The Erlking – Sarah Shun-lien Bynum

Let’s talk about what Sarah Shun-lien Bynum does well in “The Erlking” before we approach the story as a whole.  This is a story that is dependent on the title, Erlking, an allusion to a malevolent character from European folklore (Scandinavian/German).  The Erlking is seductive and deadly, and may be obviously represented to the girl, Ruthie, in the story as a man just out of sight that seems somehow magical and alluring.  Less obviously, the Erlking is represented in Ruthie’s mother, Kate, being obsessed about her daughter being in the perfect school.

On one level, the story has some interesting elements.  Kate is so focused on schools and progress that she fails to really interact with her daughter.  What is the trade off between being a loving parent and one that provides access to the best schools, etc?  Kate doesn’t really seem to trust herself, and instead relies on advice from therapists and social pressures.

For the most part this story is hard to read.  The audience seems to be women in their early to mid thirties who are first time mothers, and of a social class where they have the time and money to interview for weeks at a time with their children so they are accepted into preschool.  To say there is a disconnect would be an understatement.  Couple that with the voices of Kate and Ruthie, and the story becomes unbearable as neither of the two are especially interesting characters or likable.  Coming in at just under 4,500 words, the Erlking feels much longer as it bores Kate’s repetitious fixation regarding preschools into the reader’s head.

Tim Lepczyk

Writer, Technologist, and Librarian.

This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. Trevor

    >I didn't like this one much, either, Tim. I wanted to. I wanted there to be more meaning underneath it other than if you obsess about your child you may lose their childhood. Alas.

  2. Tim

    >Yeah, it was interesting that she wrote the story for a modern fairy tale anthology. The story is so focused on the concept of the Erlking that it disregards the fundamentals of what makes a compelling narrative.

  3. Jess

    >I have to disagree with your assessment of the intended audience! While I'll admit that many of the readers of The New Yorker probably ARE "women in their early to mid thirties who are first time mothers, and of a social class where they have the time and money to interview for weeks at a time with their children so they are accepted into preschool," I don't at all think that's the audience of the story. I think that's the backdrop of the story. If you let yourself fall into the rhythm of the story, which starts out rather densely, because it's not immediately clear what's going on, it's a piece that is accessible to anyone. I don't think you have to be exactly like the characters in a story to be able to appreciate or enjoy it. Bynum beautifully captured the small magical moments of childhood — like when Ruthie wants to dance and Kate thinks she has to pee, or when Ruthie becomes furious because her mother has "ruined" the mysterious man.Part of what made the story so compelling for me was the sense that this man was not an imaginary Erlking of myth (thus Kate's inability to see him) but a real sexual predator. Lines like this gave me chills:"Ruthie sees on the man’s face that her mother doesn’t really have to come at all. Just her."She has a sneaky feeling that the man is holding a present under his cape. It’s supposed to be a surprise. A surprise that is small and very delicate, like a music box, but when you open it it just goes down and down, like a rabbit hole, and inside there is everything—everything—she has wanted…"In this sense, yes, the story depends on its title for a deeper, almost allegorical meaning for the mysterious man, but it doesn't depend on its title in order to function as a story. It's placed decidedly in a real world where terrible things happen. I think you should give the story a closer read and see if you keep the same opinion.

  4. Tim

    >Thanks for your comment, Jess. The story works better for me if the Erlking figure is a person preying on Ruthie.Also, I wasn't describing the audience of the New Yorker, but the intended audience of this short story. While the story is accessible, it does not draw me in. I cannot identify with any of the characters, and that's fine; however, besides being unable to identify with them, both Ruthie and Kate turn me off. There's not enough of them to break out and become engaging.

  5. matt

    >hi tim,just wanted to point out that I think Jess understood your comment about the audience and disagreed with it. she says that if that WERE the intended audience, it wouldn't be problematic, as a large part of the actual audience fits that description, but she disagreed with your analysis and thought the story was intended for a broader it was a disagreement not a misunderstanding, I think.

  6. pony

    >what i disliked was how vague the ending was. I was a little uncomfortable not knowing whether the erlking was pure fantasy or not, but the last paragraph was indecipherable, and that killed the story for me. That said, I understood and appreciated the voice of the main character, even being a twenty something male, but then again I went through my teenage years encountering women very much like the main character.

