ruthie asks at the end of what she estimates is five minutes.” The phrase is clunky. “At the end” of is periphrastic for “after,” which makes it needlessly cumbersome. “She estimates is” could’ve been dramatized: since we inhabit Ruthie’s mind, why not say, “after what must have been five minutes.” This seems to spring more naturally from her.

    I agree with Clifford that the flipping in point of view is good. I counted eleven switches in the narrator, meaning that the narrator’s attention alternated between mother and daughter, and it jumped abruptly from one to the other eleven times. That’s unusual in a short story, where we are normally told to stick to one character and arrange a limited omniscient narrator around that character. But I liked that Bynum dared to try something different. And she did it successfully: we never get lost when the switches happen, even if they are not marked off in any way. And it is justified by the kind of relationship that exists between the characters: “They both like the feeling of not knowing who is leading, whether it’s the grownup or the child.”

    Finally, I liked the ominous character of the straw man who summons the girl wordlessly. We can see buried in the description many of the anxieties around the sexual abuse of children: the man’s attire is compared once to a “little mouse” (which is the etymology of “muscle”), and, about the “surprise” that Ruthie is promised, it is said, macabrely, that it “gets bigger and bigger.” But the story never becomes a story of sexual abuse. Hovering so close to that subject, without actually becoming that kind of story, was also clever. And it made the straw man very creepy.

    Did nobody else see this as a Potteresque tale of fantasy meshed with the modern world?

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