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Michel Tournier: Le Roi des Aulnes (The Erlking; The Ogre)

Tournier’s second novel was his most controversial. Some critics said it was pro-Nazi, as it glorified at least some aspects of Nazism. It tells the story of Abel Tiffauges. Tiffauges is a giant of man and is near-sighted. Nor is the name coincidental, as it is the name of the castle, where Gilles de Rais lived and performed his grizzly deeds and will be the subject of Gilles et Jeanne (Gilles and Jeanne), a later work of Tournier. In short, Tiffauges is, in Tournier’s view, a monster and not, as some critics have suggested, the voice of Tournier. Abel sees signs in everything which have mystical significance for him. He is also concerned with destiny, particularly, his own, and sees himself as a modern hero, a modern Saint Christopher, Christ and, of course, Abel (as in Cain and Abel).

Before World War II, he worked as a motor mechanic in Paris. He was fond of children and enjoyed carrying them around on his shoulders. He was accused of sexual molestation and sentenced to prison. However, as war had just broken out, he was sent to the army instead of prison. He was captured by the Germans and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp. He did prison work and soon realized that Nazi Germany, with its use of spurious mystical symbols, its ancient heroes and its stark black and white view of the world, is the ideal he had been looking for and he soon became a collaborator. With his love of children, he worked at finding children for a school that trained them to become SS officers. Inevitably, a Jewish child shows him the error of his ways, with the inevitable consequences. Using both the Gilles de Rais myth and Goethe’s Erlkönig (=the Elf King, which is the French title of this novel), Tournier makes the clear connection between the monstrosities of the Nazis and the monstrosities of legendary characters and he does it in an original way. It is no surprise that this was his most successful novel, at least commercially.

Publishing history

First published in French 1970 by Gallimard
First published in English 1972 by Collins
Translated by Barbara Bray