The Erl King

Fairy tale tragedy, or, a lesson in courtesy and logic
2008-09-262016-08-20 finished certainty: fiction importance: 0

A retelling of the sto­ry-with­in-a-s­tory of Pa­tri­cia A. Jack­son’s short story “Uhl Eharl Khoehng” (Tales from the New Re­pub­lic, 1999).

Once upon a time, there was a city fair to look upon in a black for­est. It was ruled by the strong and just Scion Prince, who was beloved by all the towns­folk. But one day, as with all men, the Scion Prince was no more. And so there was much weep­ing and re­joic­ing for the old Prince and his son.

“Long! Live! The Prince!”

The new Scion Prince bus­ied him­self in the affairs of state, and pub­lic im­prove­ments of the land and city, and for a long time it seemed his reign would be more lus­trous than his fa­ther’s.

But one wet day, the Prince learned that the roads lead­ing through that black for­est to and from that fair city were not enough to con­vey the throng­ing mer­chants, and sent his best woods­men to mark trees for felling—the wood would pro­vide a sound foun­da­tion for the new road.

While rid­ing through the streets, the Prince was ac­costed by a most cu­ri­ous stranger, tall and thin and of wan com­plex­ion, clad in garb of dark damask with green high­lights. He was a trav­eler lately re­turned after a great span of time, and though he was but tem­porar­ily the Prince’s sub­ject, asked the no­ble for shel­ter that night. The Prince re­viled him as a lowlife or va­grant, and made to move on, when he spoke again:

“Cour­tesy costs lit­tle, Scion Prince—and dis­cour­tesy can rob even the great­est of all they call their own.” “In­deed? Then dress me in rags and let me be the Prince no more! for as I live and breathe, I would not spend a night un­der the same roof as a filthy beg­gar.”

The for­eigner bowed, and with a smile replied, “Come, be not an­gry. Be­hold, I make you a gift; a gift of prophe­cy! Know, O Prince, that what is not grow­ing must be dy­ing; this is true of cities as well as forests. Which is it here, I won­der?” Speak­ing thus, he turned and van­ished.

The next day, as was his cus­tom, the Prince met with and took the coun­sel of his ad­vis­ers on the weird for­eign­er. To a man, they ad­vised en­larg­ing the land by re­claim­ing ar­eas over­grown by the black forest; this would surely save their cher­ished city. But the Prince’s old tu­tor dis­sent­ed. He ad­vised cau­tion, prepa­ra­tion for de­fense or flight, and seek­ing far and wide for fur­ther knowl­edge about the mys­te­ri­ous dan­ger that un­canny per­son had warned of.

Dur­ing the dis­pute, three mes­sen­gers ar­rived. They had been sent to the camp of the woods­men to learn why none had re­ported back on progress but on their ar­rival had found the camp to be ut­terly de­sert­ed, the woods­men van­ished. In­deed, the mes­sen­gers would have re­ported sooner but they were nearly lost mak­ing their way to the camp and re­turn­ing—the woods seemed thicker than the old­est courier re­mem­bered from his youth. One men­tioned that the old peo­ple were mut­ter­ing of the Erl King, the fey monarch of the black for­est who ruled long be­fore hu­mans ever ar­rived.

The Prince dis­re­garded this. There were many dan­gers there, many sen­si­ble rea­sons they could have gone astray with­out in­vent­ing su­per­nat­ural ones; had he ever seen any Erl King in all his hours in that black forest? So the Prince or­dered search par­ties, and other woods­men to fin­ish the task that their erst­while brethren be­gan. The search par­ties found noth­ing and no one, and soon them­selves were miss­ing with all the woods­men. The Prince barred the gates and sent the guards and towns­peo­ple out in large groups to as­sail that black forest, and then an en­tire com­pa­ny, and then after them a bat­tal­ion of sol­diers.

But every warm spring night, the black­ness un­der the trees pooled nearer the fields.

Soon the old peo­ple had ceased to merely men­tion and were telling all and sundry the tales they heard in their swad­dling youth of the Erl King, and how he would one day rise from the sleep­ing black for­est and re­claim his own. En­raged at the dis­loyal tales and pre­dic­tions of his down­fall, the Scion Prince or­dered them dri­ven out of the city. All the younger peo­ple had been ex­pended ear­lier in the cam­paign. Their might had sufficed to clear a few acres of wood; no more.

But every hot sum­mer night, more leaves blew against the shell of the city, and the black­ness un­der the trees pooled nearer the hous­es.

All that re­mained were the Prince, his ad­vi­sor, and his picked le­gion. The old tu­tor at­tempted to dis­suade his pupil, point­ing to the folly of pit­ting him­self against events, against be­liev­ing that war would be the sal­va­tion of his city—but to no avail. The Prince brooded in his city and the sol­diers car­ried on their mar­tial ex­er­cis­es.

But every cool au­tumn night, the black­ness un­der the trees pooled nearer the walls.

They rode out in those days, the prince at the head of the le­gion and his ad­vi­sor fol­low­ing be­hind. All in white rode they, ca­parisoned in gleam­ing ar­mor, and their smil­ing hounds crouched be­fore.

They fol­lowed the traces of the road and halted in the depths of the black for­est. A man ap­peared out of the shad­ows. A tri­fle taller and rud­dier, per­haps, but the Scion Prince im­me­di­ately rec­og­nized the prophecy de­liv­er­er.

The weird spirit mocked: “I am the Erl King, prince. As one no­ble to an­oth­er, I offer you an ex­change: safe pas­sage, shel­ter, and sup­plies, in re­turn for one thing on­ly—y­our troop. For what need of sol­diers has a prince with­out king­dom?” For a time all was still, un­til the prince slowly nod­ded his crowned head. In a trice, his sur­round­ing men had changed all into a copse of oaks.

The prince con­tin­ued, but the road no longer led any­where and foot­steps bent in di­rec­tions the head had not con­ceived.

For long years he wan­dered be­set by the many snares and delu­sions set in the path. The Erl King was true to his word. Not once was he harmed nor did he want for shel­ter or food, al­though the prince be re­duced to the level of sav­agery feed­ing on the abun­dant acorns or sleep­ing in the crook of a tree’s roots, and dis­com­fited by the slight­est change in cir­cum­stances. Be­times the prince would glimpse the moul­der­ing white stonework of the city, or dur­ing those long years he would find him­self amongst strangely fa­mil­iar boughs where the sigh­ing winds seemed to speak to him though he lacked the wit to de­ci­pher the soft susurra­tions; more often he was spo­ken to by his un­quiet ghosts.

But one dry win­ter night, the stum­bling prince lifted his bearded head and fi­nally saw the Erl King. They walked to the edge of the black for­est to­geth­er, and the Erl King spoke.

“Cast your crown at my feet, prince, wor­ship me as your King and mas­ter—and I shall give you all you can sur­vey, from here to the fur­thest ex­trem­ity of mine black forest, to call your own.”

The prince paused for a time, his eyes gleam­ing as he con­sid­ered the des­o­late do­main. And he replied: “You are a cheat, a liar, and a thief. But are these not the great­est virtues of any king?”

De­clar­ing thus, he rent his rags and cast his crown at the Erl King’s feet. With the tat­ters for a torch, he ran flam­ing into the trees cry­ing “This is the only king­dom I de­serve to rule!” Blazes broke out where he went.

And soot-cov­ered, heat-daz­zled, the prince came again to the still erect fig­ure of the Erl King amidst the dy­ing black for­est. He stag­gered near­er, col­lapsed at the feet, and knelt be­fore. In a high de­spair­ing voice, he croaked:

“Long! Live! The King!”