Angela Carter and music

My copy of The Bloody Chamber; pretty used up, isn’t it?

In this article I’m going to talk about one of my favourite writers ever: Angela Carter. Not only I absolutely adore her, I also wrote my Master’s thesis on her. In particular, I wrote about her collection of fairy tales, The Bloody Chamber. Published in 1979, this masterpiece represents the symbol of the movement of Postmodernism and its love for readapting the genre of fairy tales. As critics always say, Postmodern authors loved to start from tradition and use it to express a new meaning.

Carter wrote this collection that contains ten stories: The Bloody Chamber, The Courtship of Mr Lyon, The Tiger’s Bride, Puss-in-Boots, The Erl-King, The Snow Child, The Lady of the House of Love, The Werewolf, The Company of Wolves e Wolf-Alice. As you can understand from the titles, she took traditional stories and gave them new life. You may think they are for children, but believe me when I say they are not: she used the fairy tales to expose the reader to what she thinks are the darkest desires and needs of humankind.

If you haven’t read these tales yet, I highly recommend you do it: even if it’s in prose, her style is poetic. She can describe the silence of a snow-clad forest or the sound of dead leaves under a person’s shoes and make you hear it. Her characters are never banal: she often focuses on women and young girls, because she wants to underline how female characters cannot be described with mere stereotypes, as it often happens with fairy tales. They can be brave, afraid, victims of the patriarchy or arrogant, murderers, guilty or innocent. Her minds are always depicted as complex and wonderfully explained. If these reasons aren’t enough for making you curious, I can tell you that Carter also has a graceful way of drawing scandalous, splatter scenes, even taboo ones. Try to take a look at The Snow Child and not be impressed: I assure you will find a scene that will leave you with a disturbed, unease feeling. 

A thousand-pages book wouldn’t be enough to fully describe all the marvellous elements in Carter’s collection. In my thesis I chose to focus on two particular fairy tales: The Bloody Chamber and The Erl-King. The first one, from which the title of the collection derives, is a modern version of the classic Bluebeard story. A young girl marries the Marquis, a rich man who brings her to his beautiful castle. One day, he has to leave: work calls him, so he leaves for New York. The Marquis tells her she can go everywhere she wants, except for one room. While the girl explores the parts of the castle she is allowed to visit, she bonds with the piano-tuner her husband has hired for her: as she is a pianist, he is the only one who understands her. Eventually, curiosity has its best on her and she decides to enter the forbidden chamber. There, she finds out the Marquis has brutally killed his previous wives. She runs to the piano-tuner and tells him everything; but before they can plan anything, they learn that the Marquis is coming home. He soon discovers his young wife has disobeyed him and decides to kill her too. Her mother, though, suddenly arrives to the castle, saves her and kills the Marquis; the girl, then, becomes rich thanks to her husband’s legacy, marries the piano-tuner and opens her school of music. So, we can say this ending shows a restoration of the initial harmony. On the other hand, there is The Erl-King, based on the Erlking, a figure in the Germanic folklore: the main character here is a girl too. She is wandering in the woods when she is attracted by the Erl-King, a sort of spirit that incarnates the forest itself. He looks very kind and takes care of her; but soon she realises he lures girls to his house, turns them into birds and traps them forever in cages he carefully prepares. One day, she manages to strangle him with his own hair; nevertheless, if in The Bloody Chamber there can be seen a happy ending, here this may not be the case. We will get to this later.

In this article I will focus on the role of music in the two fairy tales: you will see how it accompanies the reader through the stories, unfolding the plot.

As I’ve already written, the main character in The Bloody Chamber is a pianist. At the beginning of the story, she has just got married to the Marquis and she has left her town to move to his castle. She feels melancholic, and she thinks about all the concerts she has abandoned. We can see that she thinks of music as something concrete, almost a person; not only that, music represents a part of her, a part she is leaving behind. When she arrives at the castle, the first thing she does is trying the piano her husband has prepared for her. It’s no surprise that she declares: “only a series ofsubtle discords flowed from beneath my fingers”. Music here is warning her: the harmony she had before is gone. Long gone. She then demands a piano-tuner to stay at the castle: as I wrote before he, Jean-Ives, is going to become the only person capable of understanding her. She starts calling him “my lover”, even when nothing had happened between them yet. Nothing strange here: after all, they share their love for music.

