First published in 1970, The Erl-King is very much a novel of its time and place; a product of continental Europe still heavy with memories of the Second World War and struggling to reconcile notions of victory and defeat with the ideological contest between East and West.
The tale’s protagonist is a Frenchman of middlish age, Abel Tiffauges, who recounts his early life through a series of diary entries in the year before war breaks out in 1939. A misfit at school, young Tiffauges found salvation in the friendship of a Christ-like classmate, who subsequently died in a fire. His overwhelming need to reclaim a lost innocence and sense of identity increasingly comes to dominate his adult life. He sees signs everywhere but cannot always interpret them.
War saves Tiffauges, first from charges relating to an alleged child rape and then, when he is captured by the invading Nazis, from the weakness and introverted vanity of France itself. A series of bizarre turns lead him from prisoner of war to the employ of Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring and, finally, to take effective charge of a school for youthful SS recruits.
Michel Tournier conjures his story largely through the same, first person-focused form of magical realism that had brought Günter Grass such celebrity a few years before The Erl-King’s appearance. Tournier’s prose – dexterously translated by Barbara Bray – is often more straightforwardly dramatic than Grass’s, though no less striking. A scene in which Göring greedily encounters the testicles of a freshly-killed stag is stupefyingly memorable.
Nevertheless, it is the thematic symbolism – often weird, sometimes shocking, frequently haunting – that makes The Erl-King such a profound novel. Tiffauges wishes to follow the example of his school’s patron saint, St Christopher, as a bearer of innocents, yet he has the appearance of an ogre. He struggles to find a sense of self, identifying more often with beast than his fellow man, and in his search for clarity of purpose he is often met with suspicion.
It is here, ultimately, that The Erl-King comes into its own: by unravelling the paradox of Nazism’s attraction to, yet final perversion of, purity, nature and the preciousness of life itself. Tiffauges’s own entrapment in this conundrum can only be broken by the resurrection of a faith and of a fate glimpsed long before but fully realised only in the cataclysmic finale of 1945. It is riveting stuff.