    1. Kris

      Completely agree! I was very confused about whether the man was real or not, and my interpretation was that Ruthie was having delusions as opposed to just an active imagination (ie him being made out of straw). Also, I did not get the whole Ruthie wanting to turn everyone she knows into dolls in the barn part??

  7. Deborah

    I thought it was a wonderful, haunting, vivid story, which I have just now read in the New Fairytales anthology. It strikes me as amazingly shallow to be unable to ‘identify’ with the characters because they are not demographically like the reviewer. Further, I do not at all agree that the writer intends the specific group mentioned (‘The audience seems to be women in their early to mid thirties who are first time mothers, and of a social class where they have the time and money to interview for weeks at a time with their children so they are accepted into preschool’) as the readers of this story. All in all, the superficiality of this dismissal suggests that literature’s adventure across unfamiliar consciousness is not what the reviewer is interested in.

  8. Tim

    Dear Deborah,

    I don’t understand how it can be called shallow to not identify with characters in a story. The story is well-written; however, it does not appeal to me. Why doesn’t it appeal to me? Is it the writing? The pace? The changing perspective? No, it is not any of those.

    I find the writing to be clear. Shun-lien Bynum writes with beautiful imagery. The story’s pace, is at times, troublesome, but not an impediment. So much of the exposition is in the characters’ heads, and the dense descriptions slow the pace. The shifts in perspective between Kate and Ruthie do a great job in showing how each character sees the world, how they are incorrect in their interpretations of one another, and how they manipulate the other; however, the transitions are not always easy to follow. Moreover, the allusion, the making of a modern day fairytale is effective. What is it then that makes it hard for me to get into this story? Why don’t I enjoy reading it?

    The main reason is that I don’t care for the character, Kate. She’s self-absorbed. She is driven in her desire to be a good parent, but doesn’t seem to understand what that means. Is getting Ruthie into a fabulous preschool important, or is respecting and loving Ruthie important? Kate is obsessed with the Elves’ Faire, put on by the Waldorf school, because it appeals to her. Does Ruthie love the Faire? What’s driving Kate? To me, her motivation seems to be her own parent’s failures, or, Kate’s perception of her parent’s shortcomings. If Kate had gone to a school like this, perhaps, everything in her life would be better? Doesn’t the reader know better?

    Lines like, “Sometimes there’s a bit of a lag, she’s noticed, a disturbing far away look,” make me think Kate is more concerned about how she, Kate, is perceived and less concerned about Ruthie. The paragraph continues, “It’s equally possible that Kate is just fooling herself, and something is actually wrong.” Kate then becomes focused on John C. Riley, and further ignores Ruthie. As the story progresses, Kate shifts her attention to dolls, to buying a shelf for Ruthie’s room to display the dolls, and that people will think the shelf is from the Pottery Barn, and not know it is really from IKEA. What happens?

    Kate can’t see the Erlking. Kate loses her daughter. Ruthie disappears, and it’s all Kate’s fault. Is the audience, women in their early to mid-thirties who are first time mothers, and of a social class where they have the time and money to interview for weeks at a time with their children so they are accepted into preschool, or is that simply describing Kate? On reflection, that describes Kate, and not the audience.

    This story does not appeal to me, because Kate does not appeal to me. While, I find Ruthie more sympathetic, I don’t find her particularly interesting.

    I surmised that I was not the correct audience for this story, because it did not engage me. It didn’t ask anything of me. I could not identify or empathize with Kate. Does that make me a shallow reader? No. I also don’t find stories about angst ridden teenagers very appealing either. For me, the writer did not do enough to make Kate likable. Kate must be likable to some readers. Who are those readers and why aren’t they turned off by Kate?

    My questions to you are: What makes this story work for you? What engages you? Why is it enjoyable? How do you find Kate? How does this story speak to you, and what does it communicate? Thanks for the comment, Deborah, I look forward to hearing your perspective.

    1. Kris

      Nice. Yeah I was a bit lost for sure with the ending…was the man even real? If so, why was he made of straw in Ruthie’s eyes? To me I thought Ruthie was meant to have some sort of mental illness, as opposed to just a wild imagination. Would love to hear an analysis of the ending as you all saw it!

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