When she enters the bloody chamber and discovers the atrocities the Marquis has committed, she looks for a place to hide; she doesn’t go to her bedroom, because it doesn’t feel safe enough. Of course, she takes refuge into her music room, where she hopes she can recreate “a pentacle out of music that would keep me from harm”. Music is a sort of shield that protects her. It works: the girl’s mother arrives and saves her daughter. When the Marquis realises he won’t be capable of fulfilling his plan, he feels astonished: “it must have been as if (…) his beloved Tristan (…) announced in a jaunty aria interposed from Verdi that bygones were bygones, crying over spilt milk did nobody any good and, for himself, he proposed to live happily ever after”. This quote fully represents the potentialities of Carter’s style. The Marquis loves Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner; the idea that he feels like the tragedy has changed its ending due to a different author, Verdi, shows that music is not at his service: as we said, it protects the girl.

At last, the girl is safe: now rich, she can marry Jean-Ives and open her own school of music. Harmony is restored, in all senses.

This picture, taken by my sister Elisa, always makes me think about the Erl-King’s forest

The Erl-King displays a different role for music. At first, it seems to warn the main character about what is going to happen: she’s alone, walking in the forest when she hears “the call of the bird, as desolate as if it came from the throat of the last bird left alive. That call (…) went directly to my heart”. Music is already telling her what the Erl-King wants to do to her. But it is impossible to give a univocal definition of the Erl-King: when the girl meets her, he is playing the flute and is surrounded by animals, enchanted by him. He looks like someone who is peaceful, in harmony with nature. Nevertheless, “his kitchen shakes and shivers with birdsong from cage upon cage of singing birds, larks and linnets, which he piles up one on another against the wall, a wall of trapped birds”. As I said, the main character understands these birds are girls, entrapped by the spirit of the forest: he now looks like a tyrant. Still, the kitchen is “musical and aromatic”. What is music trying to say to the reader? Is the Erl-King’s house a prison or is it nice place?

But now it’s time for a fundamental element to step into the scene: the violin. Hung on the wall, the instrument doesn’t work. As the girl says, “you cannot get a tune out of the old fiddle hanging on the wall beside the birds because all the strings are broken”. This reminds us of the piano at the Marquis house. If an instrument doesn’t work, it cannot represent something positive, can it?

In the next passage, the girl reflects on the situation and defines her lover’s music as “inhuman”; still, she wishes she could make the violin work, so they could dance to the sound of it. The Erl-King almost looks like a victim, here: she says he lives a “bird-haunted solitude” and believes the two of them “should have better music than the shrill prothalamions of the larks stacked in their pretty cages”. What does this passage mean, exactly? Is the Erl-King forced to live the life he lives, doing what he does? Music doesn’t help the reader here.

Time passes and the girl realises she can’t go on like this, living with her lover who will close her up in a cage. Again, she wonders about the violin and the type of music it would play if it worked: she starts believing it would only be another instrument for the Erl-King to lure other girls in the forest. For this reason, she kills her lover strangling him with his hair and then uses the hair to repair the violin. You would expect harmony to be restored, at this point: actually, this is not the case. The instrument now plays a discordant music and shouts at the girl “mother, mother, you have murdered me!”. What does this really mean? Was the Erl-King evil or has the girl just committed a crime against nature? Here music doesn’t help us understanding it and the reader is left with a sense of utter astonishment. I truly believe this final passage is what defines Angela Carter’s style the most: elegant, direct, strong, impressive. We are put in front of a situation and there’s nothing we can do but keeping analysing it and trying to give a final answer, even if we know we will never get to that.

As we can see, The Bloody Chamber and The Erl-King take the same theme, music, and develop it in completely different ways: if in the first one it represents the end of troubles for the main character, in the second one it helps describing the complexity of the two characters depicted there.

I remember the first time I studied these fairy tales: I just stayed there, mesmerised, looking at the pages and wanting to read them again and again. Writing my thesis about them was extremely engaging. I can assure you there a lot more elements about music: here I only gave you the major ones. It’s up to you now to discover the others. I really hope I was capable of arousing some curiosity in you: please let me know here what you think of the article, if you already knew Angela Carter and her collection The Bloody Chamber or if you will start reading it after my article!  

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